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Joni Mitchell   Print

by Jim Irvin
Word
March 2005

When the secret that propelled her into the spotlight was finally revealed, it was time to stop making music.

NINE WAS A memorable age for Roberta Joan Anderson. Three things occurred that year, more than 50 years ago, which affect her to this day:

She moved with her mother and father to the place she would refer to as home, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a small town founded by Methodists in 1883 as a teetotaller's haven, far from the city's temptations, in the heart of Canada's "sea of wheat".

She contracted polio, a usually crippling illness which, instead of taking her mobility gave her, she thinks, the sensitivities of an artist.

She started smoking.

The three events were connected. Joan was born on November 7 l943 in Fort Macleod, in the prairie province of Alberta, the only child of William Anderson, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his wife Myrtle "Mickey" McKee, a teacher. When the war ended, Anderson moved his family between rented rooms in some of the satellite towns of Saskatoon, along Highway 16: Maidstone, population 400, where his daughter used to wave at the daily train as it passed her window, and North Battleford, where Bill managed one of the O.K. Economy chain of grocery stores and Mickey taught at a local school. Their home there was a pale, clapboard-covered, single-storey house with three steps up to the front door and a large twelve-paned picture window looking onto the highway.

“Things coming and going by that window left an impression on me,” says Roberta Joan. "I think that set up a permanent longing in me to set off and go somewhere."

As a child she was prone to illness but curiously robust, surviving appendicitis and bouts of measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever. On the day before she was diagnosed with polio she was dressed, she remembers, in grey pegged slacks, a gingham blouse and a blue sweater. She looked in the mirror, noticed the dark rings under her eyes and thought, "You look like a woman today." On her way to school she had to sit down, suddenly fatigued. It hurt her to stand again and she thought it was rheumatism – she'd seen her grandmother complain of it. The next morning she collapsed and was flown to hospital in an air ambulance.

In an out-take from a marvelous documentary about her life, Woman of Heart And Mind, she recalls that trip: "The flight was beautiful, very poetical. Every seven miles between North Battleford and Saskatoon was a small town. I remember writing in the fifth grade, I think, that they looked like 'Topaz brooches on the black velvet land' or something cornball like that."

The polio ward of St Paul's Hospital, Saskatoon, was an isolation unit of temporary huts presided over by "rustling nuns". Joan's mother would visit wearing a mask to avoid contamination and, on one visit, brought her a Christmas tree. Joan was allowed to sit looking at it twinkling for a while after lights-out. It made her long to go home for Christmas, but the consultant didn't think she'd be well enough, in fact he was unsure she would ever walk again. The disease had twisted her spine forward and to the right. She could hardly stand.

Young Joan was a natural skeptic. Her forensic questioning of bible stories – "Adam and Eve meet; they're the first man and woman, and they have two sons: Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, then Cain got married. So who did he marry?" – didn't go down well at Sunday school, so she'd been skipping church. But now she was prepared to make a deal with God if she could walk home for Christmas.

"I don't know who I prayed to. I addressed it to the Christmas tree. I said 'I am not a cripple, not a cripple, not a cripple. I'm going home for Christmas. If I can pull this off, I'll make it up to you.'" There was a regimen of excruciating therapies, including having her legs bound in scalding hot wet rags. Joan bore it all and one day announced she was ready to go home.

"I walked. I went home for Christmas. So polio, in a way, germinated an inner life and a sense of the mystic. It was mystical to come back from that disease."

The pact with God In The Christmas Tree had one other lasting side-effect.

"I had this debt to pay back because I'd unfurled and walked. So I joined the church choir, and one night after choir practice, in the middle of the winter, a girl had snitched a pack of Black Cat cork cigarettes from her mother and we all sat by the wintry fish pond in the snow, and passed them around. Some girls choked and some threw up, and I took one puff and felt really smart! I just thought, 'Woah!' My head cleared up. I seemed to see better and think better. So I was a smoker from that day on. Secretly, covertly, and I'm still smoking."

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Joni Mitchell.

We may never hear that last sentence uttered on a concert stage again. In 2002, as she released Travelogue, a two-disc reappraisal of songs from throughout her career, Joni Mitchell, one of the most gifted, individual and self-sufficient artists of our age, announced her retirement from a music business she declared "repugnant" and a “cesspool". She spent considerable time on the short promotional round bad-mouthing executives at her long-term label, Reprise, who'd rejected the album (which subsequently came out on another Warner Music imprint, Nonesuch). Taking sideswipes at everyone from Madonna to MTV and David Letterman, criticizing the entire arena she was required to function in, Mitchell branded it corrupt and banal, a business reluctant to pay artists and interested only in signing compliant kids.

“They're not looking for talent," she told James Reginato of W Magazine. “They're looking for a look and a willingness to co-operate. A woman my age, no matter how well preserved, no longer has the look. And I've never had a willingness to co-operate."

"Joni has a lot of residual resentments - old baggage, so to speak -with the music business in general,” Warners' creative director Jeff Ayeroff responded. "She needed a music company which operates as an 'art gallery'...[She] needs to move forward with more positiveness."

Mitchell opted to move forward doing something else, concentrating on another life-long love, her paintings, which she occasionally exhibits but doesn't sell. And she has overseen some subsequent reissues of her work: a boxed set of her recordings for Geffen Records and two compilations, one of lesser- known songs brought together for their thematic resonance, The Beginning Of Survival, and last year's “greatest hits”, Dreamland, each collection wearing a self-portrait on its sleeve.

Distraught fans should bear in mind, however, that Joni has announced he retirement at least once before: in 1969, shortly before releasing Ladies Of The Canyon, her breakthrough album – the one with Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock on it. Freaked out by the onset of stardom, and nursing a broken heart, she went traveling, helping friends take a boat from Jamaica to the Panama Canal, visiting Spain and France, living in a sandstone cave in Greece for a few weeks and living on 'yogurt, apple pies and bacon”, or, as the song about it said, "good omelettes and stews”, returning with Blue, a million-selling touchstone for a generation of sensitive souls, which pointed the way for candid singer-songwriting from that day forward and made her an even bigger star. Some retirement.

MUSIC SEEPED INTO JONI Mitchell's life the way it must have for many war babies from modest backgrounds, from the radio mostly, and from a very few discs in the family parlor, classical recordings of Au Clair De La Lune and Brahms' Lullaby, in her case. But she was particularly transported by two records they didn't own; Rachmaninov's Rhapsody On A Theme By Paganini, used as the theme to the film, The Story Of Three Loves and Edith Piaf singing Les Trois Cloches (The Three Bells). She would return to a downtown record store to listen to these records over and over. “Those two just nailed me, they hit some raw nerve inside." But at 75 cents each, she couldn't afford to buy them.

One morning at school, a new teacher divided the class into four streams, bluebirds, robins, wrens and crows, bluebirds being the A-graders, crows the failures. Joan, a robin, remember wanting to be a crow, as she'd always liked that particular bird and realizing there was nobody she liked among the bluebirds and that she had no aspirations to join them. Next, the teacher asked the class to copy a perspective drawing of a dog kennel. Joan's was easily the best likeness and she decided she was happy to be an average bird with one thing she could do really well. She now considered herself an artist.

Teachers continued to exert a powerful influence on the teacher´s daughter. There was the music teacher who rapped her knuckles when she began to improvise at the piano, providing her something to remember with disdain forever. But others are remembered affectionately. Joni has often paid tribute to the pivotal role played by Arthur Kratzman, her seventh grade English master at Queen Elizabeth public school in Saskatoon. One afternoon as she was pinning up some other pictures before a PTA meeting, the dashing “Gable and Peck rolled into one" complimented Joan on her work and remarked: "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words”.

“I can see her now, in the back seat of the second row”, he told Rolling Stone after Joni had dedicated her debut album to him, "a blonde, bright-eyed kid. Very receptive to ideas.” She took up extracurricular English classes and wrote poetry. Mr. Kratzman handed back one epic verse with many of its images ringed and comments such as “cliche" beside them. Rather than being put off, it spurred Joan on to be original.

She changed her name to Joni at the age of 13 because she liked the way art teacher Henry Bonli's name looked when he signed his paintings. "I always had star eyes, I was always interested in glamour," she has said. Beating polio only intensified her need to dance. She took ballroom dance classes and, at 14, would sneak out of the house "across the tracks" to Lindy hop at rock'n'roll contests, simultaneously feeding another enduring need, to hang out with "unsuitable kids".

"I was drawn to where the music was best, and it's always in the roughest areas," she told William Ruhlmann of Goldmine magazine in 1995. "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, 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."

Attracted by the night world, coming alive after dark, tuned into all-night rock music beaming up from Texas, Joni increasingly felt out of step with her peers. “The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think," she told Cameron Crowe in a l979 Rolling Stone cover story. "There was no liberty, really, for free thinking, I liked some of my teachers very much, but I had no interest in their subjects. So I would appease them – I would line the math room with ink drawings and portraits of the mathematicians. I did a tree of life for my biology teacher. I was always staying late at the school, down on my knees painting something."

She cultivated an image of herself as an artist. And she dressed well, thanks to part-time work she found modeling for department stores. She had access to cheap samples and always looked fashionable. She even wrote a column for the high school newspaper. "Fads & Fashions."

"I would go hang out on the streets dressed to the T, even in hat and gloves. I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians; they were more emotionally honest and better dancers. When I went back to my own neighborhood, I found that I had a provocative image. They thought I was loose because I always liked rowdies. I thought the way the kids danced at my school was kind of funny, I remember a recurring statement on my report card – 'Joan does not relate well,' I know that I was aloof. Perhaps some people thought I was a snob."

Playing her own music didn't really occur until late in her days at Aden Bowman High School. She bought a $36 baritone ukulele with money she'd made from her modeling work, because she didn't have quite enough to buy a guitar. She taught herself a few chords from a Pete Seeger music book and soon began to sing folk songs in coffee houses and even appeared on local TV. Aged 17, she left high school without having distinguished herself academically. It was the moment at which she had to decide whether or not she would permanently cross the tracks.

"There came a stage when my friends who were juvenile delinquents suddenly became criminals. They could go into very dull jobs or they could go into crime. Crime is very romantic in your youth. I suddenly thought, 'Here's where the romance ends. I don't see myself in jail"'

That same year she discovered another important influence. A favour done for a school friend was repaid with a copy of The Hottest New Group In Jazz, an album by jazz vocal trio Lambert Hendricks and Ross, which included Twisted and Centrepiece, songs which Joni would later record. The music's swing, humour, interweaving voices and the group's evident singing and writing skills had a profound impact. "They were my Beatles," she remarked later.

Attending the Southern Alberta Institute Of Technology in Calgary, which ambitions to become an illustrator, Joni began singing in a coffee shop called The Depression. "In the beginning I thought of myself as a confident mimic of Joan Baez and Judy Collins," she told film maker Susan Lacy. "As a painter I had the need to innovate, as a musician... at that time it was just a hobby, I didn't think I had the gift to take it any further."

Even at art college she rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy for abstract expressionism, and felt that many of the students were there for reasons other than a love of art. But she took a shine to one student, Brad McMath; in fact she lost her virginity to him. And immediately fell pregnant.

Joni's overriding thoughts at that moment were of shame. "A daughter could do nothing more disgraceful. You have no idea what the stigma was. It was like you murdered somebody," she told Robert Hilburn of the LA Times in 2004. Joni and Brad left college and moved to Toronto, supposedly to bring up the child together. "Bur we were not communicating," McMath told MacLean's magazine in 1997. In the winter of 1964 he decamped to California. Joni moved to a Victorian rooming house on Huron Street and worked in the Simpsons-Sears department store. She couldn't afford the local Musicians Union dues of $160, so had to blag the occasional gig at the YMCA or at 'scab clubs' like The Purple Onion. It was a lonely winter. One day another guy in her house, Duke, had a visit from his brother, John, who gave her some apples. She never forgot this small kindness.

She gave birth to Kelly Dale Anderson on February 19, l965 in a charity hospital. She recalls that the nurses would bind the breasts of the unwed mothers so they wouldn't produce milk. Two weeks later, Kelly was taken into foster care. "I had no money nor diapers, no room to take her to. There was no career on the horizon," she told CBC in 1996. Feeling there was no hope of supporting her child alone she reluctantly gave Kelly up for adoption at six months old. It haunted her for the next three decades, surfacing occasionally in her songs, most openly in Little Green, written in 1967, and recorded for Blue in 1971:

"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."

JONI ANDERSON MET Chuck Mitchell only a month after Kelly was born, when she was performing at a Toronto club called The Penny Farthing. Chuck, a singer several years her senior, told her he could get her work in the U.S. They began dating, and after a few weeks she told him about her daughter, and he suggested they marry. The date was set three months away, June 19.

"I was emotionally weak with a lot of things pulling me in all sorts of directions and this was a strong pull, and something of a solution," Joni says in A Woman of Heart and Mind.

"So we married, for all the wrong reasons. I made my dress and bridesmaid's dresses. We had no money, I barely knew any of these people. I walked down the aisle brandishing my daisies thinking, 'I can get out of this.'"

Pictures of the reception show Joni in her gown cradling a guitar, singing for the guests.

“Then, the moment we were married, he intimated strongly, he had no interest in raising another man's child. So I was trapped."

Three days later they performed together as a duo at a club in Michigan called The Folk Cellar. Chuck was eager to develop the act, though their styles weren't particularly suited. Joni continued to take solo bookings, notably one at Ontario's Mariposa Folk Festival, but performing as a duo made some sense. They moved to a cheap but roomy walk-up apartment in Detroit and throughout 1966 gathered a reputation as a strong booking in folk clubs on the Philly-Detroit-Toronto circuit and further into the US, including Florida and a show at the Gaslight in New York where Joan Baez saw them play and told Joni she reminded her of Buffy St. Marie. Their apartment was open-house for many visiting folk musicians and for a while, they "seemed like Detroit's golden couple," but it was a false impression. "We were living a lie. I looked relatively happy but I felt like I'd been betrayed. It was very difficult for me, so I began to write. I started writing to develop my own private world and also because I was disturbed."

Her earliest songs were simple expressions of loneliness on the road. The first was Day After Day, apparently written after the three-day trek to Mariposa. Mr. Kratzman would probably have sent this one back heavily ringed, but her next efforts included a more complex expression of the bittersweet tension between settling and moving on, Urge For Going. The theme resurfaced in other unrecorded songs, Born To Take The Highway and Poor Sad Baby. She also wrote more fanciful material, Daisy Summer Pipers and Dr Junk The Dentist Man to cheer up her club appearances, and then another future hit, The Circle Game. When folk heroes like Buffy St. Marie, Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush began to cover Joni's songs, it only widened the gulf between her and Chuck.

"I was in the middle of a poker game some place in Michigan late in the evening," Mitchell recalled in Goldmine, "and I turned to a stranger, basically, sat next to me and said, 'I'm leaving my husband tonight. Will you help me?' We rented a U-Haul truck and drove back to Detroit. I separated what I considered was a fair split, 50 per cent of the furniture, and the stranger and I hauled it on our own backs down the fifth-floor walk-up in the middle of the night, and I moved out."

When he found out what had happened, Chuck Mitchell, immediately changed the locks, effectively shutting the door after the horse had bolted.

"She was very ambitious, very calculating and very self-centred – and so was I", Chuck told the Daily Mail in 1996, noting that she left him a month after getting her green card to work in the US. "She wanted to escape her Canadian upbringing and get on the big stage. She always knew what she wanted. I became excess baggage about six months after we got together. And it was really hard for me, I'd waited a long time to get married. This was it. I felt 'What's wrong with me?' and had phases of resentment and anger. But gradually this faded." (Chuck Mitchell has been appearing as American minstrel legend Stephen Foster in performances of a two-man touring show called Mr. Foster and Mr Twain since 1990.)

"I feel grateful for every bit of trouble I went through," Joni says in Woman of Heart And Mind. "Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny: I became a musician.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs Joni Mitchell.

SHE PERFORMED SOLO for only the next five years, but it's this period that endures in Joni Mitchell's public image, the striking ingénue with the river-clear soprano and the plangent guitar, the avenging angel of the lovelorn, the mermaid sired by a seahorse. To describe someone by their contradictions may be a cliche, but early reports and footage from her breakthrough years depict a young woman shimmering with contrasts.

To seem simultaneously one-of-us and regally aloof, to be self-possessed and serious for one song and girlishly silly during the next, to appear otherworldly, driven and wise beyond your years whilst also seeming lost, vulnerable, guileless and naïve – these are golden qualities for the putative star, and they shone from the girl with the unspoken torment behind pale, flashing eyes.

Charisma shone from her playing too. Her guitar technique was quite extraordinary. Being self-taught, she'd never really learnt standard chords, and her left hand, weakened by polio, couldn't always make the requisite shapes, so she would meander along the fretboard with a logic all her own. In New York, folk singer Eric Anderson, a close friend to this day, showed her open-G tuning. Tom Rush played in open-C. These opened up a universe of possibilities. She would explore alternative tunings so thoroughly that, at the end of the ‘70s someone calculated that only two of her recorded songs were in regular Spanish guitar EADGBE mode.

"For years everybody said 'Joni's weird chords, Joni's weird chords' and I thought, How can chords be weird? Chords are depictions of your emotions, they feel like my feelings. I called them Chords of Inquiry, they had a question mark in them. There were so many unresolved things in me that those suspended chords that I found by twisting the knobs on my guitar, they just suited me."

For that first summer, she booked herself gigs at an impressive string of festivals and began to get a sense that she was becoming famous. Playing for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival she was stunned when people queuing outside a venue gasped with awe when her road-manager Janie gave the door staff her name. "My eyes bugged out of my head. I had the strangest reaction: I turned on my heel and I ran for 10 blocks in the other direction. It pumped me so full of adrenaline, I bolted like a deer." Indeed, her reputation was strong enough to secure a few shows in England that same summer. Through the auspices of the ubiquitous Joe Boyd, she appeared at The Marquee, supported The Incredible String Band at The Speakeasy and sang at folk clubs in Leicester and Birmingham (The Jug O'Punch, Digbeth Town Hall, no less). Boyd also gave demos of her songs to his signings Fairport Convention, who included Chelsea Morning and I Don't Know Where I Stand on their debut album the following year.

In October 1967, at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, an excitable young man named Elliot Roberts was transfixed by Joni's performance. "She was a jumble of creative clutter with a guitar case full of napkins, road maps and scraps of paper, all covered with lyrics," Roberts recalled in Woman Of Heart and Mind. "I told her I was a personal manager and I'd kill to work with her. She said, I'm leaving tomorrow and going on the road for about three weeks. I said, can I go with you? And she said, I'm flying to Ann Arbor, if you pay your own expenses you can come with me, and I did." The pair bonded smoking joints in their Ann Arbor hotel. Joni enjoyed the ribald humour of this guy who usually managed comedians. He was hired.

The new partnership moved fast. Though they rejected a deal with Vanguard and found resistance from several other labels who told them folk music was over, within five months, Joni's debut album for Reprise was in the stores. "She had a backlog of 25 songs that most people would dream of writing in their entire career," Roberts recalls, "and she had them before she'd even started recording." The album was ostensibly produced by another new partner, David Crosby, who'd also been mesmerized by her singing in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida. "She rocked me back on my feet, pinned me to the wall with two-inch spikes," he remembers.

"He was tanned. He was straight. He was clearing out his boat, and it was going to be the beginning of a new life for him," Joni said of their meeting to Cameron Crowe in 1979. "He had a wonderful sense of humour. Crosby has enthusiasm like no one else. He can make you feel like a million bucks. Or he can bring you down with the same force. I had just come back from London. That was during the Twiggy, Biba era, and I wore a lot of makeup. I think I even had on false eyelashes, so one of his first projects in our relationship was to encourage me to let go of all of this elaborate war paint."

"Joan calls me up and says, 'Listen, I'm fucking a Byrd'," recalls Roberts. "I go. 'Excuse, me?”

Crosby was soon showing her off to his Laurel Canyon circle and his patronage helped her debut album happen the way she wanted. "David was very enthusiastic about the music – he was twinkly about it!" Joni told writer Barney Hoskyns. "He was going to protect the music and pretend to produce me. So we just went for the performance, with a tiny bit of sweetening. I think perhaps without David's protection the record company might have set some kind of producer on me who'd have tried to turn an apple into an orange. And I don't think I would have survived that. The net result of that was that (engineer) Henry Lewy and I made 13 albums together without a producer." Crosby continues to be modest about his contribution to the record, but was proud of at least one production technique: he stood Joni near a miked-up grand piano and recorded the reverberation of the strings as she sang. And when his short tenure as swain and producer was over, Crosby was heard to mutter that Joni Mitchell was "about as modest as Mussolini", but affectionately, you understand.

Joni Mitchell (aka Song To A Seagull) was released in March 1968 (“Joni Mitchell is 90% Virgin" ran one of Reprise's famously glib ads), by which time she was fully absorbed into the LA circle. She introduced Roberts to her Canadian friend Neil Young – whom he still manages today – and to Crosby. Roberts introduced her to David Geffen – his old friend from the William Morris mailroom – who became her agent. Through Crosby she met Graham Nash and stopped "fucking a Byrd" to be with him. He was awe-struck by her. She didn't mind that at all, and enjoyed his Mancunian edge. He watched her tearfully receive a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall with her parents in the audience. The sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash, now stable-mates of Joni's at Geffen-Roberts management, audibly influenced her delivery on her second album Clouds. By the time it appeared in May 1969 ("Joni Mitchell Finally Comes Across" chirped the ad) her songs had been hits for George Hamilton IV (Urge For Going), Tom Rush (The Circle Game) and Judy Collins (Both Sides, Now) and she'd earned a reported $ 500,000. Clouds would win a Grammy. Joni Mitchell was the uncrowned Queen Of The Canyon.

IT WAS DAVID GEFFEN who stopped her playing at Woodstock. "We got to the airport and I saw the TV report – 400,000 people sitting in mud – and I turned to Joni and said, 'Let's not go.'" It was calculated that she could not get onto the site and back in time to appear on her nationwide TV debut, The Dick Cavett Show, that same evening. But Crosby, Stills and Nash chartered a helicopter, got in, played and got out in time to gatecrash Joni's TV slot. She has variously said she was mortified not to be with the boys down on Yasgur's Farm and has dismissed it: "Woodstock? That was all silly." Nevertheless, she played a significant role in the event's history. 'By the time we got back to the hotel the song Woodstock had basically been written," said Nash.

"[With that song] she contributed more to people's understanding of that event than anyone who was there," says Crosby in the documentary.

"Joni has this fantastic drive to create all the time," Nash told a reporter from the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in August 1969. "If nothing constructive is done during the day, she feels dissatisfied. She's got to be doing something, even if it's making rhubarb pie." It wasn't merely 'two cats in the yard' chez Nash & Mitchell, it was two musicians tussling for first turn at the piano every sun-kissed morning. And Nash soon realised who was getting the best results.

"It was an interesting clash of 'I want to get as close to you as possible' and 'Leave me alone to create'," he says. "When Joni works it’s almost like she channels. She was gone for hours, she was physically there, but she wasn't listening, I'd say things to her but she was gone, and it was a great thing to see someone taken away by vision.”

Nash was regularly being taken away by the big yellow taxi to perform as part of the hottest new act in rock. Joni was on the road herself for 40 weeks of that year. The two acts appeared together many times, notably for a week at the Greek Theatre in LA just after Woodstock, and at the Big Sur Folk Festival. She was now too big a star to play club dates but felt uncomfortable at the bigger gigs, didn't enjoy festival and arena shows. It was time to think of another way to lead her life. Graham and Joni were set fair to be the golden couple of the counterculture. He asked her to marry him And she agreed.

But then she thought about her grandmothers.

"My grandmothers both were frustrated musicians in different ways," she told Barney Hoskyns. "My paternal grandmother came from Norway, and the story has it that the last time she cried in her life she was 14, and she was crying because she knew she would never have a piano. And she became a stoic. She had a miserable, nasty life. She had 11 kids and married a mean, poor drunk, but, as anyone knows, never wept again through all the hardship in all her adult life. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, was a classical musician who had come East when the Prairies opened up by train. She was Scottish-French, and they brought an organ in for her and a gramophone. She was a poet and musician, but she still kicked the kitchen door off its hinges out of her frustration at being napped in the role of a housewife."

Reflecting on these women she felt strongly that it had fallen to her to fulfill a genetic drive, to use the chances to lead a creative life that they had been denied. She realised she could not marry Graham and settle down. "It broke my heart," she says.

These thoughts were coming to a head as Graham's cozy tribute to their life together Our House was being heard, along with their hit version of Joni's Woodstock, on CSNY’s Deja Vu, released in March 1970, just before Joni's second gold album, Ladies Of the Canyon. She wasn't at home to see either success. In fact she did nothing to promote it, bar a long-standing booking at that summer's Mariposa Festival, for this was the time of her "retirement" and the odyssey around Europe. Telling Nash she needed space to write and consider where she was going next, she fled. Some weeks later, Nash got a telegram from Greece. Its last line said: "If you hold sand too tightly in your hand it will run through your fingers."

“It was Joan's way of saying goodbye to me," he says.

SHE CAME BACK WITH BLUE, a record thrumming with a peculiar harmony of sorrow, nostalgia, happiness and doubt and dreams of escape from all of them. Seldom has this complex emotional weave – one familiar to all – been so eloquently expressed, and it wasn't just being sung about – the emotions themselves were audibly in the music like creatures trapped in amber, so lifelike and complete they can still be heard today and felt afresh. Its candour and insight were hard-won.

"During the making of Blue I was so thin-skinned and delicate that if anybody looked at me, I'd just burst into tears", Joni says in Woman Of Heart And Mind. "I felt so vulnerable and naked in my work. I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in order to give it back to the people so that it strikes against the very nerves of their life, and to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own."

In Blue, she was unafraid of admitting to self-pity, bitterness and capriciousness, but handles her confessions so skillfully that they invite only empathy. Blue held up an emotional mirror for a generation and made Joni even more celebrated.

The result was something resembling a nervous breakdown. "Ironically, my psychological descent coincided with my ascent into the public eye," she says. "I hated that lofty adoration. I isolated myself, made my attempt to get back to the garden. I was going down and with that came a tremendous sense of knowing nothing." For a year she fled to the Canadian bush, read psychology and philosophy by the light of paraffin lamps and tried to make sense of her lot. Most of the books received short shrift. Western philosophies, she decided, were just not smart enough.

She became aware that some kind of readjustment of the pendulum was only to be expected. She saw that it might be like this every time she ventured so far into her truth. She saw too that it may not be wise to "cure" oneself of some of these reactions, that some were vital to continue to create. "Depression can be the sand that makes the pearl," she says. "If you get rid of the demons the angels can fly off too."

Her next work, For The Roses, is undervalued, but ranks as a worthy companion to Blue, albeit one more melancholy and less starry-eyed. The songs become several notches more oblique as Joni begins to edge away from using her present pain as inspiration. (The title track includes her first of many recorded swipes at the music business.) Tom Scott's flutes impart a chilled air. It's the sound of tarnish forming on an ideal and obviously composed in the Canadian backwoods rather than a warm LA kitchen or on a Greek island. You might argue that this, the last of her predominantly solitary works, is also the first to ask the listener to stay at arm's length. From this point, no matter how personal the song, Joni would keep something back. The distant shot of her naked on the inner sleeve provided a visual clue. It was originally intended as the cover shot, but the always pragmatic Roberts derailed this by asking Joni, "How would you like a sticker saying $ 5.98 across your ass?!”.

Asylum was Geffen and Roberts's home for singer-songwriters whom other labels couldn't handle. Geffen, by now was the most feted wünderkind in the music business. He'd just signed Bob Dylan to the label and was dating Cher. When Joni returned from Canada he offered her a room in his house. And soon she was moving to his label too. Court &Spark, her 1974 "discourse on romantic love", was Asylum 1001 – a big chart-topping success, and a true child of its time, with its deeper shades of jazz, blasts of rock and subtle band arrangements. Those who continued to seek some kind of psychic balm from her music may have been disappointed by songs about Geffen (Free Man In Paris – and who would admit to writing a positive song for their label boss today?) and a disturbed rich kid (Trouble Child) but new fans found it hip and approachable: Joni you could dinner-party to. Court & Spark's innovations like Car On A Hill lit the way for the rise of Steely Dan and other '70s sophisticates; it was rapturously received in the US, though next to the confessional heft of her previous albums it could be accused of seeming a little pleased with itself.

But maybe it was just the sound of Joni relaxing; as she began working with a band – and dating drummer John Guerin – her rock and jazz influences, her dancing years, began to step forward. She had a crew to hang out, travel and confer with. She was getting her groove back. And enjoying it enough to tour for much of 1974, the shows captured on the double live album Miles Of Aisles.

And because she didn't have to do it all with just a voice and a guitar she could now fly with the poetry too. For many fans, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, which showed up in 1975 after a long hiatus for new material, was shockingly opaque, nearly indigestible. "I was back to doing portraits [in the songs]," she told Goldmine in 1995, "and the result of that subtle change was a lot of people didn't like Hissing. If I'm saying 'I'm like this', that 'I' could be them or, if it got too vulnerable, they could say, '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'd get mad at me." Misunderstood at the time, its reputation has suffered unfairly. Yet – as all her records have – it has many adherents who think it her masterpiece.

As the records became ever more painterly and reliant on nuance, it's fair to say no one was whistling Joni's material any longer, nor, probably, using it for emotional reassurance.

She was breathing rarified air and her listeners were required to climb with her, the lyrics sometimes so densely poetic they effectively repelled melody. She was creating a new genre for one, shedding her fanner image and withdrawing from any kind of scrutiny. In 1975, 1977 and 1978 there were no shows, no interviews – even though each of those years included major releases – as Joni wandered deeper into her work.

PEOPLE SEEMED TO STOP noticing Joni Mitchell's work in the 1980s, so much so that in the '90s she cropped up in a nationally syndicated American paper's Where Are They Now? column. Maybe it was because, for the first time, her music swam with the prevailing tide – all hooting synths and barn-sized snare drums. Bowing to pressure to sound contemporary, she released records few needed then and which sound dated now. Though she began a long-term (10-year) relationship and enduring musical partnership with gifted bass player and producer Larry Klein, Joni found herself dashing with people who'd been close to her for a long time – like Elliot Roberts, whom she left in 1985, saying that he needed managing more than she did (though they remain on good terms) and David Geffen (she left his label, but again has said they bear no grudges). She suffered from financial woes, stating later that this was the decade when everyone she trusted ripped her off and her health began to cause her problems. She survived a car crash and discovered that polio has a tendency to haunt sufferers when they reach their 40s.

Thoughts about her daughter never went away. As the woman who was born Kelly Dale Anderson came into her 20s, Joni found herself increasingly wondering if she might suddenly see her, wondering who her daughter was and what she looked like. Despite leaving clues in Little Green and Chinese Cafe (“My child's a stranger, I bore her but I could not raise her"), she'd kept her secret from the media until after a miscarriage in l990 made it clear she could never have another child. Following her divorce from Larry Klein in 1994, she began to talk openly about her lost child.

Kilauren Gibb, adoptive daughter of teachers David and Ira Gibb, was a model; willowy, fair, great cheekbones, a smoker since 12. She'd been educated at private schools, and studied at Harvard and the University of Toronto, growing up in the comfortable middle-class community of Don Mills, a Toronto suburb. It was not until she was 27, pregnant with her first child and researching her medical history, that she fully realised she had been adopted. Friends had tried to tell her before, but she hadn't believed them. She applied to the Children's Aid Society for information about her birth mother. It took them nearly five years to offer a response, a “non-identifying" description – some dates and a few biographical details, such as: "Mother a folk singer, born in Saskatoon of Norwegian-Scottish descent. Suffered from polio in childhood."

Unfortunately, not being a Joni Mitchell fan, she didn't spot the connection. Nor did she surf the net, immediately, which might have led her to her mother. What did was a truly bizarre chain of coincidence.

Remember Joni's fellow tenant in the Huron Street rooming house, Duke Redbird and his brother, John, who gave Joni some apples? In 1988, Duke confided in a friend, Annie Mandlsohn, that he'd lived next to Joni and that she'd had a baby and nobody knew about it. Eight years later, not long after Joni publicly announced that she was looking for her daughter, Annie Mandlsohn's boyfriend Tim Campbell introduced her to a girl named Kilauren Gibb: they'd grown up together in Don Mills with Ted Barrington, Kilauren's current boyfriend. Gibb showed Mandlsohn the "non-identifying" description of her birthmother. Mandlsohn's reaction was unexpected: “Kilauren, your mother is Joni Mitchell!" She'd remembered Redbird and put two and two together. Gibb spoke to Redbird and then contacted Wally Breese, the webmaster at jonimitchell.com, who by this time was receiving a steady stream of e-mails from young women either hoping, or convinced, they were Joni's long-lost daughter. Gibb's details checked out, so he passed the information on to Joni's manager, Steve Macklam. A few days later there was a message on Gibb's phone: "Hi, it's Joni. Please call me. I'm overwhelmed." In March 1997, they finally met again.

Such reunions can never be easy, but with so much public interest in the fairy tale, there was an uncontrolled explosion of media activity. Gibb found herself deluged which requests for interviews and TV appearances. Her boyfriend Barrington, acting as an unofficial agent, was out of his depth and ruffled feathers on all sides, leading to accusations that he – and by extension Kilauren – was money-grabbing. Kilauren's parents were upset, afraid they might lose their daughter to her more glamorous birth mother. They too were faced with a media barrage. Brad McMath, the father, and his new family were also hauled into the spotlight. Joni's parents, now both in their 80s, were tracked down and asked to comment. Even Chuck Mitchell was suddenly required, 32 years on, to say what he thought about his famous ex-wife's motives. Overnight, Joni had become a mother, a grandmother and the centre of a circus. "I've had pain and joy in my life but nothing like this," she said.

After the initial euphoria of the reunion, there were reports of stormy scenes developing between mother and daughter, who appeared to be from similar moulds. In 2000, news broke of a custody battle between Barrington and Gibb over their 20-month old daughter. (Gibb's older son was by a different father.) In the bid to make each other seem unfit parents, some extreme accusations were bandied about, including attempts to paint Gibb as unstable by publishing police reports of supposedly violent quarrels. Gibb admitted things had been stressful but was sure it would all be fine in time. Joni kept her distance.

Things may have settled at last. Last September, Robert Hillburn of the LA Times interviewed an apparently content Joni and reported that she had "found joy in the simple pleasures of being a grandmother of a boy of 11 and a girl of five. Now the family spends time with her in Bel-Air and she spends time near them in Canada.”

Joni emphasised that she was happy and in love with this phase of her life, but felt that, at 60, romantic love was over for her.

And the retirement? She stated firmly once more that she has no further desire to make music. The voluntary withdrawal from the profession that had made Roberta Joan Anderson famous came at the beginning of a new century, at a time when the critical stock of Joni Mitchell had never been higher. A new generation of singer-songwriters, many of them young women, pointed to records like Blue as the gold standard of their art. Musicians from all quarters continued to find things to wonder at in her melodies. Prince called The Hissing Of Summer Lawns "the greatest record ever made". But, more significantly, fans old and new returning to her work were increasingly struck by the candour with which her songs had reflected the many episodes of her life, from the polio wards of her childhood through the tumult of her adolescence, from her improbable transformation into the Queen of Laurel Canyon to the eventual reunion with Little Green. Those songs tell the story of a life, not merely a career.

"In some ways, my gift for music and writing was born out of tragedy, really, and loss," she concluded. "When my daughter returned to me, the gift kind of went with it. The songwriting was almost like something I did while I was waiting for my daughter to come back."

It was as if, having spend a career moving from weird sustained chord to sustained chord, Joni finally heard a loud, resolving chord she liked, and put down the guitar. Have a happy ending.

Songs of Innocence & Experience
20 Joni Greats In Chronological Order – by Jim Irvin

I Had A King (from Joni Mitchell aka Song to a Seagull)
Debut album, track one, side one, that bird-like soprano and hypnotic guitar, playing – what else? – a song of romantic disillusion: “I can’t go back there anymore, and all my keys won’t fit the door.”

Chelsea Morning (from Clouds)
A sunny, great-to be alive, late ‘60s staple. “Won’t you stay, we’ll put on the day and wear it till the night comes.”

Song To Aging Children Come (from Clouds)
Strange, trilling folk song, double-tracked Joni at her chillest. She also crops up singing it in the film Alice’s Restaurant.

Big Yellow Taxi (from Ladies of the Canyon)
The hit. Girlish, witty and true with a punchline that’s entered the language.

Urge For Going (from Hits)
She once described this spooky creation as her only protest song. “It’s a protest against winter coming!” Passed by Tom Rush to George Hamilton IV who made it a big country hit in January 1967. Joni recorded her beautiful version for Blue in 1971, but replaced it at the last minute.

California (from Blue)
On her 1970 European sojourn, reflecting on her separation from Nash, Joni wrote this letter home. Despite dated and specific images – “I’m gonna kiss the folks I dig, I’ll even kiss a Sunset pig” – it somehow remains a timeless expression of homesickness and longing.

River (from Blue)
The national anthem of the state of Nostalgia. Doubles as a great song of remorse at the end of an affair, with an unforgettable central image: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

A Case Of You (from Blue)
Sounding as if it’s strummed on heartstrings, this defining moment in the development of singer-songwriterdom has kept well: robust, full-bodied and heady. One of her most covered works.

You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio (from For the Roses)
Her attempt at a hit single was never going to fly, but it’s lovely anyway, with a Dylanish intro and sunbeam guitar part. The album title-track is terrific as well.

Raised On Robbery (from Court And Spark)
Joni throws off her stays and shows her Lindy Hopping roots. Reviewing it at the time, John Peel said it proved she had “become, once again, a leader.”

The Jungle Line (from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns)
A breathtaking lyric weaving the art of Henri Rousseau, the advance of jazz and the encroachment of drugs, sung over Burundi warrior drumming and rasping Moog. A totally unique work.

Amelia (from Hejira)
The spirit of Amelia Earhart provides solace after yet another forsaken romance. Six vapour trails in the sky become “a hexagram of the heavens... the strings of my guitar.”

God Must Be A Boogie Man (from Mingus)
With Jaco Pastorius she celebrates another idiosyncratic bass player, the multifaceted Charles Mingus, in a liquid, funny and erudite tribute.

The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines (from Mingus)
Cheerfully exuberant number concerning an unlikely guy getting lucky in Las Vegas “like Midas in a polyester suit”. It mixed Mingus’s swagger with Joni´s love for Lamber Hendricks and Ross.

Nothing Can Be Done (from Night Ride Home)
Car-door snares, far-off vaguely African guitars, guest vocals and slithering bass. If you can get past the fabulous ‘80s sound of 1991, you’ll find this has a narcotic charm.

Sex Kills (from Turbulent Indigo)
Joni extrapolates rapper Just Ice’s personalized license plates into a stinging meditation on modern times. “Lawyers haven’t been this popular since Robespierre slaughtered half of France... the gas leaks, the oil spills, and sex sells everything, and sex kills.” Altogether now!

The Magdalene Laundries (from Turbulent Indigo)
Finding empathy with Ireland’s unwed mothers of yore, Joni sings an elegant tribute to the shunned girls forced into servitude, to the accompaniment of ghosts.

Man From Mars (from Taming The Tiger)
One of the most moving heartfelt songs, commissioned for the film Grace Of My Heart to mark the death of the pivotal character. In fact, it’s Joni mourning the disappearance of a favorite cat, Nietzche: “I fall apart, every time I think of you, swallowed by the dark”. As she finished the recording, he came back, after 18 days. AWOL.

Both Sides Now (from Both Sides Now)
Mature Joni revisites the ingenue Joni´s breakthrough song in a voice freighted with experience to skin-prickling effect. A perfect full circle. Plus covers of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and many others.

 

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