Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one
— Joni Mitchell
I’ve railed against ageism in recent years, ageism for women particularly, as it has affected my professional life. But there are a number of women in music whose lights are shining more brilliantly than ever in their old age and, in some cases, ill health, and I think it’s an interesting and powerful movement. If they are anything like me – and they must be, because I am a woman and I am human – they likely still feel childlike beneath their lined and weary skins and bones.
There’s Linda Ronstadt, who from the moment she announced her Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis in 2013 (a diagnosis that has been revised but is no less devastating), has been celebrated, awarded, honoured, and appreciated in ways she should have been decades earlier. More on Linda separately, another time.
There are Carole King and Barbra Streisand, both 80 years old and both beautiful, working, inspiring. There’s Mavis Staples, older still. There’s Dolly Parton, an icon, influencer and genius. There’s Tanya Tucker and her amazing renaissance. Everywhere I look and listen there are older, powerful music women in focus. It’s a wonderful thing.
And then there’s Joni Mitchell. Some would say that above all is Joni Mitchell. She turned 79 last week. For many she is immortalised circa 1969 in Laurel Canyon with her dulcimer, or in the window of her house, photographed by Henry Diltz. Writing about but not being at Woodstock, great love and muse to Graham Nash, before that David Crosby, friend to Mama Cass et al. And then heart wrung out in 1971 on the Blue album, devastated by James Taylor, or Nash, or… well, Joni enjoyed the company of most of the prominent songwriters of the era. JD Souther liked to boast about his time with Joni, as though it mattered to anyone but himself. Nash still trades on it. Some are more circumspect. Joni wrote and sang about many of them without naming names. I’m no Joni aficionado, I have most of the earlier albums, some of the later ones, I too am awestruck by Blue, but prefer listening to Ladies of the Canyon, love the grown up 70s vibe of Court and Spark, think “Both Sides Now” is one of the greatest songs ever written, but I am not educated about Joni as so many are. I have two of Diltz’s Joni portraits on my walls; they are art, as Joni’s work is, musical and visual. I’m glad to be living in the age of Joni, because later on, people won’t be and in this hideous digital age of instant pop gratification, they won’t even know what they are missing.
I’ve been in the same room as Joni just a few times. In the room where she performed, only once. I never saw her in the seventies, although I have a vague memory, I hope it’s real, of being in the Sydney Opera House when she was performing, but not being in the room. Hearing her through the walls. Maybe that was in the eighties. I recall thinking, maybe I should really be inside there seeing Joni Mitchell; I guess I am not very cool, because I’m not.
I saw Joni perform in Los Angeles in May 1998 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, a last minute ticket purchase having just landed in town for a year of getting a feel for living there, doing an online search for what concerts were happening and finding Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan on the one bill and an okay single ticket that would put me in the room – or arena as it was. Joni’s voice was deeper than I expected. Dylan was boring. Van Morrison was the most commanding of the three. I sat next to a woman also on her own who decided to share with me that she had had a sexual tryst (or two) with JD Souther back in the late eighties or early nineties. I knew Souther personally, and I found it so bizarrely random, yet not really so surprising, I just had to put it down to that LA synchronicity that has always drawn me there.
Skipping forward 22 years, the last time I was in the room with Joni was something quite intimate and delightful. She had just been given the Les Paul Innovation Award at the NAMM TEC Awards in January 2020, and I was hanging out with the members of the band Venice, who performed in her honour, and after the show Joni was wheeled into the green room to thank all the performers. And there I was with my camera. I’d never aspired to actually meet Joni, so just taking photos at close range was enough for me.
Over time, and especially since her brain aneurysm in 2015, Joni Mitchell has been venerated with renewed ardour, idolised not just by her fans but also by fellow artists who worship at her feet and post about it on Instagram. And she has been awarded at the highest levels, Kennedy Center Honor et al, just like Linda since her illness was revealed, because such awards have been long overdue and time is running out. Against the odds, Joni has been lured back to live performance, as best as she can – and her mere presence on stage brings many to tears – and it is almost entirely due to the efforts and adulation of Brandi Carlile. Which brings me to the other time I was in the room with Joni, the night in November 2019 when Brandi Carlile performed the Blue album in its entirety at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Joni – and Elton John and various other celebrities – in attendance. I was way up in the nosebleed, but in that hall for that performance that was just fine. It was the hottest ticket in town. There were no photos taken by anyone in the audience (except Rita Wilson whose phone somehow had not been locked up like everyone else’s had), and it was one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to.
That was a flow-on from seeing Brandi one year earlier at Joni’s 75th Birthday Tribute Concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the first time I encountered the astounding artist that is Brandi Carlile. I had a really good seat on the first night of the two Joni 75 performances, and my night, as it turned out, was more like a dress rehearsal; Joni was in the room only the following night. But I saw reverence and tenderness. Brandi duetting gently with a faltering Kris Kristofferson. Graham Nash telling his Joni stories and singing sweetly solo. Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Emmylou Harris. Los Lobos and La Marisoul. Seal, Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard and, maybe most poignantly, James Taylor, singing for Joni.
I took a lot of photos. And finally, four years later, I am posting them.
Joni’s Newport Folk Festival appearance this year and her scheduled show at The Gorge, Washington next year, are all due to Brandi Carlile’s fierce and forceful adoration and determination that Joni should be in the spotlight as much as she is able. I don’t feel I personally need to be in the room – or the arena or gorge – with Joni again unless by some miraculous turn of events I am, but I’m happy that this 79-year old woman is enjoying some of the greatest success of her life now.
So here are the photos from night one of Joni’s 75th Birthday concert on November 6, 2018. Click on the thumbnails to view them if you feel inclined.
And next, and at last, I shall write about Brandi Carlile.