All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Joni Mitchell, the environment, and Katherine Monk’s new biography.

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joniI just finished Katherine Monk’s wonderful 2012 book Joni: the Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell.  It is partly a regular biography, but mostly it is an essay on the creative process, using Mitchell’s work as an illustration.  So it’s a bit philosophical, and can be heavy going at times (didn’t expect to see so much discussion on Nietzsche when I picked it up!) – but it’s very rewarding.

It got me going back to my Joni CDs, listening to her music with a new ear.  Made me realize how little her music has aged – not something many artists can boast of.  It also made me realize how good her more recent work is, despite getting little commercial airplay.

I’m always looking for environmental references in everything I read or listen to (I’m a nerd that way, if you didn’t already know), and Mitchell’s work is a treasure trove in that respect.  As I posted before, she is rightly known for penning the ultimate environmental song, Big Yellow Taxi (They paved paradise/put up a parking lot/…they took all the trees/put them in a tree museum.  Big Yellow Taxi, 1970) as well as Woodstock (We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden…/and we got to get ourselves/back to the garden. Woodstock, 1970).  But there was way more to follow.

Of course, part of the appeal was her knack for blending the personal and the external; in Big Yellow Taxi, for instance, we hear “that screen door slam/and a big yellow taxi/came and took away my old man/Don’t it always seem to go/you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone”.

It was also the times, of course: 1970 was when the first Earth Day was celebrated, following the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara and the Cayuhoga River catching fire.  Mitchell became the ultimate Earth Goddess – but she had to be groomed into that role by David Crosby.  As Monk relates:

Crosby was really the first person to set the myth of Joni Mitchell in motion…[he] started with the all-important externals and gave Joni a hippie makeover.  He told her to lose the fake eyelashes and mascara and man-made fibers.  He pushed her to ditch her beautiful designer purse in favour of a woven pouch, and even though Mitchell wasn’t all that fond of the formless sack or the “natural look” – as opposed to Carnaby Street sexy – she cunningly agreed.

It certainly ironic to see the artifice required of folk singers at the time, given that what really mattered was authenticity.  This was coupled with the environmental movement in the weirdest way. Why was it that electrical guitars were taboo for the longest time in folk music and at folk festivals?  Why, in what were really just music venues, would you see brown rice and unprocessed, “authentic” food, and “Protect the Stein Valley” displays?  Not only would you see hippie girls dance in a pretense of trees swaying in the wind, but electrical gadgetry was anathema, somehow synonymous to selling out to the system, getting away from the simple life; there’s no electricity in a back-to-the-land commune, so no amplifiers.  As if!  Despite that, the movement had a point: much of current pop music is certainly suffering from an excess of formulaic electronic beats.  But requiring adherence to “isms” always hampered creativity, and Mitchell was to pass comment on the posturing aspect of all this in Fiction (fiction of the moralist/fiction of the nihilist/fiction of the declaimers/fiction of the rebukers/fiction of the pro and no nukers…Fiction, 1985).

Mitchell self-portrait for Taming the Tiger

Mitchell self-portrait for Taming the Tiger

No matter.  In fact, Mitchell isn’t known to have espoused a particular cause such as environmentalism or social justice, but her art, both music and paintings, is permeated with an awareness of these themes, and, at least judging by the portrait Monk paints of Mitchell, the artist prefers to let her art speak for itself.  Just listen to the crickets on Night Ride Home (1988), or how she mentions the rain in Paprika Plains (1977), one of my favourite among Mitchell’s music (back in my home town/they would have cleared the floor/just to watch the rain come down!/they’re such sky oriented people/geared to changing weather…).  Not that I’ll claim that Mitchell is mentioning climate change or such stuff; but the very mention of the weather, of nature, of crickets, make her a writer aware of her environment.

In fact, environmental references abound in her later work.  I’ll just cite a few of the more obvious:

In a highway service station/over the month of June/was a photograph of the Earth/taken coming back from the moon/and you couldn’t see a city/on that marbled bowling ball/or a forest or a highway/or me the least of all (Refuge of the Road, 1976)

Uranium money/is booming in the old home town now/it’s putting up sleek concrete/tearing the old landmarks down now/paving over brave little parks/ripping off Indian land again/how long – how long/ shortsighted businessmen/ah, nothing lasts for long…   (Chinese Café, 1982)

Ethiopia/your topsoil flies away/we pump ours full of poison spray/Ethiopia/between the brown skies and sprinkling lawns/I hear the whine of chainsaws/hacking rainforests down/Ethiopia …/Little gardenplanet – oasis in space/some hearts hurt – they can hardly stand the waste (Ethiopia, 1985)

Dreamer/no acid rain/love without pain/impossible dreamer (Impossible Dreamer, 1985)

Looking at money man/diggin’ the deadly quotas/out of balance/out of hand/we want the land!/lay down the reeking ore!/don’t you hear the shrieking of the trees?/everytime you touch the earth – she’s sore/ (Lakota, 1988)

Some devils had a plan/buried poison in the sand/don’t drink it man/it’s in the water/cool clear water (Cool Water 1936, revised lyrics 1988)

Enter the multitudes/in Exxon blue/in radiation rose/ecstasy/now you tell me/who you’re gonna get to do the dirty work/when all the slaves are free?  (Passion Play, 1991)

(This last made me think of Andrew Nikiforuk’s The Energy of Slaves (2012).  I wonder if he got the inspiration for his title here?)

Little kids packing guns to school/the ulcerated ozone/these tumours of the skin/the hostile sun beatin’ down on/this massive mess we’re in!/and the gas leaks/and the oil spills/and sex sells everything/and sex kills (Sex Kills , 1994)

So what makes a man a man/in these tough times/as drug lords buy up the banks/and warlords radiate the oceans/ecosystems fail!/snakes and snails and puppy tails are/wagging in the wound/beneath the trampled moon (No Apologies, 1998)

Strong and wrong/you lose everything/without the heart/you need/to hear a robin sing/where have all the songbirds gone?/Gone! (Strong and Wrong, 2007)

Shine on the fishermen/with nothing in their nets/shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas/shine on our Frankenstein technologies/shine on science/with its tunnel vision/shine on fertile farmland/buried under subdivisions (Shine, 2007)

You see these lovely hills/they won’t be there for long/they’re gonna tear them down/and sell them to California/here come the toxic spills/miners poking all around/when this place looks like a moonscape/don’t say I didn’t warn ya…Spirit of the water/give us all the courage and the grace/to make genius of this tragedy unfolding/the genius to save this place.  (This Place, 2007)

In fact, all of This Place is a paean to the beauty of the Sunshine Coast, Mitchell’s home, and to the fragility of beauty.  Have a listen:

When I hear this song, I regret a bit that nobody will see Mitchell at such places as the Enbridge hearings, even though the emotion behind the song seems tailor-made for that.  But this isn’t the venue for Mitchell; she may be an environmentalist (I don’t know, but I assume so, from her words), but she doesn’t preach.  Maybe it’s best that she doesn’t.  I’ll leave the last word on that to Monk, who herself quotes Heidegger (told you she can get deep and heavy):

Voice is the very echo of the soul, which is why German philosopher Martin Heidegger put such an emphasis on using it.  It’s not enough just to breathe.  In order to transcend and realize one’s creative potential, one needs to speak, and, finally, to sing – because “song is existence.”   Heidegger sees singing as the highest art.  “The song of these [true artist] singers is neither solicitation or trade.  To sing the song means to be present in what is present itself.  It means Dasein, existence.”

Phew.  Not sure what that really means, but Monk’s Joni is a really cool book, and Mitchell gives a lot of context to all the conflicting emotions behind environmentalism.

Landscape by Joni Mitchell

Landscape by Joni Mitchell


Written by enviropaul

February 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm

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