(14) A Letter to Vio


The letter came from papers tucked inside a sketch book in the upstairs library. It was addressing to Violet but now landed on the hands of Mrs. Bento, which are slightly rough, and smell faintly of laundry detergent.

Vio my dearest,

There are so many aspects of Joni Mitchell that I can introduce you to I hardly know where to begin. Let's put it this way, in order to aptly understand and appreciate her work, you cannot separate her music from words, like flesh from skin. To me, first she has the gift of a born musician, then writer, singer, and painter. Of course she would disagree. She always considers herself a painter derailed by circumstance. But mind you, I also like her paintings. She has produced a large body of art over the years, most of them figurative, some abstracts and impressionistic, and a lot of landscapes and places. This oil painting of Miles Davis was painted in 1991, shortly after he died. It is categorized under "Neo-Classicism". I think, just like her music, she dislikes her paintings to be classified.

A painter derailed by circumstance. She had to make music as a living. To her I guess, music is more emotional and abstract, her way to unleash sorrow and insecurity. Painting on the other hand, is more rational and palpable, it soothes her wounds, provides a place where she can find beauty and tranquility. We all think her music and writings are superior than her paintings, even though she thinks otherwise. She's genuinely born with music in her blood. But painting is what she consciously pursues, and an art form she doesn't take on aggressively. Distancing herself from the marvelous art world and its fierce competition she can paint with total freedom, and without judgement. The fact is, she doesn't use painting as a creative front. Music is.

In the realm of music, she is that wild thing runs fast, an artist who refuses branding by success. A restless soul keeps searching and evolving…through making music, producing extraordinary composition ahead of her time.

There's a song in one of her albums that creates endless debate and pros and cons. I have read a number of reviews and articles about this particular song 'Paprika Plains'. A handful of good and insightful articles about this work can be found, the rest are just dealing with background information. Instead of repeating what others said, I'll tell you what I think about this piece.

Paprika Plains stands alone as a side-long, 16-minute song on the double album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter produced in 1977. Strangely, like a lot of old fans of Joni's, it never came into my attention until now - until I chew on her music oeuvre repeatedly, one by one.

I have to admit when I listened to Paprika Plains in 1977, my first reaction was: confusing. I didn't and couldn't follow. I paid very little attention to the words, and had very little appreciation of the innovative three-verse structure of the song and music. In fact, I didn't even know it was partly about Joni's reminiscence over her childhood on the Canadian Prairies, and her later arrival in the US popular music scene, befriending other musicians like Miles Davies and Bob Dylan. In short, like deaf and blind I got very little, and saw nothing. But there was a moment I did wonder about the midway development of the song - which transits gradually into the orchestral music section. It was strange and did not fit in any music genre. Back then, like many of her fans I didn't have the patience and time, and worst of all, too lazy to find out the backstory and creative process behind Paprika Plains.

Oh, the phone rings. Let me quit for just a second.