SHADOWS AND LIGHT: A BIOGRAPHY OF JONI MITCHELL by Karen O’Brien (Virgin/General), 337 pages, $34.95 cloth.
songwriter, singer and painter Joni Mitchell is a complex woman. But you’d never know it from Karen O’Brien’s new biography, Shadows And Light.O’Brien’s not that interested in the expat’s fascinating contradictions.
She makes little of the fact that Mitchell has held a 30-year grudge against Rolling Stone for dismissing her as rock and roll’s “old lady” (they were talking about her many sex partners, not her age) but still refuses to call herself a feminist. O’Brien can’t explain why Mitchell bares herself emotionally in her music but is icy cold in person. She also mentions in a subordinate clause that Mitchell continues to put her major instrument — that glorious voice — at risk through a prodigious smoking habit.
Referring to The Sire Of Sorrow (on Turbulent Indigo), which describes a near-death experience, I once asked Mitchell in an interview about her health problems. I got a chilly don’t-go-there non-answer, so I know exactly how hard it is to probe issues Mitchell wants to bury.
Shadows And Light, however, is not a hagiography — though who more than such a gifted artist deserves one? It meticulously traces Mitchell’s creative process, beginning with her first gigs in her hometown of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and adds a wealth of detail to our understanding of the conditions under which Mitchell laboured and explored. Especially moving is the section on her relationship with Charles Mingus and the work that came out of it.
The portrait that emerges is of a brilliant creative force who has constantly felt under-appreciated while sabotaging her own commercial success by refusing to relinquish her fierce — and admirable — independence, to say nothing of her monumental ego.
O’Brien tries to humanize the image by making Mitchell’s decision to give up her baby for adoption a central thematic thread, culminating in a chapter on Mitchell’s much publicized reunion with her daughter.
But O’Brien can’t sweeten up this bitter creature.