Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Radical Muse

The Laurel Canyon artists, among them Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, David Crosby and John Phillips, took a naturalistic bent, a Steinbeckian way of looking at things, one that someone would film steeped in burnt sienna. It was a far cry from The Beatles, further still from their neighbor down the way on Love Street, but it was Mitchell who fashioned the words into insolences and attitudes, words that could cut.

In "Woman of Heart and Mind," Joni Mitchell relies on her intellect and rhetorical prowess to assert her identity and defy masculine objectification. In verse one, she sings: "You think I'm like your mother/ Or another lover or your sister/ Or the queen of your dreams." Herein she recognizes the masculine tendency to physicalize the feminine, to view women as objects of psycho-sexual desire. In response, she declares: "I am a woman of heart and mind/ With time on her hands/ No child to raise..." Mitchell defies the male-defined feminine paradigm by identifying as an emotionally and intellectually liberated being, rather than as a woman bound by her carnality and physicality. She readily criticizes the hubristic excesses of her male lover, essentially calling them fruitless and unfulfilling: "After the rush when you come back down/ You're always disappointed/ Nothing seems to keep you high/ Drive your bargains/ Push your papers/ Win your medals/ Fuck your strangers/ Don't it leave you on the empty side?" "You want stimulation," she ponders, "nothing more, that's what I think." Meanwhile, she cleverly understates her own desires, asking only for "a little passion." Like Steinbeck, Mitchell’s characters are simplistic, everyday lovers and others; the complexity hidden deep within, with hidden a key term. Joni’s character seems to love him despite a laundry list of selfishness.

Pic Dawson, Eric Clapton, Joni, David Crosby, Gary
Burdon, Annie Burden and Cass Elliot.
While The Beatles were immersing themselves in a British pastiche, and Morrison was off on a mindbender that could rival Carlos Casteneda, Joni and her contemporaries were creating their own cinema verite, but unlike The Beatles’ plunge into Modernism, Joni whittled down relationships in a manner that women chalked off and men misconstrued ("Fuck your strangers," is like a badge of honor to this guy – or so it seems – we never get his side of the story).

We can’t conclude, though, that The Beatles' broad strokes are less complex than Joni’s. Think once again of the nuances afforded "She's Leaving home" (here we indeed find the ability to capture both sides of the story). The listener is hard pressed not feel pulled from side to side, the sorrow and angst of the parents or the soul searching of an oppressed young woman (coupled with the intense beauty of Paul's tearful melody) shows we have heart, and, like the Scarecrow, we know, because it is breaking. No, Joni’s is a different sorrow, deeper, again like a cut, a paper cut. It’s Joni who follows Hemingway's lead, sits down at the typewriter and cuts her wrists.