LOS ANGELES, CA - 1970: Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell plays her guitar at her home circa 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)
On Radio

Spare me the Great Canadian Warbler

Radio 4 celebrates the limited talents of Joni Mitchell

Some spots will remain forever blind, however hard we try. Francis Bacon couldn’t draw, and people who can’t draw are bound to find painting a bit awkward. Henry James was a thumping bore, and 2001: A Space Odyssey takes up two hours that might be spent more profitably peeling turnips.

Which brings us to the Great Canadian Warbler. Has there ever been such an empty-headed writer of songs as Joni Mitchell? And hark! the way she presents herself as an artist. As Lorenz Hart, a wordsmith several divisions higher, had it: “Look at yourself — if you had a sense of humour, you would laugh to beat the band.”

Clerk of the court, kindly read out the charges: The assumption of good taste. The fog of self-admiration. The voice, whether swooping, soaring, fluting or trilling, which says “I’m good, me”. Lyrics plundered from an adolescent’s journal. Muddy arrangements. Suffocating pretentiousness. Weekend daubs passed off as painting.

So it was no surprise that Radio 4 launched a Mitchell offensive to mark her eightieth birthday, and the first half hour of Legend — the Joni Mitchell Story will certainly have offended those who think words have meanings.

It was taken on trust that the nightingale of the prairies is an artist of unimpeachable pedigree. And this was only the first programme of five! That’s three whole hours to say what could be dealt with in the time it takes to boil an egg.

Mitchell has known suffering (polio in childhood), loss (a baby given up for adoption), and tragedy (a brain aneurism). She deserves our sympathy. But all the huffing and puffing by friends and supporters cannot disguise the fact that her talent makes an insubstantial pageant.

Writers on pop music have usually had Mitchell’s back because they imagine she elevates the trivial into something significant, which reflects favourably upon them

Presented in a solemn manner, Legend was a casserole of clichés, including the breathless publicity material. “The life behind the legend”, we were promised. “The story of an extraordinary life”. “A singular artist”. “The genius” of her lyrics. Her “incredible talent” as guitarist.

There was a “journey”, of course. In fact there were quite a few, with companions who gushed like geysers. “It felt like she was conjuring spirits,” said a chap who had seen her surprise appearance at a festival in Newport, Rhode Island, last year. “Joni would sit back with a glass of pinot grigio,” the po-faced presenter assured us of those latter-day salons chez Mitchell, as if she was there, pouring the wine and slicing the cheese. She also pronounced Marie Curie, the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in two sciences, as “Mary Coorie”.

Writers on pop music (collective noun: a confusion) have usually had Mitchell’s back because they imagine she elevates the trivial into something significant, which reflects favourably upon them. Her fellow songwriters share that view, and Graham Nash tipped up to underline it. She wrote “A Case of You”, one of her dreariest songs, for Nashy of Salford, who speaks as Albert Tatlock might have done if he had bought a council house in Laurel Canyon. A “case” of you? Heavens, two sips of Mitchell’s home brew are quite sufficient to knock out an elephant.

Richard Wagner used to be another blind spot. The moment of revelation came with Furtwängler’s recording of Tristan und Isolde, enhanced by a superb interval talk Michael Tanner gave 32 years ago during a performance of Parsifal.

The Master’s final opera went out again on Radio 3 in a recording made at Bayreuth last summer. Sadly, this year’s expert, one Chris Walton, is no Tanner. He kicked off by saying Parsifal was a drama of “second chances”, which is what the games master at St Custard’s might say to his Under 11s before a return fixture at St Cake’s.

Parsifal, the fool “made wise by pity”, was dubbed “a mummy’s boy”, and the Knights of the Grail written off as “eejits”. So that’s what this sacred music drama is all about! Why didn’t they just pave Paradise, and put up a parking lot?

When he took off his silly hat and put away the penny whistle, Walton spoke intelligently about the “almost intolerable beauty” (Bryan Magee) of this incomparable opera. It contained, he admitted, “some darn good music”. You can raise that bar a little higher if you like, Mr Walton.

But the fact he felt obliged to talk down to listeners, most of whom will have been familiar with Wagner’s life and work, was another example of how Radio 3 patronises its audience. Best to follow Wagner’s advice. “Make it new,” he said. Not “make it groovy”.

It’s an odd world where the fruits of genius are mocked by debunkers, while the tyres of popular culture are inflated beyond the pressure they can possibly bear. As identity increasingly trumps talent it’s going to get a lot worse. Ignore the relativists. Wagner really was a colossus, and Parsifal really is better than The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Though Court and Spark isn’t bad.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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