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Black Like...Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Steve Kandell
Spin
October 2010

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October 31, 1976
Pasadena, California


For a close-knit group of Los Angeles singer-songwriters and session musicians in the '70s, the annual Halloween party at prodigiously bearded bassist Leland Sklar's house was a proud tradition and can't-miss event. Famed rock photographer Henry Diltz and his wife Elizabeth were mainstays and always looked forward to seeing familiar faces, yet one face at the 1976 gathering was decidedly unfamiliar.

Henry Diltz: We were partying, and there was this black guy who showed up whom nobody knew. Everyone thought it was someone whom someone else knew: "Is that guy your friend?" "I thought he came with you." I was taking a picture of my wife—we went as pirates—and this guy happened to be in the background.

I can't remember how this person's true identity came to be known, but it wasn't until an hour or two into the party that we figured out he was Joni Mitchell—she dressed herself up that way to see if she could fool all her friends, and she did. She was a dear friend of everyone in that room, and no one got it. Joni was very into observing street life—pimps and hookers, and characters like that—so she could write about it. She was fascinated by that side of life. And this turned out to be a character she'd developed, Art Nouveau, that she posed as on the cover of her next album [1977's DON JUAN'S RECKLESS DAUGHTER]. It was part of her psyche to invent and inhabit a character and play it to the hilt.

Today if someone did that at a party, I'm sure people might be aghast. But this was a time of peace and love. We were intimate friends, things weren't so broadcast or analyzed. Nobody was an icon yet, just musicians; there was no sense of awe. Some people were having success and having their music played, and that was great, but heck no, you never felt like there was a star in the room. Joni was proud she was able to pull this off. AS TOLD TO STEVE KANDELL.

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