Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles tour

Recently two of the artists I grew up listening to—Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell—were feted with Kennedy Center honors. The music of both filled the house when I was growing up, though aside from having careers overlapping in time and both being of an era and an age, the two women could not really be more different. (They both did cover “Twitsted” within a year of each other, though!)

Bette is, of course, a flamboyant, fiery, outspoken redhead who loves to perform. An old-fashioned cabaret singer transported somehow into our era, Bette is bold, brassy, and (in her own words) a broad in basically every sense of the word. Starting from the New York Continental Baths with Barry Manilow, Bette has done stage shows, films, albums, and is currently PO’ing right-wingers on social media.

Definitely not afraid of performing!

Joni is a quiet (from a publicity standpoint), introspective singer-songwriter who always seemed to rather resent the performing side of her profession, and has said many times she considers herself more of a painter than a vocalist. Her albums explore multiple genres, but I think can be summed up as “intimate” in way that Bette rarely is. Not that Bette can’t be passionate and emotional; it’s the difference between extrovert and introvert; Dionysian and Apollonian.

It was in reading interviews with Mitchell, both recent and older ones, that got me thinking about artists, their muse, their preferences, and their disappointments. Because as I said above, despite all her fame and received plaudits as a singer-songwriter, she doesn’t consider that her main vocation; she thinks of herself as a painter. And I think this is captured best by a quote captured on a live recording back in 1974:

A painter does a painting, and he paints it and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint us Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.

Joni Mitchell

Well, I had to include it!

You’d think a woman as talented, as lauded, as universally acclaimed as Joni Mitchell would be thrilled to have millions of people familiar with her work, so much so they call out for it at concerts. But no; she wants to hang it on the wall and move on. That’s how her muse speaks to her.

And this isn’t all that unusual, if you read a lot of artist biographies or the introductions to stories or liner notes or watch interviews. You can often hear these awesome artists pining for the things they can’t do, even while producing some amazing stuff. Lennon and McCartney both chafed at being Beatles after 4 or 5 years, and yet produced an absolutely astonishing output of material. They wanted to be poets, or movie auteurs, or artists. You watch them clicking together in Peter Jackson’s Get Back, even when they’re tired of each other and Lennon is strung out on heroin and you think, “How can they not want to do that forever?” But they don’t.

In baseball there’s a famously weird (and almost certainly autistic) pitcher named Zack Greinke. He’s astonishingly good, and probably will end up in the Hall of Fame. But if you watch him in interviews and in games, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the fact that he’s one of the best pitchers of the last 20 years; he’s said, repeatedly, he wants to be a position player, a shortstop. He wants to hit in the lineup regularly. But they won’t let him, I suspect, simply because he’s too good (and valuable) a pitcher. To be honest, I feel sad for him. The man will end up historically good doing something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy.

The man in question

But I have to say I disagree with Mitchell’s assessment, and think she made it because at heart she’s a painter, and not a singer. Her disappointment isn’t that she has to keep repainting Starry Night; it’s that she doesn’t get to paint and be recognized for it, like poor Zack Greinke, and I can understand that.

Because when it comes to live performance, every night is different. The audience is different. The room is different. The vibe is different. You feel different. If performing is part of your muse—as it clearly is for Midler but isn’t for Mitchell—then you betcha you wanna paint Starry Night every night. How many times did Lynyrd Skynyrd play “Free Bird”? I’m sure they got tired of sometimes; of course they did. But I bet most nights, it really juiced them. If you watch Alex Leifson and Geddy Lee of Rush in the documentary Time Stand Still, you can see that performing absolutely lights them up. Why else would Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still be on the road 60 years later playing “Satisfaction”? God knows they don’t need the money!

And even in the visual arts Mitchell isn’t quite on the money. Famously, Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai made Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. How many paintings did Claude Monet do of the Rouen cathedral in the late 19th Century? Or Cezanne of Mont Ventoux?

Fuji-sama in one of her aspects

The muse take you were it takes you. For Joni, hers is a one-and-done kind of thing, and that works for her. I have no issue with that at all; she’s produced an incredible body of work. But for others, the answer is different, and I think it’s important we accept that for different artists, different rules obtain.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll listen to Court and Spark again. Because whether she ever plays it again herself, I can’t get enough. God bless you, Joni.