Joni Mitchell Among Alien Artist Spies

In Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell,” Katherine Monk examines the paradox of Mitchell’s prominent place “at the very top of the pop culture wave as the ultimate California girl—a small irony for a prairie kid from Canada.” Monk traces the biographical details of her subject while weaving in psychological and philosophical ideas from a wide array of sources. It’s close to an ‘anything goes’ approach to biography.

Mitchell’s girlhood desire to be one of the boys, trying to dress like Roy Rogers in a misguided attempt to fit in, gives way to mention of Judith Butler’s 1990 book “Gender Trouble.” Mitchell’s collaboration with jazz great Charles Mingus is followed up by an explanation of Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Hey, why not? The way that Monk writes freely about topics that aren’t directly linked to the plain facts of Mitchell’s biography (Jacques Lacan, Nietzsche, and Camille Paglia are among the thinkers name-checked along the way) at first seems tangential, but it comes to be one of the best aspects of the book. What better way to explore the life and influence of spirited artists like Mitchell than to go wherever it takes you?

It takes her to some surprising places, too, like a short section of the book called “Aliens” in the chapter Facing Down the Grim Reaper. Monk brings up the “tad insane,” “late-night radio” theory that artists are alien spies from other planets. Neil Young and Charles Mingus make appearances in the same chapter, while Beethoven and Da Vinci are referenced as popular suspects on the lists of alien conspiracy theorists. In the free-wheeling spirit of Monk’s book, somehow it all fits together.

"Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell." Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2013.