This is the effect that listening to Joni Mitchell has on me these days: uncontrollable tears. An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy—if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty. It’s not a very civilized emotion. I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or on an iPod, walking the streets. Too risky. I can never guarantee that I’m going to be able to get through the song without being made transparent—to anybody and everything, to the whole world. A mortifying sense of porousness. Although it’s comforting to learn that the feeling I have listening to these songs is the same feeling the artist had while creating them: “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” That’s Mitchell, speaking of the fruitful years between Ginsberg at the abbey and 1971, when her classic album “Blue” was released.


But I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely. And I wonder whether it is because I am such a perfect fool about music that the paradigm shift in my ability to listen to Joni Mitchell became possible. Maybe a certain kind of ignorance was the condition. Into the pure nothingness of my non-knowledge something sublime (an event?) beyond (beneath?) consciousness was able to occur.


With Joni, it was all so easy. In a sense, it took no time. Instantaneous. Involving no progressive change but, instead, a leap of faith. A sudden, unexpected attunement. Or a retuning from nothing, or from a negative, into something soaring and positive and sublime. It will perhaps insult sincerely religious people that I should compare something rare and precious, the “leap of faith,” to something as banal as realizing that “Blue,” by Joni Mitchell, is a great album, but to a person like me, who has never known God (who has only read and written a lot of words about other people who have known God), the structure of the sensation, if not the content, seems to be unavoidably related.


Put simply: you need to lower your defenses.


Her music, her life, has always been about discontinuity. The inconsistency of identity, of personality. I should have had faith. We were always going to find each other.

From: Some Notes on Attunement, by Zadie Smith

listening while reading: Joni Mitchell’s Blue