Joni Mitchell still knows our hearts

Like many people who watched videos of Joni Mitchell’s surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival last weekend, I was moved to tears upon seeing and hearing her iconic musical voice again.

I assumed that after her near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015, I would never be able to see her play again. She had rarely performed in public, even before the aneurysm. Those of us who adored his musical genius had to settle for listening to his remarkable catalog of songs, which had long been an integral part of the soundtrack of our lives.

I was introduced to Joni Mitchell in 1968 when I was 15 growing up in northern New Jersey. I kept listening to WNEW-FM, the innovative New York rock station on my bedside radio. The format was revolutionary for a generation that had grown up listening to Cousin Brucie play Top 40 hits on AM car radios. Suddenly a range of hip young DJs like Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwartz and Alison Steele, introduced new voices like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Led Zepplin, Laura Nyro, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Joni Mitchell.

And that was Joni Mitchell, whose sweet guitar and songs of love and longing touched my young soul. I was a budding poet and I had found my muse.

Portrait of Joni Mitchell sitting on the floor with her acoustic guitar in her lap.  This image is from a shoot for fashion magazine Vogue, November 20, 1968. (Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of Joni Mitchell sitting on the floor with her acoustic guitar in her lap. This image is from a shoot for fashion magazine Vogue, November 20, 1968. (Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

His debut album, “Songs to a Seagull”, was unlike anything I had ever heard. The music was hauntingly beautiful. The lyrics were pure poetry, evoking the places that adults in the turbulent late 60s yearned to see and feel. She soon became “in my blood like holy wine” and when I saw the cover photo of this beautiful Canadian girl with deep blue eyes and long blonde hair, I was spellbound. And I was not alone.

Her next two albums, “Clouds” and “Ladies of the Canyon,” only deepened the belief that, in one of rock and folk’s iconic eras, she was in a class of her own.

When she released “Blue” in 1971, Joni was clearly at the top of her game. This instant classic featured heartbreaking offers: “River”, “Carey”, “A Case of You”, “All I Want” and “California”. It has become an anthem for our generation.

Those teenage years of heartbreak and wanderlust were marked by Joni’s own musical journey. She had an obvious appeal to teenage girls and young women, with her songs about lost lovers and heartbreak. But it also became immensely popular with young men like me, who sat in our bedrooms strumming guitars and searching for melodies and words to get in touch with our own anguished souls. To say that Joni Mitchell marked my musical core is an understatement.

So seeing her on that Newport stage, performing classics like ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Circle Game’, ‘A Case of You’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and more triggered a deeply emotional reaction for me and apparently millions more.

His voice is low and deep now, after a lifetime of chain smoking. But accompanied by the enchanting Brandi Carlile, who made the performance possible, and a cast of world-class musicians, she was perfect.

She knew the lyrics, she sang perfectly, she even got up and played a great guitar solo. And she was bathed in the waves of love that washed over her from the crowd, who immediately knew they were witnessing a historic musical moment.

For me, this surprise performance was a gift in this time of pandemic and political maelstrom that has overwhelmed our lives.

As she sang “I’ve looked at life from both sides now, winning and losing and still somehow, these are the illusions of life that I remember. I really don’t know life at all,” tears streamed down my face, beyond the huge smile that accompanies an unexpected reunion with a dear old friend.

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