Colin McEnroe (opinion): Joni Mitchell reminds us of the power of resurrection

2022-07-30 08:30:04 By : Ms. Mia Ge

Joni Mitchell arrives at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Many things, good and bad, happened during the past week. Some of them even seem important.

But what has stayed with me is the image of a 78-year-old woman walking across a stage, sitting in an armchair to sing, standing to play the guitar.

Because what is more important than a resurrection?

The woman born Roberta Joan Anderson, Nov. 7, 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, came back to us.

She began her life with infirmities. She had polio at age 7. It weakened her left hand, which made it hard to twist her wrist and press fingers on a guitar neck.

A fellow folkie, Eric Andersen, showed her the “open G” tuning, which produces the chord with no help from the left hand. She took this idea to a place no one else has ever gone, inventing more than 50 different ways to tune her guitar, accompanied by increasingly idiosyncratic and original forms of picking and strumming.

Her younger voice easily covered three octaves, but it wasn’t so much the F5 as how she got there. The musical term glissando comes from a word meaning “to glide.” That doesn’t adequately describe the vocal ascensions of Joni Mitchell in the 1960s and early ’70s. It was as if the notes suddenly got lighter than air.

The alternative tunings meant she composed differently. The guitarist and producer Jim Chapdelaine once said it was like “she just moves her hands around in search of something that sounds great ... and she always finds it.”

And then it turned out she had more than a touch of the poet, sometimes as if Wallace Stevens had learned to sing.

Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock

They’re either going to thaw out or freeze

Listen, strains of Benny Goodman

Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees

When she was 9, she embarked on one of the most titanic cigarette habits in human history. It would cost her an octave. You could hear it in 2000 when she collaborated with the arranger Vince Mendoza. The voice had fallen off a cliff from where it had been two years before that.

As with the weak left hand, she turned an infirmity into an advantage. She sang “Both Sides Now” a completely different way, moving off the beat and milking the phrases in a style she’d learned from her plunge into jazz that began in the late ’70s.

That’s the heartbroken version you hear in “Love, Actually,” when Emma Thompson discovers the cracks in her marriage to Alan Rickman. The movie ends with “God Only Knows,” written by the only plausible analog to Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson. Both composed imperishable pop music in styles that had never existed before, and those creations tended to sit in their minds, stored and indexed in a manner comprehensible only to them.

In 2009, Joni Mitchell began to complain of Morgellons disease, a miserable skin malady viewed with skepticism by the scientific establishment. Sufferers report crawling or stinging sensations that feel like a subcutaneous insect infestation, not to mention multi-colored “filaments” inside of or protruding from their flesh.

She stopped performing. In 2015, an aneurysm, a berry on the stem of a blood vessel in her brain, nearly killed her and left her profoundly incapacitated. It seemed unlikely that she would walk again, sing again, play again.

In 2018, she sat smiling as great musicians serenaded her with her own music in celebration of her 75th birthday.

One of the singers was Brandi Carlile, a country artist 37 years younger than Joni and blessed with a powerful, elastic voice that could reach some of the dynamics in “Down to You.”

Around that time — with no notice given to the outside world — Carlile and other musicians began having regular “Joni jams” at Mitchell’s L.A. home. We don’t know much about what happened at those, but somehow they built a bridge to Sunday, a sweltering crockpot of a day into which no elderly aneurysm patient should venture.

The act was billed as “Brandi Carlile and Friends.” The 41-year-old singer spoke for eight minutes, hiding the pea under the shell, leading the audience to believe that, as usual, there would be no Joni.

She sat and sang. She stood and played. On “Both Sides Now,” the pitch was even lower, but the phrasing was even more creative. Still present at times was that wide vibrato, more like a stalk of wheat undulating in the Saskatoon winds than like a thin wire quivering.

So it came to pass than on Monday and Tuesday, millions of people looked at their phones and wept.

They wept with joy at the resurrection. They wept from their own hidden stories. Night flights when they sipped champagne with the headphone up high. Rides on the open road, far from the undertow, far from the overload.

They wept — I wept — from all the rips and tears of the last two years and of the healing that might fan out from this croaking crocus poking up from the ground.

Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Tuesday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5. Email him at Sign up for his free newsletter at

Colin McEnroe is allergic to penicillin and hosts the daily WNPR show, The Colin McEnroe Show and co-hosts The Wheelhouse, a weekly WNPR political roundtable. He wrote weekly newspaper columns for the Hartford Courant for more than three decades.

He is the author of three books (all out of print and converted into packing materials) and one play; and his work has appeared on The New York Times op-ed page and in Mirabella, Best Life, Cosmopolitan, New Woman, Forbest FYI and Mademoiselle.

In 2018, he returned to Yale, his alma mater, to teach in the Political Science department. His books, columns, magazine articles and radio shows have won numerous prestigious awards, which he is far too modest to mention.