JoniMitchell.com asked: Let's dissect the song Joni wrote about you...
Okay, doc, hand me the scalpel. I could, and will, write several short stories from these eight lines. For the sake of brevity, and to have these answers for the Ladies of the Canyon theme, let's dissect this puppy.
Estrella circus girl
That is the core of the beast, AKA, me. I was raised in the circus, the daughter of a Czech highwire performer, Vaclav Veno Berosini. Before he legally changed his last name to Berosini, for theatrical purposes, it had been Holtzknecht, (translation: Knight of the Forest). This means that, in the reality of my father being born in Bohemia, just as Bohemia was changed to Czechoslovakia, my true heritage name is Estrella Holtzknecht. It also means that I am, genetically, half Bohemian, and the circus life was nothing if not entirely what we come to think of as a Bohemian life style; a life created by one's own imagination. With artistic wisdom, Joni boiled all that down to "Estrella, circus girl"
Comes wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls
Joni, Crosby and I were out and about, exploring, seeing folks, shopping. Since Joni didn't have a driver's license, and my car was back in The Grove, Crosby was driving........ (Wait, it usually requires at least a moment of silence to get past the post traumatic stress, long term affect, of even thinking about being his passenger. He was a really good driver, but should have been confined to the Daytona Speedway.) We went to a boutique in Hollywood. Joni saw that I liked this shawl, so she bought it for me. I wore it a lot. It was gypsy-like. It goes far deeper into how we costumed the 60s with the visions of how we wanted to see the new world we stood to inherit.....but I'm not writing that story in this spot.
Songs like tiny hammers hurled
at beveled mirrors in empty halls
This was in reference to a song I wrote. It was nearly ten minutes long, in three separate, counterpoint melodies, movements, and rhythms, called, "Song About A Flower". It was sort of a symphony about the long descent of a flower child into oblivion. (I later recorded it with members of The Paul Winter Consort, including Paul McAndlis on oboe, and Glen Moore playing a 300 year old, Czech double bass, bowed and plucked.)
"Songs like tiny hammers hurled" has a couple of layers. The first has to do with how I played the guitar. I had vigorous classical guitar training, blues and jazz guitar training, and my first instrument, starting at the age of seven, was upright acoustic bass. To say my left hand was strong "for a girl" is to ignore that it was more like a bionic hand. Because it was that strong, I could easily use a technique called the "hammer on". This is where your right hand strikes the string, but your left hand fingers keep hammering on the strings as though it doesn't need the right hand at all. You can hear this kind of playing in Stephen Still's song, Black Queen, and throughout that solo album.
Stephen and I had the same source influence: Bayou Blues, tropical Latin, snaky Cajun Gree Gree feel, and boy could he do it good. I'd just be transfixed, sitting in a living room, three feet away from him, watching the resonating bones in his left hand fingers make tones and percussion, learning everything I could. My left hand was as much a percussion instrument on the strings as my right. You can hear the "hammer on" in my songs, Texas Tornado, When The Lovin's Good, and Tattoo, on my CD, Estrella, The Secret Songs Of A Lifetime. Tattoo was about taking the "hammer on" to the max. I liked to play like my left hand was chewing up the fret board.
Of course, you can't really play that way without being that kind of person.
Which may also be why Stephen and I never became friends. Though I appeared calmly demure on my surface, the "tiny hammers" are always close by, like passive, hidden claws, in someone born the year of the Tiger. (It's not unusual for me to take on a multibillion dollar drug company's product, or the whale killing industry, and winning, with a few sharp, well chosen words) The particular instance Joni referred to, the other part of the double meaning she wrote into that Ladies of the Canyon verse, was of my hurling the song hammers, and the guitar "hammer on", at the situation going on up at Denny Doherty's house. He had that beautiful voice in the Mamas and the Papas.
Brokenhearted over Michelle, he was acting out rather badly. His lovely, castle-like house was at the very top of the Canyon, on Apian Way. He was not the only "Flower Child" rapidly declining there. The beveled mirror was at the top of his staircase leading to the second floor. These are some of the lines of my long song, whose images Joni converted in her song: (Our two songs become like a mirror reflecting a mirror, infinitely)
Wind-willow birds collect in the sky
Fly through the dawn
And land when they die.............
Awake from a screaming nightmare
He climbs to the top of the stairs
And there stands a mirror reflecting an era
That's no longer there
He's wondering where Did it go.............
Sailing seas and climbing banyans
Sailing seas, that's what I did in The Grove, when not playing music and writing. Fred Neil taught me how to sail in small sailboats. Crosby later took it to the limit by letting me take the helm of his precious 72 foot schooner; for just a few minutes. Phew! (Lots more to be written on that boat with Joni, Crosby and me in the Grove.)
The Banyan reference was from the giant trees I climbed in the Grove, called Banyan Trees. We had favorite trees, like pets, and might have named them. The physical Grove was, and remains, all about the trees and jungle foliage. (It was also a state of mind.) This prevalent love of trees in The Grove became evident when hurricane Andrew knocked most of the big ones down. The storm uprooted their shallow hold. After Andrew passed, The Grove residence got together and put most of the trees upright, and growing in the ground again. Most communities would have taken a chain saw to them, but not the folks in The Grove. I was passionate about those trees, too.
Come out for a visit here
to be a lady of the canyon.
A month after I turned 17, Fred Neil obtained my parent's permission to take me to LA, to see about a record contract for me. That was the first time I lived in Laurel Canyon. It was the Summer of Love. What a time to try to take care of business. After that, music business had me going back and forth between the Grove and Laurel Canyon, every few months. It was during my second visit to the Canyon, in 1968, that Joni arrived, and wrote Ladies of the Canyon.
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