Joni Mitchell was the Taylor Swift of her day. As you resist the urge to vomit in your mouth, let me explain. Both explored femininity and expectations of women in music in ways that were boundary-pushing for their times. Both took on radical stylistic changes, with Swift jumping from country to pop to folk while Mitchell went from folk to pop to jazz. Both were tall, lanky blondes with guitars who could be incisive and cutting with a single line, or goofy and silly in equal measure.
But for the purposes of this article, here’s the most important connector: both loved to sing about their exes, especially if they were famous. Did anything in Mitchell’s day have the gossip power of ‘Dear John’ or ‘All Too Well’? Probably not, but she was more than happy to let her romantic life influence her work in similar ways.
The most famous example is Mitchell’s relationship with Graham Nash, which inspired songs like ‘My Old Man’ and ‘Willy’. Upon their breakup, Mitchell ascended to superstar status and briefly played the illustrious field of Laurel Canyon bachelors. None were apparently more disappointing than Jackson Browne, who stood up Mitchell for a date on more than one occasion. Mitchell got the last laugh, however, when she crafted the gorgeous ‘Car on a Hill’ based on one of these lonely nights.
Even Mitchell’s non-romantic acquaintances have inspired some great music. Her friendship with fellow Canadian Neil Young led her to write an answer song to Young’s ode to lost youth, ‘Sugar Mountain’. Instead of buying into the idea that life ends once you become an adult, Mitchell wrote a song for the “new dreams, maybe better dreams” that come as you age on ‘The Circle Game’. Just as well, Mitchell turned the anxieties spewed by her friend and label boss, David Geffen, into the escapist anthem ‘Free Man in Paris’. Mitchell had a real talent for helping her friends get through tough times.
One of Mitchell’s lesser-known compositions dedicated to one of her famous ex-flames is ‘See You Sometime’, the gorgeous piano ballad that appears on 1972’s For the Roses. If you need a hint, think about what album from a California-based singer-songwriter in the early ’70s might be referenced by the lines “pack your suspenders” and “when the hopes get so slim”. That would be James Taylor, Mud Slide Slim himself.
“I don’t want business on the street regarding us,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1988 when asked if she would be writing songs about her husband, Larry Klein. “I’m very happily married. With my early songs there was so much gossip concerning it! I wrote a song for James Taylor that mentioned his suspenders. And then on his next album he went and wore his bloody suspenders on the cover! Well, then the cat was completely out of the bag”.
The only problem here is that ‘See You Sometime’ came out a year after Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, which makes it more likely that Mitchell was referencing the album rather than the other way around. Either that or Mitchell wrote and sang the song to Taylor the year before and he decided to lean into it on his next album cover. In any case, their relationship came to an end when Taylor rather unceremoniously dumped Mitchell in favour of Carly Simon.