Joni Mitchell on New York Magazine: Is The Photo Disturbing?

I've seen Joni Mitchell from both sides now. I sort of wish I hadn't.

Posted Feb 12, 2015

I just saw the cover of NEW YORK magazine and for maybe the first time in my life, I'm glad not to be Joni Mitchell.

I used to look at her self-portrait on the cover of the album “Clouds” which was released in 1969 and, at age 12, both longed to be just like her while knowing—even at that young age—that I would never be the beautiful blonde with the enigmatic expression and soulful eyes, let alone be the artist who could paint such a picture and write songs as brilliant as “Both Sides Now” and “Tin Angel.”

I felt a smug sense of possession about “Tin Angel” because it ends with “In a Bleecker Street café/I found someone to love today” and, as a New York kid who kicked around the city, I’d been in Bleecker Street cafes. So what if I was there with my parents? I’d still been there and so had Joni Mitchell.

But the Joni Mitchell on the cover of the latest edition (Feb 9-22 2015) of New York Magazine is unnerving; every aspect of the picture and long interview make me wish I had preserved my childish notions and innocent reverence for her.

I’m sure she wouldn’t care; she’s the artist and I’m one of the consumers of her work. But it raised a surprising number of emotions for me—and for a number of women and men my age.


For one thing, Mitchell looks as if she is trying to recreate—rather than play with, revise or revisit (as Stevie Nicks does) her youth—and it makes me wince.

Her expression seems pained; she appears to have no hips or substance to her (she's proud of having small hips and high cheekbones, she indicates in the interview, and says that Taylor Swift resemble her in this way but goes on to say that SHE HAS NEVER HEARD TAYLOR SWIFT'S music, which would be like Robert DeNiro saying he’d never seen a glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe). Mitchell more or less looks like the Ghost of Xmas Yet To Come except she’s wearing white.

As self-indulgent and unflattering as the photograph is, the interview is worse. She says, for example, "When I see black men sitting, I have a tendency to go—like I nod like I'm a brother. I really feel an affinity for because I have experienced being a black guy on several occasions" (pg 94).

Mitchell says this because she once dressed as a black man to appear at a Hollywood costume party and then wore the outfit to a photo shoot. No kidding.

So why do I care?

I hope to see my idols looking and sounding as if they are enjoying themselves as they reach the season of harvest (not so very far away from any of us). That's what I long for but very rarely see. That's why I'm always glad to hear about Gloria Steinem and Betty White, or Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon.

It’s not that I expect the lives of these luminaries to be perfect, but I do hope to learn that life, well lived, productively lived, can be good. I honestly hope to learn that there’s a way not to be bitter: to have a sense of humor, a sense of joy, and a sense of generosity.

And from women artists especially I hope to learn that you don't need to put yourself through the wringer or under the knife, with your head in the oven or your neck in the noose—and that you can applaud and appreciate those who come after you (never heard any of Taylor Swift's music—really?)

Obviously the only connection I can make is a personal one: I’m talking about a response to the public presentation of Joni Mitchell’s very public self. This isn't about "Oh, does she still look like she did in her Vogue shoot 40 years ago?" This is about "How and why is one of the most creative minds of the ‘Sixties, a woman who mirrored and shaped our inner lives, making these choices about how to present herself?"

Nobody knows how to grow old; Mick Jagger, who is the same age as Joni Mitchell, isn't exactly a gorgeous piece of human flesh, but at least he seems to enjoy himself (even if his much younger ex-girlfriend didn't). Emmylou Harris, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner: These are the women I hope to hear from in future issues of New York Magazine.

I've seen Joni Mitchell from both sides now. I sort of wish I hadn't.

mitchell's self-portrait from "clouds" 1969
mitchell's self-portrait from "clouds" 1969