"Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell" by David Yaffe

By David Yaffe

Reviewed by Julia

ISBN 9780374538064

Writing about a living legend is tricky territory, and “Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell” by David Yaffe (new in paperback this year) is many years in the making after finally earning the trust of Ms. Mitchell.  Like any great musician whose career a public has followed over time, the critics have opted both to lift her up and tear her down from on high, offering up praise, questioning her authority, and dealing low blows.  An evergreen Joni fan, I felt not a little trepidation at reading her story condensed into a volume I could hold in my hands.  But as I began turning the pages, it was clear I would be carried through the years by a true professional, a fan of the artist but also an author able to identify areas of importance and truly articulate her experience.

Yaffe guides us from Joni’s beginnings as a young girl on the Canadian prairie, battling polio and inquisitively watching her parents, teachers, and the surrounding conservative culture as she forms her own distinctive point of view.  This is a constant in the narrative, a sense that Joni is often on the outside looking in on her own life and emotions protectively, often divisively.  She is highly capable of writing without ego about lovers and experiences, the “emotional landscape” as fan Bjork describes, as well as fully tapping into that ego’s passionate expression.

“Reckless Daughter” chronologically follows her series of albums, while taking liberties to insert important acknowledgements and reflections by both Joni and her collaborators.  The sheer number of musicians who claim her work as influential and have written with or in response to her is staggering: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Prince, Herbie Hancock, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Bjork, Madonna… the list continues. The degree of backstory in the histories shared here is truly thrilling - there were times the book seemed to be humming in my hands.

Uncovering this knowledge felt like digging up archaeological treasure to me, particularly when I arrived at the chapter on the creation of the album “Hejira”.  By this point in time, Joni’s music was at the top of the charts following “Court and Spark”, and she had the house in the hills and the swimming pool.  She had loved hard and lost, many times over, as her record “Blue” depicted - the loss of a child (later gained), the ideals of marriage, and the rose-coloured impressions of romance.  She was addicted to cocaine following the heady bus tours with Bob Dylan for The Last Waltz, and headed straight for an affair with Jaco Pastorius, considered by many to be the greatest bass player of all time.  She took a road trip headed east across the states from California, during which she found a Buddhist teacher in Boulder, Colorado to get her off cocaine, and she travelled incognito in the belly of the Deep South, meeting many of the country’s underpaid and underserved jazz greats.

Sometime after meeting Joni Mitchell in New Mexico, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe said in an interview that she might have been a high soprano rather than an artist, and I’ve often guessed that this meeting might have occurred during that inspirational road trip.  It’s the beauty in these small discoveries and the questions they generate that add to the power of “Reckless Daughter”.  As collaborations continue, with Charles Mingus and multiple ballet productions, we are taken through the evolution of a life-time, one incredible woman’s journey through her songs.  I highly recommend listening to the individual albums while reading - each one tells a story.

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