Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
by David Yaffe (Sarah Crichton, $28)
Joni Mitchell always had a preternatural ability to make listeners believe she was making a soul-level connection with each of them, said Jack Hamilton in The Atlantic. In reality, “she wasn’t like them: She was a genius.” Author David Yaffe is comfortable with that divide, which is why his new biography easily ranks as “the best full-length treatment of Mitchell yet published.” Yaffe tells Mitchell’s life story, but he doesn’t depend on it to explain the songs she wrote. Instead, the Syracuse University professor listened, “closely and generously,” both to Mitchell’s music and to what she chose to share in interviews. In Reckless Daughter, he presents a complete portrait of a singular mind, letting us watch as that mind “dances from humor to introspection to prickliness to profundity.”
Mitchell isn’t always likable here, said Sibbie O’Sullivan in The Washington Post.
But life has tested her. Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 Alberta, Canada, she contracted polio at 10 and spent months in a polio colony before learning to walk again. At 21, she gave birth to a daughter and put her up for adoption, then met and married American folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Talking to Yaffe about her first husband and many others in her long string of ex-lovers, Mitchell is often “crass and vindictive.” But these men—Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, David Crosby, and Sam Shepard among them—served alternately as muses or nemeses, as Yaffe illustrates when he dives into the music.
Though Yaffe proves “a brilliant analyst of how Mitchell’s songs are made,” said Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, “he also seems to let Mitchell get inside his head.” In 2007, he wrote a New York Times profile of the star that she disliked, and after struggling to regain her trust, he’s produced a book that sometimes sounds needy. Of course, that’s how people have always been around Mitchell. From the beginning, her gift was “so enormous that it remade the social space around her.” Now 73, and having suffered a near-fatal aneurysm in 2015, she’s not likely to return to serious performing or recording. But who are mere mortals to say? “Her essence is noncompliance.” ■