Both Sides Now
By Mark Bego
Taylor Trade. 366 pp. $24.95
Mark Bego is the reigning king of the cranked-out bio. From Cher to Whitney to Madonna to Michael Jackson, more than 40 celebrities have gotten the Bego treatment (with a few actually cooperating with him). His latest target is Joni Mitchell, who apparently couldn't duck fast enough.
"Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now" is an unauthorized biography. Bego, seemingly armed with a file folder of old press clips and a Google search, has turned the story of one of rock's most complicated icons into a slapdash, surface-rehash, 366-page mash note. Though his unabashed worship of the Canadian singer-songwriter frequently drips off the page, he perversely manages to reduce a vibrant artist to a brittle stick figure.
The first red flag comes in the prologue, where Bego recounts his brief, accidental meeting with Mitchell backstage at the 1996 Grammy Awards. Bego, who explains to the reader that he, like Mitchell, is also a painter, describes their 10-minute conversation. Nothing is revealed in Bego's recollection, other than the author's rather stunning immodesty: "I felt like Gauguin having a chat with van Gogh."
Bego comes up with little fresh material. Of the 150 quote sources listed, only a handful are credited to new interviews conducted by the author. An avid recycler, Bego largely cuts and pastes quotes from old Mitchell interviews with other writers, cobbling together a bland rendering of the artist's life and career. He covers the basic plot in cursory fashion.
Before she found fame, Mitchell survived a number of hard knocks: several childhood bouts with serious illness, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that led to her putting the child up for adoption, and an ill-fated early marriage to the aspiring folk singer Chuck Mitchell. By the time of her first recording in 1968, the ethereal blonde bore the look of countless other hippie ingenues. But beneath the surface was a restless contrarian.
From the start, she was far more than just another trilling folkie wannabe. She'd already penned several preternaturally mature classics, including "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game," songs that still resonate in the culture nearly 40 years on. Mitchell attracted an adoring audience with her early, confessional albums, but she soon morphed into a challenging and sometimes difficult musical innovator. Her astringent folk arrangements eventually gave way to progressive experimentations in jazz-rock fusion, techno and orchestral music.
Now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- an institution she openly detests -- Mitchell, at 61, has amassed a legacy worthy of a serious recounting. Unfortunately, this book isn't it. When Mitchell's quotes touch on fascinating but limited information, Bego largely fails to do the necessary additional research that would give these stories contextual and historical heft. For instance, Mitchell was stricken with polio at the age of 9. Recounting that time, she recalls that, "Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic." Most thorough biographers would have spent at least a paragraph or two amplifying that period with some hard facts. How wide-ranging was the epidemic? How long did it last? How many adults and children were affected? And how did it affect Young, Mitchell's contemporary?
Don't ask Bego. After a few perfunctory lines about her year-long rehabilitation, he's already moved on to the next highlight of Mitchell's life. His segues are often fawning ("Joni was never one to follow the rules, and being told she could not do something only made her want to do it more") and frequently sophomoric ("What is the one thing that will make a recording artist return to writing and recording love songs? Well, falling in love, of course!").
And so it relentlessly goes with the Bego formula -- pile on mostly previously published quotes from Mitchell or another source, then stitch them together with weak connective tissue. The Frankenstein's monster that emerges is a graceless, lumbering beast. Even a potentially spicy rundown of Mitchell's early romantic liaisons -- a veritable who's who of early-'70s SoCal hipsters that included David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Warren Beatty -- turns dull in Bego's telling. Throughout he pads his book with numbing song-by-song synopses of each of Mitchell's albums.
The occasional zinger thus hits with the force of a bucket of cold water. "Joni Mitchell is about as modest as Mussolini," Crosby told Rolling Stone in an early interview. Bego lets that biting remark dangle in the air with no authorial follow-up, squandering another opportunity for deeper analysis of his subject.
As the book drones to a close, Bego recalls that in the early '90s he learned that Mitchell had signed a deal to pen her autobiography. At the time, he offered his services as a ghostwriter to the publishing house but was told Mitchell planned to write the book herself. "Ten years later, her autobiography has yet to be written," the author notes. Even if Mitchell never gets around to telling her own tale, Bego does the rock legend no favors with this superficial biography.