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RECKLESS DAUGHTER:  A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
By David Yaffe  Illustrated. 420 pp. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

Reading “Reckless Daughter,” David Yaffe’s biography of Joni Mitchell, I was surprised to discover how many of her songs I remember, more or less in their entirety. What a tribute, it seems, that her evocative character sketches and laments for doomed love — melodically unpredictable, literary, convoluted and mostly lacking catchy pop refrains — should have remained so familiar, and that they should still strike us as so beautiful, smart and inventive.

Her music has aged well, partly because of the risks she’s taken and the depths she’s plumbed. She reminds us of the fact that the women who most passionately love and need men are, by necessity, the most acute and dispassionate observers of male behavior and of the ways in which men — rattling on, as if to themselves — reveal themselves to women. Her observational skills enable her to assume the personae — to channel the voices — of the opposite sex. Simultaneously boasting and complaining about the burden of power, a record producer celebrates a respite, as a “Free Man in Paris,” from the weight of his own importance. In “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” an embittered, lonely cynic projects his romantic disillusion onto his friend, mocking her taste for “pretty men” when he is the one who will marry “a figure skater,” a union sealed with the purchase of a dishwasher and a coffee pot.

Ruing the ease with which success can wreck an artist’s pleasure in making art, “For Free” is yet another chapter in Mitchell’s continuing report from the war between two irreconcilable desires: the need for independence and the longing for security. Inspired by her romance with Leonard Cohen, “A Case of You” is as rich with detail as a short story — a highly compressed narrative about a woman who will never get over the lover who describes (or masks) his feelings for her by paraphrasing Rilke and quoting Shakespeare. Among the things that make the song so unusual are that it begins with a quick, brainy argument that the woman wins, and it includes an admission that her memories of the lover mostly affect her writing. (“Part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time.”) Mitchell sings it movingly, accompanied by the spare, insistent zither, but let me also recommend Prince’s wrenching cover, a full-out emotional rendition that, by contrast, makes us aware of Mitchell’s wry, knowing reserve.

“Reckless Daughter” takes us from the Canadian town — Fort Macleod, Alberta — where Roberta Joan Anderson, born into a conventional household in 1943, loved nature and hated school. Childhood polio damaged her left hand, a handicap that would later inspire her to use the open guitar tunings that became her trademark. Her family moved to Saskatoon, and she attended art school in Calgary, where she performed in folk clubs, and where she became pregnant after a brief affair. She married a singer, Chuck Mitchell, who agreed that she should surrender her infant daughter for adoption, a decision that would haunt her. Still in her 20s, she outgrew Mitchell after their move to Manhattan, where she played in downtown clubs and had her first major hit when Judy Collins recorded her song “Both Sides, Now.” Professional and artistic triumphs followed, as did love affairs with, among others, Cohen, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Sam Shepard, Jackson Browne and Jaco Pastorius.


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