Long before Dylan daubed his 'Self Portrait' sleeve, there was in existence an album cover bearing the tranquil face of Joni Mitchell as painted by herself. A portrait in oils on troubled waters perhaps the calm eyes stare into the middle distance-to her left, behind her, is the city... to her right, the open country... the lady looks vaguely sad. The face is appealing but the artist could have made herself look more beautiful had she wanted to. But, in contrast to the Dylan picture, it is an honest portrait.
Joni's honesty is in her songs as well as her painting. Her honesty is innocent and captivating. At her last appearance in England, she turned the Royal Festival Hall into an intimate folk club, and introduced and sang her songs with an unpretensiousness which made everybody in the audience incapable of either cynicism or indifference. She stood in the varying lights sometimes looking like a carefree schoolgirl, sometimes like a woman who sees the world so clearly that time ceases to have any meaning.
It was through other peoples versions of her songs that Joni became widely known (as was the case of Fred Neil through Nilsson, Gordon Lightfoot through Peter Paul & Mary, Kris Kristofferson through Lightfoot and Jack Elliott, and so on). A lot of eighth rate performers murdered her song Clouds, but others recorded excellent interpretations of her work — Tom Rush did Urge For Going, Judy Collins did Both Sides Now and Michael From Mountains, Dave Van Ronk made a superb version of Both Sides Now, and by early 1968 Joni was attracting some sort of universal recognition, although no album was released until much later that year.
Tom Rush was the source of encouragement Joni needed to break out of the Mid West club circle: "He persuaded me to get out of Michigan. So I went to New York and played at the Gaslight but didn't do all that well. I drew a few interesting people but nothing really startling. Then Tom took my song Urge For Going — he had Judy Collins in mind at the time. He took it to her and she apparently didn't like it — it just didn't excite her enough to do it. So he didn't know what to do and learned it in the meantime. And one day I got a letter from him saying 'I'm going to do Urge For Going — I don't think it's my kind of song but I'm going to try it anyway.' And he had beautiful success with it. So then he really started it — he opened doors and the only way I got work was through Tom. He'd go into a club and he'd stand up there and sing my song and build me up and people would get curious. So he really opened up a whole new circuit for me. That's where I grew and through experience got some other ideas and lived some other things. Tom really helped me because at that time I was terribly insecure about my writing — I really thought it was awful."
Joni's influences are many but whereas so many writers deny ever having been influenced by anybody she willingly specifies which songs were influenced by whom. I wrote a song called Cactus Tree which is Dylan influenced in its melody and even its style. I even lengthen my A's when I sing it because it sings better. It's all sort of in a monotone — I wrote it after I saw 'Don't Look Back' which I think left a big impression on me."
Of Judy Collins she says; "I'm very Judy Collins influenced because for the first year and a half of my career I memorized her albums. That's what I sang — my sets were her sets."
Of Leonard Cohen: "I think I'm Cohen influenced. I wrote Marcie and thought that it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Suzanne, which is another character sketch song."
If you listen to the songs she sings you can see what she means, but the influence seems very slight to me — at least 90% is unmistakeably Joni.
A once-famous literary critic, discussing Macbeth, pointed out that the oft quoted phrase 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' is the ultimate in simplicity, but is perhaps the most remembered line of the play. The same is true of many lines in Joni's songs - they are simple, yet unforgettable: 'And she's so busy being free' has a world of meaning in the context of Cactus Tree; and 'you are a refugee from a wealthy family' (Rainy Night House) is full of the thoughts you care to put into it.
On the other hand, at times she comes near to being over-flowery and sometimes overprosaic... but never quite. Even without the intricacies of musical accompaniment, her songs escape verbosity. Like Laurie Lee (author of 'Cider with Rosie'), she has a sense of proportion which allows her to dance along the edge of a precipice without toppling. The same is true of all her album covers, all of which she designed herself. This was part of her deal with Reprise: "The reason I waited so long before I recorded was that I wanted to be in a bargaining position. Judy Collins album (WILD FLOWERS) was the thing that really put me in a position where I could get the things I wanted. They weren't really outrageous, but I wanted complete and total artistic control over everything — which eliminated everybody. It eliminated the liner man and the artist, and I was allowed to do my own sleeves."
The first cover has the intricacy of psychedelic art, but the choice of colours and the manner of execution lift it into a class far from the easily parodied squiggles of the late Notting Hill period. In her self portrait on CLOUDS (mentioned earlier), Joni manages to hold a flower posed an inch from her face, but I can look at it for hours without the merest thought of a chocolate box. And LADIES OF THE CANYON bears a semi-Cocteau line drawing, interrupted by a water colour country scene — definitely non trendy, far from the Kings Road boutique mood of tie-on sunglasses and foot deodorant.
Lines like 'Peridots and periwinkle blue medallions/gilded galleons spilled across the ocean floor' are offset in the same song (Dawntreader) by the splendid simplicity of "he stakes all his silver on a promise to be free". And at the other extreme (in Marcie), the line "Marcie's faucet needs a plumber" doesn't jar at all because the song is such a balanced blend of a strong string of images and a haunting tune.
The same balance and control is evident in the mood of her songs. As Geoffrey Cannon said in the Guardian: "she is not in any way sentimental, although many of her songs explore the emotional meaning of memory." Her songs involve the listener and provoke his own thoughts, rather than dragging him into the joys or agonies that caused them to be written.
Many of her compositions are about incidents she's experienced — Nathan La Franeer is about a taxi-driver who once drove her somewhere, Michael From Mountains is an artist friend of hers, For Free concerns a clarinet player she saw on a London street ..."he was playing real good for free" — I'd like to think that it refers to Leonard Cohen.
The association of Joni Mitchell's name with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young is not recent. The first album was produced by David Crosby, and the bass part on Night In The City was by Steve Stills. "David Crosby," said Joni at the time, "is the most into my music of any outsider I've met. He also has very good judgment, and he gets a very good sound out of me in the studio. He's taught me a lot of things about recording and he's managed to get that stage presence on the albums." And she wrote Circle Game for Neil Young: "He was lamenting lost youth at 21. He decided that all the groovy things to do were behind him now, he was too old to do them. Suddenly he was an adult with all the responsibilities. All his life he'd been told to wait till he was older — and now that he was older he didn't want to do them any more." Willy ('Willy he is my child, he is my father, I would be his lady all my life') is generally acknowledged as referring to Graham Nash now sharing a house with her in Laurel Canyon.
In 1965 Roberta Joan Anderson (as she was known to the registrar of births at Fort McCloud in Alberta) became Mrs. Chuck Mitchell, but not much more than a year later the marriage was dissolved. There has been sadness in her life; in Time [magazine] she was quoted as saying: "If you are sad, you should feel sad. The French are good at that. They show what they feel and in that way purge themselves of it." Joni has purged herself of her sadness — none of her songs inflict sadness, there is always something positive: the unhappy husband in Conversation knows he'll find comfort; the lonely clarinettist in For Free plays sweet and high; the woman who breaks a thousand hearts in Cactus Tree is trying to make people happy. You feel that if she wrote a song about a nuclear bomb that she'd sing of those who survived unharmed.
"My songs are very honest, they are very personal, extremely personal. Sometimes they really hurt to sing. Some nights you really get into them, and they really take a lot out of me." Joni Mitchell is not politically involved. At least not to the extent of expressing a clear cut set of attitudes or pre-packed slogans. She doesn't need to be — her honesty and positive warmth are inspiring enough to make us strive to create the better world we spend so much time talking about.
The quotations are taken from an interview with Joni by Dave Wilson of Broadside Magazine.
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