Will You Take Me As I Am, Michelle Mercer, Free Press, 2009, 216 pp
The minute I heard about this book, I purchased and read it. By that you can know that I am a dedicated Joni Mitchell fan and have been since I first saw her perform in an Ann Arbor coffeehouse in 1967. There is a dearth of biographies on Joni that are based on actual interviews with the artist herself. Biographies of a living artist written only by rehashing magazine interviews make for unsatisfying reading. I would rather read the articles themselves and in fact many can be found on the official Joni Website.
Michelle Mercer has been writing about music and musicians for a decade and producing spots on NPR for almost as long. Her concentration is jazz and in 2004, she published a biography about saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter.) Wayne, who has played on some of Joni's albums, got Michelle an introduction to Joni, which led to Mercer spending hours and days with Joni, getting her own answers to her own questions.
The result is a book that feels at once based on solid Joni scholarship as well as a feeling of intimacy with this woman of heart and mind. The writing style is very much rooted in the music criticism genre though Mercer is clearly as much of a fan as I am. There are fabulous stories about the author's life as it intersected with her love of Joni's early albums.
She writes that at eighteen, "When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out. A true test of character. An absolute gauge of worth." She would proceed to play the "Blue" album. She'd watch carefully for the guy's reaction, draw him out with questions. " 'How do you like the music?' I'd ask. Meaning: can we disappear together to another time and place? A soul mate would hear the ingenuity of Joni's chords, the novelty of her song structure."
Any Joni Mitchell fan has a similar story. When I found out that my husband knew every word of the lyrics on "Blue", I was certain he was the right man. I watched my best music girl friend's future husband fall in love with her as my friend performed Joni song for about an hour in my backyard one summer evening.
The subtitle of this book is Joni Mitchell's Blue Period; the dust jacket shows an early picture of Joni with guitar and a band of transparent blue in the same hue as the "Blue" album. What you get as the reader is just enough biography to enhance Mercer's analysis of the songs on Joni's albums from "Blue" to "Hejira." If you know all those songs, word for word and chord for chord, as I do, it is fascinating. The balance between music writing and transparent Joni worship is pretty much perfect. For extra spice she adds the occasional acerbic Joni quote.
I could hear the songs as I read and for all of us who long to spend time hanging out with Joni personally, there is a feeling of doing so. That is Michelle Mercers gift. She got to get it straight from the creator and she has generously shared it with us.
(This book is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)