The Daily Need

Loving Joni Mitchell: You don’t have to be gay

The Oscars are over, last year’s movies are exactly that. But there’s one scene I can’t let go of.

But first, an aside. Hollywood pictures have been milking scenes of actors singing or emoting to pop songs for about three decades now, ever since that too-cute “Big Chill” gang rocked out in the kitchen to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and — much more amusingly — the incarcerated Eddie Murphy howled “Roxanne” under the headphones in “48 Hours.” There have been countless imitations since, and it’s pretty hard to be charmed or surprised by any of it anymore.

Joni Mitchell in 1972. Photo: AP

Then along come Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, bringing a fresh twist to a tired gimmick in “The Kids Are All Right.” It’s the scene where Bening’s lesbian character and Ruffalo’s straight one psychically bond while singing Joni Mitchell’s lovely “All I Want” as an a cappella duet over dinner. (Meanwhile a perplexed Julianne Moore, whose character has been sleeping with each of them, looks on forlornly, utterly excluded from their vocal hookup.) The scene became significant for me with Bening’s declaration: “You don’t meet too many straight guys who love Joni Mitchell!”

Now, I don’t pretend to know how other straight men feel about Joni Mitchell. (Notoriously, we do not talk about our feelings.) But this movie made me want to say it loud and proud: I love her.

There was a time I was somewhat afraid to say so. Like in high school (mine was of the all-boys variety), when it would have been socially unwise to admit that I found ZZ Top’s “Tush” dull, if not obnoxious, but, hey, have you checked out the way Joni Mitchell uses that Burundian drum ensemble on The Hissing of Summer Lawns?

If you don’t love Joni Mitchell, there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It was the 1975 followup to the previous year’s Court and Spark, which had been one of the few albums of the era to qualify both as artistic triumph and commercial breakthrough. Hissing was where a lot of people got off the Joni bus. Up till then her albums had managed to define inventive lyrical and musical territory while still containing a healthy enough number of pop-inflected songs like “All I Want” to allow her to sell a bundle of records.

With Hissing that all changed. The aforementioned Burundian drums were found on a song called “The Jungle Line,” by leaps the most melodically challenging track she had ever released. The rest of the album is slightly more accessible but filled with unapologetically ambitious arrangements, sophisticated melodies, knowing feminist lyrics – in other words, nobody’s idea of a hit. Songs like “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” and “The Boho Dance” weren’t quite pop, weren’t quite jazz, weren’t quite like anything anyone else was doing. And so she was, in many quarters, demeaned for it.

I recall my desire (still strong some three and a half decades later) to defend her honor when Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden attacked Hissing’s musicality in his review of the album. Among his other charges, he said the synthesizer on the song “Shadows and Light” sounded like “a long solemn fart.”

(An aside: the way I remembered it, Holden had compared Mitchell’s synth sound not to a long solemn fart, but to a “goose fart.” Then I Googled it, and it turns out that “goose fart” – or, to be precise, “geese farting on a muggy day” — was the term guitarist Leo Kottke used to describe the sound of his own singing voice. A further aside: Kottke wasn’t far off. But whether of the goose or the long-and-solemn variety, a fart is still a fart, and I took what I read in that magazine to be fighting words.)

Not, by the way, that the synth on “Shadows and Light” didn’t sound like a fart. (Judge for yourself.) That wasn’t the point. To my mind, Stephen Holden had besmirched Joni’s honor at a time when — to use a hackneyed phrase popular in those dull, post-Beatles, pre-punk days — she was taking it to the limit while rock stars who weren’t taking it to the limit were becoming jillionaires filling my car speakers with the unambitious likes of “Take It to the Limit.”

I’m thinking, the radio is rife with sonic flatulence, and you want to go picking on Joni Mitchell?

(Another aside: Rolling Stone provoked me again when it ranked Mitchell 72nd on its 2003 list of the 100 all-time greatest guitarists, two spots below Eddie Van Halen, two above Johnny Winter. It wasn’t that the magazine was dissing her this time. It was just that it’s incomprehensible to me that you could put Joni Mitchell on this list at all. Not because she isn’t a great guitar player — she is — but because her playing is unique.  It’s pointless to compare her with others. It’s like trying to rank Thelonious Monk on the all-time piano player list.  He’s not “better” or “worse” than Bud Powell. He’s his own species, his own genus. Like the aardvark. Like Joni Mitchell.)

Last fall Mitchell got ranked again. The dating site okcupid.com did a word cloud in which it calculated which terms came up most often among the personal profiles of its users. If you count, you’ll find that she’s 18th on the list of The Stuff Gay People Like, four slots higher than “American Idol,” four lower than “the theater.” I’m not qualified to comment on the validity of that ranking. But I do know that 18th on the list of The Stuff Straight People like is “Burn Notice.” Now I have nothing against “Burn Notice,” but it ain’t no Hissing of Summer Lawns. And anyway, at the end of the day, loving Joni Mitchell is not a gay-or-straight thing. It’s a you-get-it-or-you-don’t thing. And while it’s impossible to conceive of Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo teaming up in a picture as shrewdly commercial as “The Kids Are All Right” to sing a duet of “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” you’ll never get it if you don’t at least give it a chance.

(A final aside. If my memory is correct — and I’m not saying it is — the first time I saw Joni Mitchell in concert was the night after my grandmother’s funeral in 1974. My Grandma spoke almost no English, used her hands to make homemade pasta, was passing with her generation into history; Joni Mitchell was hyper-literate, she used her hands to form utterly original chord voicings on her detuned guitar, and her generation was just coming into its own. It was, to my very young eyes, a whole new kind of womanhood on display that night.)

When Elvis Costello called The Hissing of Summer Lawns “a misunderstood masterpiece” in the 2004 Vanity Fair piece he wrote about Mitchell, I felt almost thoroughly vindicated. But I still can’t get over that Rolling Stone review, and if I ever meet Stephen Holden, I might challenge him to a duel.

 
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Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/rogi.riverstone Rogi Riverstone

    nah, u don’t have 2 b gay, but it don’t hurt. Mitchell’s a misunderstood masterpiece. good writing. thanks

  • http://twitter.com/danlevitin Daniel Levitin

    “You don’t have to be gay to like Joni Mitchell” from my friend Tom Casciato and @pbs.

  • Jeff Kimball

    I just listened again, and it does sound like a goose fart, but what an achingly, hauntingly beautiful goose fart it is.

    Wonderful piece.

  • Jnwired

    Well put, dude.

  • Kcunning

    I can attest that many hetero males love Joni. And think of how many famous folk & rock musicians loved Joni, her music & her body!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514465899 Rodney Welch

    I saw “The Kids Are Alright” two weeks ago and had the EXACT same reaction — in fact, I complained about it to everyone I knew. What gives Director Lisa Cholodenko the right to turn Joni Mitchell into some kind of gay-only curiosity? That line made about as much sense as saying only straight adolescent males like Elton John.

  • Rose Robbins

    As someone who loves Joni Mitchell with a sort of knee-weakening awe, I felt it was definitely my duty to make my husband understand her magnificence. Before he met me, he knew of her only as “that blonde singer from the seventies that does all the mellow stuff.”
    I am happy to report that, after being told repeatedly to LISTEN TO THE WORDS, PAY ATTENTION TO THE MELODY! he finally “got it”. Now, he can be moved to tears by her songs, too, and he is definitely not gay.

  • Monique Simmer

    Joni Mitchell is a marvelous artist and one of my favorite musicians!

  • Dave Orban

    Big Joni fan… I loved how a newer take on “Both Sides Now” was used in the film, “Love Actually.”

    Great film, great song, great performance!

  • Anonymous

    My group Marquee Five (www.marqueefive.com) is doing an a cappella version of “A Case of You,” and those who don’t know Joni always come up and ask what song that was, how beautiful it was.

  • harrisfreeze

    I long ago tried to stop getting people to like “Hissing of Summer Lawns,” but it has long been a favorite of mine. . .ESPECIALLY because of the Burundian drum ensemble. The distorted sound of the percussion is far more interesting than most electric guitar solos. I also love the album art. I was on a search for years to find a perfectly in tact copy to frame, opened, so I could see all of it at once. She is unbelievably creative.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542840818 Johanna Garrison

    Joni is my honey of Honeys, my love of Loves, my closest friend who’s carried me through so many road trips, melancholy moments, bouts of joy. Thank you, Tom, for writing this article. I knew my man was a great catch the day I discovered Joni on his iPod.

  • Peejay

    Just recently, I watched the documentary “Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind” which brought back wonderful memories and reminded me why I love Joni so much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/meganholbrook Megan Holbrook

    A lovely article and appreciation – thanks!

  • Anonymous

    My high school boyfriend introduced my to Joni and the guys in dated in college and after were all into her.. Don’t get the gay thing at all.

  • Otto

    The first time I saw Joni in concert was also in (March) 1974, when she was promoting her “Court and Spark” album, and she played in Austin for the first time. However, I had been a fan since that time I had heard her on FM radio, singing “Night In the City”, in 1968. As a 13-yr old boy (and budding guitar player), I was amazed by her voice, her chord progressions, melody, and lyrics. The next day, I bought that first album, and, subsequently, I always got every album she recorded, on the day each was released, all the way through “Shine”, in 2007. Joni belongs in the upper pantheon of the great gods of popular music. Bless her for all the truth, beauty, insight, and art she has bestowed upon us all!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Don-Wheeler/1210525615 Don Wheeler

    I like Hissing… very much. But my favorite album period is Hejira. Tops on that album are A Song For Sharon and Furry Sings The Blues. And I am an observant Heterosexual.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Don-Wheeler/1210525615 Don Wheeler

    I like Hissing… very much. But my favorite album period is Hejira. Tops on that album are A Song For Sharon and Furry Sings The Blues. And I am an observant Heterosexual.

  • MichaelB

    Straight guy here…Joni is awesome…always has been. Court & Spark did it for me, and Hissing just kept the beat going. …still play my LPs of same. Magical moments….

  • David

    Stephen Holden may not have cared for the music on “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” but there are plenty of jazz greats who disagree with him. The album is going to be performed in its entirety this summer at the Hollywood Bowl under the direction of the brilliant drummer Brian Blade. Guest stars who have already signed up for the bill? Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, and Chaka Khan.

  • Brentholcomb84

    This is my favorite article that I have ever read via Facebook. Thank you so much for your insightful words…. I would say that I love Joni as much as you do but I’m guessing those are fighting words too… :) Cheers from this hitcher, this prisoner of the white lines of the freeway……

  • Mark S

    I bought “Blue” in ’71 because I thought it would impress my girlfriend. Instead of falling in love with my girlfriend I fell in love with Joni. Each of her albums has been a joy – gift – revelation. Thanks for the great article, Tom. And by the way, if those were goose farts, then most rock bands, ala ELP, farted away most of the 70s!

  • JS

    Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell, supreme musicians, singers, and songwriters, all; the total package. In my book, none better at their craft.

  • patrick

    just for the record, stephen holden has been one of joni’s hugest fans and supporters through most of her career. as a matter of fact it was an article of his in the new york times expressing his outrage that she hadn’t been inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame that finally got them off their a**es so she was inducted.

  • Anonymous

    It’s good to see so many hetero studs stepping up their love for Joni. Apparently, we gay man have loved her too. I know I do. Doesn’t it feel good to see that great music has nothing to do with the status of your stance, but so much more to do with the enhancement of your capacity to enjoy what you feel? You gotta feel(you better). And you gotta love Joni !

  • Laurawil

    How interesting to hear James Taylor talk about Joni, sad about their breakup. For The Roses, was mostly about them. I often joke that Joni raised me with her world views. They definitely influenced who I became.

  • Oemissions

    seems as tho you are having a hissy fit
    which columnists often need to do to get a paycheck

  • Rlpsd

    Good article—Sting, Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, Tony Bennet, Beck on and legions of superb “straight” musicians on–have all cited their love of Mitchell’s music. True too though as a teen in 70′s my male counterparts didn’t ‘get’ her. Then, as a wild one on the gay scene in NYC in the 80′s…I only met one gay man who happened to like her. The masses at clubs etc. barely heard of her…their diva’s were Streisand, Madonna, Summers, Midler, Lennox etc.

    Mitchell transcends all this by the focus being the music, poetry,speaking, painting.
    If any labels apply they might be pioneer of world beat music including women and all races—raceless, genderless.

  • Nhf7170

    I wasn’t aware that liking Joni was a gay thing, and I’m gay. I just thought it was a liking good music thing. The first famous recording artist I ever heard proclaim his admiration for her was Prince, who listed her as one of his foremost influences.

  • Rozannegates

    It’s nice to have attention focused on this amazing artist. In fact, Suzanne Sheridan has been in Canada and Australia with her tribute concert to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, “Both Sides Now”. Suaznne singing “A Case of You” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJzOGfp_6Rg

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001220027985 David Larson

    I recently watched “Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind” and instantly became a fan. I didn’t realize it was a gay thing :) What an artist she is. I hope to begin building a collection of her music soon.

  • Ossman52

    Ranking is a popularity guage. No comparison can be made between a Van Halen and a Mitchell. Joni Mitchell’s art is more about her lyrics, music and vocal style and quality. The combination is incomparable. Why bother to compare? The eye/ear of the beholder! Either you like her or you don’t. What need is there to genderize her’s or anyone else’s art. Does appreciating Freddy Mercury’s musical genious require that one be gay!? To put it in the vein of Monty Python’s Spamalot, “I fart on your (Holden’s) narrowmindedness!” (my quote).

    Thanks, Tom.

  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    Joni Mitchell is one of the most inspiring artists I have ever encountered in any mode of creative expression. If she happens to be popular among gays, that is hardly surprising, given that good taste – especially in the arts – is often associated with gays.

    Given that this blog post is appearing on pbs.org, I find it striking that there is no mention of the fabulous PBS American Masters profile of Joni Mitchell in 2003. FWIW, I wrote a blog post with a few of my favorite quotes from the documentary – Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, Strength and Vulnerability – but I highly recommend watching the original movie, as the interleaving of interviews with her music and painting adds considerable multidimensional richness to the appreciation of all that she brings to her art.

    More than any other artist I can think of, Joni Mitchell exemplifies the insight shared years ago by psychologist Carl Rogers: “what is most personal is most general”.

  • Cousinchas

    how many cliches have you heard comparing Life and Death? Only Joni could come up with something as fresh as “between the forceps and the stone. Listening and appreciating her made me a better writer.

  • Sullivan_J_m

    I have listened a thousand times and still I don’t know what the false alarm was but I love it.

  • Kristi Garrett

    Finally — Joni vindicated!! (Not that she ever needed it). I was one of the fans who felt confused by Hissing and missed several later albums and didn’t even know about her Mingus days until much later in life. The 2003 DVD of her life (thus far), Woman of Heart and Mind, awakened my love for her strikingly eclectic and to-thine-own-self-be-true style. I’ve since gone back and recovered most of my missing albums (yes, vinyl as well as CD) and discovered something really interesting: I didn’t “get” each of her musical “phases” until I was somewhere near the age she was when she created them. That’s why when Starbucks released “Shine” a couple years ago, I felt blessed. Joni is BACK!!!

  • Robert Plunkett

    That point by Patrick above that Stephen Holden of the NY Times has indeed been a huge admirer of Mithcell’s work needed to be stated and I was glad to see it. Not only did he spotlight the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s long exclusion due to the male owner’s(Wenner) dislke Wenner for Joni, he cited her inventiveness and influence on world music and in the PBS documentary on her.

  • magnolia

    sad thing is, had joni not basically pioneered the use of open tuning, she’d have never been recognized on that list at all.

    my very straight, borderline-macho daddy gave me “court and spark” on a cassette, the other side of which was random beatles music, when i was 10 years old (1991) and it changed my life. anyone can admire artistry. it’s not exclusively the province of one or the other. wouldn’t people lose their minds if someone said, “oh yeah, the rolling stones [or other swaggering male-fronted band] is totally a straight thing”?

  • Laurawil

    Want to add to cousinchos comment about Joni’s views on her own mortality. On turbulent indigo, the song, sire of sorrow she writes, I see the diggers leaning on their spades, (waiting for her coffin) drawing a visual about her own burial. You can’t get more introspective than that.

  • redundant plankton

    joni is an unmitigated genius. like her or not, it’s completely obvious from a distance. work that will have traction on the species as long as there are ears.

  • Darwinsdog

    On a road trip in Mexico once upon a time, my friend Kevin and I, both of us hetero- males and both Joni fans, were discussing which of her albums are our favorites. He was incredulous when I chose “Hissing…” Glad to have this masterpiece appreciated.

  • Manamaui

    I was totally unaware that there was a “gay” stigma to loving Joni Mitchell. One of the most talented singer/songwriters EVER, I cannot imagine what our modern music “world” would have been like without her genius. Mix that in with her “golden girl” image of flowing blond hair and unique musical talent (creating her own tunings on the guitar to fit her vocal range) she provided a gorgeous, talented, untouchable fantasy to endless men from her arrival on the scene until this day. I saw her perfom at the Universal Amphitheater in LA in the mid’70′s with a band that consisted of THE most highly regarded musicians of that time (who became world class “name” talents of their own) and the music, the talent, the warm summer breeze and Joni herself cast a magic spell that (obviously) I have never forgotten. She is, to this day, a wonder. (HOW being gay or straight got involved in this is beyond me……)

  • Orcasmom

    Oh, she made my heart ache and that is why I loved her music then and still do…and I am not a gay woman, although Joni could turn me in NY minute – geese farts and all.

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionatedGift OpinionatedGifts

    I went over and talked up my ex wife because she looked like Joni Mitchell. It was a gay friend that turned me on to her in college, interestingly enough.

    But anyone that appreciates music has to appreciate her. Has to.

  • Jason Calley

    One more very much hetero male who has been a Joni fan for 40 years, and yes, Hissing of Summer Lawns is brilliant!

  • Solaristbx

    Nah, you’ll never fight that duel ‘cos if we find him first, we’ll just shame him out of Dodge. Joni is high up there with Dylan in poetry and even more in melody. Why does she not do concerts?

  • bruce burke

    and I’ll play if you have the money and if you’re some kind of friend to me….
    Joni is what beauty and poetry are all about.
    Straight guys may love her cheek bones and gay guys her independence, but Joni Mitchell is universally loved.  My life of waitng with Joni playing in the backgroung has prepared me for eternity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/JL-Serkes/579789275 JL Serkes

    Hissing of Summer Lawns a masterpiece. She has delighted me for ever.

  • silvanusslaughter

    Hissing of Summer Lawns blew me away when it appeared. I never gave a damn what Rolling Stone thought. Most of the male writers at that time were all trying to get a job in the record industry themselves. 

  • john

    Stevie Wonder, is analagous to Mitchell in that he wrote very different music
    that was catchy and beautiful, he played the instruments, sang the songs, and has incredibly devoted fans. I have searched my brain for others but I can’t find any that fit. Joni is special !

  • Philiphansen

    I was on my way to West Point prep school for the fall semester 1974 when I had a month’s leave and went to Create Greece for a needed leave. Found myself at Matala (can you believe that?!) on the south shore feeling the wind from Africa.  Met a Australian girl who turned me onto “Blue” and “For the Roses”.  We listened to Joni about 10 hours per day for 2 weeks.  Took acid for the first time, slept in the ancient caves that the Minoen lepers used as their homes in about 1800 BC. Totally changed my world view in that small period of time.  Joni’s genius changed my life for the better.  Turned my back on a military career,  became a flower person, got a degree in philosophy and made my living as a sculptor and artist. Joni’s poetry, music and genius gives me the same feelings as Beethoven and Mozart.  I still “tear up” occationally while listening to her. Her work inspires me to create new work of my own. I never had the fortune to have met her or even seen her in concert.  What I am pleased about is that I was on planet Earth at the same time as Joni.  Joni IS the greatest singer songwriter and poet that the world has ever had. I hope I will see her in our next life and I can take her out to lunch.  I am sure that other hetrosexual men have had fantasies of her being their girlfriend.  I know I have had that particular dream…now I wish I could just be her gardener or driver….ha, ha…It was a great short article,well thought out thanks Tom  To Joni if she ever reads this stuff,  a million thank yous, a kiss on the cheek and I wish you JOY.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000342522796 Surrah De Almeida

    GREAT SENTIMENTS, & I AGREE with YOU!!