Thursday, September 29, 2005

Joni Mitchell, by Mark Bego

The bad news: Mark Bego has written some 50 books, all on entertainment related subjects. His prose is not exactly Proustian. He’s the only writer I know who can make an adjective seem anodyne. Surveying Joni Mitchell’s entire oeuvre, he describes every single album as being either stunning, wonderful or extraordinary – an utter impossibility. Even Joni’s 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, a regular sore thumb of a record, he lauds to the sky. Please! This sort of slavish devotion mars the book with a syrupy tone.

The good news: At least Bego does not intrude upon his subject matter. Happily, he lets Joni do most of the talking. Some 151 interview sources are marshalled to create a biography that almost reads like a ‘in her own words’ type of book. I’d estimate that about thirty percent of this biography is made up of direct quotes, often quite lengthy. It’s these parts of the biography that are fantastic to read, giving you a good overall picture of how Joni sees her own career to date.

Mitchell herself reminded me of one of those old, hard boiled Hollywood broads. She mixes a direct, brutally honest style with good doses of self-deprecating humour. For example, she goes on and on about the music industry, how she feels hard done by it, then goes on to describe her problems as ‘rich people’s problems’. When answering her mother’s complaints that she is immoral, Joni retorts that she’s like a Catholic priest who likes to drink with dock workers. When Joni’s mother tells her off for cavorting with her new boyfriend at her house, in full view of the neighbours (this is when Mitchell is in her fifties, mind you), worrying about what her peer group will think, Joni deadpans, ‘what do you mean, youre generation’s all dead’.

What I also liked about Joni is the fact that she’s so well read and learned, something you don’t find in pop stars generally. Literary, art and cultural references just seem to effortlessly roll off her tongue. For example, in her 1998 live DVD she stops to talk about Plato’s Republic, and does so without seeming pretentious.

For the most part Bego’s book is a biography of Joni’s recordings. Every chapter title is named after an album, starting with Song to a Seagull and finishing with Travelogue. Each chapter gives you heaps of detail on how the album was made, plus critical reaction from the various musical publications of the time. So if you love the music, and want all the small details, then this book is very helpful.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so mean to Mark Bego. In the introduction he explains what a huge Joni fan he is. Perhaps he didn’t want to offend his idol in any way (he actually met her backstage at an awards function). Being a huge Joni fan myself, I can understand this. Nevertheless, I’m literally too scared to get a copy of Joni’s Both Sides Now (2000), her album of standard covers done with a full orchestral backing. I’ve only read reviews of people claiming to be close to tears because Joni’s voice is so bad.

If you’re a die hard fan and want a pleasant, easygoing read, give this one a go. You might want to speed read through Bego’s tedious encomiums, going straight to Joni’s own smart, snappy, no-nonsense voice. She’s a one off in the pop music world. I doubt we’ll see her likes again any time soon.

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