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Real Retirement: Life lessons we can learn from Joni Mitchell’s viral ‘Both Sides, Now’ performance

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It took Joni Mitchell more than a half-century to deliver the definitive version of “Both Sides, Now,” her signature song from 1969 — but was it ever worth the wait.

I’m talking about Mitchell’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival last weekend, a video of which has gone viral. Seated in an ornate chair, the 78-year-old folk-rock icon and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer sings the reflective tune while joined occasionally by Brandi Carlisle, Wynonna Judd and others. The lyrics are delivered intently, almost to the point that it’s crushing to listen.

The song was always a tough pill to swallow, in a sense — it’s an exercise in realizing the follies of one’s youth. But to hear it come from Mitchell at this stage in her life — and knowing that she suffered a brain aneurysm a few years ago — is to hear it fully realized. I defy you to watch the video and not shed a few tears.

I’ve followed Mitchell’s career a bit — I’m a former rock critic — but truthfully my reaction wasn’t based on any particular inside knowledge. If anything, I took a cue from a music-savvy former editor of mine, Larry Aydlette, who’s now retired (though he writes a fine newsletter). As he shared in a Facebook post, “Mitchell was a young woman when she sang of cloud illusions, of not really knowing life at all. But now she does and that hard-won experience — the knowing that comes from surviving — breaks through in her slow, measured delivery.”

It got me thinking of how other musical artists have aged into their songs. I remember seeing Frank Sinatra perform in 1993 near the end of his storied career (he died in 1998 at age 82). His voice was a shadow of its former self — and he stumbled through lyric after lyric. Some in the crowd complained after the concert. Not me: To hear him sing “My Way,” knowing he could fully proclaim the victory inherent in the song, was the quintessence of Sinatra.

The same applies to artists who can still deliver a show with youthful, rocking abandon. At 72, Bruce Springsteen is getting ready to tour again with the E Street Band, and I suspect his 2023 concerts will be his usual spit-and-fire. But I also know that Springsteen can now interpret his songs with a different sensibility. I heard it as much in his recent Broadway show. Springsteen didn’t sing so much as he reflected his way through a tune like “My Hometown,” a song that already carries a heavy burden of looking back. But when you’re well into your senior years, the burden becomes even heavier.

All of which is maybe to suggest we can take a page from these artists as we grow older. I’m 58 and not yet retired, but I know I already see the world differently from when I was, say, 28. The challenge is to not decry the fact we are no longer young, but to appreciate the wisdom and perspective we’ve gained. To age into our songs, so to speak.

And maybe to laugh a little, too. Just watch Mitchell at the end of her definitive performance. She breaks into a knowing chuckle, as if to say she finally gets the message of looking at both sides. Now.  

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