Sometimes I think about Joni Mitchell in her long green velvet dress, 25 years old, sitting on a squat beige cushion on national television, her cheek cradled in her palm. It is August 1969. Mitchell is squeezed between Dick Cavett and Stephen Stills in a staged campfire circle of musicians that also includes her friend and early producer David Crosby and the members of Jefferson Airplane. She is silently seething. Her smile is pleasant enough, and she puts up with Cavett’s hokey quips about Canada (“But we’re still here to the south of you, protecting your border”), but it’s her glazed-over stare that says it all: Everyone else has just dropped in straight from Woodstock, some with mud from Max Yasgur’s farm still stuck to the cuffs of their jeans.
Mitchell had been invited to perform at the festival, but her agent, David Geffen, took one look at a news report of wet sludge and wild rumpus and decided that Mitchell should stay in the city so as not to miss her television debut. Meanwhile, the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young chartered a helicopter, played at Woodstock, and returned in time to make the Cavett show and regale the audience with dispatches from the revels. As David Yaffe writes in Reckless Daughter, a new biography of Mitchell, “Joni managed to play four songs and chime in when she could about the virtues of Pierre Trudeau or share her views on astrology (she noted that Crosby, a Leo, looked like a lion), but mostly she had to sit back and hear war stories about the event she’d missed.”
And yet, despite having heard only secondhand tales about Woodstock, or perhaps because she experienced it that way, Mitchell would go on to write the most emblematic song about the festival, sitting alone in her hotel room watching the young people roll around in the grass on TV. Mitchell started performing “Woodstock” shortly after her Cavett appearance; her song was a lament, grieving for a halcyon time that was already beginning to slip away. The song became a huge hit the following year, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded their own anthemic version, but it was never meant as a celebratory ode. When Mitchell sings about being “stardust” and needing to “get ourselves back to the garden,” there’s a patina of cynicism to the whole affair; she can’t get back to the garden because she was never there. She knew that the experience could be lost, because she’d already had to sit it out and felt the lacuna. As Yaffe writes of the song, “It is purgation. It is an omen that something very, very bad will happen when the mud dries and the hippies go home. That garden they had to get back to—it was an illusion. It must have been lonely for Joni. She was the only one who could see it.”
Being the person perched outside the window can be the loneliest place in the world. And yet it is here that Mitchell, now 73, has seemed most comfortable throughout her long career; she is at peace when floating through the membranes. Her voice used to do it, at least before the cigarettes blackened her lungs. Always bobbing above, Mitchell has posited herself, as she did in “Woodstock,” as the woman lingering at the edge of the action. “I’m just living on nerves and feelings,” she sang on “People’s Parties,” from 1974’s Court and Spark, “With a weak and a lazy mind / And coming to people’s parties / Fumbling deaf, dumb, and blind.”