Joan the Muse

It isn’t hard to make the case that Joni Mitchell is one of the finest songwriters who have ever walked the Earth.  As if that weren’t enough, she’s also one of the most inventive guitarists, and an able lyricist for another’s work, and she can paint, and she’s intelligent and beautiful.  Thank God she’s addicted to cigarettes. Without that, I might not be able to see her as human at all!  For me and for many others, Joni was influential not only as an artist, but also as a muse.

Part of the cult of Joni was originally based on her having had romances with some of the biggest names in music, with a dose of actors and writers thrown in for variety.  I’m not going to list them.  Nobody lists Mick Jagger’s lovers.  It’s unfair for her to have been subjected to that double-standard by the press.  What was important about this was that it seemed to us readers that it was impossible for any man to collaborate with her or remain in her company for long without falling in love (or lust) with her.  Joni was a siren, impossible to resist, and a sylph, impossible to hold onto permanently.

The fact that she did not do a lot of interviews, or give many concerts made her seem more goddess-like too.  How could anyone work so hard on the actual artistic product and then not seem to be very interested in plugging for sales?  Only someone above it all, we assumed.  This may not have been the truth, since people who have known her well say she was very ambitious.  However, her ambitions seemed to be channeled into better, more inventive music in an increasing variety of styles, rather than into promotional efforts.  We fans believed she cared more about making good music than about being rich and famous, unlike many music stars that seemed to take the two in equal measure.  That dedication to art for art’s sake made her seem heroic and special.

No one’s guitar playing was as hard to figure out as Joni Mitchell’s.  She only wrote a couple of songs in standard tuning.  The rest used simple alternate tunings at first, but the tunings quickly got more and more unusual as her songwriting grew more complex.  It didn’t help that the published sheet music just showed standard-tuning guitar chords which, when played, sounded nothing like the recordings.  This added to her aura of impenetrable mystery.  Only she could play her own guitar parts accurately.  I’m glad she wasn’t able to re-tune her piano, or we would have had even more indecipherable secrets to contend with.

There was one young man who managed to enter the temple of occult tunings.  His name’s Joel Bernstein.  While still a high school student, he took photos of Joni in concert and showed them to her.  She liked them and recommended him to other music stars, launching his career in photography.  Joel Bernstein became the archivist of her tunings, the only person besides Joni herself who knew them all; even for songs she had not recorded.  The rest of us guitar-playing peasants had to break set after set of strings trying to figure them out.

Joni eventually invented so many tunings she had to stop giving concerts for years because it would take too long to re-tune, and you couldn’t have 50 guitars on stage.  This problem was solved by the invention of the Roland VG guitar system.  With a VG, you can store dozens of different tunings in a computer bank and just dial in the one you need.  The Roland-type output on specially adapted guitars allows you to then finger the song without re-tuning.  The guitar will output notes in the new scale.  She bought a VG-8 in 1995 and has used it in live performance since.  Ironically, since she hadn’t been performing the old songs, Joel had to assist her in remembering some of the tunings.

Wally Breese was a super-fan, and a music archivist.  He established the early web site that eventually became  Wally was enthusiastic, upbeat and generous, and other super-fans gravitated to him.  They shared their love not only of the songs, but of the siren.  This group of adherents amassed a huge collection of articles, interviews, photos and memorabilia, and organized them for presentation to the world.  Wally died too soon, in 2000, but his web-temple of the goddess is one of the most extensive dedications to any artist in any medium.  Among the many treasures there, you can now find the tunings for the songs, contributed by Joel Bernstein.

I had only lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and I had a temp job in the warehouse of a furniture designer where my girlfriend worked.  I inventoried surplus leather skins for a sale.  One day when I wasn’t working, my girlfriend was in the showroom at closing time.  Recognizing the woman who approached as the doors were being locked, my girlfriend allowed her to enter the store and buy some of the skins I had inventoried.  She brought home a piece of paper for me that read, “Hello Michael – Joni Mitchell”.  Though I had seen her in concert and owned all her records, this small relic fit the feeling I had that Joni Mitchell was a spirit free from the imprisonment of flesh.  She was always just out of reach.


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11 responses to “Joan the Muse

  1. Cat

    I adore Joni Mitchell. As a teenage girl, that often gets me a response like, “I have no idea who that is. Do you like the Jonas Brothers?” -headdesk-

    I used to listen to her music the way I’d listen to a lot of other people’s music until, oddly enough, I saw a romantic comedy. It was Love Actually. There is one scene in which Emma Thompson (also awesome) discovers that her husband has been having a relationship with another woman. Her character found a necklace in her husband’s coat pocket and, thinking it was for her at Christmastime, chose a box shaped like the jewelry box as her first present. It wasn’t the necklace. She realised the necklace had been for the younger woman with whom her husband was cheating. Inside the box was a Joni Mitchell album. (Her character loved Joni Mitchell: “She is the woman who taught your cold, English wife how to feel.”) Not wanting to cry at Christmas in front of the children, Thompson’s character takes the album, escapes to her bedroom, and plays the later recording of “Both Sides Now” while she cries. It’s one of the most amazing, touching scenes in a movie. After that, I was always especially touched by her music. Random-ass long story, I know. Whoops.

    • I write my stories hoping to invite others to tell theirs back to me, among other things. I LOVE reading them.
      It’s a way to bridge this gulf of smoke and cyber-ness.

      • Cat

        I once read an article for – get this – my faith class (Catholic faith class, not comparative religions/etc.) that said the most powerful and deeply-connected people in the world are and always have been the storytellers. They don’t get paid the most, they may not get noticed the most, but they have always been there. It was a great article… except for the whole Jesus being the most powerful and connecting storyteller of them all. Hahaha. 🙂

  2. Tribal cultures all hold storytellers in high esteem, so I agree.
    I would rank Jesus pretty far up there as a teller. No amplification, talking from the sides of hills, splitting hairs with learned men in temple. That’s hard core!

    Also, the parables themselves are well-crafted and simple to tell but deep in meaning and worthy of long contemplation. I bet the stories work even better in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. They’ve stood the test of time, oral tradition and translation.

    • Cat

      They are so much better when you analyse the language. I really wish I spoke Greek (the majority of the Christian Scripture was in Greek, the Hebrew in, well, Hebrew). I don’t know if you own a Bible, but if you do, sometimes they’ll put in the notes at the bottom of the page the original words with alternative translations, most of which are so much better. For instance, in the story of Adam and Eve the word translated as “snake” or “serpent” can mean “snake” or “serpent” but it basically just means “beast.” So much is lost in translation. I wish I would’ve been around about 150 years post-Jesus to read what the actual Bible was. So much has been misinterpreted and ignored. Revelation was almost certainly a story about battles and Nero, not the end of the world. Jesus would be considered a hippie by today’s standards (and thus pretty sweet in my book), and he was actually a very humble guy who told simple stories to simple people. One of the greatest stories in the Bible is in the Old Testament. It’s the story of Esther, don’t know if you know of it. Anyway, as a feminist, it’s just a kick-ass story to me. She saves the entire Jewish race in a time where women were thought to be nothing. You should check it out. I’m assuming from your newest post that you’re Christian, and though Purim is a Jewish holiday, it’s still cool and in the Christian bible. Plus, Jesus was a Jew. ;D (I’m not sure if Esther’s in the Protestant Bible, but if it’s part of the Apocrypha, it’s probably somewhere near the back or excluded.)

      I swear, I’ll try to trim these comments down to a few sentences next time(s).

      • You go on as long as you like. I’m a radically inclusive Christian, and only averagely religious, since I don’t count religion as importantly as faith (they aren’t the same), and I count ethics to be above both. I will estimate someone based upon their behavior far ahead of caring about what they profess to believe. I also practice a fair amount of Buddhist meditation because it quiets my mind, and I like hatha yoga too.

        To paraphrase the nursery rhyme about the old woman in the shoe, we have so many Bibles, we don’t know what to do. One of us living here has an MA in Theology. Yes. Esther’s in all Bibles, and a wonderful story. She was also the Morning Star of Psalm 22. (Esther sounds better than Myrtle or Hadassah, two of her name’s possible origins.) I also especially love Job and Ruth from the OT. Even Noah, because it’s such a kinetic narrative.

        • Cat

          Hahaha. Bible collectors, eh? I have one: The New American Standard Catholic Somethingorother Bible. I use it for school, but I’m also reading it on my own, the whole thing. There is so much richness in it that goes unnoticed. People are so busy looking for hidden meanings that they miss the refreshing simplicity of the stories. They also miss a lot of things about their own religion, which I often find distressing.

          I am not religious in the slightest. I just can’t find one that suits me. But I like to think I am spiritual. I believe in kindred souls and spirits, human connections, something beyond, inner peace. I’m just a hippie without a religious organisation, perhaps. Hehe.

  3. Like I said, I don’t care what talk you talk. I only care if you walk the walk. You are obviously a seeker, and you treat people with kindness (which is ethical). Therefore I dub thee EthiCat.

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    • (I’m not sure this person even read the article, but his/her site has good basic guitar tutorials. This article was also reprinted on, so it might be some sort of referral traffic.)

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