Saturday, July 27, 2013

Joni Mitchell: On Life, Loss and Missing Out on Woodstock

Caryl shares an exclusive playlist from Joni Mitchell's 70th birthday concert

The last time I saw Joni was in Toronto in June of 2013. The occasion that brought her back on stage was a birthday happening. For two nights, performers and musicians came to together in a concert celebrating the legendary singer’s 70th birthday next November. For the past decade, Joni Mitchell has not performed because of health reasons--she has Morgellons Syndrome, a parasitic infestation some doctors claim is delusional--and a voice that with age has been reduced in range.

Joni Mitchell's extraordinary career spans 50 years and mixes together the genres of folk, jazz, blues and a bit of rock and roll. The birthday tribute show that was part of Toronto's Luminato Festival, lasted almost three hours the night I saw it.  Combining familiar and obscure songs chosen by Mitchell herself,  the concert featured performers with reputations ranging from the little known: Liam Titcomb who sang the poignant If  to the famous, Rufus Wainwright who peformed the Yeats poem Slouching Towards Bethelehem acapello reinterpreting it like “a Scottish folksong”. 
Wainwright told the audience how he didn't grow up with Joni's music.  His mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigal who died last year, was kind of competitive, he said, and banned the more successful Mitchell's music from the family's home.

At the end of the concert, a delighted Mitchell, cheekbones still high and blond hair piled higher— came out and recited the earthy,  kind of hip-hop poem Rain, Rain in a now smoke-saturated voice while she meandered around the stage trance-like.  Then--out of nowhere--she surprised the audience saying: "I didn't think I could sing. I'm still not sure I can sing but I am going to try." The first two songs she picked played to her reduced range and finally the last song where the company joined in was one we all know well. Yes, Woodstock!  Mitchell told an interviewer pre-concert she hadn't sung at the iconic festival because she was scheduled to perform elsewhere the next day. She wrote the song's lyrics from the perspective of those who did attend and it has become something of anthem of the boomer generation.  Let me just say when the crowd joined in, we sounded “a half million strong.” 

20 Amazing Joni Mitchell Songs and a Rare Live Performance

I haven’t enjoyed a concert more since my first—the Beatles in l964 (yeah, yeah, yeah).   I will tell you in advance that the final encore came from the audience. Happy Birthday, we shouted out to the woman’s whose songs were the soundtrack to our lives. Then Joni picked up the shoes she kicked off during her performance and walked off stage barefoot and brilliant. Here's a sample performance from the memorable show, and below you will find an exclusive playlist I've put together for your listening pleasure, as they say.  (Playlist for printing.) Or, you can read the lyrics as the poetry they are. I’ve included a snippet of verse. You may be able to complete the songs from memory in some cases—but some may be unfamiliar.  They were to me, a lifelong and dedicated fan. All Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are included in this book,  Joni Mitchell--The Complete Poems and Lyrics.

Playlist for a Birthday Happening Live at Massey Hall 

1. The Fiddle and the Drum – Lizz Wright
Oh my friend, What time is this/To trade the handshake/For the fist

2. Coyote – Glen Hansard
I tried to run away myself/To run away and wrestle with my ego/And with this flame 

3. You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio– Kathleen Edwards
I know you don’t like weak women/You get bored so quick/And you don’t like strong women/’Cause they’re hip to your tricks 

4. If – Liam Titcomb
If you can fill the journey /Of a minute/ With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight/ Then the Earth is yours/ And Everything that's in it

5. Black Crow – Cold Specks
I've been traveling so long/ How'm I ever going to know my home/
When I see it again

6. Big Yellow Taxi
– Kathleen Edwards
Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Til it’s gone

7. Shades of Scarlet Conquering – Lizz Wright
It is not easy to be brave/To walk around in so much need/To carry the weight of all that greed

8. The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey – Lizz Wright 
Of the darkness in men’s mind/What can you say/That wasn’t marked by history/Or on the news today

9. All I Want – Rufus Wainwright
I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/Looking for the key to set me free

10. A Case Of You – Rufus Wainwright
I could drink a case of you, darling/And I would still be on my feet/I would still be on my feet

11. The Boho Dance – Glen Hansard 
A camera pans the cocktail hour/Behind a blind of potted palm/And finds a lady in a Paris dress/With runs in her nylons

12. Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire – Kathleen Edwards
Come with me, I know the way she says/Do you want to contact somebody first/I mean what does it really matter/You’re going to come now/Or you’re going to come later

Slouching Toward Bethlehem – Rufus Wainwright 
The best lack conviction/ given some time to think/And the worst are full of passion/Without mercy

14. Carey – Glen Hansard
Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam/Maybe I’ll to go to Rome/And rent me a grand piano/And put some flowers ‘round my room

Jericho – Lizz Wright 
Anyone will tell you/Just how hard it is to make and keep a friend/Maybe they’ll shortsell you/Or maybe it’s you Judas in the end

16. Shadows And Light – Glen Hansard
Every picture has its shadows/And it has some source of light/Blindness, blindness and sight

17. Free Man in Paris – Rufus Wainwright

"The way I see it," he said/you just can't win it . . . /Everybody's in it for their own gain/You can't please 'em all

18.  Furry Sings the Blue -- Joni Mitchell
Why should I expect the guy to give it to me true/Fallen to hard luck/And time and other thieves/While our limo is shining on his shanty street/Old Furry sings the blues 

19. Don't Interrupt the Sorrow--Joni Mitchell
Death and birth and death and birth/ He says "bring that bottle kindly/And I'll pad your purse/I've got a head full of quandary/and a mighty mighty thirst"

20. Woodstock--Joni Mitchell and company
We are stardust/We are golden/And w've got to get ourselves/
Back to the garden

Joni Mitchell was a painter before a singer.  These are her self-portraits--two of which were used for album covers.  

Before the concert, she gave an uncommon and often provocative interview for a Canadian radio show.  She summed up her long career and her future:

“I’ve had a very interesting and a very challenging life. A lot of battles, just disease after disease after — I mean, I mean I shouldn’t be here, you know. But I have a tremendous will to live and a tremendous joie de vivre--alternating with irritability.”


  1. Joni is a miracle. Thank you for this wonderful and unexpected treat!

  2. Another trip down memory lane. I had forgotten all about her. Thanks

  3. wow, sounds like an amazing concert. wish i had been there--wait... i was!!

  4. I can't imagine. She's been my favorite all time musician/singer/songwriter since I first heard Blue in 1970. I think I still know all the words to her songs. I saw her in Houston in the 70's, and she bitched the audience out (saying we'll cut out half the show) because they were walking about. Artist to the nth degree. I think Laura Nyro is the only other that comes close to Joni's genius. Morgellon's is being studied in Tulsa, OK. Seems to be an "alien" disease, but they are trying to figure it out. Maybe Joni was sent here to us. She certainly is one of a kind.

    1. Welcome, Donna, to 2nd lives club. Love the hat. And I loved your comment about the Houston concert
      in the 70s. After hearing her interview (link in post), I can completely see her doing that. She's still sassy. And, she is multi-talented--I didn't realize the intricacy of the musical composition--and one of a kind. A True Original! And, at least for me, a guiding light. Way ahead of her time on issues like the environment. Yes, they've put up lots of parking lots.

  5. What a fabulous post. I didn't realize she had battled this illness.

    What an extraordinary time that must have been in Toronto.

    Amazing how you only need to say her name, and I'm transported to a more innocent time, my adolescence, the clarity and promise in her music.

    Thank you for this post.

    1. Few things in life are as transportive as music. Remember when you were young and in love and had
      a song together? Then you hear that song today and suddenly you are 16 again and all the feelings come flooding back. That song for me was not from Joni MItchell but from Johnny Mathis.
      It was "The Twelfth of Never". And that boy was the president of my church group: Patrick Brennan.
      Did any of you have a special song? I'd love to hear about it.