On the cover of her 17th album, Turbulent Indigo, released by Reprise
Records on October 25, 1994, Joni Mitchell placed a carefully rendered
reproduction of one of Vincent Van Gogh's more shocking paintings. In late
December 1888, in what his sister-in-law called "a state of terrible
excitement and high fever," the tortured painter cut off a piece of his
right ear and offered it as a gift to
a woman in a brothel. Back from the
hospital in January, he noted simply in a letter to his brother Theo, "I
have a new portrait of myself for you."
In the painting, Van Gogh appears in an overcoat, wearing a fur-covered hat, the right side of his head wrapped in a bandage. But unlike other self-portraits, this one shows us a tranquil Van Gogh, one who looks calmly, stoically off to the side of the picture, an expression that makes the white cloth we know is covering his mutilated ear all the more disturbing. It s as if, having indulged in this desperate, outrageous act, he is, for the moment, perversely satisfied. For her album cover, Joni Mitchell recreates the painting with one dramatic change: She substitutes her own face for Van Gogh's.
That this successful 51-vear-old singer songwriter of the late 20th century should identify so closely with the suicidal 35-year-old painter of the late 19th century will not be a surprise to anyone who has followed Mitchell's career. Reacting to shouted song requests from her audience at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in August 1974, at the height of her popularity, a slightly annoyed Mitchell said, "That's one thing that's always, like, been a major difference between, like, the performing arts to me and being a painter, you know? Like, a painter does a painting, and he does a painting. That's it, you know? He's had the joy of creating it, and he hangs it on some wall, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere till he dies. But he's never - nobody ever says to him - nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a "Starry Night" again, man!' [Laughs] You know? He painted it, that was it." Then she sang one of her best known and earliest songs, "The Circle Game."
Though Mitchell begins the comment stating that there is a difference between the performing arts and what we might call the "compositional" arts, as an artist who has
spent an equal amount of time in each, she has struggled to combine them. While her natural inclinations led her to painting early on, she found greater popular success as a songwriter and singer, but pursued that course without losing the Van Gogh-like perspective of an artist whose only true allegiance is to the art itself.
In that sense, her musical career has been misunderstood, at least from her way of looking at it. A conventional viewpoint, taken by most observers, is that Mitchell emerged as a songwriter in the late 1960s, notably with Judy Collins' hit version of her song "Both Sides, Now," then achieved increasing success as a performer during the wave of singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, along with James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others, culminating in the million-selling 1974 album Court And Spark
But following that triumph, Mitchell turned away from her lyrical concern with adult romance and her musical interest in folk-pop melodicism, and toward more obscure poetic lyrics and jazz, so that she also turned away from much of her audience. In the last 20 years, she has continued to release albums to a steady, if relatively small, audience and has been kept on major record labels due to long personal associations and the prestige of her name. Her long-time friend David Geffen, for whose Geffen Records label she recorded from 1982 to 1991, told New York Daily News staff writer Jim Farber in 1994, "Even though we lost money on every one of her records, we always treated Joni as one of the most important artists in the world."
And certainly it is as an artist that Mitchell sees herself. Her early career was not a steady, unbroken climb to popularity, but rather one in which Mitchell frequently felt unsuited and which she came close to abandoning several times. Her work, the momentum of that career and the unpredictable tides of musical fashion may have placed her at a commercial and critical pinnacle in 1974, but that can be seen now more as a happy aberration than the execution of a deliberate plan - happy because it consolidated her standing in such a way that she has been able to continue to work as she chooses at a certain level of recognition while many of her peers have faced compromises and reduced exposure in the ensuing decades.
If, 20 years on, we are still inclined to think of her early work - songs such as "Both Sides, Now" and "Big Yellow Taxi" and albums like Blue - as her most impressive, nevertheless such efforts as The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, much criticized upon release, have proven influential, and even Turbulent Indigo, which has turned out to be one of Mitchell's poorest sellers, was able to stir up controversy for its songs about current social problems and scandals.
Twenty-six years after most listeners got their first introduction to Joni Mitchell through Judy Collins' hit recording of "Both Sides, Now," a significant audience still looks forward to hearing what she has to say, and for a songwriter, that's a triumph. As she prepares to make her 18th album, with some songs already written (though it may be 1997 until we hear them), she seems to have less in common with Van Gogh, who committed suicide at 37 a little over a year after painting the self-portrait she evokes on the cover of Turbulent Indigo, than with another acknowledged influence, Pablo Picasso, who lived happily into his 90s and continued painting until the end.
But now let's go back to the beginning. Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, to a mother who was a teacher and a father who had left the Royal Canadian Air Force to become the manager of a grocery store, in Fort McLeod, a town in the southern part of the province of Alberta, Canada, that had been established as an outpost by the Northwest Mounted Police in 1874.
Alberta, the westernmost of the so-called "prairie" provinces of Canada, sits north of the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana and even today has a population density of less than 10 people per square mile. To call it remote is an understatement.
Joanie Anderson (she would become Joni Mitchell upon her marriage in 1965, and we will refer to her by her more familiar name from here on) was raised in the somewhat less remote city of Saskatoon in the next province to the east, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon (which in 1991 had a population of 186,000) was settled in 1883. It is the largest city in the province and the site of the University of Saskatchewan, which makes it more of a cosmopolitan place to grow up than Fort McLeod. But "remote" is still the operative word.
"The town I lived in was a small third world town," Mitchell told psychologist Jenny Boyd, Ph.D., for her book Musicians In Tune: Seventy-Five Contemporary Musicians Discuss The Creative Process (written with Holly George-Warren, Fireside, 1992), "the mail still came at Christmas on open wagons drawn by horses with sleigh runners."
Boyd writes that Mitchell displayed creativity early on and that that creativity was encouraged by her parents "until they no longer approved of her means of expression and withdrew their support." But that early support helped her overcome the disapproval of her peers, who shunned her for being different.
"In my early childhood because I was creative - I was a painter always - I had difficulty playing with the other children in the neighborhood," Mitchell told Boyd, "just because my games they couldn't get in on."
Mitchell also showed an early interest in music: At seven, she asked her parents for piano lessons. But she showed more interest in composing her own music than in practicing classical pieces, as the result of which, "My teacher rapped my knuckles with a ruler and said, 'Why would you want to compose when you could have the greats under your fingers?"' she recalls in an interview with the author conducted for this article in New York in October 1994.
As a result, she abandoned the lessons. "So, my first love of music was cut off at an early age by bad education," she said.
" ... But I still used to sit down and compose my own little melodies," she told Boyd. "That's what I wanted to do, to compose ...I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up, but I knew I could make up music; I heard it in my head. I always could do it, but it was discouraged."
That very discouragement seems to have acted as a stimulus, however. In discussing the development of creativity, Mitchell told Boyd that what keeps many people from being creative is a fear of failure, a disinclination to take risks. "You have to be able to go out on a limb," she said. "... To innovate, you have to have a certain kind of fearlessness. I think it helps if at an early age you got used to being shunned and you survived that. If you had to fight some things in your childhood, you now can stand alone."
Another thing Joni Mitchell had to fight in her childhood was the polio epidemic that swept Canada when she was nine. She contracted a slight case of the paralyzing disease, and it was feared that she would not walk again. Though she recovered, some of her muscles were permanently atrophied in ways that would affect her performing style later on.
As she moved toward adolescence, Mitchell maintained her interest in art, and it was expressed especially in an interest in clothes and fashion. "As a child, I harbored the idea of becoming a fashion designer," she said. "I drew cut-outs. I'd dress dollies. Through every class, my mother saved some of them, and they're kind of interesting to look at now. I made my own clothes. So, fashion was a thing that interested me in my early teens ... I had my own column in the high school paper, 'Fads And Fashion.' It was pretty fluffy."
Her other main interest, she noted, was "rock 'n' roll dancing ... I had an added advantage that I was a night owl and that radio stations shut down about midnight locally and there was a strong broadcast from a station in Texas that would wave in and out, and you could hear songs that were coming that wouldn't be there for four months, so you almost had a crystal ball and you could predict the hits in the future in a miraculous way."
Mitchell's interest in music and dancing brought her in contact with some of the rowdier elements of society. "I gravitated to the best dance halls from the age of 12 to the age of 16," she says. "Not that I liked beer, but we would go from time to time to the bootleggers, and the bootleggers were also brothels. Like any young black trumpet player in the South, like John Handy or any New Orleans musician who knew he was a musician at an early age, somehow I was drawn to where the music was best, and it's always in the roughest areas. And yet, the street had heart then, and a child, a baby, a clean-looking baby was not molested. If anything, they were very protective. First of all, they'd say, 'Get her out of here,' or, if I insisted on remaining, they'd make sure that someone saw me safely to the bus.
"So, even the toughest areas, which I went to for the music and the booze or whatever, or to see people drinking, not necessarily because I cared to drink myself, to see life, were very protective and generous to me. My street experience was not anything like what the streets are now, with cocaine and white slavery and so on. But I [saw] a lot of life, and I [had] a lot of difficulty. I [became] an unwed mother, and all of the travail and the white-trash prejudice that accompanied that."
(Though this seems to be the first time Mitchell has spoken in an interview about her teenage pregnancy and the child she gave up, she has referred to the incident in song. "Little Green," on the 1971 Blue album, concerns the subject ["Child with a child pretending/Weary of lies you are sending home/So you sign all the papers in the family name/You're sad and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed/Little green, have a happy ending"], and it comes up again in "Chinese Cafe" on the 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast ["We were wild in the old days/ Birth of rock 'n roll days/Now your kids are coming up straight/And my child's a stranger/I bore her/But, I could not raise her''].)
Mitchell not only saw the seamy side of the entertainment world on the streets of Saskatoon, but was also aware, even then, of the trappings of celebrity that accompanied the singers of the songs she heard on the radio as well as other entertainers, and she strongly disapproved of the loss of privacy. "I wrote a poem in, I guess it was Grade 10, about the age of 16, about Hollywood, called, 'The Fish Bowl,"' she said, and then recites: "The fish bowl is a world reversed where fishermen with hooks that dangle from the bottom up reel down their catch without a fight on gilded bait. Pike, pickerel, bass, the common fish, ogle through distorting glass, see only glitter, glamour, gaiety, fog up the bowl with lusty breath, lunge towards the bait and miss and weep for fortune lost. Envy the goldfish? Why? His bubbles break 'round the rim while silly fishes faint for him and say, 'Oh, look there, he winked his eye at me!"'
She laughed, and continued, "So, with this young insight, it was really ironic that I would enter into this world."
The first real step she took toward entering into that world was learning to play a stringed instrument. "There came to my hometown at college - I was still in high school - a different kind of party," Mitchell recalled, "where people sat around and sang." This was, of course, the folk music boom, finally making its way to Saskatoon. "It was a different way of partying than I was used to, which was dancing and drinking beer," Mitchell said, "and I kind of took to it. But a lot of time there was no accompanist, no one seemed to play an instrument. So, I got it in my mind that I wanted to learn to play guitar. Well, I borrowed a guitar from somebody, but the action was incredibly high. It was an old orchestral F-hole rhythm guitar, basically, and I couldn't press the strings down. My fingers were bleeding. It was intolerable."
Mitchell turned to her parents, but they hadn't forgotten her previous flirtation with music. "My parents, my mother in particular, said, Oh, if we buy you a guitar, you'll just abandon it. You never follow anything up. It'll be just like the piano,"' Mitchell recalled. "So, I started saving up, but I couldn't save up fast enough. Guitars were fairly expensive. But I managed to scrape up $36 to buy myself a baritone ukulele. That's what I started on.
"About six months later, I was playing accompanying some kind of bawdy drinking songs at a wiener roast, which was our teenage form of entertainment - go out in the bush with some beer and sit around a campfire and sing songs - when I was overheard by some - they seemed like old people, but they were young people, really. They were, like, in their early 20s, and they worked for a television station in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and they thought I was really good. So, they took off this moose hunting program (moose hunting is big up there), Field & Stream-type of show, which came on late in the evening, and they stuck me on. I'd be 18 at the time and playing this baritone ukulele for about six months, and I think it was about an hour long.
"In the meantime, my friends, who knew me as a rock 'n' roll dancer and kind of an enjoyer, found this change kind of hard to relate to, 'cause the songs at that time [were] folk songs and English ballads, and, you know, women's English ballads are always, 'the cruel mother,' and there's a lot of sorrow in them. But they had beautiful melodies, that was the thing, and I always loved melody. Melody is generally melancholy and sad, and the text that accompanies it must be the same.
"So, this kind of joyous, fun-loving creature became this earnest creature. This transformation had taken place, and I think a lot of people had a hard time with that transition. I know some of my best dance buddies would say, 'Put that thing down. We're gonna drag you onto the dance floor.' 'No, no, no,' I was clinging to it [the ukulele] in the corner, saying 'Leave me alone.' I introverted into this intimate relationship with this stringed instrument."
Mitchell did not, however, expect to make a career out of music. In 1963, at the age of 19, she enrolled at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, returning to the western province of her birth.
"All my life I was waiting to study painting," she said. "When I got there, the teaching was as disappointing as the piano was. If you had any hand-eye control, and if you already knew how to render tonality and you'd made these simple observations, there was almost a prejudice levied against you, and it was considered that you should go into commercial art because, basically, the age of the camera had come, and Greenberg was king [i.e., art critic Clement Greenberg, who championed what he called "post-painterly abstraction," notably in his 1961 book Art And Culture] and de Kooning [i.e., painter Willem de Kooning, a leader of the school of abstract expressionism], and all the profs were pouring paint down inclined planes, and they were basically resentful or prejudiced against someone who had drawing ability. I would say, out of 150 new students, there were only about four of us that had that. A lot of them had entered into art school, I think, for the lifestyle or the idea of becoming an artist, and the profs seemed to figure that they were better suited knowing nothing to be implanted with their love of abstract painting.
"Well, I developed a prejudice towards it and a kind of a rebellion, and I took to playing in the coffee houses north of there in a city called Edmonton and one in Calgary called the Depression, and the two interests began to kind of conflict." For Mitchell, who turned 20 in October 1963, pursuing a career as an artist turned out to have two drawbacks: "the lack of classical training at the school, and also the fact that, in Canada, art was looked on more as a vocation than the important and great thing that it is," she explained. "Truth and beauty? No, no, they viewed it more as a trade. It was stuck in between auto mechanics and cafeteria cooks in training."
In 1964, Mitchell got on a train and went east to Toronto to attend the Mariposa Folk Festival and see folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. On the way, she wrote her first song, "Day After Day." She did not return to college. As she put it, "I allowed my disappointment in the education offered me to lead me to the East Coast, where there were 17 thriving coffee houses in Toronto." In his book, Neil Young: Don't Be Denied
(Quarry Press, 1992), John Einarson provides a description of the thriving music scene in Toronto in 1964. "The 'scene' of Toronto music at that time was the Yorkville district," Einarson wrote. "Within the downtown Yorkville village district, a two block stretch between Avenue Road and Yonge Street one way, and Davenport and Bloor Streets on the other side, some ten to fifteen different coffeehouses could be found amid the closely-knit artistic community that thrived there. On any given night one could easily hear the strains of Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, or Odetta wafting from these tiny enclaves. These coffeehouses were literally houses, old, brick two and three story homes with folk singers or small groups performing in the front room or basement."
And there wasn't only folk music, as Levon Helm recalled in his book This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm And The Story of The Band (written with Stephen Davis, William Morrow and Company, 1993). "It was a great time to launch a band in Toronto," noted Helm, who was a member of Ronnie Hawkins' rockabilly-playing Hawks then, "because the place was jumping. On a weekend night on that Yonge Street strip you could catch Oscar Peterson, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles and his band, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus. You could see a local band like us or one of our competitors, the Paupers. There was a folk music scene ... And it wasn't just music. Toronto was also the publishing, fashion, and style capital of Canada. The city was swinging at least a year before so-called Swinging London."
Sounds great, but for 20-year-old Joni Mitchell there was just one problem. "When I got there," she recalled, "it cost $160 to get into the [musicians] union, which was a fortune for me, just an impossible goal. And there wasn't much scab work around, and coffee house doors slammed in my face, and it was pretty insulting. There were some dues in that town."
She stuck it out, however. As Einarson put it, "Living in one of the dozens of communal pads on Huron Street in the village, Joni perfected her ... craft in the coffeehouses at night, working during the day at a Simpsons-Sears department store to pay the rent."
Apparently, there was more department store than coffee house work, but, "then I finally found a scab club in Toronto that allowed me to play," Mitchell told Joe Smith in his book Off The Record: An Oral History of Popular Music (Warner Books, 1988). "I played for a couple of months."
"In 1965, I was playing in the cellar where they kept the Canadian talent and where the imported American talent played upstairs," she said, elaborating, "and I met a folk singer named Chuck Mitchell. I was at an indecisive time in my life, and he was a strong force. He decided he was gonna marry me. So, he dragged me across the border, and he got me some work, and we were kind of quickly married. It was not a marriage made in heaven. He was relatively well-educated. He was in contempt of my lack of education and also my illiteracy. I did all my book reviews [in school] from Classic Comic Books, and I had a kind of a contempt for what I called pseudo-intellectuals, and in a way I was right. I mean, I was developing as an original, unschooled thinker, and I had the gift of the blarney. I had a gift of metaphor. But he kind of ridiculed me in the same way that [Canadian prime minister] Pierre Trudeau ridiculed his wife Margaret when she wrote her book. He said, 'My wife is the only writer I know who's written more books than she's read.' So, there was this aristocratic - the educated pride versus the uneducated, and that marriage didn't last very long."
It did last for almost two years, however, and they were important years in Joni Mitchell's development. For one thing, she began to write songs in earnest. "I began as a folk singer," she said, meaning a singer of traditional folk songs. "I would say I was a folk singer from 1963 until '65. '65, when I crossed the border, I began to write. Once I began to write, my vocal style changed. My [Joan] Baez/Judy Collins influence disappeared. Almost immediately when I had my own words to sing, my own voice appeared."
Writing also led Mitchell to her own guitar sound, based on unusual tunings and conditioned by a physical infirmity. "The moment I began to write I took the black blues tunings which were floating around," she said. "Tom [Rush] played in open C. Eric Anderson showed me an open G. which I think is Keith Richards' tuning, he mainly writes in that. Then there was D modal. Buffy had a couple of original tunings. But I began to experiment because my left hand is somewhat clumsy because of polio. I had to simplify the shapes of the left hand, but I craved chordal movement that I couldn't get out of standard tuning without an extremely articulate left hand. So, to compensate for it, I found the tunings were a godsend. Not only that, but they made the guitar an unstable thing, but also an instrument of exploration, so that you could put the thing in a new tuning, you had to rediscover the neck, you'd need to search out the chordal movement, and you'd find five or six chords, and then there was the art of chaining them together in a creative manner. It was very exciting to discover my music. It still is, to this day."
'Her unusual tunings and lilting voice drew the attention of those in the know who tipped her to be a future major talent," wrote Einarson. "Unfortunately, not enough people took notice of her genius to keep her in Canada." Chuck and Joni Mitchell moved to Detroit, where Chuck was from, in late 1965.
Unlike nearly all aspiring songwriters, the Mitchells put their business together properly at the start. "The one thing I had was my own publishing company," Joni said. "Chuck and I set up two publishing companies. That was at his instigation. That was very insightful." Joni's company was called Siquomb Publishing, and the name came from one of her many writing projects. As she would explain on Philadelphia radio station WMMR in March 1967, she was writing a mythology, the names of its various members derived from acronyms based on descriptive phrases. There were, for instance, a race of miniature women, the Posall ("Perhaps Our Souls Are Little Ladies"), and men, the Mosalm ("Maybe Our Souls Are Little Men"). Siquomb was the queen of the mythology, her name meaning, "She Is Queen Undisputedly Of Mind Beauty."
Indisputably, Siquomb saved Joni Mitchell from the kinds of schemes that typically rob songwriters of their work. One of her first songs was "Urge For Going," which eventually concerned romantic parting, though in its original form it was about the difficulty acoustic folk performers were starting to have finding places to play in the wake of the folk-rock movement ushered in by Bob Dylan's decision to use an amplified backup band. "The clubs were going electric," she recalled, and the first draft [of "Urge For Going"] was about that: 'I've got the urge for going, but there's no place left to go."'
Another early composition was "The Circle Game," Mitchell's song about a young boy's rites of passage. It was inspired by another song, Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain." Mitchell had met Young in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba, and encountered him again in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. Young, a member of the Squires rock 'n' roll group, had written "Sugar Mountain" on his 19th birthday, November 12, 1964, as a lament for the approaching end of his teenage years ("You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain.") Mitchell took the story to its logical conclusion, but offered hope. "So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty/ Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true/There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty/Before the last revolving year is through."
And then there was "Both Sides, Now." The obvious influence for its theme was the music of Bob Dylan, especially his 1964 album Another Side Of Bob Dylan, with its songs in which the singer disavows previous beliefs, especially "My Back Pages." In Mitchell's hands, the theme takes on less political, more aesthetic form, as she gives us poetic descriptions of clouds, love and life, then strips the poetry away in favor of stark disillusion, only to reject that, too, and conclude that she still doesn't know them at all.
Here were found the basic themes of her early songwriting. Over and over, she wrote about aging and disillusionment, though frequently hanging back from outright pessimism. "I think at 21 I was quite old," she said. "'Both Sides, Now' is like an old person reflecting back on their life. My life had been very hard. I had gone through a lot of life. When Chuck Mitchell and I wrote 'Both Sides, Now,' he said to me, 'Oh, what do you know about life, you're only 21.' But I knew a lot about life. I'd gone through a lot of disease and personal pain. Even as a child. I'd had three bouts with death. I was not unaware of my mortality. But somehow, still, I was very young for my age, in spite of my experience."
Based in Detroit, Chuck and Joni Mitchell traveled to folk clubs in the northern Midwest and along the East Coast, and when they were at home, they played host to fellow folk musicians in town to play the Chessman, the local folk club.
"In Detroit, everybody was kind of scuffling, and we had a big apartment, Chuck and I, so we billeted a lot of artists," Mitchell said. "Eric Andersen stayed there, and Tom Rush stayed there. It was a fifth floor walkup in the black district, basically, it was two white blocks, Wayne campus housing. The rent was really cheap, and we had three or four bedrooms in this old place. So, artists stayed with us frequently. I was just beginning to write, and Tom, I think, first carried off 'Urge For Going.' So, he played that around, and the next time he came to play the Chessman, he said, 'You got anything else?' and I played him some songs. It was usually the one that I thought was too feminine, a little too light for a man to sing, that I withheld - 'Any more?' 'Well, yes, this one, but it's not right for you' - 'The Circle Game' or something - 'That's the one I want.' So, he'd cart that off, and in that way the songs became known in places that I hadn't gone. There were no records."
Soon enough, however, there were records. The first, curiously enough, was by country singer George Hamilton IV, who cut "Urge For Going." In a March 1967 live appearance, introducing the song, Mitchell told her audience, "It's currently on the country hit parade. However, I don't think it really is a country song, if you can classify songs. As a matter of fact, it's #13 with a bullet. That means it's moving up rapidly. It's by a fellow named George Hamilton IV. The song is by me, but he does it, with Chet Atkins and a whole Nashville chorus and a Carter Family type and all sorts of people and a recitation and electric rock 'n' roll mandolin. But originally the song went like this ... "
Hamilton's cover of "Urge For Going," released as a single by RCA, entered Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart for the week ending January 21, 1967, and peaked at #7 during a 21-week chart run. (Unless otherwise stated, all chart figures cited here will be from Billboard, as reported in Joel Whitburn's various chart books, published by Record Research, Inc. On occasions when a record performs better on charts published by the rival trade paper Cash Box, this will be noted.)
Mitchell isn't sure how Hamilton got hold of the song, hut she credits Tom Rush, who may also have pitched it - unsuccessfully - to Judy Collins. "At one point, George came to Detroit, and I remember meeting him," Mitchell said, "but I think he must have heard the song first from Tom."
By the time "Urge For Going" had ended its chart run, other Joni Mitchell compositions were coming onto the market. In February, Vanguard Records released Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia's So Much For Dreaming album, containing their rendition of "The Circle Game." In June, Vanguard released Buffy Sainte-Marie's Fire And Fleet And Candlelight LP, which included "The Circle Game" and "Song To A Seagull."
"I picked up music more for fun," Mitchell said. "I had no ambition to make a career of it at all." But when her songs started to become popular, this changed. "Of course, once I began to write my own songs, I was
slightly ambitious for them," she admitted. "I was a stage door mother to them. I wanted to display them. I thought that this was a superior work to selling women's ware, which was all I was really trained for. I had a Grade 12 education. So, waitressing, hairdressing, that was about all. This was slightly more lucrative and a lot more fun at the club level."
And at the club level, her increasing renown as a songwriter was boosting her as a performer, helping her break the one city she'd been having trouble playing, New York. "I had difficulty initially in finding work in the clubs [in New York]," Mitchell said, "but I had a kind of a circuit on the Eastern seaboard from Miami to Boston, and a little bit in the Midwest around the Detroit area. New York was difficult without a record. The major clubs were hard to crack until some people started singing my songs. When Buffy and Tom Rush initially began to play [them], then the circuit that they played on opened up to me because they were kind of a herald of the writer of these songs. So, 'Circle Game' and 'Urge For Going,' [Dave] Van Ronk with 'Both Sides, Now' [which he retitled, "Clouds"] and 'Chelsea Morning,' all helped to make club work possible for me."
This, in turn, seems to have given Mitchell the impetus she needed to split up with her husband and go out on her own. The dramatic circumstances of that move suggest it was anything but an amicable parting.
"I was in the middle of a poker game some place in Michigan late in the evening," Mitchell recalled, "and I turned to a stranger, basically, next to me, and I said, 'I'm leaving my husband tonight. Will you help me? 'We rented a U-Haul truck. We drove back to Detroit.
"I had polio, and a lot of the muscles in my back are deteriorated. So, you can imagine the will. I separated what I considered was a fair split, 50 percent of the furniture, and the stranger and I hauled it on our own backs down a fifth floor walkup in the middle of the night, and I moved out. The song 'I Had A King' kind of tells a bit of the aftermath of that. I moved to New York. I moved to West 16th Street, and I set out looking for work in that area."
Despite the success she had found with her songs and the increased club work, Mitchell was not naive about her chances for making it big in the music business. She considered those chances small, and, in fact, in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, the year of Sgt. Pepper, the chances for a songwriter with only an acoustic guitar could not have been considered very great. The people who were recording her songs were folkies, none of them big sellers, all of them essentially sideswiped two years earlier by the rise of folk-rock, which was itself already giving way to other pop trends.
Mitchell could see all this by the time she got to New York. "l came in late," she said. "Basically, clubs were folding, and bands were the new thing, and I wasn't ready for a band. It would take me five albums to find a band that could play with me without squashing the intricacy of the music."
At this point, though, she wasn't thinking about five albums, or even one. "Record companies offered me terrible slave labor deals in the beginning, and I turned them down," she said. "I turned down Vanguard. They wanted three albums a year or something. In the folk tradition, they come and stick a mike on the table in front of you, and they collect it in an hour, and that's the album. And that output - I already saw Buffy struggling under the weight of it. So, I thought, no way. This'll take the fun out of it. There's no remuneration. It was a terrible contract, the highlight of which was, they would provide little folding table-top cards that said I was a Vanguard artist, and it would have driven my price up slightly, I guess. To be a recording artist, I could have made a little more in the clubs, but not that much, and it would have required that I have a manager."
A manager was another thing she didn't want. "Of course, the managers wanted a big hunk of [my song publishing], and I turned down a lot of managers," Mitchell said. "I said, no way, this is my little business. You're not writing these songs. It's kind of like the story of the little red hen. You know 'Who will help me sow the wheat?' I didn't understand the way that management was structured at that time."
Nor did Mitchell understand how she was going to make it when she was perceived as a folk singer, even if she had ceased thinking of herself that way. "I looked like a folk singer, even though the moment I began to write, my music was not folk music," she said. "It was something else, maybe closer to German lieder, or it had elements of romantic classicism to it." Nevertheless, it sounded to a lot of people like folk music, and folk music was on its way out.
"I wasn't keen waiting for my big break or anything," Mitchell said. "As a matter of fact, I entered into the game thinking that this was the tail end of an era. The minimum wage at that time was $36 a week, you could barely eat and pay your rent on it, and I was able to make about $300 a week in the clubs. Traveling, of course, ate up some of it. But I had no manager, I had no agent, I had no liens on me. So, I viewed it initially as a way to get a little nest egg ahead, and then I would fall back on salesmanship. I would go back into women's ware. My idea of a little bit ahead was, the rent paid and enough for the next month, like, $400 in the bank."
In fact, she achieved her goal in 1967. "That's probably the richest I ever felt," she recalled, "because after I had my recording deal, I had a lot of people on my payroll, and unless you're an arena artist, it's a lot of work, and everything you do is self-promotion."
Despite that $400 nest egg, Mitchell kept accepting engagements, including, in the early fall of 1967, an offer by British-based American record executive and producer Joe Boyd to undertake a brief tour of Great Britain. "Joe set up a tour with the Incredible String Band, and some isolated little gigs without them in small coffee houses," she recalled.
Boyd was especially interested in Mitchell as a songwriter, and he arranged a U.K. publishing deal for her with Essex Music. She left a 10-song demo tape with Boyd, who played it for his clients the folk-rock group Fairport Convention. Fairport recorded a demo of "Both Sides, Now" at sessions for their debut single, "If I Had A Ribbon Bow," released in November. "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and "Chelsea Morning" would turn up on their debut album, Fairport Convention, released in June 1968, and they added "Marcie" and "Night In The City" to their concert repertoire.
(In January 1969, they would include "Eastern Rain," a song Mitchell herself has never released officially, on their second album, titled What We Did On Our Holidays in the U.K. and Fairport Convention in the U.S.)
"The first time I heard 'Both Sides Now,"' Judy Collins wrote in her autobiography, Trust Your Heart (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), "was on the phone in 1967 during the middle of the night. I got a call from Tom Rush, who was very excited. Tom, a great fan of Joni's, had earlier introduced me to her and to her fine song 'The Circle Game.'
"'Joni has a new song, and I want you to hear it. I think you'll love it.' He put Joni on the phone, and she sang 'Both Sides Now.'
"I immediately fell in love with the song and knew it was a classic. I had to sing it."
Judy Collins recorded "Both Sides Now" (while Van Ronk had changed the title completely, Collins merely removed the comma after "Sides") on September 28, 1967, at Columbia Studios in New York with a string arrangement by Joshua Rifkin, who played harpsichord on the track. Collins also recorded Mitchell's "Michael From Mountains," and the two songs were used as the opening tracks on either side of Collins's album Wildflowers, released in November.
Like Joan Baez, Judy Collins had begun as a singer of traditional folk songs and, in the wake of the folk songwriter boom led by Bob Dylan, begun to champion the work of new writers. Unlike many of her folk peers, she had neither ignored the rise of folk-rock in l 965 nor entirely given in to it, instead branching out into tasteful arrangements and adding theater music to her repertoire. She had been rewarded in 1967 by the audience that greeted the LP In My Life, making it her most successful album so far. Wildflowers, on which she introduced both Mitchell's songs and her own, was intended to consolidate that success and extend it. It would.
Mitchell, meanwhile, was still having some trouble with the New York club circuit, and beginning to think that maybe having a manager wouldn't be such a bad idea. "I had a hard time playing in New York," she said. "I cried and pleaded, said, I'm good, I'm good.' I had no manager to, like, front for me. Finally, this place [the Cafe Au Go Go] hired me as an opening act to an opening act. Ian and Sylvia were the headliners, and there was a comic in the middle and I was in really foot-soldier position. I had all of the songs at that point that would constitute my first two albums.
"Elliot [Roberts] came in. He was a manager of comics. He came in to hear the comedian, Howard Hesseman. And people were talking, you know, the opening act to the opening act, nobody was really listening to me. Elliot thought that, God, this girl is really good. Why is nobody listening to her'?"
Elliot Roberts (born Elliot Rabinowitz in the Bronx), then working at the William Morris Agency, represented a new type of manager, appropriate to the new type of entertainers who were emerging in the second half of the 1960s. For one thing, he didn't want a piece of Mitchell's publishing. As he told Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo for their book Rock 'N' Roil Is Here To Pay: The History And Politics Of The Music Industry (Nelson-Hall, 1977), "People see now that they can become millionaires by doing it right. People used to think you had to beat someone for all their publishing to hit the jackpot. We showed them that it was the other way around. If you left the publishing there and did the right thing by the artist, and the artist was good, then you'd make it.
Beyond that crucial matter, Roberts was ready to adapt himself to the special needs of his clients. "Let's say you wanted me to manage you," he said. "Well, we'd have to get together. I'd have to find out what you wanted, what you're like, whether you're abrasive and hard, or soft and sensitive. I'd have to find out what you're capable of. Whether you can go on all these interviews or whether you would get shell-shocked. All this varies from person to person. It's all in the person. What do you want to be? Do you want to retire in three or four years? You know, that's all part of it. It depends on what the person wants."
What Roberts found out initially was what Joni Mitchell didn't want. "He pitched being my manager, and I said. 'I don't need a manager. I'm doing quite nicely. Why should I cut you in?' Mitchell recalled. "But he was a funny man. I enjoyed his humor. So, I said, 'Okay, let's do a trial run. I've got a gig coming up in the Midwest near Detroit. Why don't you accompany me, and we'll see how we get along?"' The resulting trip, which, according to Roberts, began the next day, sounds like a folkie version of This Is Spinal Tap, but it solidified their relationship.
"We went to this town, Ann Arbor, Michigan," Mitchell recalled. "Pot was legal there, and Elliot was a pot smoker, but people were very secretive about that. He was also dressed in a suit with silk shirts with his initials on the pocket. So was [his friend and later partner David] Geffen at that time. They were very Madison Avenue.
"So, we get to this hotel, and it's before the gig, and we don't let each other know that we smoke pot. But I get to his room, and I can smell that he's been smoking pot, and he's got a towel under the door and everything, and I realize he's as bad as me. He has no mechanical aptitude. He can't find the light switch, he can't turn his TV set on. Anyway, we end up on our way to this gig. We get lost in the hotel. The hotel was like kind of a square donut shape, and we literally could not find our way out [laughs], and we wandered through soup kitchens and all kinds of places, and he was so funny.
'When we finally got to this club, it was packed not only to capacity, but there were people standing in the back. It was the biggest crowd I ever drew at that point. I got up on the stage and I sang my first song, and there was, to me, a thunderous reception. I broke out into a wide grin, and my upper lip stuck to my gums and I couldn't get it down! I had to peel it with my tongue. Elliot was doing loud shtick from the audience. He was making a lot of jokes, and everybody was giggling 'cause everybody knew why. And so, I said to him, 'Okay, you're my manager. I enjoyed his company on the road so much. He was good, and I was a great straight man for him. So, in this way we began."
Roberts quit his job at William Morris and began working full-time for Joni Mitchell. His first goal, of course, was to obtain a record contract for her. But if independent folk labels like Vanguard were interested, the majors were not. Roberts tried Columbia Records, the home of Bob Dylan, with its self-professed talent scout of a company president, Clive Davis. They weren't interested, maybe because Roberts' friend David Geffen was pitching them another female singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro, who they signed instead.
Roberts next tried RCA. "We brought them Joni's songs and demos," he told Chapple and Garofalo, "and they said, 'That's nice, a girl and some songs, but it's not making it. We're looking for the Rascals or Wilson Pickett."'
Many people are credited with "discovering" Joni Mitchell. from Tom Rush to Joe Boyd to Elliot Roberts, and Mitchell graciously admits them all. "These all, in their own way, were kind of discoveries," she said when the list was read off to her. But it would take one more discoverer to get her career going.
On October 16, 1967, in Los Angeles, David Crosby made his last recording session with the Byrds. Crosby, the son of a Hollywood cinematographer, had made his way through the folk music boom of the early 1960s with a love for harmony, jazz chords and unusual guitar tunings. In 1964, in the wake of the British Invasion, he formed a group with fellow folkies Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and Gene Clark. By 1965, with the addition of the rhythm section of bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, they were the Byrds, America's primary answer to the Beatles and among the founders of folk-rock with their ringing version of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."
But by the fall of 1967, Gene Clark was gone, their singles were struggling to make the Top 40 and a rivalry had grown up between McGuinn, lead singer on the Byrds' hits, and Crosby, who wanted more room for his own often daring compositions, including "Triad," a song in praise of a menage a trois. This all came to a head at the end of October, when the other Byrds bought Crosby out and fired him.
At loose ends, Crosby went to Coconut Grove, one of his old haunts in southern Florida. "When I was down there as a folkie, I used to do all kinds of sailing," he wrote in his autobiography, Long Time Gone (written with Carl Gottlieb, Doubleday, 1988). "At least one of us was always working at a boat rental yard, so we'd get permission to take them out at night and sail around Biscayne Bay all night long, smoking joints and laughing like fools and having a great time. After the Byrds, I came down and hung around, looking for a boat. Wasn't quite sure how I would get it, but I knew something would turn up that would be right."
Actually, two things turned up. One was a sailboat called the Mayan, and the other was Joni Mitchell. "I was playing the Gaslight South," she recalled. "He came into the club one night and was very interested in my tunings."
There was a little more to it than that. "Right away I thought I'd been hit by a hand grenade," Crosby told biographer Dave Zimmer (Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Authorized Biography, with photography by Henry Diltz, St. Martin's Press, 1984). "Her voice, those words ... she nailed me to the back of the wall with two-inch spikes. I went up to her afterwards and said, 'You're incredible.' She said, 'You really think so?"'
Roberts had not accompanied Mitchell to Florida, instead flying to California for a meeting with West Coast-based Warner Brothers Records. Warner Brothers was the one major label interested in signing singer songwriters. Over the next few years, the company would record folkies like Tom Paxton, Gordon Lightfoot and Eric Andersen, after their initial deals had ended, ex-group leaders like John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield and Van Morrison of Them, James Taylor, whose career had been fumbled by the Beatles' Apple label, and such homegrown talent as Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks.
Such was the direction provided by label head Mo Ostin, who had come into the company in 1963 from Frank Sinatra's Reprise label when Warners bought it. Warner-Reprise hadn't been able to come up with much to challenge the British Invasion (though it had joined it by licensing the Kinks for American distribution), but with laudatory selectivity, the company enlisted the services of one of the major San Francisco acid-rock groups, the Grateful Dead, plucked Frank Zappa and the Mothers from the faltering hands of MGM, and picked up the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the U.S. The result was an eclectic roster far removed from the less discriminatory habits of labels like Columbia with its "throw 'em against the wall and see what sticks" philosophy.
(Record executive Joe Smith, who brought the Dead to Warners, told Chapple and Garofalo that the company's signings did not reflect a deliberate decision to contract singer-songwriters, but rather "the personal tastes" of Ostin and himself.)
None of which is to suggest that, when Mo Ostin agreed to sign Joni Mitchell for a $15,000 advance he knew exactly what he was getting. Probably, her first album would have been tricked out with folk-rock arrangements if it hadn't been for David Crosby, who came in to produce it. "To many corporate executives, I looked like a second-generation Judy Collins or Joan Baez because I was a girl with a guitar," Mitchell explained. "The same thing they do to young women now, they liken them to me. [Did someone say "Tori Amos"?] So, basically, they wanted a folk-rocker. David believed in my music as it was. He knew that it was taking that some place, but it didn't look like it was taking it that some place, and the people in power couldn't really hear that it was taking it some place. As a matter of fact, I was an oddity on the scene."
Mitchell, with Crosby in tow, arrived back in New York and met with Roberts in his office on West 57th Street. "He was," Roberts said in Long Time Gone, "the first hippie that I met in that era." The three took off for California to record Mitchell's first album.
Under Crosby's laissez-faire production style, the album was cut quickly at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Far from a folk-rock record, it featured Mitchell alone on guitar and piano. The only added instrumentation was some bass guitar played by Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, who were recording at the studio next door. Also in the Springfield, of course, was Neil Young, Mitchell's old friend from Canada, and they were able to renew their acquaintance. Roberts, meeting these various artists for the first time, would wind up managing all of them.
The album was finished by February, when Mitchell took off for her club circuit back on the East Coast, starting in Ottawa. While there, she was introduced to Graham Nash, who was on tour with the Hollies and had heard of her from his friend Crosby.
When Mitchell got back to Los Angeles, Crosby set out to showcase her to various people in the business, playing an advance copy of her album or having her sing in person. In Long Time Gone, Roberts describes one such impromptu concert. "Sure, they played [disc jockey] B. Mitchell Reed's house too. David invited some people over one day. I remember Cass [Elliot] was there, John Sebastian, Michelle Phillips, about seven or eight people, all heavy players. David says, 'Joan,' and called Joni out. She was upstairs and came down with her guitar and she played eight or nine of the best songs ever written. The next day B. Mitchell
Reid talked about it on the radio, how there was this girl in town named Joni Mitchell that's recording an album and there's nothing he can play now, but whenever this album comes out, it's going to be one of the great albums of all time. David set it up so that when the album finally came out, everyone in L.A. was aware of Joni Mitchell. The first club date we played, at the Troubadour, was standing room only for four nights, two shows a night."
The Hollies, meanwhile, arrived in L.A. on tour, and Nash came to see Crosby, setting off a turn of events that would inspire several songs. "I was living with David," Mitchell said in Long Time Gone. "Graham and I had had kind of an ill-fated beginning of a romance because we had met in Ontario
"He ended up at David's place and I was staying with David until my house was ready. Graham came down sick in David's house and I took him home to my new house to play Florence Nightingale. At first it wasn't really for romance's sake ... I took him home and was looking after him and I got attached - here was a mess. What was I going to say? I'm kind of going with David and we sort of staked claims, but I'd written all these independent songs, trying to explain my position to him; that I'm still in an independent mode. But I got really attached to Graham and I guess that's the first time I harbored the illusion of forever. I really felt for the first time in my life that I could pair bond."
"I went with her," said Nash, "and I didn't leave for a couple of years."
The author of "Triad," meanwhile, said, "The thing with Joni and Graham was that I felt great about it." Crosby went back to his old girlfriend, Christine Hinton. And the world was treated to such songs as Mitchell's "Willy," Nash's "Our House" and Crosby's "Guinnevere" (which is partially about Hinton, partially about Mitchell).
Joni Mitchell was released in March 1968, and the first thing to say about it is to confirm that the title was Joni Mitchell. The album's cover, a painting by Mitchell surrounding a tiny photograph of her, features a grouping of birds that spell out the words "Song To A Seagull," the title of one of the songs. Not only has this led many people to call the album Song To A Seagull, but several reputable rock 'n' roll history books (one example being The Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Encyclopedia, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski [Rolling Stone Press/ Summit Books, 1983]) list two different albums, one called Joni Mitchell, the other Song To A Seagull.
Mitchell, when informed of this, expressed surprise. "People can't see them," she said of the birds, "and the 'L' [of Seagull] is cut off, 'cause even the graphic department, they didn't see it either. It's called Joni Mitchell."
To anyone who had been attending Joni Mitchell's club performances, the album must have been a surprise, at least in terms of the song selection. First, her best-known material - "Urge For Going," "The Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now" - was nowhere to be found. Nor were some of her lighter, funnier songs. Instead, more recent material, the "independent songs" she had been writing while living with Crosby, were here, arranged in a loose story line that followed her recent history. "Part One," the first side, was titled, "I Came To The City," and began with "I Had A King," her account of her split with Chuck Mitchell, followed by songs reflecting on city life. "Part Two," subtitled, "Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside," included songs like "The Dawntreader," about life on Crosby's boat, "The Pirate Of Penance" and "Cactus Tree," about "a man who's been out sailing" and "a lady in the city."
Whatever else such an arrangement of material may have meant, it presented a different Joni Mitchell from the one audiences were used to in clubs, where her sense of humor and wit balanced the ornamentation and preciousness of some of her lyrics. "See, there you're looking at a slightly different form," she explained. "An album was basically 22 minutes per side. In a club, you're writing for sets, which are a little longer. I forget now, it's so long since I played a club set, but I think it was about 10 songs, maybe 14 songs. You're doing three and four sets a night, and some people are staying for two sets, so there has to be some variation between sets.
"Also, as an entertainer, you're looking to keep your audience awake, and so there's kind of little comedic things like 'Dr. Junk The Dentist Man' and funny little songs from back where I felt, I need a laugh here, this is too much drama, and none of those things found their way onto albums. I must have 20 or 30 songs prior to the first album that never were recorded."
Later, when Mitchell began to introduce some of her humor on records, it sometimes contributed to the critical backlash she suffered in the late 1970s. Though she is referring to Crosby's preservation of her acoustic presentation, one of the comments she makes in Long Time Gone about the album is telling:
" ... The way you enter the game in this business is usually the way you stay. It takes a lot to break typecasting and the way you come into the game is crucial, which was something I didn't realize at the time. In retrospect, I realize the importance of it."
Actually, at the time, Joni Mitchell didn't get that much attention. It entered the charts on May 18 at #197 and peaked three weeks later at #189, lasting a total of nine weeks near the bottom of the Top 200.
But other events were conspiring to put Joni Mitchell before the public. For one thing, the musical climate, which, only the previous fall, had seemed to favor psychedelia and the elaborate eclecticism of Sgt. Pepper, had changed in favor of her approach. Bob Dylan's comeback album, John Wesley Harding, released the last week of 1967 on the same day as Leonard Cohen's debut LP Songs Of Leonard Cohen, countered the new complexity with a new simplicity. Soon after, Simon and Garfunkel topped the charts with Bookends and the soundtrack to The Graduate, and soft, quiet folkie music seemed to be back.
At the same time, Mitchell's folkie champions continued to record her material. April saw the release of Tom Rush's The Circle Game, containing the title track, "Tin Angel" and - finally - his version of "Urge For Going." Rush's album hit #68. The same month, Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters released their self-titled album, featuring "Chelsea Morning" and the song he insisted on calling "Clouds."
But the biggest factor in broadening Joni Mitchell's exposure was Judy Collins. After its release in November 1967, her Wildflowers LP, containing Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and "Michael From Mountains," had enjoyed a curious chart history. Most albums of the time had a simple sales profile: A couple of weeks after release, they would enter the charts and rise to a peak, then gradually fall back down and off the list.
Not Wildflowers, the sales profile of which would have looked like a mountain range rather than a single spire. It entered the charts on January 6, 1968, at #145 and rose up the chart for the next several weeks, peaking at #47 on March 9. It then began to drop, but reversed itself after hitting a low at #67 on April 13 and slowly began to rise again. On June 22, it hit a new high of #43, and it rose to #36 by July 13 before starting to sink again, but it remained in the Top 50 for the rest of the summer.
On September 21, it suddenly dropped from #45 to #76, seeming to indicate that, 38 weeks into its chart run, it was finally running out of gas. But it continued to bounce around in the lower half of the Top 100 for the next several weeks, and it was at #60 on
November 2, the day that a single of "Both Sides Now," released nearly a year after the album on which it appeared, entered the Cash Box singles chart at #91 and made Billboard's Bubbling Under The Hot 100 chart at #120.
Curiously, Wildflowers started to slip as "Both Sides Now" went up the singles chart, but on November 23, as "Both Sides Now" made the Top 20, it jumped 20 places to #48, and by December 14, it had hit a new peak at #31, while In My Life, Collins' previous album, had re-entered the charts. On December 21, "Both Sides Now" peaked at #8 on the Hot 100, and the following week, Wildflowers celebrated a full year in the charts by reaching its final peak at #5 on the LP chart.
"Both Sides Now" became an instant standard, appearing on albums by at least 15 different artists in 1969 alone, and it is no doubt the most widely recorded song Joni Mitchell ever wrote. It has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Neil Diamond, Andy Williams and Willie Nelson, among many others.
The situation did not go unnoticed at Warner Bros., of course, but the way the company chose to exploit its association with the hit offended its artist. In explaining the context of this incident, we must begin by noting that the late 1960s was a strange time in American life and 1968 was the strangest year of the late 1960s. Unrest over the Vietnam War, coming on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, and paralleled by the counter-cultural trends in lifestyles, combined to make things tough on everybody hippies, straights, blacks, whites.
Even record company executives, who, as always, just wanted to sell records. The good news was that, in the aftermath of the British Invasion, record sales were booming. The bad news was that record companies found themselves signing artists they didn't understand who played music they didn't like and selling it to an audience they didn't know. The counter-culture, which bought the lion's share of the records, also seemed to be a bunch of anti-capitalist revolutionaries. The record companies tried to appease them.
Lenin pointed out that capitalists will sell you the rope you can then use to hang them with, and the record companies were trying. (Any similarity the reader may perceive to the current gangsta rap music scene is strictly coincidental, but not at all surprising.)
One place where the company meets the consumer - or tries to - is in advertising, and you can see the strain in the record company ads of the day. The most notorious example is Columbia Records' "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" campaign that sought to align the label's acts and the label itself with the revolution and somehow escape the onus of being part of the establishment.
Warner Bros. took a slightly different approach. Its ads, designed by Stan Cornyn, were intended to appeal to the sly, irreverent side of the counter-culture. For example, when Randy Newman's debut album failed to sell despite glowing reviews in 1968, Warners took out an ad in the trades under a headline reading, "Want a free album? Okay." The ad noted that the company was unable to sell the album, had hundreds on hand, and would give a thousand of them away free to those who sent in an enclosed coupon. The tone of the ad copy was satiric: at one point, it speculated about what would happen after the offer was over. "Which brings us to the age-old dilemma: can the girl who gave it away ever hope to sell it ?"
Today, such a remark might get somebody sued for sexual harassment, and that brings us to Joni Mitchell, who also had a poor-selling album in 1968, while her song "Both Sides Now" (not contained on her record) became a big hit for Judy Collins. This inspired Cornyn to write an ad with a headline reading, "Joni Mitchell is 90% virgin."
The point, if you read the copy, was that Collins had sold 10 times as many records as Mitchell had, but the headline statement flagged a part of Joni Mitchell's image that has both helped and hurt her, and that she has never entirely escaped.
In fact, Mitchell brought it up in her Goldmine interview, noting that, in an earlier interview as part of the press junket she's been on promoting Turbulent Indigo, she was 'confronted" with a copy of the ad in Toronto, as well as Cornyn's followup ads, "Joni Mitchell takes forever," bemoaning the time it took her to finish records, and, announcing the release of her second album, "Joni Mitchell finally comes across."
"I must have seemed very peculiar to them," Mitchell said of Warners. "I had an innocence. By that time, I'd be about 25, but I felt and looked about 16. So, I think that innocence is - they want - the temptation with innocence is to corrupt it, and since I was not corrupting myself - I wasn't showing my tits, I had very low necklines, but they were demure. In a way, they didn't really know what to do with me. I was neither an anarchist nor - I wasn't rough-mouthed. I was a Canadian girl. Not that it wasn't within me, under the right circumstances. But under the wrong circumstances, if I was rough-mouthed, I would embarrass people because of their view."
Mitchell acknowledged that this innocent image had its advantages, just as it had back in Saskatoon when she was a teenager. "People tended to be protective of me," she said, "and even in the scene when cocaine was around, people would shelter me from it. Everyone would be doing it, but they wouldn't do it in front of me. So, somehow or other, I brought out protectiveness in people well into my 30s, which was all right. It helps you survive some pretty tough situations."
But Mitchell did not feel protected by the Warners ads, and they would be one reason she left the company in 1971.
Meanwhile, Roberts put her on the road to take advantage of her increasing success on records. In September 1968, she was in London at the Royal Festival Hall, appearing with Al Stewart and Fairport Convention in "An Evening of Contemporary Song." In December she played the Miami Pop Festival, appearing before 100,000 people. On February 1, 1969, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In the midst of touring, she found time to cut her second album, which, despite her objection to Dave Van Ronk's title change, was called Clouds and finally contained her version of "Both Sides, Now." Indeed, the album was a combination of older songs like "Chelsea Morning" and "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and newer ones that frequently took direct, personal glimpses at romance. "I Don't Know Where I Stand" is perhaps the most telling statement of romantic doubt ever committed to disc, and girls everywhere copied out the lyrics and sent them to insufficiently attentive lovers. (Unfortunately, the author can cite personal experience on this point.) "The Gallery," meanwhile, was a dissection of the techniques of a subtle Romeo - no matter how the other lines change, the phrase "Turn down your bed" remains in every variation of his line.
On May 1, Mitchell taped an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, her network TV debut. It was broadcast on ABC on June 7. The show also featured a rare appearance by Bob Dylan, who Mitchell met for the first time.
Clouds entered the charts on June 14 at #93, 96 slots higher than her previous peak, and reached #31 on July 19, lasting a total of 36 weeks. This time, when Judy Collins released a one-off single of "Chelsea Morning" in July, Mitchell's own version also was available. (It hit #78 in August and turned up on Collins's Living album in the fall of 1971, where, of course, it was heard by Bill and Hillary Clinton, who later named their daughter after it.)
Mitchell's friends and lovers Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had formed a group by the summer of 1969, and Mitchell, currently living with Nash and handled by the same management (Roberts had by now formed a company with David Geffen called Geffen-Roberts), frequently traveled with them. During the first weekend of August, she performed at the Atlantic City Pop Festival in New Jersey where she quickly discovered that playing to an audience of a quarter-million was quite a different experience than playing to a rapt club crowd. Attempting unsuccessfully to grab the attention of the noisy festival-goers with her soft,
acoustic songs, a frustrated Mitchell stormed off the stage alter offering only a few songs, commenting something to the effect that if they weren't interested, neither was she.
Two weeks later, she was with CSN&Y in New York, but as reports of the first chaotic clay of the Woodstock festival came out, it was decided that she would not accompany them to the site. She was scheduled to appear on Dick Cavett's talk show on the Monday night after the weekend festival, and it was feared they might not be back in time. Also, as she told Dave Zimmer, "I was the girl of the family and, with great disappointment, I was the one that had to stay behind." (As it turned out, Crosby, Stills and Young appeared on the Cavett show with her.)
Stuck in a hotel room while history was being made in the mud at Yasgur's Farm, Mitchell found inspiration. "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock," she told Zimmer. "I was one of the fans. I was put in the position of being a kid who couldn't make it. So I was glued to the media. And at the time I was going through a kind of born again Christian trip - not that I went to any church, I'd given up Christianity at an early age in Sunday school. But suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason, I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God.
"So I was a little 'God mad' at the time, for lack of a better term, and I had been saying to myself, 'Where are the modern miracles? Where are the modern miracles?' Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern day fishes-and-loaves story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song 'Woodstock' out of these feelings, and the first three times I performed it in public, I burst into tears, because it brought back the intensity of the experience and was so moving."
"Woodstock" is actually something of a throwback to Mitchell songs like "Both Sides, Now" and "The Circle Game," both in its sense of disillusionment and longing for an idealized world, and in its circular imagery.
Mitchell continued to tour with CSN&Y, opening for them at the Greek Theatre on the campus of UCLA on August 20, and at the Big Sur Folk Festival in September. Like Woodstock, that festival was taped, and it would result, more than a year later, in Mitchell's feature film debut, Celebration At Big Sur (1971), one of many festival documentaries released in the wake of the success of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Mitchell's "Song To Aging Children," meanwhile, turned up on the soundtrack of a movie version of Arlo Guthrie's story song Alice's Restaurant, in theaters in the fall and in the charts, up to #63 The version was sung by one Tigger Outlaw.
In two years, Joni Mitchell had gone from being the opening act to an opening act in a Greenwich Village club to being a worldwide headliner. But by the beginning of 1970 she had been on the road for a year,
and it had become too much. On February 17, after appearing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, she announced that she was quitting live appearances.
Asked to compare the club work, which she seemed to enjoy, with the concert work, which she clearly did not, Mitchell said, "It's not the number of the people, because it all abstracts, but you can't see faces from the big stage, and you're subject to severe adjudication, and it's not as much fun. I never liked the big stage. The looseness and the heart went out of it for me.
"I got to the point where I kept asking my manager at that time, 'Let me quit, let me quit,' and he couldn't understand it till he came out one night for 'Circle Game' and it was towards the end of the show, and he saw my knuckles were white on the strings. It was very, very unpleasant for me to be up on that stage. There was no rapport. It didn't feel friendly."
In fact, there was even more to it than that, as she explained to Musician magazine's Bill Flanagan in an interview conducted in the fall of 1985 and later published in his book Written In My Soul: Rock's Great Songwriters Talk About Creating Their Music (Contemporary Books, 1986). "I really enjoyed playing clubs for about forty people," she said. "I liked being center of attention. It was like being the life of the party. That I could handle. When it got to the big stage I found that I didn't enjoy it. It frightened me initially. I had a lot of bad experiences, including running off many a stage. I just thought it was too big for me, it was out of proportion. This kind of attention was absurd."
Part of the reason Mitchell didn't trust the adulation was that it came for the same performances that had attracted only scant attention before. "I don't like receiving things that don't mean anything," she said. "I couldn't get work in these little piddling clubs, and then I couldn't believe that suddenly overnight all these people loved me for the same songs. These same people sat in clubs when I was the opening act and talked through my show. Now suddenly they were rapt? I wanted to see where they were at. I wanted to show them where I was at."
In showing them, Mitchell moved toward the nakedly personal songs on her next several albums, songs that, rather than alienating her audience, cemented their commitment to her, so much so that it is this material that most of her long-time fans love the most.
Meanwhile, on March 11, Mitchell won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for Clouds. The same month, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released their version of "Woodstock" as the lead-off single from their album Deja-vu. It hit #11 on May 9. And also in March, Reprise released Joni Mitchell's third album, Ladies Of The Canyon.
It is said that the average recording artist has about an album and a half's worth of material when signed to a record company. The first album uses up the strongest songs, the second is a combination of the weaker ones and quickly composed filler, and by the time of the third album, the artist is faced with writing a whole album for the first time - the result being that most artists make good first albums and mediocre second albums, and the third album is where they separate the men from the boys.
Joni Mitchell had been so prolific in her early years as a writer, however, that her third album, like her second, was a combination of old and new. "Morning Morgantown" and "Conversation" were a couple of years old, "Ladies Of The Canyon" and "The Priest" more than a year old, and the rest seemed to have come since the last album. This allowed the listener the unusual opportunity of hearing her growth as a writer over a significant period of time on a single disc, as if it were a retrospective rather than a new album.
And the growth was obvious. The new songs included "For Free," in which she compared her career unfavorably to that of a street musician - as stark an expression of her new commitment to strip herself bare before her audience as could be imagined, at least in professional terms. There were also "Willy" and "Rainy Night House," strikingly confessional songs, "Woodstock," and the simultaneously playful and cautionary "Big Yellow Taxi."
There had also been a real musical leap. After crediting Crosby as producer on her debut, Mitchell had left off a producer credit on Clouds, and she did so again here, but in addition to her own voice and instruments, she brought in some harmony singers, a cello played by Teressa Adams, Paul Horn on clarinet and flute (notably on "For Free"), Jim Horn on baritone sax, and Milt Holland on percussion. All this was part of finding accompaniment that wouldn't lose the subtleties of the music. Here, she did it by using instrumental colors selectively. Later, she would grow bolder.
Ladies Of The Canyon entered the charts on April 11, and rose to #27, a new peak for Mitchell doubtless aided by the release of "Big Yellow Taxi" as a single. Unfortunately, Mitchell's version had to compete with a cover by the Neighborhood, and her version went to only #67, while theirs got to #29 (#24 in Cash Box). At least she controlled the publishing. (On December 23, Ladies Of The Canyon went gold, signifying sales of half a million copies. Eventually, it would be certified platinum for sales of a million copies, making it one of Mitchell's two best-selling albums.)
Despite her concert retirement in February, Mitchell was back onstage in August at the Isle of Wight festival, but she must have wished she hadn't returned. A year after Woodstock (and the Atlantic City debacle), it had become clear that not every festival was a celebration of peace and love, and at this one, a man jumped onstage during Mitchell's set and shouted "This is just a hippie concentration camp!" Mitchell burst into tears.
After that, she seems to have gotten off the road and taken an extended rest in Europe, while writing songs for her next album. Meanwhile, Matthews Southern Comfort, a group led by former Fairport Convention singer Ian Matthews, scored a #1 hit in the fall in England with "Woodstock," as the movie of the festival hit theaters. In the U.S., Matthews' version had to compete against one by the Assembled Multitude, which came out first and got to #79 (#78 in Cash Box). Nevertheless, Matthews' version, coming after the first of the year, got to #23 (#17 in Cash Box), making it the third chart version within a year.
The next time fans got to hear Joni Mitchell's voice, it was singing backup to James Taylor on Taylor's hit version of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend," which appeared on his Mudslide Slim And The Blue Horizon album in April 1971, was released as a single in May and hit #1 on July 31, Taylor and Mitchell appeared onstage together in London in a concert broadcast on the radio and widely bootlegged under such titles as It Takes Two To Tango ("I sound like I'm on helium," Mitchell said of the show, "I've got this high, squeaky, girlie voice"), and Taylor was also heard on Mitchell's fourth album Blue, released in June.
If what she was trying to do was show herself to her audience, Mitchell succeeded completely with Blue, her first album to consist almost entirely (with the exception of the four-year-old "Little Green") of newly written material. In the intoxicating infatuation of "All I Want" and "A Case Of You" the playful rejection of "Carey," the unhappiness and self-pity of "Blue," "California" and "River" and the bitterness (still, incredibly, mixed with hope) on "The Last Time I Saw Richard," Mitchell drew unusually revealing self-portraits and performed them with emotional urgency.
Mitchell explained to Bill Flanagan the circumstances under which the album was made. "I'll just tell you what you have to go through to get an album like that," she said. "That album is probably the purest emotional record that I will ever make in my life. In order to get that clean ... you wouldn't want to walk around like that. To survive in the world you've got to have defenses. And defenses are necessary but they are in themselves a kind of pretension. And at that time in my life, mine just went. They went and you could call it all sorts of technical things. Actually it was a great spiritual opportunity but nobody around me knew what was happening.
"All I knew was that everything became kind of transparent. I could see through myself so clearly. And I saw others so clearly that I couldn't be around people. I heard every bit of artifice in a voice. Maybe it was brought on by nervous exhaustion. Whatever brought it, it was a different, un-drug-related consciousness ... I was so thin skinned. Just all nerve endings. As a result, there was no capability to fake. The things that people love now - attitude and artifice and posturing - there was no ability to do those things. I'll never be that way again and I'll never make an album like that again."
At the same time, Mitchell recognized that Blue was a breakthrough in terms of her communication with her audience, that it helped define what her relationship with listeners should be. This she explained to Jenny Boyd, saying, "On a spiritual or a human level, I have felt that it was perhaps my role on occasion to pass on anything I learned that was helpful to me on the route to fulfillment or happy life. [That includes] anything that I discovered about myself, like I'm selfish and I'm sad [a line from "River"], which are unpopular things to say. By giving the listener an opportunity then to either identify, in which case if he sees that in himself he'll be richer for it, or if he doesn't have the courage to do that or the ability, then he can always say, 'That's what she is.' So I feel that the best of me and the most illuminating things I discover should go into the work. I feel a social responsibility to that; I think I know my role. I'm a witness. I'm to document my experiences in one way or another."
These are Mitchell's reflections in the '80s and '90s on Blue and its aftermath. At the time, of course, the album was much closer to her experience, and its confessions must have been painful. But the pain conveyed itself to her listeners. Blue earned rave reviews from unusual quarters. Rolling Stone, which had not taken her seriously until now, devoted a long review by Timothy Crouse to singing its praises, and Robert Christgau, no friend to singer-songwriters, also was impressed.
The album was also an impressive seller, breaking into the charts in July and going to #15, although only "Carey" became a minor singles chart entry (#93 in Billboard, #92 in Cash Box). It went gold in November and later joined Ladies Of The Canyon as a million-seller.
In July, Mitchell toured the U.S. with Jackson Browne, who would not release his debut album until January. She was romantically linked to him, as she had been to James Taylor, and of course to Graham Nash and David Crosby, and in it's year-end issue, Rolling Stone to her as a groupie and named her "old lady of the year." She didn't speak to the magazine for the next eight years.
Despite her popular success, Mitchell seems to have given serious thought to retiring from music in 1971-72, taking time off to go back to Canada (where she bought property and built a house in British Columbia) for an extended period. One thing she did do was leave Warner-Reprise after four albums. Geffen and Roberts founded Asylum Records in 1972 to record acts they believed in and couldn't sell to existing labels, among them Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Roberts told Chapple and Garofalo that other reasons for the founding of their own label included an intention to "minimize the contractual pressures on singer-songwriters who wanted to work at their own speed" (their words), and to avoid the kind of demeaning ads labels like Warners took out on their artists. (So much for "Joni Mitchell takes forever.")
Therefore, Mitchell's fifth album, For The Roses, released in October 1972, 16 months after Blue (which, in the early '70s, was a longer hiatus than usual), appeared on Asylum Records. When it did, it became apparent that, if Mitchell hadn't retired before, she might very well now. On the title track, she condemned "people who have slices of you from the company," who "toss around your latest golden egg," and even when she wasn't being that specific, the album was full of self-questioning.
Told that the record sounds like an announcement that she was retiring, Mitchell agrees. "I did that," she said, "and I might not have come back. That was a swan song all right, of sorts, and I didn't think I'd ever come back. I built myself a stone house in a place where the landscape had infinite variety and moods and was enough to be a companion to a solitary. I armed myself with Thus Spake Zarathustra, which was my bible for that time period. It was the perfect companion to a convalescent and a solitary, and it was the only thing I had to keep me from feeling completely isolated.
"I bought out all the psychology and the philosophy department of two major bookstores - before they went computerized and their shelves narrowed down - in Los Angeles, and I sat out there in the bush throwing those books at the wall, saying, 'Bullshit, bullshit.' I couldn't see myself [in the books]. It was all so archaic. It was all so dated, the knowledge. I kept saying, 'Western philosophy is in its infancy.' It just didn't apply, so much of it. Especially the tail end of Freud. Jung, here and there - synchronicity, that was interesting. But the dream symbolism, you couldn't apply either of those dream interpretation ideas to my dreams."
Having rejected most of Western thought, seeing through the music industry came easily to Mitchell. "That was, like, spiritual/material conflict," she said, "and I was mad at the business. 'For The Roses' puts that out fairly clearly. As a matter of fact, [Atlantic Records head] Ahmet Ertegun came up to me afterwards, and he'd heard the song, and said, 'Joni, you're the only artist that knows what's going on.' I was living with Geffen at the time, and I said, 'That's not true, Ahmet. You underestimate your artists."'
Whatever it had to say lyrically, musically For The Roses was Joni Mitchell's most accomplished record yet She had stripped her sound down for Blue, but on For The Roses she used a rhythm section consisting of jazz bassist Wilton Felder of the Crusaders and drummer Russ Kunkel of the L.A. studio band the Section, which frequently backed up people like James Taylor. Legendary guitarist James Burton (heard on records by Rick Nelson and Elvis Presley) played on one track, and Stephen Stills was credited as Rock 'n' Roll Band" on another.
But the most notable instrumentalist was "Tommy Scott," who played reeds and woodwinds throughout. Scott, a 26-year-old Los Angeles native, would help Mitchell finally to put together a successful band sound over the next few years.
For The Roses earned positive reviews and was a commercial success. It was prefaced by a single, "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio," whose B-side contained a non-LP recording of one of Mitchell's earliest songs, "Urge For Going." The single reached #25 (#20 in Cash Box), Mitchell's first Top 40 hit, and the album got to #11 and went gold in two months.
In 1973, Joni Mitchell found herself back in the Warner Communications empire when the company bought Asylum Records, merged it with Elektra Records and put David Geffen in charge of an entity called Elektra-Asylum Records. Meanwhile, British fans waiting for a new album could enjoy the unlikely cover of "This Flight Tonight" from Blue performed by hard rock band Nazareth, which became a #11 U.K. hit in the fall.
In December, Asylum anticipated the release of Mitchell's sixth album with the uptempo single "Raised On Robbery," a rollicking number that featured guitar playing by the Band's Robbie Robertson. The single hit #65 (#50 in Cash Box).
It was followed, in January 1974, by Court And Spark, which would turn out to be Joni Mitchell's critical and commercial apex. For the record, Mitchell was accompanied by a collection of fusion jazz musicians, including Felder and Joe Sample of the Crusaders, guitarist Larry Carlton and members of Scott's band, the L.A. Express.
"I had no choice but to go with jazz musicians," Mitchell told Bill Flanagan in 1985. "l tried to play with all of the rock bands that were the usual sections for James Taylor when we made our transition from folk to folk-rock. They couldn't play my music because it's so eccentric. They would try, but the straight-ahead 2/4 rock 'n' roll running through it would steamroller right over a bar of 3/4. My music had all these little eccentricities in it, and it would just not feel right to me. Finally one bass player said, 'Joni, you know really you should be playing with jazz musicians.' People used to call my harmony weird. In context of today's music it's really not weird, but it was much broader polyphonic harmony than was prevalent ten, fifteen years ago. Now, much of it has been assimilated. But they couldn't figure out how to play those chords. In the standard tuning they're really virtuosic chords. The way I'm playing them in open tuning you can do it all with one finger. So with a simple left hand I was getting these chords that I liked the sound of, but which look like minor ninth inversions. Write these chords out and they have long names. So that's when I started playing with the L.A. Express."
Later on. Mitchell's turn to jazz musicians would cause her music to change in ways less acceptable to the critics and the public, but on Court And Spark the fusion musicians helped create a jazz-pop style that captivated her listeners.
Lyrically, the acceptance the album received was not hurt by her having lightened up somewhat, treating both her romantic ("Help Me") and social/business ("Free Man In Paris") concerns with a little less seriousness. "Help Me," which became a #7 hit, treated infatuation engagingly rather than threateningly and had a strong hook, while "Free Man In Paris," which hit #22, was written in the voice of David Geffen, wistfully wishing for a way out of "stoking the star maker machinery." Elsewhere, Mitchell came off as more philosophical than bitter.
The result was her best reviews ever. "She's the best singer-songwriter there is right now," wrote The Village Voice's Robert Christgau, and the New York newspaper's critics poll named Court And Spark the best album of 1974. Behind its two Top 40 singles, the album hit #2 in the charts, going gold the month of its release.
Mitchell toured arenas backed by the L.A. Express and also appeared with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young during their reunion tour of stadiums in the summer. During a series of dates August 14-17 at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A., she recorded most of the songs for a live album, Miles Of Aisles, released as a two-LP set in November. The album showed her growth as a performer and allowed her new, larger audience a chance to hear her older work. It was a measure of her popularity that it hit #2 and went gold soon after release, with "Big Yellow Taxi," released as a single for the time, reaching #24.
On March 1, 1975 Mitchell and Tom Scott won the Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for the song "Down To You" on Court And Spark. She also had been nominated for Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
In 1975, she worked on the follow-up to Court And Spark, finally turning up in public at Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue shows in the fall, first as a spectator and later onstage.
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, her eighth album, was released in November. Musically, Mitchell again employed a mixture of friends like Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor, along with various fusion jazz musicians, except for the track "The Jungle Line," which featured her singing over "the warrior drums of Burundi."
Lyrically, however, Hissing was a departure, and that was what caused critics palpitations, with Christgau, for example, calling her "a West Coast Erica Jong" (Jong was the author of the '70s best-selling novel Fear Of Flying).
In 1985, Mitchell explained to Flanagan that Hissing represented a return to an older approach. On her first three albums, she noted, she had often employed fictional characters, but, starting with Blue and running through For The Roses and Court And Spark, "I went through a period where I wrote very personal songs. I did a series of self-portraits, scrapings of the soul, and I went through that for a long time. By the time I got to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns I was back to doing portraits again. By that point, people were used to me being a confessional artist and the result of that subtle change was a lot of people didn't like Hissing because if I was saying 'I'm like this,' that 'I' could either be them - if they wanted it to be - or if it got too vulnerable, they could go, 'It's her.' But the moment I started doing portraits again, saying 'you,' a lot of people saw themselves more than they wanted to. Then they would get mad at me."
The reputation of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns has risen over the years. For example, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited Dave Marsh with John Swenson (Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979) awarded
the album only two out of a possible five stars. (In her interview with Flanagan, Mitchell referred to Rolling Stone as "the ... rag that kind of started the war against me.") But 13 years later, in The Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke Holly George-Warren (Random House, 1992), it is upgraded to three-and-a-half stars. Christgau even upgraded it from a B- to a B in his book Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums Of The '70s (Ticknor & Fields, 1981). And artists such as Prince have cited it as a favorite.
Mitchell agrees that such belated vindication is encouraging, but remains wounded by the initial reception. "It hurt," she said. "Well, it was trying to get me or something, I don't know."
Despite the bad press, Hissing was a commercial success, hitting #4 and going gold a month after its release, while "In France They Kiss On Main Street" went to #66 (#55 in Cash Box) as a single.
Mitchell wrote her next album, Hejira, during a cross-country road trip. She resurfaced in November 1976, playing at a "California Celebrates The Whale Day" benefit on the 20th and participating in the Band's Last Waltz show on the 25th. Hejira was released the same month.
Again, Mitchell teamed with players like Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman and members of the I..A. Express, but Hejira was a sparer effort than its immediate predecessors, and listeners were struck by the innovative bass playing of Jaco Pastorius, who was heard on four songs.
The first time he came in, I had never heard him play," Mitchell wrote in a tribute to Pastorius after his death that was published in the December 1987 issue of Musician magazine and reprinted in the book The Jazz Musician, edited by Mark Rowland and Tony Scherman (St. Martin's Press, 1994).
"Everybody'd heard my lament about the trouble I was having. I was trying to find a certain sound on the bottom end, going against the vogue at the time. It's very difficult to buck a vogue. Bass players were playing with dead strings; you couldn't get them to change to get a round, full-bodied tone. I liked that old analog, jukebox, Fifties sound-upright bass, boomier. In the Sixties and early Seventies you had this dead, distant bass sound. I didn't care for it. And the other thing was, I had started to think, 'Why couldn't the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?' Why did it have to always play the root? On 'The Jungle Line' I had played some kind of keyboard bass line, and when it came around for [L.A. Express bassist] Max Bennett having to play it, he just hated it. Because sometimes it didn't root the chord, it went up into the middle. To him that was flat-out wrong. To some people it was eccentric. So when Jaco came in, [L.A. Express drummer] John Guerin said to me, 'God, you must love this guy; he almost never plays the root!'
Lyrically, Mitchell returned to the "I" for much of Hejira, once gain inviting her listeners in to her own personal reflections, and despite the lack of a hit single, the album hit #13 and went gold in a month. Mitchell was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for the album, losing to Linda Ronstadt and Hasten Down The Wind.
Critics also responded positively, seeing the album as something of a return to form, although Christgau, for one, worried about the significance of her self-examination. "The reflections of a rich, faithless, compulsively romantic female are only marginally more valuable than those of her marginally more privileged male counterparts, especially the third or fourth time around," he noted.
Chapple and Garofalo, whose book, Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Pay, was being written about this time (it was published in 1977) also comment on Mitchell's wealth and isolation, questioning her relevance and her ability to identify with the real experiences of her audience. "Will she cope with the grittiness of life in the United States," they asked, "or stay, sighing, in Laurel Canyon? For Joni Mitchell is an extremely isolated rock star. She rarely tours. She does virtually no interviews. Perhaps she is an inherently shy person, but her isolation is certainly encouraged by her manager, Elliot Roberts, who long ago stopped her interviews ... Joni Mitchell, as Roberts is quick to point out, is a wealthy woman. It is too easy for her to assume the role of the rich hippie."
It is, of course, a typical reporters' conceit that a public figure should be described as isolated simply because she declines to talk to reporters. Doing interviews may be a way of talking to the public, but except in a very limited sense (even if you assume, as reporters do, that their questions reflect what the public is interested in) they do not constitute listening to it.
Nevertheless, the criticism reflected Mitchell's tendency, despite the more personal tone of Hejira, to approach lyrics more from a poetic than a communicative angle. Once, she had been an artist with whom you identified, but now she was becoming one you merely admired from afar.
And with the release of the hour-long two-LP studio album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in December 1977, even that admiration came into question. The album contained several extended compositions, notably the 16-minute "Paprika Plains," allowing Mitchell's jazz sidemen, especially Pastorius, to stretch out. Despite the album's length, Mitchell seemed to have less material than usual - of the 10 songs, one was an instrumental and another was a studio version of "Jericho," which had appeared on Miles Of Aisles three years before. Nevertheless, the length allowed reviewers to speak of the album's pretentiousness and indulgence. Fans made it another gold album (Mitchell's last), but it only reached #25.
In April 1978, the movie and soundtrack of The Last Waltz appeared, featuring Mitchell's second feature film appearance as she sang the Hejira song "Coyote."
The same month, she met with jazz composer/bassist Charles Mingus, terminally ill with Lou Gehrig's disease. Mingus wanted to create what Mitchell later described as "a piece of music based on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and he wanted to do it with - and this is how he described it - a full orchestra playing one kind of music, and overlaid on that would be bass and guitar playing another kind of music; over that there was to be a reader reading excerpts from Quartets in a very formal literary voice; and interspersed with that he wanted me to distill T.S. Eliot down into street language, and sing it mixed in with the reader." (This is from Mitchell's interview with Leonard Feather printed in the September 6, 1979, issue of Down Beat magazine, as quoted in Mingus: A Critical Biography, by Brian Priestley [Da Capo, 1982].)
Mitchell read Eliot's long poem, she told interviewer Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone in 1979, and told Mingus, "I'd rather condense the Bible." Mingus then asked Mitchell if she would write lyrics for six melodies of his. Working first in New York (he was living at Manhattan Plaza, she at the Regency Hotel), then at Mingus's home in Mexico, they completed much of the work before Mingus' death on January 5, 1979. In June, Mitchell released an album called Mingus featuring the new songs, plus such familiar Mingus tunes as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
" ... Although the Joni Mitchell recordings can hardly be considered part of the Mingus canon," wrote Brian Priestley, "it is worth noting that her lyrics for 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' are far superior to those recorded by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and her singing is al most good enough to make one think of Sheila Jordan or Annie Ross. And the restrained but distinctly space-age bass playing of Jaco Pastorius, which, fittingly, dominates the album, could never have existed but for the influence of Mingus on those who have influenced Pastorius."
Perhaps recognizing the dicey commercial prospects of such a project, Mitchell took the extraordinary step of agreeing to an interview that would be published in Rolling Stone, her first extensive question-and-answer session in more than a decade. The album actually charted higher than Dan Juan's Reckless Daughter, getting to #17, though it became her first album since Clouds not to go gold.
Mitchell also launched a tour, backed bye band including Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny, keyboard player Lyle Mays and saxophonist Michael Brecker. In September, they were filmed and recorded at a performance at the Santa Barbara County Bowl and, in December 1980, a TV special on the Showtime cable television network. The album hit #32, while its single, a version of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" featuring the Persuasions, bubbled under the Hot 100 at #102.
Shadows And Light completed a phase in Mitchell's work that had begun with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, and she made several notable changes in presenting her next album, Wild Things Run Fast, which appeared in October 1982. For one thing, she split with her manager, Elliot Roberts, after 17 years and, after a brief period without management, took on Peter Asher, who handles such artists as James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. On November 21, she married bass player Larry Klein at Roberts's home in Malibu.
Klein appeared on the album in place of the increasingly undependable Pastorius. Wild Things, which was released by Geffen Records (still under the Warner Communications umbrella), was a more rock-oriented, uptempo collection than Mitchell's more jazz-oriented works of the second half of the '70s. It also, unusually for Mitchell, contained two cover songs, the '50s ballad "Unchained Melody" (in a medley with her own "Chinese Cafe") and "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don t Care." The latter, best known as one of Elvis Presley's recordings for Sun, became a #47 chart single, and the album itself hit #25.
Mitchell undertook an extensive tour to promote the album that lasted for much of 1983. She was backed by a four-piece band consisting of guitarist Mike Landau, keyboard player Russell Ferrante, Klein on bass and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. 1984 saw the release of a one-hour home video, Refuge Of The Roads, filmed on the tour and directed by Mitchell. This seems to have been the last extensive touring Mitchell has undertaken, though she has played isolated shows in the last decade.
Wild Things had been the first album to contain a producer's credit since Mitchell's debut - she was credited as producer. For her next album, Dog Eat Dog, released in October 1985, Mitchell shared production duties with Klein, Thomas Dolby and Mike Shipley. And she brought in several guest stars, including Michael McDonald, Don Henley and James Taylor, for a set of songs that took on a variety of social concerns, from smoking to evangelism. By now, her audience had dwindled to a dedicated core who were still able to give the album 19 weeks on the charts and a peak at #63. "Good Friends," the duet with McDonald, released as a single, made #85 in Cash Box.
Mitchell was involved in the charity activities prevalent among pop performers in the mid-'80s, with mixed results. She appeared on the Canadian Ethiopian relief record "Tears Are Not Enough." On June 15, 1986, she was a last-minute addition to an Amnesty International concert at Giants Stadium, in New Jersey, thrown on as a set change interlude between headliners the Police and U2. The result was a three-song set (including the premiere of "Number One," which would appear on her next album) greeted by an impatient, teenage audience with something less than complete graciousness. But Mitchell, who doubtless would have run off crying at such an experience 15 years before, persevered and even found positive things to say in a post-set interview with Pat Benatar on the live MTV broadcast.
Mitchell was not much heard from in 1987, except for an appearance on the Herbie Hancock-hosted Showtime music series Showtime Coast To Coast, on which she appeared playing with David Sanborn and Bobby McFerrin. Her 15th album, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, was released on March 22,1988. Here, she seemed to be trying to catch up with the production and sound of such '80s peers as Peter Gabriel who turned up dueling with her on the opening track, "My Secret Place." Don Henley, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson also appeared on the album, on which Mitchell took on Native American concerns ("Lakota") and covered such songs as "Cool Water and "Corrina, Corrina" with revised lyrics. Reviews were mixed, and the album peaked at #45. Mitchell was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for the album, losing to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."
On July 21, 1990, Mitchell appeared in Berlin, singing the song "Goodbye Blue Sky" at the massive live staging of The Wall organized by former Pink Floyd leader
Roger Waters. Released on video and disc in September, The Wall - Live In Berlin hit #56.
Mitchell's 16th album, Night Ride Home, was released February 19, 1991. It was described by Mark Coleman in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (which awarded it four stars) as not "so much a comeback as a chance to catch up with a long-lost confidante," containing "Mitchell's most tuneful material since Court And Spark ... Like her old pal Neil Young," Coleman concluded, "Joni Mitchell has managed to forge a mature style from the raw material of her youthful follies."
'Fine album reached #41. (Geffen issued a special limited edition version in a black cardboard package containing a set of photographs featuring Mitchell's face superimposed on landscape scenes. Geffen also released a 45-minute home video titled Come In From The Cold containing five music videos relating to Night Ride Home and three relating to Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm.)
More changes marked the run-up to the release of Mitchell's latest album, Turbulent Indigo. She spent a year in litigation to end her contract with Geffen Records (which had been sold to MCA), and then re-signed to Warner Bros., appearing in photographs with label heads Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker just prior to their messy departures from the company. On the day before recording for the album commenced, she split from her husband, Larry Klein, though Klein co-produced and played on the record.
The resulting album is reminiscent of Dog Eat Dog in its taking on of various social concerns. "Very outward, this album," Mitchell noted, "and angry." Of the songs, she said, "They're not cynical. They're candid photographs, basically, don't you think? That's what they are. The songs that I'm writing for the next album [some of which were previewed at the Edmonton Folk Festival last summer] are quite different. I have two already, and they're of a different quality already. So, you kind of get ahead of yourself.
"I think that this was a clearinghouse," she continued, returning to Turbulent Indigo," and also that I saw so much injustice levied at women this time. I always hung with men all my life, and I've always felt that the better way than the feminist stance, which is pointing outward and saying 'them' and 'us,' was a dialogue between a man and woman, like, 'What's wrong here?' Working closer, working with rather than pointing at would be more effective. Let's come to a greater understanding. Are we really that different or is it sociologically imposed?
"After all, we all began as women. We developed in our different ways after that, but we all began - Don Juan, in the [Carlos] Castaneda books, says that the universe is basically feminine, that the whole thing is like a birthing creature, and this hostility towards the earth and towards the feminine if the Orientals and the Indians view the sky as masculine and the earth as the bearing female, you're raping the bearing female. We've lost our holisticness."
The album drew some criticism for its forthrightness, notably on the spousal abuse song "Not To Blame" (which has been linked to Jackson Browne's alleged abuse of ex-girlfriend Daryl Hannah despite Mitchell's denial) and the anti-advertising (and other things) song "Sex Kills."
"One of the reviewers I spoke to - and I don't watch television that much - said, 'Oh, but all these issues have been on Oprah, and you don't want to hammer them in,"' Mitchell noted. "I thought, well, gee, I'm unaware of that. I'm sure that everything you could write about is a cliché, and somebody's heard it way too much. But maybe there's another way to put it. You can't give up on it or dismiss it as a theme or say, 'We've heard that too much.'
"I'm very surprised at the positive reception that this album has received among my friends, almost immediately, relative to other projects of mine for a long time. Instead of - 'Oh, there's Joni, she's suffering again' - it shows me that the world must have touched and hit against people now long enough."
Even looking outward, then, Mitchell again is hitting listeners directly. If she sees life as difficult for others, her own last few years, which have included medical problems and tax disputes, haven't been easy, either, and much of this comes out on Turbulent Indigo.
"Somebody told me, some Harvard grad was given this axiom, basically what he said was that, in your teens and 20s, that is your lyric period, and then from your 30s through your 40s, that's your epic period as you begin to experience things again and again," Mitchell said, "like Leonard [Cohen]'s line, 'Are my lessons done? No, do them all again.' That was a 30s writer's statement. Then, as you approach your 50s and for the rest of your life, now you're developed into a tragedian. Your irony should be in full bloom at this point. I don't think I could have tackled 'Job' [the album-ending song "The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)"] as a song until now, that I've lived enough life to have been to the pit, figuratively speaking, enough times to be able to empathize fully with that position of bereavement and temptation to lose faith."
And in such a way, Mitchell keeps faith with listeners who have looked to her for a quarter century as a gauge for their own development. "You can still choose your side, acting with humanity, but what's the use?" Van Gogh wrote to his brother just before committing suicide. For Joni Mitchell and her audience, there still is a use in choosing, and on the last page of the CD booklet to Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell is seen holding her painting of herself as the mutilated Van Gogh, but wearing a smile.
(End of article from Goldmine Magazine issue #380, February 17, 1995)
Both Sides Now.. Mitchell and Geffen Clarify Points in Article
Two of the more careful readers of my article, "Joni Mitchell: From Blue To Indigo" (issue 380), were Joni Mitchell and David Geffen. Both of them have contacted me subsequently, and with their help I am able to clarify a few points made in the article.
The article contained a description of the confusion surrounding the title of Mitchell's 1968 debut album. The album has a cover illustration, painted by Mitchell, that features the words "Song To A Seagull" written out in seagulls, while the spine and the record label (on LP, cassette and CD) all say merely "Joni Mitchell." This has led some people to call the album Song To A Seagull and some Joni Mitchell, while some published sources mistakenly say there are two albums.
I pointed out that Joni Mitchell is the "official" title. Mitchell, however, wishes to note that Song To A Seagull was the title she intended for the album, though somehow that intention got lost when the album was being pressed, and the error has never been corrected.
In the discussion of "Both Sides Now," Mitchell is quoted using the phrase, "When Chuck Mitchell [her then-husband] and I wrote 'Both Sides Now' ..." This was a slip of the tongue, and it should not be construed to mean that Chuck Mitchell co-wrote the song. He did not.
Toward the end of the article comes a sentence that begins, "She [Joni Mitchell] spent a year in litigation to end her contract with Geffen Records ..." The source for this remark is an October 1994 New York Daily News article written by Jim Farber. Farber interviewed Mitchell at around the same time I did, and he told me that his source for the statement was Mitchell herself. Nevertheless, Mitchell denies it, and so does Geffen. According to Geffen, "There was no 'year in litigation' that led up to Joni's departure from Geffen Records—there was never even a threat of litigation. Joni felt she needed a change, and when she asked for a release from her contract with us, I gave it to her, along with the rights to her latest record." Mitchell's version of the story is more complicated; it does involve a year of negotiation, lawyers and a legal agreement. But it does not include "litigation" in the sense of a lawsuit filed in a court.
Beyond these three specific points, Mitchell had general reservations about the method of the article—standard among journalists—of constructing a biography based on existing published sources in books and magazines (plus, in this case, a one-hour interview with the subject).
She does not think she has been treated fairly in the press over the years and therefore, necessarily, a compendium of that coverage could not offer an accurate portrait of her. One of my intentions in the article was to try to present the reader with Joni Mitchell more in the way that she sees herself than in the way she has been seen conventionally. But I would have to have interviewed her more extensively than I was able to this time to completely fulfill that intention.
I am indebted to both Mitchell and Geffen for their advice and assistance.
This article has been viewed 20,095 times since being added on January 9, 2000.
Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.
Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.
You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.