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Saturday, February 07, 2009

"For him, art was like sex on the kitchen table."

My friend Phil was the one who introduced me to Joni Mitchell back in college, and there's some live recording where she talks about being a singer vs. an artist, and how no one ever said to van Gogh, "Paint A Starry Night again." I haven't heard it in ages, but every time I see something related to Joni, I think of him, so when I read this quote, I wanted to pass it on. The idea of art being that exciting, all-consuming, needy, something you are so compelled to create you can't stop to find a more suitable time or place, is something I'd love to experience. Lately writing is coming so slowly, so agonizingly; I don't know if I need to take more long walks or lay off the Internet/iPhone or what, but that image struck me.

In the telephone interview, Ms. Mitchell recalled always having had a love for art. She remembers seeing her first Picassos and Matisses at the house of Frederick S. Mendel, a classmate's grandfather, who in 1964 started the museum where her show is now running. Her formal art training lasted only one year, at an art school in Calgary, Alberta, in the early 1960's.

''Turbulent Indigo,'' one of the 20 album covers she has painted over the last 32 years, graces the exhibition's poster and the cover of its catalog. A self-portrait in blue tones, it shows Ms. Mitchell wearing a bandage over her right ear in a reference to van Gogh's 1889 self-portrait. Ms. Mitchell painted it in 1995, a period when she felt that the music industry was ignoring her.

''Of all the painters I felt most kindred to, I felt most touched by van Gogh,'' she said. ''Van Gogh was impulsive. For him, art was like sex on the kitchen table."

Quote from

"For Joni Mitchell, Artist, Singing Was Not Enough," New York Times, August 22, 2000, as quoted in Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period by Michelle Mercer, who has more info on her site) (I found a galley at Housing Works and have been perusing it), about which says:

But the real strength of the book is Mercer's expansive examination of Joni's autobiographical work. Anyone who's applied the "confessional songwriter" tag to Joni Mitchell might think differently after Mercer's careful study of the history of literary confessionalism and personal songwriting. Mercer argues persuasively that Joni's work departs from the confessional model: "She doesn't strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself."

The story of Joni's childhood has been often told, but Mercer brings it new meaning by focusing on its prairie setting. With this focus, Mercer illuminates in great clarity and detail the "sound of open spaces" that have been so vaguely referred to in descriptions of Joni's music in the past. Along the way Mercer makes a sweeping examination of the connection between music and landscape, considering everything from Beethoven symphonies to Neil Young's prairie songs. (This chapter, "Eyes On The Land And The Sky," includes a priceless quote from Joni in which she inventively links the sound of Jamaican tree frogs to the rhythm of reggae.)

For all the book's interview material, Mercer is not afraid to argue with Joni. She takes issue with Joni's devaluing of her autobiographical period, and more controversially takes on some of Joni's most sacred self-mythology. For example, the author doesn't buy that her bout with childhood polio was the originating moment of her artistry: "Sometimes artists and their fans try too hard to come up with a source for unusual creativity, even resorting to pathologizing it. A gift for art may be deepened or otherwise influenced by tragedy, but it doesn't necessarily have to be born of it."

Cover of Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period

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