Joni Mitchell was a folk star in the '70s, ignored in the '80s when she
turned to jazz. Her new album, which tackles everything from Yuppie
materialism to environmental destruction, has a slick rock gloss that is
putting her back on the airwaves.
Joni Mitchell sits behind the wheel of a brand new, black Mercedes-Benz 560
convertible, and she is not happy.
She's in this car, a rental, because her own car has just been stolen.
Mitchell feels as if she's lost a pet or a best friend. The car was a
Mercedes-Benz she called "Bluebird." She bought it brand-new in 1969, with
her first royalty check from Warner Bros. Records. It was beautiful,
powerful, a survivor.
Now, she's got to contend with this new car her management company has
leased for her and which feels...not quite right. On our way to a photo
shoot for Chatelaine, she's jerking along the street until she discovers
the brakes are on. We consult the manual to find the brake release.
We do, and Mitchell gets rolling - for about 300 meters. She pulls over.
Both the left- and right-turn signals are flashing. A parking attendant
from a nearby restaurant pops up at her side. "Oh, sorry, we're not going
here," a flustered Mitchell tells him. "We're having car trouble." She
locates the signal switch. "We're back in the flow," she says, as she pulls
out. "We're back in the flow."
She could be speaking about her career. In the last decade, it's been a
series of stops and starts. Now, she hopes, with her new album, CHALK MARK
IN A RAIN STORM, she is back in the flow again.
An hour before our joyride, she had been in the Hollywood offices of her
managers, Peter Asher and Barry Krost, chain-smoking Camels and doing press
interviews. Dressed in a simple black suit by Comme des Garcons, her blond
hair defrizzed and once again draping her shoulders, the 44-year-old
Mitchell didn't look so different from when I had seen her last, in 1969.
She had one album out then and she had just settled in Laurel Canyon,
folk-rock's answer to Beverly Hills.
Her early albums - LADIES OF THE CANYON, BLUE, and FOR THE ROSES among them
- are still remembered by millions for their witty, whimsical, literate and
true- confessional songs. After a string of snappy hit singles that gave her
pop-star status in the early '70s, she embraced jazz and released the
exotic and challenging THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS. Her last jazz album, in
1979, an immersion into the music of avant-garde jazz bassist Charlie
Mingus, was a commercial and critical flop. Around that time, she visited
Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico, and her painting blossomed. (Mitchell has
since exhibited her work twice in New York and plans a show in Tokyo this
year.) In 1982, she was back to pop and rock with WILD THINGS RUN FAST.
Having married Larry Klein, a bass player 13 years her junior, Mitchell
waxed romantic. But radio wasn't listening to Joni any more. DOG EAT DOG,
in 1985, reflected her disenchantment with the American government - but
the timing was all wrong. "It was released in a rah-rah
America-is-wonderful time," she says.
For Mitchell, making albums in recent years has not equated with making
money. Which explains why she hasn't gone on costly tours to push her new
one and why she's spending days on end, here and on the road, meeting the
"The first feedback you get is with reviews," she says, "and my reviews for
years now have been incredibly disappointing."
"I've done good work. Any worker in any field needs the encouragement that
her work is good. Otherwise she gets another job. So, if I don't get some
enthusiasm somewhere soon, I'm done in this business. It's as simple as
"That sounds like something she says just prior to the release of a record
because she's expecting another barrage of criticism," says Larry Klein.
Mitchell, he says, is always coming up with new songs, and then she has to
CHALK MARK has a chance, if radio's response to the track "Snakes and
Ladders," about a love affair fueled by materialistic aspiration, is any
indication. It got heavy air play as a pre-album single release. Ed
Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records, Mitchell's label, says: "I think
we're at a time when radio's perception of Joni is that she's hip. Perhaps
it's based on the older artists selling." Last year was a great one for
On CHALK MARK, Mitchell writes and sings about her parents' courtship in
Regina during World War II, about war between nations; and as a devoted
environmentalist, she writes movingly in defense of the land. But the
album's not all gloom and doom. It has a clean rock-and-roll sheen to it
with guest musicians like Peter Gabriel and Tom Petty, and includes an
unlikely but raucous duet with Billy Idol.
The rapport she felt with Idol was the same feeling she got when
rock-and-roll was born and she was Roberta Joan Anderson, an itchy kid,
full of art and energy, in Saskatoon. (Mitchell, an only child, was born an
air-force brat in Fort Macleod, Alta.) "Rock-and-roll," she says, "was the
call of the wild. It was the thing that split a generation." She lived for
weekend dances. She also got a ukelele and a Pete Seeger instruction record
and, during her one year at The Alberta College of Art, in 1963, sang for
free in the local coffeehouse.
Her songwriting began in the mid-'60s, after she had migrated to the
Yorkville folk scene in Toronto and formed an act with folksinger Chuck
Mitchell. They married and lived in Detroit but divorced after a year as
her star rose and such artists as Judy Collins and Tom Rush began recording
her material. Mitchell moved to New York in 1967 and connected with Warner
Bros. Records. To sign her contract, she went to California and never
In Laurel Canyon, just above Sunset Boulevard, Mitchell lived with musician
Graham Nash and was, indeed, the lady of the canyon. When she became
involved with James Taylor and, later, other musicians, she fueled her
notoriety, alluding to various friends and lovers in her songs. "I'm not a
kiss-and-teller" she says. "I never named names." In the early '70s,
Rolling Stone magazine published a diagram of rock stars and their various
amours. Mitchell was connected to a long list of musicians, managers, and
media stars. She swears the list was "padded...with men I barely knew - and
Larry Klein, she says, entered her life in 1981, at just the right time.
Dating had become "nerve-wracking...I read a magazine article called THE
END OF SEX, and the thing the writer said that sticks in my mind is: if you
want repetition in a relationship, see other people. If you want infinite
variety, stay with one person."
Since getting married six years ago, Mitchell and Klein have been
homebodies at Mitchell's house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Says
Klein, "We're both compulsive creative types. We'll stay home, and Joni
will be at one side of the house painting, and I'll be working on a song.
Maybe later we'll go to a movie."
Mitchell regularly sees two close women friends - neither of them
musicians. "They're women you can entrust your intimacies to without fear
of betrayal," she says. "We meet once a week for what we call 'Ladies'
Night Out,' and now it attracts other women." She laughs, thinking back to
childhood friends. "I had that kind of sorority with women when I was a
preteen, just before the race for men occurred, or whatever that thing is
that happens between women."
We're zipping down Melrose Avenue in the rented Mercedes, whizzing by the
latest shops (WACKO) and hangouts (Johnny Rockets). I ask Mitchell if she's
aging gracefully. "I could do better," she says and breaks out in laughter.
Then, she asks, "Think I should get nipped and tucked?" I, of course, say
no. But is she seriously considering it? "We all thought about it after we
saw Cher," says Mitchell. "Usually it looks grotesque and shiny and weird,
but Cher's plastic surgery has INFLAMED the Hollywood community!" Mitchell
laughs again, enjoying her dip into show-biz gossip.
She has no regrets about not having had children. "The children of artists
are nearly always a terrible mess. They end up being emotionally deprived."
Besides, she adds, "The creative drive is a family in itself."
Arriving at the photographer's studio, Mitchell apologizes for wearing
black. "I'm in mourning for my car," she says. But she's brought a bright
chief's blanket that she can toss over her shoulders and cinch with silver
belts and a neckload of Tibetan beads.
In her dressing room, she discovers that the makeup artist and a woman from
her management company are from Canada, and the three dive happily into
home-country talk, about the weather, restaurants, Mounties and dialects.
"There's that old-country accent," says Mitchell. "It's like" - she drops
into a drawl - "Don't forget to throw the cow over the fence some hay, eh?"
Mitchell moves into the studio, and the photographer's first few rolls
capture a lackluster woman near the end of a long day of explaining
herself. But a break and quick costume adjustment later, she's a different
woman. With the chief's blanket on, she brightens. Peter Gabriel's on the
CD player, and, long day to the wind, the stops-and-starts woman begins
shuffling and swaying, smiling blissfully, as if it's a weekend night in
Saskatoon many songs ago.