Joni Mitchell is a nervy broad. That's what Charles Mingus said, and he should know. Dressing up like a black dude on her own album cover, out of tune orchestras on "Paprika Plains," Burundi drummers and synthesizers. Wayne Shorter soloing over a 12-string guitar…. Check it out. 'Course, Charles had been dealing with nervy broads all his life, but this one was different. This one took risks not just to impress folks or for cheap thrills, but because her restless muse demanded it of her. What's more, she was usually able to pull off these stunts. And when her leaps of faith sometimes ended in belly flops, she invariably picked herself up and jumped right back in. Charles liked that. Liked it so much, in fact, that—knowing he was dying—he asked her to write lyrics for and record his last series of compositions. Some folks thought it was a pretty risky proposition for one of America's greatest black composers to leave his final legacy in the hands of a young white woman from Saskatchewan. Maybe it was, but that didn't seem to bother Charles. Artists, it seems, have a predilection for that kind of thing.
When Court And Spark was released eight years ago it was universally hailed as a near-miraculous synthesis of folk, pop rock and jazz (well, the L.A. lounge lizard variety, in any case) A careerist would have dug in and consolidated at that point happy to mine a formula that had both critics and fans jumping for as long as the vein held out. But Joni Mitchell felt compelled to heed a different drummer—quite literally. Her next few albums followed a trajectory that took her farther and farther from the pop mainstream. Melody gave way to modality, conventional song structures were shattered, and the standard four-beats-to-the-bar pop format was lost in a stampede of African and Caribbean polyrhythms. Each new album attempted to stretch more boundaries, explore new compositional elements and rearrange old ones. Hejira eschewed the security of pop melodicism, opting instead for free-form verse shoved up against the beat. She kicked the remaining props out from under the rhythm section on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and finally broke free into traditional and hybrid jazz arrangements on Mingus.
Mitchell garnered little credit for introducing these fresh elements and innovations into popular-music. In fact, she was often roundly castigated for even trying. That's what you get for debuting the Burundi beat back when Bow Wow Wow's Annabella was toddling off to kindergarten and David Byrne was signing up for art school. Or for attempting to work through musical, conceptual or spiritual puzzles under public scrutiny. Her latest release, Wild Things Run Fast, heralds Mitchell's reentry into the pop mainstream. You could call it the Concorde version of Court And Spark: supersonic production values, razor-edged guitars, streamlined hooks and melodies—all the nuances of vocal phrasing and rhythmic sophistication she picked up on her jazz pilgrimage applied to good ol' rock 'n' roll. In short, rock strategy enhanced by jazz tactics. Wild Things also signals a shift back to the first-person confessional style of her earlier work. And, as usual, the main action takes place in the arena of male/female relationships. Mitchell's ongoing fascination with documenting the cat and dog fights of modern lovers can be a bit much at times, but she effectively utilizes her own well-publicized romances over the years with musicians from David Crosby to Don Alias as a laboratory in which she can investigate and explore her chief fixation: paradox and duality. Shadows And Light; love and hate; fire and ice; Don Juan's Eagle of Wisdom and Snake of Desire... unresolved contradictions honeycomb her work and conversation. Like a Zen Master in front of a koan, Mitchell confronts paradox from every angle. Like the Indian cultures she feels a kinship with, she works more by intuition than through calculated design. For Mitchell, ordinary life is a semioticist's paradise, a place where coincidence and synchronicity can be the catalysts that reveal glimpses of a deeper pattern, a unity that underlies and ultimately resolves what appear on the surface to be irreconcilable opposites. In Mitchell's tales of incredible coincidences on steamy streets or chance encounters with affable drunks in hotel lobbies, vital pieces of the puzzle drop into place, and the whole is glimpsed.
Okay, I know what you're thinking: later for the artsy stuff ... what's she really like? A fair question, and one that occupied my thoughts as I tossed down another Martinelli's Sparkling Cider, waiting for the good lady to arrive at her manager's Sunset Strip office. Obviously she was no longer the skittish intense folk princess I'd first encountered at the Philadelphia Folk Festival fifteen years ago. Nor did I expect the glamorous Queen of Cool who, with a little help from a stellar crew of sidemen like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, had wowed the crowd at Forest Hills in 1979.
"Hi, got your letter!" says Mitchell cheerily as she sweeps through the door and plops into a director's chair. She's dressed in a smart grey skirt, white blouse and blue and white striped knee socks. The operative buzz words for the '82 model Mitchellmobile are elegant, open, secure and curious. And by elegant, I don't mean the ersatz Cosmo artiness of her album cover photos, but a natural, relaxed, earned sense of character and confidence, forged and tempered by struggle and suffering. After some small talk I ask why, two years after I sent it, she decided to answer my written request for an interview. "Oh, I liked your natural loose approach and the questions you raised about the creative process and inner growth. Sounded like we might have a decent conversation. I also like what you didn't want to ask me about." Such as? "My romances!"
As you'd soon discover, Joni speaks like she paints and composes. She's an ace storyteller, right out of the Homeric tradition, not so much describing or analyzing a situation as conjuring up visionary landscapes of cinematic power that take the listener vicariously through the event, like stepping into one of Don Juan's shamanistic visions. You emerge from the other side with the feeling that you've lived the event yourself and learned whatever lessons it inherently had to offer. Very exhilarating and a little spooky. But then, artists have a predilection for that kind of thing.
Vic Garbarini: After eight years of experimentation with jazz and polyrhythmic music, you've come back to rock 'n' roll What caused you to take the leap in the first place, and why come back now?
Joni: Well, after Court And Spark I got fed up with four beats to the bar, and by the time I hit the Mingus project I was having the rhythm section play totally up in the air. Nobody was anchoring the music. I wanted everything floating around.
Just a need to break up patterns and let go?
Yeah, I was trying to become the Jackson Pollack of music (laughs). I just wanted all the notes, everybody's part, to tangle. I wanted all the desks pushed out of rows, I wanted the military abolished, anything linear had to go. Then at a certain point I began to crave that order again. So doing this album was a natural reentry into it.
How would you say your approach to rock has changed as a result of your jazz and experimental work?
For one thing my phrasing against the beat changed radically. A rock singer usually sings tight up with the rhythm section. The rhythm section on the new album is still expressive even while they're anchoring, so if they come in on the downbeat I don't have to sing (heavily on the beat) "DOWN TO DAH RIV-AH BAY-BY." I can come in on the end if I want to, or cluster up anywhere—jazz phrasing—and still keep the rock groove going.
Yeah, comparing this album to Court And Spark, it's apparent that you've learned how to bend and stretch the music to complement the lyrics and the emotional tone of each song. That first line of "Underneath The Streetlights" Isn't about being in love, it is that exhilaration...
Yeah, you know how to get into that song? Just run down the street, throw out your arms, and shout "Yes, I do, I love you!" That should do it. I've been trying to do that with the music and lyrics for years, but I don't think it worked as well in the past because I wasn't as anchored to the rhythm. I was pushing it, kind of creating a certain friction against the rhythm. "Coyote," for instance, is a lot of stacking up. When I first started doing that years ago, there was a lot of criticism along the lines of "Hey, there's no melody, and it sounds like sheds talking." In other words, the limitation of meter became oppressive, and wouldn't contain the poetry anymore, 'cause it wanted to go in a more blank-verse direction. I think now it's compromised, but not in a bad way and that's what this album is more accessible than some of the other projects. It's still anchored to the beat, which is, for lack of a better word, the heartbeat of the people.
Speaking of heartbeat, a number of the songs on the new album shift rhythms between chorus and verse. Did you have any models or precedents in mind when you were working with your rhythm section?
The Police. I love that band, and they were definitely a factor. My appreciation of their rhythmic hybrids and the positioning and sound of their drums was one of the main things calling out to me to make this a more rhythmic album. I was in the Caribbean last summer and they used to play "De Do Do Do" at the disco. I love to dance, and anytime I heard it, boy, I didn't care if there was no one on the floor, I was going to dance to that thing because of those chances in rhythm. You get into one pattern for a while and then WHAM, you turn around and put a whole other pattern into it. My feet got me into that record.
Yeah, considering how conservative radio is nowadays I think the Police have done a real service in bringing reggae and Third World rhythms into the pop mainstream.
And hybriding them, not just aping them or trying to sound authentically Caribbean, but coming up with a fresh approach. We did that with "Solid Love" on the new album. It's reggae in principle, and there are gaps between the bass lines, the repetitive figures with space between them. It begins to roll, like a reggae, but it's a hybrid and turns into something original again.
It's a lot more nourishing than the musical junk food churned out by radio stations run by computers—or worse.
Yeah, radio's like the Catholic Church: you can only paint the saints, that's all we want to see. No more fishes, no more symbolism.
Instead of inspiring or challenging you, they're going for the lowest common denominator, refeeding you yesterday's breakfast. Most of FM radio now sounds like Journey.
But Journey does do some good things on a sounds level. As a matter of fact, I learned some things about EQ and sonic frequencies from their records that I applied in making my own album. You might think they're antiseptic or too this or that, but when they come on the radio, they have a sound that's outstanding. I began to notice a glitter or clarity to the sound of certain bands that I may not take inspiration from on a compositional, and certainly not on a lyrical, level. I spent a long time mixing this album. Our bass player Larry Klein, who's my boyfriend, is also a sound man. He's twenty-five and he's come up in an era that's more sound conscious than the previous wave. He stretched my ear in certain areas, like drum sounds, which we'd never fussed much with before.
Who took responsibility for the overall production ?
At the end there was myself, Larry Klein and Larry Hirsh. We were a perfectly balanced team in that I handled the treble aspects and placement of the vocal and horn sounds—"This should go over here because it'll pop if we put it over there." They handled the rhythm section sounds and certain things I couldn't hear. But I could hear that the snare had a certain quality, and its placement was related to what we'd liked on the Police albums. And I could hear that supersonic sheen on the Journey album. There's a place on our record where it sparkles so much that if you listen to it too long it'll make you nervous. After about an hour of mixing with certain EQ on it, we were ready to snap at each other.
Was there ever a point when you were out on a limb with some of your jazzier material when you asked yourself, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Oh, yeah, on the Mingus project. I remember sitting down with Charles at first and requesting some input as to the themes. "What does this melody you wrote for me mean to you," I asked. He looked at me wryly, like Rumpelstiltskin, and said, "These are the things I'm gonna miss." So I had to get inside his soul from all the way across the nation and write down what I thought he was gonna miss. That was the first song done, and he loved it. Next was "Pork Pie Hat," and he played me every version that had been recorded, over and over again, and I chose the one I liked best to work from. The first step was to memorize that piece of music vocally, which was very complicated. It had one passage of triple-tonguing (waggles tongue) BLBLBLBLBLBLBLBL. And I said, "You want me to write words to that?" And he smiled and said, "YEAAAAAHHHHHHH!" (laughs)
He gave me this melody, and I didn't know what kind of a theme to lay on it. He kept saying, "This guy was the sweeeetest guy," and he kept saying that over and over about Lester Young, who was gone, and it was given to me to write by a man who was about to go. And somehow or other, I felt that in the lyric—the lyric should contain both of them. So, the first verse was easy. But how to get out of this was a mystery, and the last verse wouldn't come. So one night, we're going uptown, my boyfriend and I, and we decided to get off the subway a block early. And we came out near a manhole with steam rising all around us, and about two blocks ahead of us was a group of black guys—pimps, by the look of their hats—circled around, kind of leaning over into a circle. It was this little bar with a canopy that went out to the curb. In the center of them are two boys, maybe nine years old or younger, doing this robot-like dance, a modern dance, and one guy in the ring slaps his knees and says, "Ahaaah, that looks like the end of tap dancing, for sure!" So we look up ahead, and in red script on the next bar down, in bright neon, it says "Charlie's." All of a sudden I get this vision, I look at that red script, I look at these two kids, and I think, "The generations...." Here's two more kids coming up in the street—talented, drawing probably one of their first crowds, and it's . . . to me, it's like Charlie and Lester. That's enough magic for me, but the capper was when we looked up on the marquee that it was all taking place under. In big capital letters, it said "PORK PIE HAT BAR." All I had to do was rhyme it, and you had the last verse.
I remember at your Forest Hills concert during the Mingus tour overhearing a couple of sixteen-year-old girls breathlessly discussing "this new album called Mingus, and he was this great jazz person, and Joni worked with him. " A critic friend with me got rather cynical about that, but I was quite touched to hear these kids talking about Mingus like he was Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen.
The lovely thing is that while people of my own age jumped ship when I hit a certain pocket, these young kids, who maybe were presented with one of these records for their twelfth birthday, had come easily and open-mindedly all the way up through this whole progression without batting an eyelash. I find that personally very satisfying, no matter how silly it sounds to some New York intellectual. Even with the verbal simplification they gave, you can't beat the young enthusiasm and open-mindedness of something like that.
Along the same lines, is it possible for an artist to make a statement that is rejected by his or her audience, and yet in fact be more in touch with what the audience itself is going through than they are?
Well, let's make an assumption here that an artist has a fine nervous system, okay? Now there are also a lot of people with fine nervous systems, more sensitive spinal columns or whatever, who are not artists, who have no outlet of expression. I think the nuancy observations an artist makes are going to get picked up first by these sensitive people. Eventually they'll be picked up by people intellectually and then passed down through the culture...
Trickle-down art. Supply side inspiration. I love it....
(laughs) There's a sensitivity lag. Some statements that are made by artists in their desire to look at the world in a fresh way have traditionally come up against a shocking reception. When Stravinsky first played, people jumped up out of their seats and booed and hissed. People were infuriated by even less dramatic changes, like Dylan going electric....
... or Joni Mitchell going into jazz.
Sure. Rock 'n' roll was rock 'n' roll and jazz was jazz. and leaving one camp was a minor act of treason. It breaks down into all kinds of camps: your traditional jazz people who prefer bebop played acoustically and have a prejudice against all electronics. Charles was one of those who didn't like electronic music.
What was his rationale?
He felt that on any acoustic axe the central quality of the line was more apparent between an artist and his instrument than in electronics. I disagreed with him. That was one of the battles we had in that I felt there was a new world of music opening up, regarding sounds, and that you had to play with electronic instruments and kind of warp them to get the individual tonality out of them.
And yet people on that creative edge transcend stylistic and generic differences; they recognize a fellow spirit. After all, Charles reached out for you, didn't he?
Yeah. He liked...some things about me.
He thought I had a lot of nerve (laughs). He was critical of some things I was doing as well, but he was critical of his own work, too.
What made him think you were nervy?
Two things: he thought I had a lot of nerve to be dressed up like a black dude on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. He couldn't get over that. He was sort of thrilled by it. The other thing was the piece "Paprika Plains," which made him mad at one level, and kind of interested him on another. What happened was I hadn't played piano for a few years, and in January, just before making that album, I called up my producer and said, "Henry, we've got to go in the studio right now because for some inexplicable reason I'm playing piano better than I have any right to be. I can't hit a wrong note." What I'd done was give myself a freeing lesson and said to myself, "Everything resolves to C; no matter where you go you can't hit a wrong note, just go home to C." We went in the studio and cut this thing four times. It was a trance-like situation. The four improvisations we recorded all clocked in at between twenty-nine and thirty-one minutes, so my attention span each time was almost exactly the same. From those four performances I edited together a piece that was to become the bridge for "Paprika Plains" and months later I wrote a song in which I inserted this segment. In the meantime the piano had been retuned a number of times. Then I gave the piano piece with lyrics to an arranger who added strings. The strings begin in the January section of the piano piece, but when they hit the October part, the piano tuning has changed, so the strings have no chance to retune as they cross over. That really infuriated Charles. "The orchestra's out of tune... they're in tune, they're out of tune!" Well, that drove him crazy (laughs). So he thought I was a nervy broad.
Speaking of nerve, do you usually trust your creative impulses, even if you can't explain them to others? Or to yourself, for that matter?
Oh, yeah, I work from intuition, so I'm always flying blind and looking to be thrilled. Waiting for the magic to happen. I think it's easier to recognize the truly spectacular from an intuitive position than from your intellect, which is linear, dealing only with knowledge of the past projected into the future.
With all the attention we pay to the intellect in this society....
.... A vastly overrated instrument, the intellect.... I get bugged when people call me an intellectual (laughs).
We know relatively little about developing those intuitive faculties, or learning how to deal with the stress of handling those energies when the magic does strike.
Sure. The Western world doesn't know anything about the need to prepare yourself for dealing with creativity or the time you have to put in in apprenticeship. Back on the coffee house circuit I loved being a musician, I was a real ham for it. But the moment I hit the big stage, and heard people suck in their breath at the mention of my name, it hit it me . . . and there were years and years of maladjustment to contend with. My own apprenticeship, finding my balance, took eight years. The battles I have with it now are minor compared with those.
Was there a clash between your ego and your creative nature over who was going to take credit for those goodies?
Are you kidding?! I used to go in the dressing room after a show and just. . . cry. People were just discovering you, so you received this radiant enthusiasm and you'd think, "What are they applauding for, that was horrible what I just did -out there." There was emotional deception, there was technical failure. I couldn't get into this song and they didn't know the difference. There's a danger of becoming contemptuous of your audience at that point.
If they couldn't seem to differentiate between good and bad performances, what do you feel they were responding to?
There's a story about a clown that kind of sums it all up for me. I think it's Henry Miller, but I'm not sure. Now pay attention. Anyway, he's the greatest clown in the world, and one night when he's at the climax of his act he forgets his part, he just has this blank spell. It seems interminably long, the audience are on the edge of their seats, and just at the tension point where they're gonna boo him, all of a sudden he regains it. The audience goes crazy! He's never seen such applause. Next night he comes to the same place and seems to be forgetting what to do. He draws it out, draws it out, the audience leans forward, and just then he remembers the part and the audience again goes nuts. So he keeps this up for a while, and one day he wakes up and finds it repulsive that they don't know that he's faking, that he's manipulating them like that. He can't bear himself for doing it, so he quits. Finally, he winds up as an elephant boy in another circus, and one night the head clown takes sick. So our hero volunteers to step in, and he does the guy's part, and from the audience comes the biggest roar he's ever heard. The sick clown in the back room hears this and realizes that this replacement who's never done his routine before is getting more applause that he ever did. It breaks his heart, and he dies. The burden of hearing about this is too much for our hero, so he quits the circus and wanders around as a bum, sleeping in parks. One day he senses that it's his day to die. Coming down the walk is a cop, slapping a billy club on his leg. So he goes into his original routine and he gets up to that point and seems to forget the part, and he pulls the tension out and then regains it. The cop goes into absolute hysterics, just laughs and laughs. And the clown has this great contented feeling, and with that feeling he dies. So there you have the old yin and yang of it (laughs).... Kinda subtle.
Did you come to a moment when you realized you had to withdraw, to let go of it all to keep your sanity?
In the early 70's I just quit. I built a retreat up in the Canadian bush and swore I was never coming back. I built a house and wrote For The Roses during that time, so my little retreat was not complete (laughs). But I became a hermit. I felt extremely maladjusted about...the contrasts that were heaped on me. It was just too much input.
So you couldn't trust either the positive or the negative feedback you were getting?
Yeah, it was as if (sings like Dylan) "People just got UGLIER and I had no sense of TIME!" (laughs)
Could you find a place in yourself where you could sort things out?
One day about a year after I started my retreat in Canada I went out swimming. I jumped off a rock into this dark emerald green water with yellow kelp in it and purple starfish at the bottom. It was very beautiful, and as I broke up to the surface of the water, which was black and reflective, I started laughing. Joy had just suddenly come over me, you know? And I remember that as a turning point. First feeling like a loony because I was out there laughing all by myself in this beautiful environment (laughs). And then, right on top of it, was the realization that whatever my social burdens were, my inner happiness was still intact.
John Lennon spoke of going through the same process in his last interview. He'd gotten in his own way and finally Yoko sent him alone to Hong Kong where it all came back to him while sitting in a bathtub. When he finally let go, he found he had it all again. He found that creative center again.
See, during my problems the creative spot never left me. I'm just hyper-creative. I'll create no matter what situation I'm in. If I have no tools, I'll dance. That doesn't go. My problem is my tremendous personal and social self-consciousness, which over the years has lessened and lessened and is now quite nicely balanced, I think. There's a gently undulating pattern between low and high self esteem, which I think creates the proper tension.
Very early on you documented your personal struggles and conflicts in your music. But around the time of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns you shifted your perspective from a sort of confessional stance to that of an outside observer, commenting on what you saw happening around you. Why the shift?
Well, first of all, the pop star is very self promotional. You know, "I'm DA GREATEST LOVER, BAYBEEEEE!" The nature of the beast is to present yourself in the early years as some kind of teen idol. Initially I wrote those extremely personal songs like "Marcy" as a response to the big roars from the audience. I would stand up there receiving all this massed adulation and affection and think, "What are you all doing, you don't even know me." Affection like that usually doesn't come without some kind of intimacy, like in a one on one relationship. So I thought, you better know who you're grinning at up here, and I began to unveil more and more of my inner conflicts and feelings. Then, after about four years... I guess it's just the nature of the press, having built you up, they feel it's time to tear you down. So I began to receive a lot of unfavorable attention. At the same time it became harder and harder to sing these intimate songs at rock festivals. The bigger the audience I drew, the more honest I wanted to be (laughs).
Could you sense when real contact and communication was taking place onstage, when something was connecting? And was there anything you could do to help bring on or deepen that contact?
Oddly enough, there were a lot of times onstage when my errors were icebreakers. For instance, I'd flat-out forget a piece onstage, or I couldn't get into a song, so I'd start another one. That would be a turning point many a night. I would be oblivious to all this, but (manager) Elliott (Roberts) would tell me later that it had humanized the show. He said it actually made people feel more comfortable and heightened their enjoyment. That was a long time ago, mind you. You couldn't do that playing with a band, because you'd wind up with five embarrassed people.
In a sense those errors broke a pattern and created an opening for something special to enter. Do you find that because your songs are tied to a narrative format whose structure doesn't alter much that it's harder for that magic to happen—harder than for, say, Mingus or Hendrix, who had large pockets of improvisational material with a lot of openings for something to enter.
Well, rather than talking generally, let me give you an example. On Don Juan's Reckless Daughter there's a song called "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey." It was a live duet between Don Elias and myself; it's a strange piece of music, in that it's an example of a song that has a structure that I had completely ignored. I dropped beats, I added beats, there's bars of 3/4 that are in there, and there's all kinds of abbreviated signatures. Don was thrown into a highly alert position as a drummer, to be able to follow this thing, which was not maintaining a groove, just bursts of rhythmic passages. It was very spontaneous. And, when the thing was over, we figured that magic had, in fact, occurred. As raw as it was, and as technically peculiar as it was, you couldn't beat it for spirit. And I turned to Henry and said, "You know what we need on this now? We need wolves and water gongs." And, that was on a Wednesday night. So he was going to make it a project over the weekend to look through the A&M library of sound effects, and we were going to get some wolves.
So, anyway, that weekend I had company coming from Texas, and I had company coming from Canada at the same time. And simultaneously I was supposed to be at the Bread & Roses Festival. When my guests arrived, coming already from long distances, I had to tell them, "We're moving now!" And we all went to this festival in San Francisco. Things kinda got screwed up and there were some vibes around the whole situation which I won't go into, that made me very introspective. And I noticed at dinner that night, that my introspection was also making the table introspective. So, I thought, "I don't want to be here in this mood with these people, I'm influencing their mood," and so I excused myself. I had told a friend of mine, Tim Hardin, that I was gonna meet him back at the hotel. So I get to the hotel desk, and I say to a very uptight desk clerk, you know, "Would you please give me Mr. Hardin's room?" And he replied, "Can't you see I'm busy?" He was really uptight. The lobby of the hotel was gigantic, and suddenly, across the hall there came a drunk, singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?," stumbling across the lobby, snapping his fingers, right? I had nothing but time on my hands, so I perked up, because suddenly there was externally something interesting (laughs), and I was drawn across the hall, and I linked up with him, and we came back across the hall, singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" We ended up standing by the desk, with this uptight guy in the background, and the next thing I knew, we had drawn in two more singers who turned out to be the Persuasions. Well, when we stopped singing, everybody was in great spirits, we all laughed, you know, we patted each other on the back, and we shook hands. "So now," I say to the guy, "Would you give me Mr. Hardin's room," and somebody in the crowd yells, "Oh, Hardin's in the bar." So I go into the bar, there's a kind of loungey jazz band playing, and Hardin is pissed out of his mind, and he comes dancing towards me through this crowded room here, singing to the band, "Hello, Joni," and doing improvisational lyrics. So I start dancing towards him, singing "Hello, Timmy! So good to see you!" The bartender says, "What would you like?" And I sing to him, "One white wine," and the bartender raises his hand in the air, and sings back, "One white wine." And the next thing, the whole room was engaged in this spontaneous Broadway show. Anyway, the story hasn't come to an end yet. Now, we're all in very high spirits. We discover that there's a party on the third floor. We go up to this room, and all the way up the hallway—you know, Timmy and I are hamming it up, just being goofy. We get into the room, and suddenly, the same guy that was drunk in the lobby singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" comes up to me and says, "I have a tape of some wolves." And I say to him, not even realizing how profound it is, "Oh, I'm looking for a tape of some wolves. I'll write down my address and you send it to me." He said, "No, I mean, I've got it on me." So I said, "Okay," and he produced this box of tapes, all homemade with labels on them, and we thumbed through it. It was all African animal sound effects. Well, the very last entry was wolves. So he loaned me his tape recorder, I put the tape on, and it was a cycle of a wolf—it starts off with the lead wolf, and then you hear yipping of pups and female voices, you know? And then he goes, "Aaaooo-aaooh-abh." Like, the same yelp, but one note up higher in the scale. And then the yipping of the pups, and the females. And the thing was looped about four times. Well, the first time I did "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey," I just hit the button right at the beginning, picked up the guitar, and uncannily, it was the perfect key. The way the loop was designed, if you started it at the top of the tape and went all the way to the end, it fit the structure perfectly. So anyway, the next night when I went to the concert, my friend Joel Bernstein hooked the tape up and for an encore, I came out and we did this song and we blasted the wolves, mixed them in with the song, and the audience when I was finished singing, some clapped, but most of them howled me back on for another encore. So you see, there's still ways to get spontaneity into a show.
I guess so. If you had to point to a particular album that realized as much as possible what you were aiming for at a particular time and place, where you thought, "Yeah, that's as honest and clear as it's come through," what would it be?
The purest one of all, of course, is Blue. At the time I was absolutely transparent, like cellophane. If you looked at me, I would weep. We had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in. Socially, I was an absolute wreck. Imagine yourself stripped of all defenses...going to a party! (laughs) Not only did I have no defenses, but other people's defenses were alternately transparent, which made me very sad ... or people really tend to aggress on you when you're weak. You know what it was exactly like? It was like being in an aquarium with big fish coming at you and they weren't saying anything, and sometimes the sound would shut off. It was just like that scene in All That Jazz when suddenly the heartbeat becomes dominant.
But there was a positive aspect to it... ?
Oh, that would be a beautiful space if it wasn't so scary. If you could just magically wipe out the fear. There's nothing there but. .. but what is there. Having no defense, you have no ability to...you have no pretense, which you need.
You need it as a buffer. Like deflector shields.
Well, that's what happened. There was no social personality, but still a strong inner life.
That can be an awfully painful state....
But it produced that beautiful album. There is not a false note on that album. I love that record more than any of them, really....and I'll never be that pure again (laughs).
Don't worry, someday you'll be a virgin again.
Sure! (Cracking up)
No, I'm half serious. It reminds me of something Robert Fripp once wrote for us, about how you can't regain your innocence, but you can learn to act with innocence and reenter that world, and to touch that place without having to shatter the personality.
Yeah, I'm spiritually very promiscuous. I've been Shoko Buku'd, I have a TM mantra. I've been to the mountain, done my hermitage, my self-confrontation pockets. I've hung with Zen Buddhist priests, and all of them have opened some little pocket. I've had my fair share of pushes in the right direction. I desire it, though, and that's the key. I'm sort of headed in that direction but I backslide.
Can you see your inner growth reflected in the evolution of your music?
Basically I'm a sensual primary, a compulsive creative person. So, yeah, I can see my growth in my harmonic sense, for instance, although I still like dissonance in music, which is not enlightened chord structure. But that dissonance is very full of human travail. I still like conflict in poetry, I'm still in the flames. I guess I'm just a...a...
... a teenager in love? (Joni laughs) Speaking of which, is there a certain sensibility connected with growing up in western Canada that you share with Neil Young?
I feel very kindred to Neil, yeah. We're caught between two cultures - we're neither-nor. We still salute the Queen up there, though Canada's becoming more independent lately. We grew up in the pre-TV era, and at that time radio was happening. There was more of an English influence them, a lot of BBC humor. We went to J. Arthur Rank movies on the corner, Dr. Seeley, that whole series. So we had an infusion of British comedy, which is a different sensibility than American humor.
Do you feel that Americans sometimes miss the humor in your work?
Yeah, people sometimes aren't sure that they can laugh at my stuff. "Coyote," has a lot of that dry humor that can get by people, not jokes per se, but .... Okay, now if I had a voice like Donald Fagen there'd be no problem. He's got that irony, that black, dry kind of humor that I call a Canadian sensibility. His voice can convey that even though he's not Canadian. Mine had this high (in a high register) earnest kind of melancholic quality that doesn't project a lot of humor unless I break into a Bugs Bunny voice on certain lines and really nail 'em. Like, (a la Bugs) "Now it's gettin' on time to close." Or if I dramatize a character within the context of a song, people will laugh... I don't know what I'm talking about! Do you know what I'm talking about?
Sure, you've just exposed your essential wabbit nature to the American people. And we understand.
(laughs) But getting back to Neil. He and I have uncanny similarities of background. We both come off the Canadian prairies; we were both struck down by polio in the same epidemic; both in the back, in the precious spine, and in the right leg. That's a great will-forger, you know. There's a big struggle involved with walking around after that. When you're struck down early in your childhood with crippling diseases and have some of the background problems he did, you've got a lot of peer group disadvantage from an early age. Maybe that gives him a tailwind.
If there's one recurring theme that runs through your work, it's your obsession with duality and dichotomy. Shadows and light, fire and ice, the Eagle and the snake, love that's hopeless and inspired. Those oppositions form the core of almost every song...
Well, if you take your intellect as far as it will go, you run smack-dab into paradox.
And then what do you do?
Then you forget about it! (laughs)
Okay, maybe you don't try to think your way through them, 'cause that's not possible. But you're constantly placing yourself in front of them. It's especially apparent in your songs about struggling with male-female polarizations in relationships.
In spite of all my yelling at my lovers in public, (laughs) I've received a lot of affection in my time. People have been as good to me as they could, but.... yeah, I guess it is all about compatible madnesses. There are pockets where people flat-out don't understand each other, they come to impasses. And they stubbornly hold to one side or another, conflicting points of view. So, yeah, those paradoxes are dramatized in love relationships. All along I guess I've been trying to figure out (sings) "What is this thing called love...this crazy thing called love?"
The new album seems to be an attempt to come to grips with just that question. It impressed me as being a cycle about love that starts with the youthful sentimentality of "Chinese Cafe," then advances into emotional adolescence with "Man To Man" and "Ladies Man, " where you're the naive victim. Then there's "Solid Love, " which is a step up, a genuine contact with someone, not just the old I-need-you-to-complement-my-neurosis situation. "Underneath The Streetlights" is another gutsy affirmation, a commitment and recognition of a real soul to soul contact. Finally, there's "Love, " the piece you borrowed from Corinthians, and the last song on the album. It's like a glimpse of the goal, the higher egoless, transcendent level of love, beyond conflicts and paradoxes: the summation of everything you've been striving for all these years.
Yeah! It is! I never really saw that when I was putting the album together, but in hearing you say it, I can see what you see, and it has validity to me. That thing from Corinthians is on another level. I'm not talking about hippie sloganeering there, I'm talking about the real shit. There's a qualitative feeling to that kind of love that's beyond the bounds of sexual attachment. I didn't write that, though. I stole it from the Bible (laughs). I appreciated it, then I presented it.
But as with the "Pork Pie Hat" story and the wolves song, you recognized the deeper pattern that your artistic sensibilities were creating with the album. Something in you knew that had to be the last song on the album, the summation.
Right, and that was magical, that recognition. Magic doesn't have anything to do with intellect, which is linear. Intuition appears to be more chaotic, even stupid sometimes ....
But it can pass through dichotomies and reach something higher.
Right, intuition cuts through all that. Intellect comes in paragraphs, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da, and intuition comes ZAP!, like a bolt of lightning. It comes as a pill, and then has to be translated from an impulse into language by the intellect.
When you reach the end of your rope in front of some paradox, you suddenly see the deeper pattern, and know where the pieces fit.
That's it. The magical moment comes at the point of despair, where you say, "I can't do this!" At the peak of my frustration, I meet a guy singing in the hotel lobby, or see those tap dancing kids in front of that bar. When all intellectual options have been exhausted and there's no way out, suddenly something cracks open and takes you through to the other side. Finding that song and knowing to put it at the end of the album was the same as stumbling on that drunk guy with the wolves tape. It was the missing piece. The last verse. As you said, most of the other songs were about conflict or paradox, but that song was the resolution. The missing piece. That last verse.
You put in one extra verse that wasn't in Corinthians about having "fragments of faith, hope and love in me." Why did you add that?
It's very delicate, messing with the Book. I wanted to add emphasis to what was already vaguely stated in the verse about "As a child I saw face to face, now I know only in part."
I asked because there's a passage in some book by Ouspensky about how the higher impulses of faith, hope and love should be united in the heart of man, but have atrophied and scattered into fragments throughout our being.
Oh. I'd never heard that.
Could be another example of synchronicity, flashing of a universal pattern. Jung pointed out that the same dream archetypes symbolize identical concepts in otherwise dissimilar cultures.
Jung borrowed an Indian fetish that I quite like and modified it a bit without giving any credit (laughs). He ripped 'em off, just like I ripped off the Bible....
Or maybe he was just recognizing the same archetype they were, like you and Ouspensky with the fragmented virtues.
Could be. In any case, in my search for a centering device, a unifying fetish, I came upon this North-South-East-West grid in Indian tradition, though I don't remember which tribe. Wisdom was north, heart was south, clarity was east and introspection was west. It was a chief's wheel, designed to develop the ability to speak a whole truth in a person who was to be a central figure in speaking to other people. The concept was that you were born with a predilection towards one of the four, and the opposing arm would be your weak point. If you had wisdom, your weak point would be your heart. If you had clarity, which is overview—the flying eagle, right?—your weak point would be introspection. And your life's work and goal would be the ability to speak from all points and eventually unify them in a central truth. To be able to speak to all people, regardless of their predilections.
Finding that unifying point beyond duality.
That's exactly what they all have in common, that intersecting point, the Tao.
Speaking of fetishes, where 'd you get those blue and white socks?
"T'was brillig, and the slithy toves..." Remember that? These are Alice in Wonderland socks. And she also had voluptuous Midwestern thighs, too. Kansas calves (laughs).
I'm not gonna comment on that. With all the interest in African music over the last few years, including the use of the Burundi beat by bands like Bow Wow Wow and Adam & the Ants, I'm surprised you've never been given credit for introducing those elements back on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.
The Burundi thing on "The Jungle Line"? They killed me for that. The worst album of the year. That project received an onslaught of negativity.
What prompted you to put those drums under the lyrics?
Because I loved that Burundi warriors passage. It had a Bo Diddley lick in it which I took out and made into a loop and then ran this black cultural poem under it. I thought I was black for about three years. I felt like there was a black poet trapped inside me, and that song was about Harlem—the primitive juxtaposed against the Frankenstein of modern industrialization; the wheels turning and the gears grinding and the beboppers with the junky spit running down their trumpets. All of that together with that Burundi tribal thing was perfect. But people just thought it was weird.
Those cultures have some of the directness you talk about in "Love. " Did you have any contact with Indians in Canada as a child? And did it make any impact on you?
The first dream I remember having was about Indians. The Indians in that part of Canada were mahogany faced and very serious, at least within the context of our culture. They were woodlands Indians, so they were covered in smoked leathers with elaborate floral beading and satin skirts and long braids. On our sports days they would put up aspen lean-tos and skin tepees, and they'd have their own dances at night. I remember sneaking over and listening to their chants at the fringes of town.
Were you discouraged from having any contact with them?
We were told they were dirty and that they stank. I happened to love the smell of that smoked leather and found their creativity fascinating. But they also terrified me because we heard that, like gypsies, they would kidnap us and kill us. But about that dream: I was three years old, I think I was having my appendix out. I wanted one of those little kid's pedal cars, and, oh, I had just seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and heard the stories of Little Black Sambo, with the little leopard that runs around the tree until it turns into butter. And the combination of these desires and inputs, plus my impressions of the Indians around our hometown combined when they gave me the anesthetic and told me to count backwards. So in this dream, round and round the tree went the seven dwarfs in primary-colored shirts with the numbers ten through one on them, 'cause I was counting backwards. They went round and round that tree in pedal cars like Little Black Sambo, chanting, (in a low Indian voice) "HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY!" (laughs) They made a strong impression on me then, and in later years with dreams like the one that became "Paprika Plains." They come back all the time in my dreams.
You have a very vivid visual and conceptual sense. Can you sometimes capture something through your painting that you can't do with music, or vice versa?
Oh, yeah. If I experience something, it will make a better painting than it will a song. For instance, about a month ago I finished driving across the prairie, where I had grown up. When I got back, I started painting enormous collage-like landscapes of the memory of that vastness. Then I thought, "Ah, this could be an album cover. I better write a song called 'Prairie Roads'!"
What would be your first step in translating that portrait into music?
I'd meditate on it. Perhaps I can tell something about what my visit to my uncle was like, and can thread in enough material to make a poem out of it, and find a striding, long-legged melody to illustrate that. But the initial impulse was to paint it. Of all the arts, painting shuts off the inner dialogue best for me, and it's currently the most seductive to me for that reason. I get down to the hum of Oms and mantras in my head more quickly through the meditation of painting than I do in other mediums.
Are there any other musicians or artists you've always wanted to collaborate with?
Well, once I went to see Miles Davis to present him with a project, a duet for the two of us.
Did he like the idea?
I don't know. He just fell down with a death grip on my ankle and passed out (laughs).
Last question. What would you have done if you weren't an artist?
I would have killed myself years ago.
I wouldn't have any outlet for this energy. I don't know. Maybe I would have been an athlete. Well, no, I couldn't because I had polio and my spine's all out. If I hadn't had polio.... I'm built like an athlete.
I see you've got athlete's feet, too.
Yes, I have athlete's feet, and they're long fellows.
Well, that's the key, the unifying fetish that explains everything about you.
Yeah, I'm a poet but I don't know it....
...but your feet show it....
BOTH: ...they're Longfellows (laughing).
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