Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
by David Yaffe
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
448 pages, $28
Rock biographies tend to be monomyths: tales of a hero’s journey.
We meet our protagonist at the humble beginning – he’s a special kid in difficult circumstances. He heeds the call to adventure, escapes his town full of losers and pulls out of there to win. There are the scrappy, thrilling early years spent in cold-water flats and vans … hungry, skinny, honing his craft, finding the scene, standing out. And then: the climax, the apex … the big break. He makes it big: the hit song, the chart-topping records, the magazine covers, the screaming crowds. Then comes the fall. Sales slump, the world tires of him. Usually, there are some drugs. Maybe a divorce or two. Sometimes some death.
Woven throughout this tale are the details: the development of a signature sound, the stories of how our favorite songs were written. The encounters with other famous names of the time, including the rundown of what other notables the star slept with and what drama ensued.
In the better books (though unfortunately, never in the VH1 visually-annotated versions) there’s often good journalism and criticism involved. We get to know our artists better, by seeing them through the art of a writer. We learn more about why we love them and their music.
You notice, of course, the consistent “he” here; these books are usually about men.
David Yaffe’s “Reckless Daughter” forms itself around this template, though it is about one of the most respected women in the history of rock music: Joni Mitchell.
Mitchell’s unimpeachable status as subject rather than object, artist rather than muse, earns her the right to be honored with a biography of this kind despite her usually incompatible gender. The raw material is all there for the taking, right down to the subject’s cranky unwillingness to cooperate in the operation. Mitchell naturally inhabits the archetype of revered, difficult artist whose life and work invite scholarly examination.
It seems that in writing her story, Yaffe had two conversations with Mitchell herself: one in 2007, and one a few months before she was hospitalized in 2015.
The latter conversation was longer, and according to Yaffe veered around subjects from miscarriage to open tunings … highlighting the truth that for her fans, Joni Mitchell's music is always, of course, about both.
The formative experience of Yaffe’s Joni Mitchell experience, presumably launching the trajectory of fandom leading to the existence of this book, was having “Blue” played for him as a teenager by an older girlfriend. That’s the structure of his relationship to her, that’s the perspective through which we’re seeing her here: an exotic, pained, and hopelessly sexy older female genius. He identifies and idolizes – she both IS him, and is other. She’s a desirable woman and precise musical craftsman – legend, genius, rock star, girl.
This is a perfectly legitimate place from which to view Joni Mitchell: her fans of all kinds can relate. She herself is so remote, and yet her music speaks the truth of our deepest selves, and “Blue” is the key to Mitchell’s musical language. To Yaffe’s credit he does devote himself, and the book, to thoroughly charting Mitchell’s journey as a musician. How one woman got from “The Circle Game” to working with Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus is not easy fodder for conjecture, and Yaffe draws the map for us over well-plotted chapters. He tries hard to tell us exactly what she did, musically, and why she did it, personally.
But as faithful as Yaffe is, as many pages as he devotes to what is generally understood (and often offered by Mitchell herself) as the formative experience of her life - her surrender of a baby into adoption when she was just starting out as a folk singer – this book still never quite stops feeling like it’s missing something. It’s as good as it can be, but it’s the perspective of … a dude. A guy. A man.
It’s not that the book isn’t dishy: The intermural Laurel Canyon shtupping is detailed. We meet Crosby and Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Leonard Cohen (Bonus: Sam Shepard! “Coyote” on Hejira is about him!) Yaffe gives equal time to Mitchell’s less famous partners, pulled from the rhythm section: jazz percussionist Don Alias, and her bassist and eventual husband, Larry Klein.
And one could say the lady-take on Joni already has been published, in Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us.” That book was criticized for spending too little time on Mitchell's genius, and too much on the emotional trajectory of her life (though Mitchell reputedly refused to talk to Weller at all during its creation.)
“Reckless Daughter” definitely details the genius – each album gets a chapter. And Yaffe covers the emotional territory too, from the childhood polio and the youthful pregnancy, all the way to the difficult eccentric present, in which Mitchell is hidden away in Malibu suffering from Morgellon’s disease and not recognizing her own songs when Prince plays them for her on a piano. (This story, offered by a member of Prince’s Revolution, is a good one).
But it still feels like there’s an understanding that’s frustratingly absent. Yaffe seems to understand Mitchell’s life and her music, and makes a good attempt at drawing the connections, but they still don’t resonate. As a piece of art, this book has nothing on “Little Green,” or even “Dog Eat Dog,” for that matter.
Did Joni achieve the ultimate boon in her hero’s journey – did she reach the goal of her quest? It seems clear that by her declared standards she did. Yet the “ending” she’s living out certainly resists classification as happy. Mitchell has been bitterly clear about what it cost her to be free, and throughout “Reckless Daughter” Yaffe seems unable to help us draw that clarity from the moments in Mitchell’s music in which she is offering it to us.
If “Reckless Daughter” is a little too “male” to satisfy as a Mitchell biography, and her portion of “Girls Like Us” was perhaps a little too “female,” and neither was ultimately blessed by Mitchell, perhaps the only truly satisfying story of Joni Mitchell’s life would be one written by Mitchell herself.
And maybe she has already written it -- across 17 albums, paintings, poetry, and a life lived in public. Maybe we’ll all just have to keep reading that in our own ways , and drawing our own pictures of her from it.
Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised freelance writer now living in California.