(Listen to the audio recording [58:34] in RealAudio format)
Joni Mitchell, Recording and Performing Artist, Activist
In conversation with Andrew Lawton, Chair, Environment and Natural Resources Member-led Forum
Andrew Lawton: Singer, songwriter, musician, recording and performing artist, poet, painter and activist; Joni Mitchell is one of the great formative influences of contemporary popular music, and one of the most important recording artists of the late 20th century. For the past forty years, her music has touched the hearts and inspired the minds of countless millions of people around the world. Her recordings, and the instantly recognizable sound of her voice, guitar and piano, continue to influence several generations of artists, and her songs have become landmarks of global popular culture. A love of nature, a passion for justice, and the pursuit of truth have been strong and enduring themes in her work, and so it's fitting that she is here today to help us celebrate the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. She's also here to discuss her recordings, in particular her 2004 release, The Beginning Of Survival. And she'll share with us also her unique perspective on life, art, music, philosophy, politics, commerce and environment. Please welcome.. Joni Mitchell.
Mitchell: Well, there's so much to say, and in such a short space of time. I gave some thought to this, since the focal point was to be how to instill a love of nature in people, and as I'm sure most of the people here present are aware, nature is in a traumatic situation. The question is, how did we get to this place?
What can we do about it? These are enormous questions, I mean you could talk for hours on a daily basis, for months, years as a matter of fact. So, I tried to distill it down to some kind of a focal point.
One of the things that I would like to point out... To love nature at this particular time in humankind is to be in terrible pain [laughs]. So...so many things are going wrong; so many things are seemingly uncorrectable.
As a symbol of Koyaanisqatsi, our imbalance, one of the great works of art, I think, in the latter part of the twentieth century is on the outside wall of the Hard Rock Café in Los Angeles, of all places. And what it consists of are two enormous numbers; the one on the left, which is a figure in the billions, with a fast-moving number ticking like a heart, tick tick tick, is trees coming down. On the other side, an enormous number, ticking like a heart, tick tick, is people coming up; people being born.
The enormity of this symbiotic relationship, out of balance, is only one of the problems that we're facing as a species. This is a problem that involves all of us regardless of race, creed, religion, cultural background; this involves the human animal, and as a matter of fact, all, you know, all of the species on the planet. We're terribly out of balance, and how did we get that way? That's the question I asked myself in preparing for this speech.
Well, actually, I asked myself this question many, many years ago, and I came up with a....to the conclusion that the Western mind has been playing with half a deck for a long time. [Audience laughs] And I tried to trace the problem...I found a concept in the late '60s of what it is to play with a full deck, in the Native American idea, the concept of the medicine wheel, which also was the foundational idea of the Orient, of the Chinese I Ching, up until the fourteenth century, when it shifted to a secondary mandala, but the original idea is what I call a diagram of the apple mind.
In the...in the origin story of the Christian-Judaic tradition, God makes this beautiful place for us, and he forbids us to eat of the fruit of two trees; one of them being the Tree of Knowledge, or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Basically the fruit of the dualistic mind, or the little mind, the un-God mind, the I mind; we'll call it the apple mind for sake of discussion.
So the apple mind can be diagrammed. That's what the natives call the medicine wheel. I don't know how many people are familiar with the medicine wheel, so I thought well maybe I'll draw you a diagram to kind of show you what a full apple mind, which is already an erroneous mind; there's a better mind behind it, and that's the goal of Buddhism. So, this is a big topic; you can get into comparative religions here, but...
There was an old idea that seemed to be shared by all peoples at one time. In terms of the Western mind, you can find diagrams on it, and it was called the philosopher's stone or the philosopher's wheel. You see it on churches...well, actually you see it everywhere; the old test pattern, bathtub drains, car steering wheels. It's a symbol that once you look for it, you find it everywhere. Basically it's a diagram of the four directions. And that idea was incorporated into the thinking of all people. I tracked down the place where Western culture lost it, and I may be wrong, but as near as I can figure out, Socrates was the culprit that started playing with half a deck. So...[audience laughs] But the original idea, which we can all use, it's a simple thing, I'd like to present it as simply as possible, with the optimism that it would go back into the culture, with the reading, writing and 'rithmetic; that, that we would understand the mechanism of our organism, in regard to nature
It's a simple idea...it's a circle, [begins drawing] [laughs] no it's an ellipse, no, it's a circle...
Imagine yourself, each of us, as a receiving unit. The premise of this idea is the four directions exert an influence on our perceptions; that basically we perceive in four different ways: north, south, east and west. Now, this is for this hemisphere; you would have to flop it for Down Under and Brazil, but west and east would remain the same in the other hemisphere, but north and south would invert.
So... North: cold weather, influenced by the arctic (or the Antarctic), influences us to intellect, because it's so cold, in order to survive, you have to think a lot. And this is [points to north] "I know." "I know." The apple mind. The beginning of the I-centric little mind, okay? So this is a diagram of the little mind, that we all have, the self-conscious mind, which, according to the story of Genesis, we received by eating the symbolic fruit. "He told us not to do it." If we hadn't done it, we would realize that we are all interconnected.
It's like when the [Sumatran] tsunami hit, all the animals ran for the hills, and all the people were debating, like, they didn't like their dinner, or whatever, you know. Or they needed more suntan lotion; they got caught out. If they had the big mind, if they were still a part of the big man, they too would've run for the hills.
South, influenced by the equator, is feeling, or emotion. This , [pointing at drawing] East, is clarity: "I see." West is sensitivity, or sensation: "I sense." Okay, if you imagine this... in Western culture we talk about left-brain/right-brain. Okay, basically, this side, [points to the right/eastern side of the medicine wheel diagram] with clarity at the helm, this is the fast side of the brain. Makes good sound-bite, good snap decisions; we revere these things in Western culture.
This [points to the left/western side of medicine wheel diagram] is the slow side, very detailed, governed by sensitivity and sensation, and lacking in clarity.
So, sensitivity has no clarity, clarity has no sensitivity; you can't get there from here. Feeling, emotion, you know, "I feel," has no intellect. You get emotional, you can't think. You get intellectual, you can't feel. So, we can only assemble ourselves at one point at a time, unless, of course, we're enlightened.
In the Native belief, the Tree of Life is at the center, oddly enough. that's the tree we didn't eat [laughs], you know, which is guarded by cherubs and a flaming sword. You know, when God got mad at us for eating, and becoming self-conscious, and kicked us out, He said "Okay, you're not gonna get...you're not gonna eat the Tree of Eternal Life, I'm gonna guard it with cherubs, that's loving kindness, and wrath, the flaming sword. And you're not getting back in there, unless, you know, you're very evolved." So that's where Buddhism takes off from Christianity. Where the Christian religions say...they condemn us to the Fall, we ate the fruit and we're condemned, and the only relief is in Heaven; Buddhists say, "No, no, no, you gotta kill the 'I' thing.", which is very, very hard, nearly impossible, but some have done it. Buddha's done it; there's an example there to follow. You can do it, but, the smarter you get, the harder it is [laughs], so, you know, it's easier for the simple-minded. [audience laughs]
So here we have...this...feeling, of course, makes this hemisphere...here's right-brain, here's left brain and here's what Western culture did. Along comes Socrates, right? He comes to Greece at a time when logic is being born, and these people are like Californians in the '60s; you know, to a New Yorker; all those dumb blondes out there, you know, like, sensual and stupid...no intellectual climate, right? So, along comes this fast-talking Brooklyn boy [laughs], and he bamboozles everybody. And he declares, or somewhere in there, he declares that reason is divine. And this [points to northeast part of the medicine wheel diagram] is reason: intellect and clarity.
Now intellect is over-glamorized. Intellect is your data bank, and if you access it with clarity, which is fast, then you...you give good sound bite. That's the speedy side of things. Over here [points to the western side of the diagram] is the slow side, so if you're accessing your intellect, your databank, from the sensitive side of things, it's slow and detailed and [yawns theatrically]...especially to this side, you know, it's long-winded and it lacks clarity; it's unfocused, but imparts a lot of information, but not necessarily with a point. So if you're speaking to sensitive people, they don't care if you get to the point; they're into the flow of the ideas, you know, but over here, [points to the north-eastern side of the diagram] and this is the revered side, especially in white culture, which is playing with half a deck, because, what it did was, it said: "Reason, (that's intellect and clarity), are divine, and let's abandon...let's define ourself: that's masculine. Let's abandon [pointing respectively west and south] feeling and sensitivity to women and madmen...[audience laughs] and suckers" [audience laughs]. This is where, you know, your victims lie, over here, and all the gutters, you know, the gutter bums? You know, all those beautiful, sensitive feeling people in the gutter? You know, like, the culture has kind of spit them out.
Now, the scientific method only involves intellect and clarity, at least when they're speaking to colleagues; maybe they indulge in sensitivity and feeling, you know, privately, but certainly they'll get laughed out of the room if they try to bring them in as part of their theory. And in a court of law, the same thing occurs. You know, intellect and clarity. In a court of law, "I know" counts, "I see" count; you go "Well, I feel..." [snickers], it doesn't count; "I sense" - "Are you kidding?"
You know, think of all of the women who said, "No, no, no...I'm not getting on that boat.", you know, in England, before it hit the big iceberg. There were a lot of women who said, 'Uh uh, I'm not getting on that boat.", and...so, those things don't count, and those are the things that made the animals run for the hills when the tsunami was coming. Also, radiation completely destroys this instinctive or the irrational side of things, as it's so unkindly called; rational and irrational.
Now the thing that has happened in science that gives me hope, [in] cutting-edge physics, they have an experiment...I'll just leave this [illustration of the medicine wheel] so you can kind of look at it. That's the basics of it. I believe in it; if you believe in it, and you run all your problems against it, and assemble at all those different points, you can create a fuller judgement.
Okay, here's the thing: in a court of law, in a just court of law, because "I feel" and "I sense" don't count, the judgement is senseless and heartless. You know, so how can there really be justice? But Socrates' argument, beginning with the premise "What is justice?"...well, in Plato's Republic, the street person says, "Well, if you ask people on the street, they say justice is just the strong doing what they can and the weak suffering what they must." Now in the Taoist origin story, they accept that. They say, "In the days of perfect virtue, the people were like deer, and high officials were but leaves out of reach." So somewhere the Orientals said, you know, "The big boys have got it; there's nothing we can do about it." You know, the wisdom to know that you can't change it, and they left it alone and even in their origin story, they were okay with that.
But because science devalued the irrational, which is sensing and feeling, we've made quite a mess of the environment, and our laws are unjust. In order to introduce it back, and to give it equal and opposite status...for instance, clarity is a fine thing, it's fast-witted, but the down side of it is it's capricious and cruel. In our culture, we've developed a very sarcastic, cutting, bullying kind of humor, you know, because "I feel" and "I sense", sensitivity and emotionality have become second-class citizens, so even our humor is cruel at this point.
Cutting-edge physics had an experiment that kind of bamboozled everybody because they believed that for everything there is an equal and opposite reaction. So they took this Swiss movement ticking machine, perfectly balanced, ticking, ticking, ticking; it's not going to lose a millimeter, a millisecond in a hundred years, and it's totally predictable, totally rational. And then across on the apex, just like on this diagram, they balanced another rod. Now, that rod, balanced perfectly on a totally predictable rod, is absolutely unpredictable. So, they should know now in the scientific community that the irrational or the unpredictable is an equal partner. Cutting-edge physics has taken us there.
The other thing that has proved the old, superstitious, irrational, shamanic cultures to be right is the watched electron, if you're familiar with that experiment, which, the description that I heard was: You shoot an electron down a tunnel, on what would be the equivalent of a bowling alley with flour on it, and you watch that electron move. So there's a witness watching it, and the electron is moving on a floured bowling alley, like a bowling ball, and leaving a trail behind it. The viewer, or the person watching it sneezes..."Achoo!", take their attention away for a second, the electron still goes forward, but it leaves no trail until the watcher comes back. What that tells us is what the Native, in their irrational intelligence, always knew: that rocks, leaves, everything is cognizant, and it has nothing to do with the brain, or how big the brain is; this whole idea that, "Well, our brain's bigger than your brain so therefore we're superior," you know, that whole measuring of cranium myth.
Anyway, that's the rudiments of the idea; you can pull anything through it. I've used it mostly in terms of relationship and artistic balance. In the Native culture, it was three-fold: one, it was called the medicine wheel, or the wheel of becoming, and it had a lot of elaborate animal knowledge, which I don't know, but when you went on your vision quest, at thirteen, because of the embracing of the irrational world, the animals that crossed your path in that time period...nothing was accidental. And so supposing that the main interaction you had was with a mouse, then the shaman would divine, believing that there are no accidents, that you were a mouse person. That meant that you were a person of heart, and your saddlebag, and everything would be embroidered with your psychology, but nobody would take advantage of you; they wouldn't go "Sucker!", you know, "There's a heart person," you know, "Let's get his ass!", you know [JM and audience laugh], "Tree hugger!", [audience laughs], you know.
Karl Jung, at the end of his life. wrote in his memoirs that "Everything I learned, I learned from my patients - bright women. Nothing I learned from one could be applied to the other. You can't make a dogma out of any of this, and I only found one useful tool, psychologically speaking, and I got it from the Pueblo Indians." He had a mystical and irrational mother and an intellectual father and of the two, he preferred his mother, you know, which gave him the ability to put a little balance back in to Western psychology. Freud was playing with half a deck, I'm sorry.
Lawton: I have a question.
Mitchell: Um hmm...
Lawton: Considering the release of Beginning Of Survival, can you remember any particular passage of that Chief Seattle speech that really speaks to you?
Mitchell: Oh, well, you know, there's some speculation to whether it's fiction, or whether it's actual; some say it's...that his speech was much more hostile, that it was kind of tempered by somebody, but none of that really matters. I think it stands as a piece of literature with some accuracy as to how that culture felt about nature. For one thing, they didn't "it-ify" things. They didn't feel supreme, and like they had dominion over everything. They observed the people of the deer, and the people of the ant, and, rather...to kill something you have to "it-ify" it. You have to see it as the other. Whereas they looked at everything as another culture, and they learned from it. They learned warfare from coyote, and, they learned industry and community from the ant, and they were culturally enriched, and Chief Seattle is also quoted as saying, "Without the four-leggeds we are but half a spirit." Now, I come from farmers, you know, tenders of animals and tenders of crops, and I feel that: Without the four-leggeds I am but half a spirit. This is something that has atrophied in the Western culture, with its sense of dominion and supremacy over so much, which is a fundamental error of being that we're beginning now to see disastrous results of...
You know, our whales, the real whales are beaching themselves with consistency now, and when they examine them, they find out that...that they have the bends. Now this is an animal that knows better than to surface too fast, but what is driving it up out of the water so quickly is the sonar; it's our mechanical whales, our submarines, you know, our planes are pooping on our glaciers [laughs], you know, all of these great inventions of the scientific mind, because of its lack of feeling and sensitivity, are beginning to backfire environmentally. So, we can't undo it all, because money and business is at hand, but we can begin to re-educate ourselves, I think, to a more holistic mind, and for this reason [the medicine wheel] is the great tool that we have.
They had three plans. One was the individual one; you, as an individual, find out what your strong suits and your weak suits are, and spend your life developing them. I'm a northwester...I'm a long-winded intellectual [laughs]. But, so for me, you can tell in my music, you know, I'm trying to get my heart good all the time, you know, and struggling for clarity. You know, that's just the way that I was born, so I'm always trying to balance myself out in that manner. Somebody else is born with a good heart and, whatever you're strongest in, your opposite is going to be your weakest, so your own life journey is to balance yourself out as...recognize your weak suits, balance yourself to the best of your ability. Now, leadership comes from those people who are born with more of a balance, and then it becomes the chief's wheel, or the attempt to speak a whole truth, because you can only assemble at one point, so you're only speaking a quarter-point if you're speaking from any of these aspects, which is all you can do, unless you're enlightened and you're on the center at the crossroads, and that is the art of Buddhism, which is very difficult, but some have done it. But you have to be devoted to it; you gotta really want it, you know; you have to be so sensitive that you just can't stand it, so you've got to find liberty from bouncing around between pleasure and pain all of the time; you've got to really want it.
In the meantime, in order to kill the "I" , you gotta know the "I", so this idea to me is even an augmenting tool for Buddhists, "learn your enemy", which is this sense of self that's so solid in us, when in fact, we are all part of the same organism. I mean if you draw it into outer space, really what we most resemble, in terms of DNA, is yeast [laughs]! We're this kind of fungus that grows along the edge of waters, and in these concrete jungles with electrical devices that are sucking Eden, or the natural world. I did an album years ago called The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, and the cover depicted the metropolis, symbolized by New York, and the jungle, symbolized by the Amazonian Indians, and then in the middle are little houses that I lived in, in the third world; Saskatchewan, where I come from. was a developing nation; I'm third-generation white people from there. You know, which is going to win? Are we gonna concrete the whole thing over, or is something going to come along a là Revelations and just say, "These people are just wicked and useless; let's get rid of them!" you know, last time it was by fire and...or flood, and this time it's by fire. Either the sun's gonna get us, or...or our own nuclear proliferation is gonna...something's gonna give.
Nevertheless, we need to begin to develop a...a counter-force of some kind. The mayors of Japan, of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are amassing now mayors against nuclear proliferation, in an attempt to bring it to the United Nations. Because you shouldn't be pulling that stuff out of the ground, at all! You know, there's no way to dispose of it that isn't going to kill somebody, or a lot of people, at some point. To take it out of the ground is insane. To use it is insane. There's no safe way to use it; it's insane. The Lakota Sioux, in their origin story, say when God completed the world, He didn't rest. He turned himself into a rock, and waited. You know, so I always think, you know, that's got to be uranium rock, you know, just waiting for the fulfillment of all the Native prophecies that the fourth world ends in fire.
Lawton: So Joni, are you ready to go around the wheel here with...
Lawton: Okay...so now that Joni's laid out for us the medicine wheel, we're going to conduct a little experiment here and apply this against her career, and it's remarkable how it maps. So, we'll start in the east, we'll start with the beginning, with clarity, and here I'm going to try to take us all back thirty-five years, those of us who were alive then.
Today's the anniversary of Earth Day, and in March of 1970, Joni released Ladies Of The Canyon, and on the airwaves, practically, the soundtrack for Earth Day was "Big Yellow Taxi." Could you tell us a little bit about writing that song, and what it means to you today?
Mitchell: I went to Hawaii for the first time, and I arrived in the middle of the night, and the airport smelled of sweet flowers and gasoline. I took a cab in Oahu to a highrise hotel, went to bed, woke in the morning, threw open the curtains from the 22nd floor, and looked out at green mountains and long-tailed white birds flying low. And then I looked down, and as far as the eye could see, it was a parking lot. And...I'm a sensitive type; it made me very sad - it made me cry at that time. I was young - I was young [laughs]. [audience laughs] But it made me cry to see this expanse, and, you know, I don't know what I thought Hawaii was supposed to be, you know, little grass shacks and...and when I wrote this song, the interesting thing was that at that time, people didn't seem to realize that where they were living was paradise; the Hawaiians did. It was a regional hit in Hawaii; only the Hawaiians seemed to understand that paradise was slipping away from them. It took about a decade, really, in some regions, and twenty years in others, for that song to become a local workhorse.
And...how do I feel about it today? Well, it's kind of like "Ring around the rosie/A pocket full of posie," it's just one of those [laughs]...it's one of those nursery rhymes about atrocity. [pause] [laughs]
Lawton: The absurdity that you encapsulate in that song, and yet the humor that's there, this catchy, sort of Buddy Holly [JM laughs] vibe that you've got where you're laying out these absurd juxtapositions of...trees in a tree museum.
Lawton: Do you remember that song being played around 35 years ago on Earth Day? Where were you on the first Earth Day?
Mitchell: What...what year was it?
Mitchell: Can anybody remember 1970? [JM & audience laugh] He can...[referring to audience member] [laughs] Gee, I don't know, where was I? [laughs]
Lawton: So, since then, the environmental movement really...since the environmental movement began, environmental activisim at some point seemed to become a part of your civic duty, at least up until recently. And I'm wondering, were you always interested in nature and in the environment? Did you have pets growing up, a garden? What was your...what was nature like for you when you were growing up?
Mitchell: Okay...well, my mother was a farmgirl, when she married my father, they...they climbed a mountain on their honeymoon, they...my grandmother kept a scrapbook of local flowers, because basically they were the first white people to settle there, though. So they were...they were making botanical observations, and some things grew there that they were familiar with from the east. She kept pressed flower books and knew the names of a lot of things: names of birds, names of flowers. My parents would take annual holidays, and they would...they would drive, usually to the mountains, which in those days were pretty dangerous, 'cause they were like gravel or mud and they had no guard rails and you'd be going along on the edge of cliffs, but by the same token, they'd have little...little signs along the road that said "Mountain Stream To Drink From - 2 Miles", and you could...you could just pull over the side of the road and stick your head in the...beautiful glacier water. We climbed mountains; we went at one point to a place called the Indian Paint Pots, in Jasper or Banff, and years later, in the '80s I went with my then-husband Larry Klein to see it again, but as a child I remember it was a long climb, and I was anticipating this rainbow of colors when we got there. When we got there I burst into tears, because all it was, was ochre. It was ochre with a glacier river, bright turquoise running through, with all of the white particles of sediment. And it was very disappointing to me as an 8-year old, but as an adult, it was...it was thrilling. I took bags of this raw ochre home with me.
As a child in small towns, the kids where I grew up were pretty brutal, and Geraldine Campbell used to chase me down the sidewalk with her father's wood hatchet, and Harry Pegg used to break my hut down in my yard, and, you know, when the kids...and the girls were very conspirital [sic] and competitive, and the boys lacked a certain amount of imagination, and could be pretty rough. All of their energy went to brutal wit, you know, like, the quick repartee. So when it got too much for me what I would do is ride my bike out into the country and look for a beautiful place. I started smoking at the age of 9; I'd take my tobacco with me, and I would sit out in the bush and light up, and watch the birds fly in and out, and my best memories of childhood are those solitary experiences with my tobacco. [audience laughs]
[JM, AL and audience laugh]
Mitchell: Sorry, health nuts. [laughs]
Lawton: So, it's interesting that one of your trade secrets...you developed this sort of environmental approach to making music, in terms of how you approach your instrument; the open tunings. Could you talk a little bit more about how...how you did that, and...Apparently you take your guitar actually out into different places, and the tunings have different names of different places?
Mitchell: Yeah, well, I was introduced...I learned to play the guitar in standard tuning, but I'm born [in] the week of depth on the day of the discoverer, which is usually a day for scientists, so I have this peculiar need to be original, and to plant the flag where no one else has been, which is kind of a scientific proclivity. But all of the chords in standard tuning sounded kind of hackneyed to me, "oh, that," you know, "that progression." Whereas most people like the familiarity of it, I craved chords that you couldn't get off of the guitar, and my friend here Debbie Green's husband, then-boyfriend Eric Andersen, showed me open G tuning, which is what the old, black blues players played, which is banjo tuning translated to the guitar. And that liberated me to a considerable degree, and then, after that, I began to just twiddle the knobs into open chords, and sometimes I would tune, like a raga, to the environment.
I had one, "McKenna Beach tuning", so...in a region where you have songbirds, nature plays in regional keys, like even in Los Angeles, we went out recording crickets, and in one neighborhood they were singing in one key, all of them; in another neighborhood they're singing in another key, all of them. So, areas tune themselves in a certain way, for whatever reason. So, then I began to do that, like tune...tune to areas, and then also just tune to chords, like supposing I had something that had stuck in my craw, in particular an emotion that...that was still raw and unfocused but wanting to come out, and I would twiddle the guitar knobs around until I found a modality that kind of was emotionally kindred. Some of these chords were then too emotionally complex for most white people, but black people had no problem with it.
I just got my doctorate in music, and this fellow Greg spoke, and one of the things that he said was, "She's so black, that she thinks that eleventh and thirteenth chords are radio-friendly." [laughs] But I always wondered why, for instance, Brazilians were able to tolerate or thrill to a greater harmonic palate, whereas the Western mind, again, seems to like its tragedy minor and its happiness major, and the most complex emotion it could take would be a seventh chord. Where my daughter was at large, "where's my girl? where's my girl?", that created a dissonance in my life for many years, you know, "Are they gonna drop the bomb? Are they gonna drop the bomb?", that's another dissonance. So I spent my whole life with these complex dissonances, and felt that majors and minors, you know, were too simplistic to express how it was I felt, you know? So, even on a happy day, there would be a tension line of a second, like an irritating buzz running through a major chord suited me just fine. [audience laughs]
Lawton: So, you've...now we're making our way around the wheel; we've left the east and we're getting into emotion now, in the south...
Mitchell: Was I clear? 'Cause that's the way I was supposed to be...[laughs]
Lawton: So, you've said that your gift for music has...has...was borne out of tragedy and loss, and you've also talked about this...the effect of the bomb as sort of creating a sort of a...an emotional dissonance. Can you talk about the universal and the personal loss...
Lawton: ...and how it...how that complexity came out in your music.
Mitchell: Okay, we're talking about feeling now, okay, feelings. I began to write...I mean, it was observed, I guess, in school that I had an ability to describe; one yearbook says "Winged words fly from her pen," but I...I never really identified myself as a writer, it was just one of the subjects that I passed; [JM and audience laugh] I was kinda good at it, you know. I always thought of myself as a painter, and what catalyzed myself as a writer is that...when I gave my daughter up from...for adoption, and the combination: I gave my daughter up for adoption, I made a bad marriage, and then three years later, suddenly I had a recording contract and I was becoming very famous. Those three forces...well, prior to...to the recording contract...let's just take the first two. The loss of my daughter, although I was kind of stoic about it...it says on the papers that I...I guess I must have been kind of...made some kind of terrific emotional display in there, 'cause they said in the papers that it was very hard for me to sign that day. I don't remember; I blocked it. But...I then proceeded as best I could, but at the time my daughter would have been three years old, I got this recording contract. Now, I began to write...I'm not being clear again. [to AL] See, I'm in emotion, so you're not too clear down here.
I'm talking about feelings... The intensity of the loss, which I kind of repressed in order to function, I made a bad marriage, because I was emotional and not thinking right [laughs], frankly, you know. I got railroaded into a marriage with a...a domineering person; he was a strong force. It was not a match made in heaven, and I introverted within that marriage into kind of...into my own world, where I tried to describe my feelings. That was catalyst to me becoming a writer. I began writing when I lost my daughter and I...I stopped writing when she came back. It was something I did while she was away.
Lawton: So, around this time historically, you...you write Blue, which is regarded as really the...that moment when you showed other artists how...what they could talk about...how to be honest emotionally...
Mitchell: Well, at the time they didn't think so. I remember Kris Kristofferson listening to it and he shook...he said, "Joni," you know, like, "save something of yourself." Because at that time, [delayed audience laugh] I, you know, music was [sings] "I'm baaaad"...well, it wasn't quite like that; that came later, but, generally an image was created...you were supposed to be bigger than life, not small-...you weren't supposed to get too human. But I had no choice, I mean I was...I was so emotionally disturbed, I guess you'd have to say, that there was nothing else that I could write about. So, everybody kind of...at that time I became kind of transparent to myself and everybody else kind of became transparent to me, and I had to...I had to then take myself out of society completely and submerge myself in nature. Now fortunately in those four records, even though I was surrounded by crooks and sychophants, I did make enough money to buy a little piece of land by the sea, that was remote enough that...that I could spend a lot of time alone with...with nature. There were bear and otter and eagles, and that was very curative for...for me.
I briefly tried psychiatry, which was absurd [audience laughs] and I thought, Well maybe the dead guys, maybe it's just the living guys who are not quite up to snuff, so let me explore the dead guys, but they were no better. Jung, like, seemed to have a glimmer of it, but even at that time, it wasn't 'til he wrote his memoirs years later that he abandoned his own work; that he got smart [laughs], you know. There were a couple of things I picked up from him at that time...so I built myself a little reform school in the wood and I pulled in a lot of theology books and psychiatry books, psychology books. Most of them I threw at the wall, they were so annoying. In the pits like that you can really see the thumbs in the lapels, you know like Solomon said "All is vanity," it just...you know, there were no rafts for the drowning there. They were building a name for themselves, for the most part, it seemed to me. But I did find a companion in Nietzsche; fifty percent of Nietzsche just made me howl with laughter. That's how down I was [audience laughs]...that Nietzsche was funny [laughs].
Lawton: So...in the PBS special Woman Of Heart And Mind, it's...there's a remarkable quote where you say that around that time you went through a shamanic conversion. Is that when the medicine wheel entered?
Mitchell: Yes...I mean in all these books...I bought out two bookstores at that time, before they went computer-order. So their...you know, then they started just dealing with the hits, but at that time they had pretty good libraries. So I dragged all these books in, you know, looking for a way out of the abyss, so to speak, and most of the books were useless to a person that was drowning. It seemed to me that Western psychology was in its infancy, and theology also seemed so full of contrivances.
Nature elevated my spirits. I would go out and the otters would be sliding down the bank in, you know, and I'd dive off a rock and come up giggling, but the first day I did that I thought, you know, "No, I've really gone nuts," you know. I'm laughing all by myself, then I went "No, no, no, this is a good thing, this is a good thing." You know, you got happy otters and happy eagles and everything, you know, you're in with everybody else [JM and audience laugh].
Lawton: So, the...the traditional role of the shaman is this...is this healer, and, just from an objective perspective, somehow you made this transition from being a folksinger to a sort of healer, and the...the indication is quote where you were met by those three girls who circled you and said, "Before Prozac there was Blue."
Mitchell: Yeah...[laughs] Yeah, that goes to show how little truth you get out of Western culture [laughs]. Oh, that's mean, isn't it? That's kind of mean. No...[laughs]
Lawton: So rounding out of emotion, we get into the west and sensitivity, and you put together a band, and you get some great musicians and you go on the road and you get people dancing and...and, you seem really strong. You're coming out of this vulnerable, emotional place to a really...really powerful place.
Mitchell: You take Marilyn Monroe, or anything like...this culture at that time: they really like a high wire act, so they...there's something perverse about it; they're waiting for it to slip off the edge. Poor Marilyn had that difficulty and I...I...you know, I thought as much as people were drawn to me, you know, as a bleeding wound, which I was before...you know, before I withdrew and let nature heal me, I fully experienced sensitivity, which is the "look within" place. It's...In the natural order, if we were moving at a slower tempo, when you're emotionally disturbed you're driven west and you introvert, and that's called the "look within" place, and it's a deepening place, but we...I can see why it's mistaken for mental illness; if you're riveting on an assembly line and you've got a family to feed, you don't have the luxury of lying around for a while deepening. But I think that the reason that there's such massive depression in this culture is because it's so shallow, that in an attempt to balance itself that people are depressed; they can sense, even though they don't trust their sensitivity, they can sense that things are going wrong everywhere. They need to deepen, but you need the time for that and we're moving so fast. We're moving faster than our organism can really handle it, and there's no real way to slow it down. That's the...that's the driving tempo. So, it is being mistaken for illness, whereas in fact I think it's nature attempting to balance itself.
And that's the difference...when I say in this culture perhaps what they call a nervous breakdown, which is sensitivity introverting, which makes you unable to maybe do your job and be a breadwinner, is an attempt of the organism to correct itself, to balance itself, to counteract...you know, the skimming of the surface all of the time, with no contemplative time to balance yourself with depth. Clarity is shallow by its nature, you know, and that's a good thing in some ways and a bad thing in other ways, and you need the equal and the opposite. It's kind of like Fiddler On The Roof, where he has a thought and then, [in character] "On the other hand..." [audience laughs], you know. So, you need to be sensitive and then, [in character] "On the other hand, you need to be clear and you need to feel" [audience laughs], and on the other hand, you need to think. But...you need it all.
Lawton: Now, that brings us to somewhat the present moment; we fast-forwarded through the '80s, but The Beginning Of Survival is really a retrospective of...of your work of the '80s and '90s, and I wonder if you would be so kind to read us something from the gatefold from that...
Mitchell: Oh, okay, let me get my specs here...
Lawton: The gatefold that features the...the Chief Seattle speech, and the...which was written to President Garfield in 1850-something and there's some debate as to who actually wrote it...
Mitchell: Do you want me to read the whole thing?...
Mitchell: ...It's very beautiful...
Lawton: Read your favorite part...
Mitchell: Well, I like the whole thing [AL and audience laugh] [JM laughs].
Lawton: This is actually interesting...after the first Earth Day, when it was such a success, that second Earth Day, 1971, we saw the release on television of this famous public service announcement, the...the so-called "Crying Indian" public service announcement, where an Indian is paddling his canoe, and he comes upon a polluted shore, and a garbage bag falls at his feet, and he turns into the camera, and a tear drops. It was one of the biggest public service announcements, 750 million dollars in free advertising, and you...and that Indian, the "Crying Indian," you know and is on this...this CD...
Mitchell: Iron Eyes Cody, yeah...
Lawton: Iron Eyes Cody.
Mitchell: Do you want me read the speech...
Mitchell: ...or tell the Iron Eyes Cody story?
Lawton: Well, read a little first, please
[reads] "The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? How can you own the rain and the wind? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to our people. Every shining pine needle. Every sandy shore. Every mist in the dark woods. Every meadow and every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and the experience of our people. We know the sap that courses through the trees as we know the blood that flows through our veins. We are part of the earth as it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the meadows, the ponies and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not simply water, but the blood of our grandfathers' grandfather. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of our people. The water's murmur is the voice of our great-great-grandmothers. The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness that you would give to any brother. If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us. That the air shares its spirit with all life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life.
So if we sell you our land, you must keep the land and air apart and sacred as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers. Will you teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of man. This we know. The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.
[JM interjects: This is what the Western mind has lost.]
Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.
[JM interjects: And that's what's happening to us now. This is becoming apparent, and it will become more apparent in the next decade.]
One thing we know our God is also your God.
[JM interjects: This is what the religions don't know. It's all the same thing; everybody's trying to describe it in different ways, and yet we war about this.]
The earth is precious to Him. And to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
[JM laughs and interjects: I love this part...]
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered?
[JM interjects: Well, what happened was the Great Depression. You know, without the buffalo, frankly, farting and seeding the ground, you know, the...the...the ground just leapt off the ground and rain didn't come for seven years. These are...It's like putting a tourniquet on your arms; same thing with the Biafran drought. The fences that the English put up created...stopped...put a tourniquet on the flow of animals, which migrate around and influence the weather patterns. So...]
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are slaughtered and the wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone. And where will the eagle be? Gone.
[JM interjects: See, the eagles need old growth trees. The new trees are too flimsy for them, so they're going. I had them on my property in BC, but they've been clear-cutting up there and they've been disappearing.]
And what will happen when we say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? It is the end of living and the beginning of survival. When the last red man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across a prairie, will these shores and forests still be here?
[JM interjects: No...[laughs]
Will there be any of the spirit of my people left? We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold it in your mind...hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land and the air and the rivers for your children and your children's children, and love it as God loves us all. As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land.
This earth is precious to us, it is also precious to you. One thing we know, there is only one God. No man, be he red man, black man, white man, yellow man, can be apart. We are all brothers, after all.
[end of talk]
Lawton: Thank you...thank you, Joni. So now it's time to get into our questions from the audience. And the first one here, kind of gets to the thread of optimism in the tragedy that we find in...in The Beginning Of Survival. The question is: "In the midst of our ecological tragedy that you speak about, what signs do you find for hope?" How can the...how can...what would the dreamer awaken to? What could the dream be that we might awaken to?
Mitchell: Gee...[pauses and laughs] My first thought is very cynical: you know, were I able to think hopefully they'd shoot me! [laughs] That's what, you know, this culture, you know...it's a terrible commentary, but yeah; anybody who seems to be able to generate any kind of hope in this culture is...threaten[ing] to somebody's commerce, it seems. My hope, I guess, sincerely, would be in re-education, with the optimism that we have the time for it...to reinstigate sensitivity and emotionality, which have their problems, back in as equals, to understand them. You know, each of the races, because of their...has, or had, because we're all assimilating and the white, the north way is dominating, and has for some time, but south, because of its equatorial influence, was the realm of the blacks, and therefore they are more emotionally sophisticated, and think eleventh and thirteenth chords should be on the airwaves. Clarity, the rising sun side of things, was the territory of the yellow race; sensitivity was the territory of the red race, which made them particularly vulnerable to conquest, because it is easy to con. That's the old Socrates in Greece, you know, a northeaster, enters a southwestern culture, and... well, they finally gave him the hemlock, but [laughs] the damage was already done.
Lawton: So here's a question about the next generation. "Which young leaders or people or artists inspire you in terms of getting us back to the garden?" Who's touching your heart now, musically?
Mitchell: No one. But that's not, you know, to say that I've heard everything that's going on, but I feel that music is degenerating in a certain way; that the generation that came up behind us,....when we went into it, there was no guarantee of it being lucrative. But since it was lucrative for so many, you've got a generation that was groomed with Barbie dolls; Barbie shops and goes to rock concerts, you know, like...that have as a goal, fame and fortune, and...so I think a lot of the music has been made is...the emphasis is on that. But like I say, I haven't heard everything that's being made. Surely in certain pockets there...there are people, but I'm at a time in my life too where I don't like music very much and I have a rarefied need that...that I wouldn't impose on anybody, I, you know, I need a high degree of divinity and originality that is not a normal appetite, so [laughs] I'm not really in a position to judge.
Lawton: So this will...we're getting close to the end so I'm going to ask the end question about Iron Eyes Cody, how he came into the song "Lakota."
Mitchell: Oh, well, we were recording in a studio in Santa Monica, in Los Angeles. We were laying down a song called "Lakota," which is written from...with a lot of empathy from a native perspective, so I really wanted to play it for a Lakota Sioux, and a friend of mine, Frederico, who's a Macatec Indian merchant, told me that the Santa Monica Civic was presenting an Indian artifacts show, and there going to be some really rare objects, a lot of contraband old objects with eagle feathers and hummingbird feathers and that I should really go and he'd take me and show me these things behind the counter.
So I said to my then-husband, Larry Klein and Mike Shipley, the engineer, you know, "I'd like to step out for about an hour and just go over and catch this show," and Klein said to me, "Joan-joan, that's not like you to, you know, leave the studio." I said, "I know, and I'll just be gone for an hour." "No, we need you here," he said, you know. I said, "This is really important to me..." Well, just then the machines went down, so we had to call in a mechanic. I said, "Ah, down time! You know...like...by the time you get it fixed I'll be back. Give me five bucks to get in and, you know, I'll be back in an hour."
So I bummed some money off them and I...you know, begrudgingly they let me go, and I walked into this show and I was greeted by a cyclops; this film crew met me at the door and this eyeball, this lens said to me, "What are you doing here?" and I went "Well, I don't have much time; I've come to see some rare objects that I'm told are here." "Oh," and she said, "do you know Iron Eyes Cody?" "No," I said. And she said...and she dropped the lens and said, "You don't know Iron Eyes Cody?" And I said, "No." "You must know Iron Eyes Cody, you know, the Crying Indian, the guy on the commercial?" "Oh, okay, I know Iron Eyes Cody." "Would you like to meet him?" she said. I said, "Well, look, I don't have that much time; maybe I...I've got one hour and I've got to get back to work." And she said, "Well, he's right here." So around the corner came Iron Eyes Cody wearing a grey braided wig tied under his chin in bow. So I guess he'd gone bald underneath it, you know, his white genes had taken over, and so I said to him, "Do you know any Indian songs?" and he said, "Sure, you know, like..." I said, "Would you mind just singing one?" "I don't mind if I do." So, he took back his head right in the middle of this show and he...he said, [sings] "Hey ya ho, ho, hey ya ho hey ya..." So I said, "Oh, that's fantastic! Would you...would you come back with me to...to record?" [audience laughs] And he said, "Oh, you...you want me to overdub?" [audience laughs] [JM laughs]
So I said, "Yeah, I wouldn't...I wouldn't mind," and he said, "Well, I've got a dinner engagement at nine o'clock but, you know, maybe I could get out of it." So I said, "Well, look, I've gotta go see Frederico about a few things, but you see if you can get out of your dinner engagement." So I went and looked at all these wonderful contraband objects and it was going into the second hour so I was a little late. I rounded up Frederico and his brother Juan and Iron Eyes Cody and the film crew and I came back to the studio an hour and a half later and Klein and Ship were glaring at me but the machinery was still down. I said, "Look, okay, I'm a half an hour late, but you know, it's still not fixed." Just then they wrapped up and we started to go so I...I played the song for Iron Eyes and I said, "What do you think?" and he went, "Oh. It's got the haunting. I think you're turning Indian," he said. "So, you want me to overdub?" [audience laughs] So we overdubbed him in the one place and recorded the little snippet that I spun in at the head of the song, and we had just completed it when somebody said, you know, "There's a terrific electrical storm outside." And it was daylight, so we went out on the back porch to look, and as Iron Eyes and I stood on the back porch, this ball of lightning...did you ever see ball lightning? I...I'd never seen it before. It came down the wire; it was like a pumpkin, but travelling down the wire towards the studio, so I ran back inside and I said, you know, "Grab the tape off of the heads in case it goes into Record and wipes everything out. They pulled it off the heads and we went back out and watched this incredible storm, and shortly after that, the Lakota Sioux sent for me to march with them. It was the first time in their history that they united against yet another broken treaty, the gold mines of the Black Hills.
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