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Speech for SFJazz Tribute to Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Ben Fong-Torres
SFJazz
May 8, 2015

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Good evening, and welcome to the SFJazz Center and Gala 2015 honoring Joni Mitchell.

And look at this. From Yesterday's San Francisco magazine web site, a story about a Giants project. The headline: The Giants Want to Pave a Parking Lot and Put Up Paradise. Crazy.

Well, I'm here for the same reasons most of us are. To salute Joni for all that she is: a gifted singer, songwriter, poet and painter. A passionate citizen, concerned for her community and the world. But I'm also here to thank her. She was my first cover story for Rolling Stone.

It was spring, 1969. A flight from San Francisco to Burbank on PSA was $14. I took one and found my way into Laurel Canyon. Joni had just purchased her first home, and I noted the d├ęcor - antique doors and stained-glass windows; beaded handbags hanging off a hat rack. There was a doll of her boyfriend, Graham Nash, perched on the edge of a loft, and I spotted a painting on her piano rack. It was her work, and it'd be on the cover of her next album, Clouds. I remember her being utterly beautiful and achingly honest. She was still new to this country and was absorbing it all, including the politics. "Too much of it can cripple me," she said. "And if I really let myself think about it - the violence, the sickness, all of it - I think I'd flip out." Joni catapulted into stardom, and, starbright, starbright, she illuminated. Her music - and words-- shined lights on everything around us, and her adventurousness and fearlessness led the way for an astounding array of fellow musicians.

As Elliot Roberts, her first manager, said, "She's just as important a writer as Dylan is. There are certain people who have made their mark. If they never did anything else, they will have influenced a great many people."

They include Jimi Hendrix, who she met in 1968 in Ottawa. Jimi asked if he could record her show, and set up his reel to reel machine onstage. Jimi said she was a "beautiful person with Angel songs."

Another fan was Stevie Wonder. Joni says he "considered his and mine, philosophical music, which I found very flattering."

One of Joni's favorites on this impressive list of The Impacted is Prince, who has said that The Hissing of Summer Lawns was "the last album I loved all the way through."

That album had another prominent champion. Elvis Costello wrote in Vanity Fair in 2004 that it was "a misunderstood masterpiece."

But, back to Prince. As Joni remembered, "Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U's and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!

But that didn't stop Prince, who credited Joni with teaching him "about color and sound," and expressed his gratitude in creative ways. He quoted "Help Me" in his song, "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." An album by his side project band, Time, was named Ice Cream Castle. And he covered "A Case of You," with "U" spelled the Prince way, of course.

That song is in the 2007 collection, A Tribute To Joni Mitchell, with her songs interpreted by, among others, Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox, Emmylou Harris, Bjork, k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson.

And speaking of albums including Joni's music interpreted by fellow artists, there is, of course, River: the Joni Letters, produced in 2007 by Herbie Hancock, who calls her "a fighter for freedom." Guest vocalists ranged from Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae to Tina Turner and Leonard Cohen. That's a wide span of ages. Somewhere in between is Janet Jackson. Janet was turned onto Joni by brother Randy and became a 'really big fan.' She sampled 'Big Yellow Taxi' for her hip-hop tune, "Got Til It's Gone."

Joni said that in 1998, when Janet was in a car, being interviewed for a new album, she told the writer, 'Never mind my album, listen to this." It was "The Beat of Black Wings," from Joni's Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. And Janet said, "This is on a whole other level."

Finally, courtesy of a recent piece in Time magazine by Jamieson Cox, I would add one Taylor Swift. The writer calls her "a disciple of Mitchell in ways both obvious and subtle. There's her writing, ripe with reflection but capable of sharp evisceration, and her complete ownership of the music she makes; there's the album she named Red, her cap tipped to Mitchell's Blue." Tell Joni all this and she'll say you didn't have to tell her. As she has said, "I've been very influential...The influence has been there; the ideas have introduced people to the possibilities of direction." That's Joni for you. A woman of pride.

It was around the time of Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm that I saw Joni again, for a magazine profile. By '88, she'd gone through many changes, including, she feared, falling out of vogue. "Someone came up to me at a restaurant the other day and said, 'Why don't you make a comeback?' I said, 'Where did I go?' I'm like the northern star. I'm always here."

And she is. Many of the artists she influenced are now influencers themselves. And so the next generation, and the ones after that, will be creating or making music that's inspired, one way or another, by Joni, who started this most rewarding of circle games. And for that, too, we say "Thank you."

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