New book reveals unfiltered Joni Mitchell

by Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News
October 31, 2018

She's one of the great legends of rock's heroic era, a singer/songwriter of surprising depth who helped define what it meant to be young and alive in the 1960s and 70s.

Yet Joni Mitchell, a polio survivor whose songs dominated the airwaves with lilting melodies and cinematic lyrics, typically felt under-appreciated and ultimately put out to pasture by a recording industry interested only in the very young and pretty.

Shedding light on this most-complex woman is a new collection of Mitchell's interviews from 1966-2014, "Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell," edited by former Detroit News music writer Susan Whitall.

There's no denying Mitchell's wider impact.

"Joni earned her status as a pop legend with earthy, poetic images," wrote Whitall, an editor at Creem magazine before coming to The News, "and the effortless way she could define a cultural moment with a lyric."

By way of example, Whitall cited in an interview the infamous line from "Big Yellow Taxi": "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

She laughed. "That line is going to outlive all of us."

The 416-page book includes 27 interviews, some never before published, as well as commentary by Whitall. "Joni on Joni" will be released by Chicago Review Press on Tuesday - one day before Canada's favorite daughter turns 75.

Roberta Joan Anderson, born in 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta, and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, got her songwriting start in a place that surprises even fans who think they know her well - Detroit's Cass Corridor.

In June 1965, Mitchell married folksinger Chuck Mitchell, exchanging vows in front of his childhood home on Tienken Road in Rochester Hills. A Detroit Symphony Orchestra string quartet played in the front yard.

"By her own account," Whitall said, speaking in a coffee shop not far from the couple's old apartment in The Verona near Wayne State University, "Joni only wrote four or five songs in Canada, mostly forgettable, before coming to Detroit."

All that would change in the Motor City, where the newlyweds, Whitall noted, were known as a hip young couple around town.

"They were doing joint appearances in coffeehouses as 'Chuck and Joni Mitchell,'" she said. "So at the time, she had no image on her own - not yet."

A 1966 Detroit News article Whitall includes quoted husband Chuck: "We are both strong-minded people, and we both had our own ways of doing a number. There were some hectic times until we blended our styles."

Amusing and appalling, the male reporter concluded the article with the dated observation, "Joni nodded her approval, as any dutiful wife would."

The dutiful wife didn't last long in the marriage. A couple years later, once she started doing gigs on her own in New York, the couple broke up.

Yet it was in Detroit that Joni wrote two of her most-iconic songs: "Both Sides Now," and "The Circle Game."

The former, Whitall said, was inspired by Saul Bellow's novel, "Henderson the Rain King," which Chuck encouraged Joni to read. The latter, Whitall said, was about fellow Canadian rocker and polio survivor Neil Young.

As their relationship disintegrated, Mitchell, mostly living in New York, would sneak into the apartment she'd shared with Chuck on trips back to Detroit and steal furniture they'd collected - until he changed the locks.

"I think she had mixed feelings about Detroit," Whitall said. "It got her out of Canada and got her a green card. All the same, she called Detroit 'decadent and internally decaying' in a 1970 interview."

Interestingly, Whitall said Mitchell - widely regarded as one of the era's most-accomplished lyricists - never considered herself a great writer.

"She felt insecure about her lyrics," Whitall said. "She pooh-poohed people who called her a poet."

Yet the roster of fellow musicians who admired her songs is long and includes much rock royalty. Among her big fans are Taylor Swift, Graham Nash, Chrissie Hynde, Led Zeppelin, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Tom Rush and Bob Dylan.

"Dylan was very complimentary about her," Whitall said, "but she trashed him, calling him a plagiarist who stole his voice from hillbillies. And he kind of did," she added, "not that that's bad." (Mitchell also, she noted, praised Dylan on other occasions.)

On the other hand, Whitall said, "Joni hated Joan Baez. She didn't like her voice - too high." Which, some might say, is amusing for a singer with what some considered a piercing soprano.

"That may be why she smoked so much," Whitall said. "When she redid 'Both Sides Now' in 2000, she has a beautiful alto that's better than the original."

Among songs that Mitchell most admired, the author said, were "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles, Jimi Hendrix's version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and, despite her criticism, Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street."

Mitchell, with her fresh-scrubbed beauty, had to battle to be taken seriously throughout her early career, and not be dismissed as just another blond with a pretty voice.

Some publications were condescending or cruel in ways it's hard to imagine had the subject been a man.

In the early 1970s, Rolling Stone published a chart with Mitchell's name in the center of a lipstick print, and lines radiating out to the names of one-time lovers Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen and James Taylor.

Mitchell wouldn't speak again to Rolling Stone until the 1979 Cameron Crowe interview Whitall includes in her book.

"I never saw it," Mitchell told Crowe, referring to the lipstick graphic. "The people that were involved in it called up to console me. My victims called first (laughs). That took some of the sting out of it. ... The men involved are good people. I'm fond of them to this day."

As her career progressed, Mitchell took knocks for veering away from pop and into the jazz-inflected albums "Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Mingus." She also felt dismissed in the 1980s, like an over-the-hill singer at 40.

All the same, Mitchell - who's recovering from a brain aneurysm she suffered in 2015 - has lived to see her name elevated in the pantheon of rock-n-roll greats.

She's won eight Grammy Awards, starting in 1969 for the album Clouds, and ranked ninth in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time." (Dylan was No. 1.)

And in 1996, she won Canada's Governor-General's Performing Arts Award that celebrates "Canadian performers who have enriched our lives while they pursued their dreams."

Whitall acknowledged that Mitchell finally received the recognition she'd long deserved.

"It took people long enough, though," she said, "and I think Joni feels that, too. But it's cool that she's alive and well enough to appreciate the honors she's getting now -- even if she was never paid as well as her male peers."


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