Joni Mitchell Ever After
Set scene: It’s the Newport Folk Festival, July, 2022. After nine years away from the spotlight and 53 years after the last time she performed at the Festival, Joni Mitchell, in a surprise appearance, is back on stage. She’s singing ‘Both Sides Now’, her signature piece, a grueling song not for the faint of heart, but she wrote it, after all, and it’s expected. She begins to sing, unsure and halting at first, as if this might not be a good idea.
She’s 78 years old now. She sits rather than stands, which compresses her chest and her diaphragm. It’ll be much harder to sing in that position and she knows it. She’s drumming her fingers on the chair arms, maybe to keep time with the music, maybe to ease her anxiety. I’m nervous just watching her.
As we age our voices change. They deepen and wobble. It’s rare that you can’t recognize an old person simply by hearing them speak. Our vocal cords lose elasticity and the smooth ride along them becomes bumpy and full of hazards. It’s especially hard for those who sing. The very act of singing abuses vocal cords. They wear out fast.
Singers who are famous understand and dread the irony: they’re accelerating the end of their careers by doing the very thing they’re compelled by their own creative juices to do. Many of them stop before their voices begin to quake and go off key, but, for some, stopping would be like cutting off a life source. Quitting is unthinkable.
I remember a middle-aged Frank Sinatra sneering at older singers, bragging that he’d know when to quit and he’d quit before he lost that easy style, that perfect pitch, whatever it is that made the magic. He didn’t quit. And he still made magic.
Glen Campbell was a victim of Alzheimer’s, and it was painful to watch as his memory diminished, making him a sad imitation of himself. But something amazing happened: He didn’t lose his voice. He remembered the tune, knew when to breathe, knew how intonation would affect his audiences. He…