Update: This article was published before the announcement of British author Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (None of his novels are set to music.)
These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads.
Refuge of the Roads, Joni Mitchell
A year ago the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, thus sparking a bonfire of the vanities among critics, writers and commentators over what should be classified as literature.
The Swedish Academy, which decides the winner, said Dylan had won “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
And, with that, the parameters of the Nobel Prize were blown apart. No longer were words tied simply and purely to the page, stage or recitation hall. Now, after the Dylan decision, you could listen and go with the rhythm of the drums and the call of the singer. You could even go electric.
Now you can listen to a Nobel laureate sing to you. Of course, you can also read the lyrics, go deep into the words without the melody but, in essence, lyrics exist primarily to be sung.
Dylan in his Nobel speech wrote: “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story’.”
But still is a word not a word for all that? Today (October 5), the academy will announce this year’s winner. The barricades may have come down last year, but the odds of a successive singer-songwriter winning are as likely as 10 people in a room agreeing that they understand a single word of Finnegans Wake. The times may have changed, but they haven’t changed that much.
Joni Mitchell, over a career almost as long as Bob Dylan’s, has forged a different path in words and music. A path that was not there before her.
But here’s the rub. Another singer-songwriter should win it, and not because it would balance gender equality, but because this woman richly deserves it. As equally so as Dylan did. Her name is Joni Mitchell.
Dylan is, rightly, the unchallenged iconoclast of the song’s shaping in rock to be more than froth and bubble, the one who takes no prisoners in delivering a deep knowledge of the past into the present. Mitchell, over a career almost as long as Dylan’s, has forged a different path in words and music. A path that was not there before her.
While Dylan was looking down the highway, indeed building a new highway, Mitchell was looking at the clouds and seeing in their form the imperfections of man and woman. She had the eye for giving shape to the shadows of lives. At first, this was labelled confessional writing. And she was the queen of her dominion, but over time this was a disservice to her art. She wrote of relationships, both biographical and fictional, with an honesty and a razor dissection that had no equal. The Last Time I Saw Richard is a finely cut gem of short-story writing. You could make it into a film.
The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.
The album The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a torch into the American life, throwing light into the darkness of suburbia. Elvis Costello (no mean hand at a lyric himself) has said: “This is as good as any writing. That’s a whole book’s worth of writing”.
Mitchell’s strength is that of being able to analyse both the interior and exterior worlds. To only view her work through the prism of couplets such as those in The Circle Game (“And the seasons they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down”) pretty as they are, is to short change yourself and her.
Mitchell’s language can be clinical in its insight, such as in The Three Great Stimulants, which is based on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (she named her cat Nietzsche). “The three great stimulants of the exhausted ones are artifice, brutality and innocence. It should be corruption of innocence. The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have need for what you don’t have at all,” she told Vanity Fair.
It can be as close and soul-opening as driving across the desert, thinking of Amelia:
Maybe I’ve never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything/I crashed into his arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
Her output through the ’70s is peerless: Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Mitchell has had popular success with The Circle Game, Big Yellow Taxi, Both Sides Now, Chelsea Morning and You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio, but their attainment is not the prime mover to her art. Indeed, she carries with Dylan, and fellow Canadian Neil Young a deep conviction to forge new paths. Thus it was Mitchell went into jazz, and to most of the mainstream music world, a fall from grace.
It was their loss. Still the words flowed, out onto Paprika Plains into Dreamland. But in this journey she found herself travelling more and more alone. The ’80s and ’90s were not kind to her, despite the quality of the work. “I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God. To be in sync with the times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically,” she has said.
Of this point – the artist and the times – Mitchell created possibly the greatest paradox: Woodstock, her paean to a generation, and an event to which she did not go. It was adopted as a hippie anthem, but listen to Mitchell sing this solo on piano. It is meditation and yearning and concision. There are no loose words, every single one is doing a job. This is a common, and essential virtue of all writers in whatever field. And she borrows to create. Thus you will find Yeats or Kipling shaped into song.
But, after decades of fighting perceptions and demands of what she should be doing, she turned her back on the industry. “The business had just worn me down to where I couldn’t write and didn’t want to write. There was no public recognition for my work and none at my record company.”
Enter Starbucks, which in 2007 through its label Hear Music, put out Mitchell’s first album in 10 years Shine. And it did. It was as if she had never left, but in the beauty there was despair. Of the times that inspired the song If I Had a Heart she has said, “My heart is broken in the face of the stupidity of my species. I can’t cry about it. In a way I’m inoculated. I’ve suffered this pain for so long. The West has packed the whole world on a runaway train. We are on the road to extincting ourselves as a species”. It was her last studio album. It may be her last. Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015. She has been seen in public since, but rarely.
And so in her absence, tribute shows have flowered worldwide. Next Tuesday night (October 10) Melbourne singer-songwriter Rebecca Barnard is doing a show of Mitchell songs at the Drunken Poet in North Melbourne.
She says: “I was drawn to Joni Mitchell through an older friend in 1974. He was playing the album Clouds and it was my first experience with confessional love songs. I’d started playing guitar and was aware of chords but hearing her unique tunings was a whole new world.
“And her honesty in her lyrics knocked me out. Her voice was/is so unique. Beautiful tone and pitch and extraordinary phrasing that has influenced me as a singer. Hearing her doing jazz standards and her own songs arranged with orchestra was another revelation. She has an incredible jazz sensibility which I think is evident even in her folky period.
Mitchell turns 74 next month. The likelihood of another of original album, given her health, seems remote. So we are left with the spark and light of a true original, and that being so, a body of work that is timeless. Surely, that is worth a Nobel.
Critics of all expression
Judges in Black and White
Saying it’s wrong
Saying it’s right
Compelled by prescribed standards
Of some ideals we fight.