They gave a cold triumphant shout
And all that stays is dying
And all that lives is gettin' out.”— Joni Mitchell, “Urge For Going,” from her CD Hits (1996)
By rights, I should have written about Joni Mitchell two days ago, on her 70th birthday. But the centennial of the birth of a towering writer of the 20th century, Albert Camus, trumped it. Still, this milestone in the life of the singer-songwriter must not go unobserved.
More often than not, I think, the mind’s eye freezes the look of a celebrity at the zenith of fame, and so it is with Ms. Mitchell. She is indelibly associated with album covers (often painted by herself) that capture the long, thin face and long, straight blond hair that transfixed lovers almost as much as her strikingly poetic lyrics when she appeared, fresh off the Canadian prairie, at the forefront of the singer-songwriter movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies.
I had a tough time deciding on a lyric for this post that encapsulated Ms. Mitchell. There’s “A Case of You,” as complicated a love song as there is in its mixture of derision and poetic intoxication (her lover goes to her head like “holy wine”) and “Both Sides Now,” so extraordinarily wised-up for someone still only in her mid-20s about “life’s illusions.”
But “Urge for Going” seemed apt on several different levels. Although it only appeared on an album late in Mitchell’s career, it was one of the early lyrics covered by folk-music mentor Tom Rush; it represented her first commercial success (albeit in the version by country music artist George Hamilton IV); and has been covered on record by nearly 80 artists in all. It just missed making the cut for what Jack Hamilton, in an article for The Atlantic earlier this year, called “The Greatest Relationship Album Ever”: i.e., Blue.
A song that took its place on that seminal LP, “All I Want,” announces, "I am on a lonely road / and I am traveling." She repeats that last word four times—a simpler, yet more insistent, rephrasing of the theme of “Urge for Going,” and, really, the great majority of Ms. Mitchell’s work: the conflict between love and the need for creative freedom.
Rolling Stone once infuriated Mitchell by publishing a “tree” detailing her emotional entanglements, usually with other musicians (e.g., Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash). None of these lasted, nor did her two marriages. “Urge for Going” likens the fading of passion to the changing of the seasons, in phrases startling not only for their powerful compression of ideas but also because of their likening to the worst impulses in human beings, the kind that take inevitable tolls on relationships: “warriors of winter,” “gobbled summer down,” “traitor cold,” “bully winds.”
Only one Mitchell CD has been released in the last decade: Shine (2007). Except for a birthday tribute earlier this year, her public appearances have been rare, largely because she has been fighting health problems (notably, Morgellons Syndrome, a parasitic infestation whose diagnosis has been controversial in some medical quarters).
One wonders how much she would have recorded even had disease not plagued her. Her contempt for the music industry has only deepened with the years, and, long having felt that she was “a painter derailed by circumstance" (her art, heavily influenced by Impressionism, ran counter to the trend toward abstraction in the early Sixties), she has taken up the brush with greater concentration now she has achieved her long-sought independence.
(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)