Interview with David Yaffe

Day 6 with Brent Bambury

by Brent Bambury
CBC Radio
October 27, 2017

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David Yaffe: It has such a depth to the beauty. It has philosophy in it. It has cinema in it. It has painting in it. You know, it has an originality in the harmonic movement of it. It has an intimacy that nobody else has. It has so much, you know. There's so much soul in it. There's no guile. She never wants you to like her. She wants to be real. She's giving us something real.

Interviewer: That is Joni Mitchel biographer, David Yaffe, on the beauty, complexity, and honesty of her music.

David Yaffe: She's 25 years old. She's young, but she's also a philosopher. It's incredible. It's "The Circle Game." It's so deep, that song, and she was a child when she wrote it. Incredible. All that perspective. Honestly, as I age, that song means more to me every year. That song makes me cry in a way that it didn't make me cry when I was young.

Interviewer: David and I talked about Joni Mitchel and her music for a long time, and you can hear how passionate he is about her work. That love and passion is packed into Yaffe's new book, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, which arrived in stores this month. Yaffe spent hours with Mitchell and talked to more than 60 of the people closest to her. It's a must read for Joni Mitchell fans, and that includes me. David Yaffe, good morning. Welcome to Day Six.

David Yaffe: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Interviewer: In this book, you state a theory called the law of stardom, which basically says that stardom doesn't last longer than three years. If that's so, how do you explain Joni Mitchell?

David Yaffe: Because she got more than one three-year term.

Interviewer: You divide it up into three-year terms?

David Yaffe: Well, this comes from an article by Louis Menand in the New Yorker called the Iron Law of Stardom, and he gave the example of the Beatles. The Beatles got a three-year term as lovable mop tops and then another three-year term as hippie artistes.

Interviewer: Studio geniuses.

David Yaffe: Studio geniuses, whatever. So, Joni gets a term as the ingénue of Laurel Canyon and then she gets another three-year term as the chronicler of complicated chords and sophisticated love, and then when she tried to go through a third term that's when her public started to dessert her.

Interviewer: Those are the jazz years, and lots of people think that those were spectacular times for her, that she was taking risks.

David Yaffe: Myself among them. Myself among them, of course. I revere all of that.

Interviewer: But it is a very complicated trajectory. It's a long time in the public eye. You met her. You spent time with her. You got to know her. What did you learn from observing her so closely?

David Yaffe: Oh my God, everything from understanding how it might take her several hours to talk about something that then she could put into a four-minute song and understanding the process of compression and decompression, of what came out explicitly and what's there implicitly.

The first time I spent time with her it was a 12-hour event and when it was over and I had been up all night, I was on a plane and I was listening to Hejira, and I could hear her speaking voice and her singing voice. I could actually hear the cadences of Saskatchewan in the singing voice, and I felt like she was talking to me. Some of the songs are kind of conversational like "Song for Sharon" is kind of a conversational song and you feel like you're in conversation with her. It's so intimate, it's so personal and it's so vivid.

It's so much like life and yet it's also so exalted and sublime and deeply beautiful.

Interviewer: But you're comparing the music that you listen to to the conversation that you had. The music is the distillation of so much of her life, but in the conversation and in the life that you show us here in the book, she's combative, she is vulnerable, she is spiky, she's suspicious. Did you have to break down those barriers in the conversation and did she fight to keep them up?

David Yaffe: All of the above and more and constantly there was something about her that wanted to reveal things. She is a born storyteller - she loves to tell stories - and especially if she's competing with other people's stories, she wants her story to be the best one, so she loves to tell the stories but then later regrets it. Because she feels like she gave too much away and she feels that she is ... It's a constant push and pull and it's in the song "Talk To Me."

It's right there, you know. So she would reveal things to me and then regret it and then do it again and regret it.

Interviewer: She obviously intersected with musical giants of the 20th century, and you interviewed a lot of these people, Herbie Hancock, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Judy Collins, and Leonard Cohen. And we learned that Leonard Cohen influenced one of her biggest hits: "A Case of You" From Blue. We also learned that Joni Mitchell influenced some of the Leonard Cohen's most successful songs, including "Bird on a Wire" and "Joan of Arc." Was it hard for you to get Leonard Cohen to open up about one of the loves of his life at a very formative time?

David Yaffe: Amazingly, it wasn't. It just happened. He decided he wanted to meet with me - it was very spontaneous - and we went to this pizza place and he kept on saying, "Isn't this place great? Isn't this place great?" And he called the waitress, darling.

Interviewer: He speaks so openly about her in the book and he speaks of her in towering terms. Do you feel like you can assess what influence Joni had on him either romantically or poetically?

David Yaffe: Well, he thought that there was something a little bit schizophrenic about my talking about him being drawn to her as a beautiful woman and him being drawn to her as a great artist and a great singer and a great writer and guitar player, all of that. To him, these were discrete things. It was interesting, maybe it was even a generational thing, because to me I loved the idea that all of this could be in one astounding person.

Interviewer: Lots of people saw that, right? She was astonishingly beautiful but at the same time so gifted.

David Yaffe: Gifted is a weak word for it, I mean, but to him it was a discreet thing. He recognized her greatness, but she was also a beautiful woman that he wanted to get close to.

Interviewer: She pushes a lot of people away?

David Yaffe: Oh yeah.

Interviewer: Why do you think that is?

David Yaffe: Well, that need for independence is connected to that creative thirst. She had to fend off Graham Nash's marriage proposal. If she hadn't done that she wouldn't have made those great albums that followed, starting with Blue. She wouldn't have made Blue or For the Roses or Court and Spark or Hissing of Summer Lawns. She wouldn't have made those albums being Mrs. Graham Nash. No way! No way! She had to be independent. She couldn't make those albums being Mrs. Anybody, really.

Interviewer: She clearly still speaks very warmly of Graham Nash and almost is nostalgic for the time that they were together. Do you ever think that she wishes that she had chosen another path?

David Yaffe: No, I think that she wasn't nostalgic for it. She revered it for what it was. She loved the man. She loved him enough to consider marrying him. She loved him deeply, but she loved other people after him. She loved James Taylor. She tried to love Jackson Brown. She definitely loved John Guerin. She loved Don Alias in spite of everything, and then she loved Larry Klein very, very much and married him. When she was ready for that and they had a good marriage until it wasn't a good one. But he still loves her so much.

Interviewer: Larry Klein does?

David Yaffe: Yes, yes. I mean, he loves his wife Luciana Souza very much, but he's ...

Interviewer: The story he tells you in the book. That's a troubled time in her life, the mid-80s and the time after Dog Eat Dog. I mean she's definitely going through very, very difficult times here and Klein ...

David Yaffe: But not only. She had a good marriage for a while you, so that part of it was good.

Interviewer: But reading Reckless Daughter reminds us of how much of a provocateur she could be, and I want to ask you a question. Joni Mitchell played a character in the form of a black man. If you've ever seen the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter that's her in blackface, kind of dressed as a pimp. What was she up to with this character?

David Yaffe: Well, first of all, I have to make the distinction because Al Jolson in blackface doesn't look like a black person, Al Jolson is wearing burnt cork minstrelsy makeup.

Interviewer: Yeah, this is not a minstrel character.

David Yaffe: This is not a minstrel character. This is a convincing costume as a black man. Such a convincing costume that she goes to Peter Asher's Halloween party in 1976 wearing that costume and JD Souther was there and he was sleeping with her at the time and didn't realize it was her.

Interviewer: So she could pass?

David Yaffe: She was passing, that's right. Now, I'm not saying it's in good taste. I'm not saying it's a good idea. I'm not endorsing it. I'm just saying it was convincing.

Interviewer: But why was it important for her? What did she get out of it?

David Yaffe: Well, she thought it was fun, and she thought that she was allowed to do anything. And I think being Canadian was part of it to because she wasn't raised with American racism. She was raised with Canadian racism, which was a little different.

Interviewer: But was there relatability there? I mean, here is a woman, a white woman, who crosses over into jazz. Here's a woman who played in a man's world, very much the only woman for many, many years in the music business who was on the same level as powerful players and probably daily was faced with certain kinds of barriers that were being pushed at her. So, did she see this as a kind of transgression of lines that generally are not crossed but that she had some experience in crossing?

David Yaffe: Here's what happened. Joni is on the street in New York City and there's a black guy dressed up like a pimp, might be a pimp, and he says to Joni, "Hey sister, looking good," and she thought I want to be that guy. I want to be that. That guy is great. I want to be him. So, you're talking about this complicated reading of it, and I'm just saying she wasn't thinking like that. She just thought, "Oh my God, this guy is awesome. I want to be him."

Interviewer: Let me go back to the question about fame because we don't know if we'll see Joni Mitchell in the public eye again, but do you think that she has been able to navigate the end of her public persona? Do you think that she was on track to kind of come down from the mountain?

David Yaffe: Well, that's a complicated question because I think that she was trying to quit at so many points in her trajectory. She hated the music business so much but she felt that she had such a responsibility to her gift, what I would call her genius, that she just had to keep doing it, but you have these I hate show business songs that start back then. I mean, she's constantly wanting to get out of it. But then she kept on going back in. So, it was cyclical that she would try to get out of it and think, "I'm just going to paint. This is it." But then more songs would come.

Plus, she always had a contract and she had this work ethic that she would always want to honor the contract, and when she and her daughter had a reunion she was no longer inspired to write songs because all of her emotional life was now pouring into this new relationship, which itself is a problem but she believed in it at first, and she felt that her desire for songwriting, which came from the loss of giving up her daughter, had now ... she no longer wanted to write songs because she had her daughter back. That's what she told Camille Paglia. But she had a contractual obligation, so she records two albums, one of is standards, jazz standards, Both Sides Now, and then the other one is an orchestral rereading of her earlier material called Travelogue, and then she has no contract and then she's not writing and then eventually she does starts writing again and she makes one more album, Shine, in 2007 and that's it. That's it. That is it.

Interviewer: Do you think there'll be another album?

David Yaffe: That is highly unlikely.

Interviewer: Because of her health or because of her [crosstalk] or both?

David Yaffe: Both. I think that's it probably. Although Shine was a total surprise. None of us thought that it would happen, that she would make another album and she did.

Interviewer: We played a little bit from Blue in the intro and a lot of people think that's her greatest work. Others would point to Hejira. There's the ambition of Mingus. There's the pop success of Court and Spark. What's your own go-to Joni Mitchell album?

David Yaffe: Good Lord. It's all of great fascination to me. Out of all of those that you mentioned, and I would add Hissing of Summer Lawns and For the Roses ... Prince said that Hissing of Summer Lawns was the last album that he loved all the way through. You've got great songs throughout. You've got "Chinese Café," and "Ethiopia," and "Tea Leaf Prophecy," and "Two Gray Rooms," and "Nothing Can Be Done," and "The Sire of Sorrow," and "Man from Mars." You've got great stuff throughout, including albums that people don't talk about. You've got amazing material.

Interviewer: Do you think that there is any way to pinpoint her greatest artistic achievement? I mean, can you boil it down?

David Yaffe: I mean the ones you mentioned are pretty hard to beat. I mean Hejira is really hard to beat. That's just such an exquisite statement. The voice on Hejira. It's just five years later than Blue and it's like she's lived a few lifetimes already. And she's still young. She's still young.

Interviewer: She's under 30, right?

David Yaffe: She's 32 when she makes it. And she's still so young, but she sounds like she's lived a lot already, and partly that's because of the smoking, so her voice has got this husky quality and yet it still has the velocity and the suppleness of her youth. So, you've got the sophistication of being a slightly older adult, but she still has that youthful flexibility and beauty with the voice.

I mean, I also love Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Fewer people talk about that album. Of course, I reference the title of it and the title of my book.

Interviewer: David, what do you treasure most from your conversations with her?

David Yaffe: God, so much. I mean, I guess if I were to boil it down to one thing after all of those hours, I really understand Joni Mitchell's work, like any great work of art, for us the listener, it's such a great gift. It provides us with succor. We can go into a room and turn off the lights and lie down in bed and listen to Joni Mitchell, and that voice is singing right to us and those words are penetrating, those chords, everything, the whole ambience of it. In some ways I feel like it does more for us than it did for her. I feel like having done that is not satisfying to her. That's the thing I really walk away from is that no matter how amazing that work is, and I mean on the level ... you could put that against any work of art, any work of art, any novel, any play, any film, any symphony, any opera, anything, and it holds up to it. It's so astonishing. So we get the gift of this great art, but for her there's a wound that can't be healed and there's a hole that can't be filled.

Interviewer: Do you think you'll ever see her again?

David Yaffe: I'm going to try. I would like to. I would love to. If she would have me, I would love to pay my respects.

Interviewer: Is there something wrong between the two of you? Have you fallen out?

David Yaffe: Well, our last conversation ended well, but the last time we spoke was shortly before the aneurysm.

Interviewer: Is she able to speak now?

David Yaffe: Yes, yes, she's able to speak. She's in a wheelchair, but she's able to speak. I mean, she's not 100% there, and I don't know what her attitude is toward me and I don't know what people are telling her about the book. You know. I don't know how she sees me. I mean, I've been in Los Angeles since the aneurysm, but it was shortly after the aneurysm and I felt that she should just be seeing people who she really loves and who she doesn't have complicated feelings towards. I mean, Larry Klein had ended things kind of badly with her shortly before the aneurysm, and he put in a call and when they told her who it was, she thought about it and she said, "Oh, okay." So, I just have to be careful. But, yes, I will try. I will try and if they say no, then that's what they say but I'll try.

Interviewer: David Yaffe, thank you for being with us.

David Yaffe: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Interviewer: David Yaffe is the author of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell and a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. When the book came out, David wrote a personal letter to Joni Mitchell, if you want to hear him read it, go to cbc.ca/day6. We have two copies of Reckless Daughter to give away, email us at day6@cbc.ca, send us your name, address, and your favorite Joni Mitchell song. Two winners will be drawn at random.


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