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FUV Essentials: Rita Houston on Joni Mitchell

Rita Houston with Joni Mitchell (photo courtesy of Rita Houston, taken at "CBS This Morning" in January 1996)

Rita Houston with Joni Mitchell (photo courtesy of Rita Houston, taken at "CBS This Morning" in January 1996)


Writing about Joni Mitchell involves having to think about this world without her in it. Sure, she hasn’t written a new song or played a show in years, and certainly hasn’t had a positive thing to say about her life in the music industry. But still, she set the bar. She is the bar.

She describes herself as a painter derailed by circumstance. Imagine that. Has there ever been any moment cooler than Joni in "The Last Waltz," singing "Coyote" with her cigarettes tucked into her skirt? As a woman in the music industry, I find the use of the label "female" a curious thing: Bonnie Raitt as "a great female guitarist," Serena Wiliams as "a top female athlete," Joni Mitchell as "an influential female songwriter." Why do that? I believe Joni has wondered about that too. What does she need to do to simply be a "great songwriter?"

By her debut album she’d already written "Both Sides Now," The Circle Game," and "Urge for Going," songs that have stood the test of time and are deeply ingrained in American culture. And ever since those days she's been a huge influence on artists, male and female. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Prince to Judy Collins to James Blake to Hole and sampled by many too.

It is the work of artists to describe the human condition. Joni overcame adversity in her life, struggling with polio as a child, and living in remote and lonely places. She's credited, as much as any man, with unlocking confessional truth in songwriting, sharing her personal pain in a way that people could relate to universally. She's always had the words to describe deep emotions, the feelings that leave all of us non-poets speechless. How many of us have written Joni lyrics in a card to a lover or friend?

"I could drink a case of you."

I first got into Joni in college in the late '70s—which sounds like a cliché. Who didn’t have worn out copies of Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and of course Blue in their vinyl collections? How many baby girls have been named Amelia? I've been lucky enough to meet Joni twice. The first time was at the legendary (and infamous) Fez show in November 1995. I brought her a copy of what was my favorite CD at the time, the Cesaria Evora debut.

The second time was at a taping of a Joni segment at "CBS This Morning" in January 1996—a whole hour of conversation and performance with Joni. I even got to ask a question on TV from the audience (around the 11:17 mark in the video). After the taping we got to go backstage and say hi and this picture, above, was snapped.

Imagine this world without Joni songs, imagine this world without Joni. I can’t. I just can’t.