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An Evening With Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Martin Colyer
October 24, 2009

It was 1977 and I was at art school in London on a graphics course. To supplement the student grant, some of us were involved with an ill-fated magazine venture. Supposedly a British answer to Billboard, Record & Radio News (or something like that) were keeping costs down by hiring students to do the design and paste-up. This resulted in lucrative evenings and weekends, albeit at a cost to our education. A friend who spent a lot of time working there came across two tickets for a Weather Report concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, and attached were two invites to the post-concert party. The attraction was not so much the prospect of seeing Weather Report but the fact that the party was at a club called the Speakeasy. The Speakeasy was one of those legendary London basement rock 'n' roll joints, situated in an unprepossessing street north of Oxford Street. It was supposedly the hangout of 'rock stars' but in reality probably only played host to Rod Stewart's roadies. In the heyday of punk, the Speakeasy's days were numbered...

The invites were, however, for the publisher and editor by name. So, looking rather too fresh-faced for our job titles, Tim and I presented ourselves at the Speakeasy's door. To our horror we had to pass down a presentation line of record label executives, being introduced by our assumed names to the Managing Director of CBS, the Head of European Sales, and so on. I don't quite know how we survived this ordeal, and I'm sure I can remember a couple of quizzical looks passing between recipients of our clammy handshakes, but the free bar helped us recover some of our lost cool. In a slight state of relaxation we helped ourselves the the lavish spread on offer.

We took a table next to Wayne Shorter, after a failed attempt to congratulate Joe Zawinul on the performance (failed, as he looked straight through me as I spoke. In retrospect, I don't blame him at all). We were eating and trying to eavesdrop on Wayne's conversation when a tall, willowy, long-haired woman followed by two men, one in his late fifties, one about our age, swept up to our table and asked if the rest of the seats were vacant. We said they were. They sat down and proceeded to strike up a conversation. Joni Mitchell wanted to ask Wayne Shorter to overdub saxophone on a track she'd recorded in LA, and the men with her were Henry Lewy, her legendary recording engineer, and his assistant.

As Wayne Shorter was deep in conversation, Joni turned to us and asked what we were doing there. We ruefully admitted that we were there under false pretences, but said, in our defence, that it made a change from the generally poverty-stricken art school life. Upon hearing the magic words 'art student', Ms Mitchell began animatedly talking about art, artists, paint and all manner of things. We in turn asked about guitar tunings and Jaco Pastorius (Hejira had been released a couple of months before and we had worn down the grooves already). Henry Lewy, who had engineered classic albums by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, was an extremely courteous man, and looked the spitting image of the film director Sam Fuller, only without the cigar. Suddenly next to our table was the whirling dervish that was Jaco, bobbing maniacally and muttering cryptic phrases such as 'the nose knows' and laughing and being accompanied to the men's room by various party members. The conversation flowed freely for the next two hours, various dignataries dropped by our table, and Wayne agreed to do the overdub.

There are now only two things that I recall really clearly from the conversation with Joni. One is that she said that I looked like Bud Cort, the actor from Harold And Maude (I was pathetically flattered by this not-obviously-flattering comparison). The other was that I gave her directions to the patisserie that had supplied the beautiful pastries for the party, telling her the buses to catch, which, as was pointed out by incredulous friends, was a fairly huge mis-reading of how Joni Mitchell would travel around town.

So in the early-morning hours we all stumbled out of the club together, saying our fond farwells under the streetlights of the West End. And, needless to say we dined out on the brief encounter, to the point where friends thought twice before mentioning Joni's name...

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Added to Library on November 12, 2010. (2223)


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