Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Chalk Marks & Coffee Cups Print-ready version

Thus Spake Joni Mitchell

by Peter Thomson
Rip It Up
July 1988

click to enlarge

In Auckland for a promotional trip in 1988, Joni Mitchell arrived with the flu and spent a few days secluded in her hotel room. All press was cancelled. On the day she emerged, the only interview scheduled was with Peter Thomson, Rip It Up's enthusiastic freelance Joni scholar. I was his chauffeur (and editor).

They hit it off and conversational sparks flew for an intense hour. After that, a press conference was scheduled. No one showed up except for an ex-hippy allegedly working for a community newsletter, and a grizzled photographer from the New Zealand Herald. The record company rep asked me to sit in, to make up the numbers.

Around a small table we gathered and Joni and Peter continued their exuberant tête-à-tête. She consumed copious amounts of cigarettes and coffee while her mind leapt about; she was charming, funny, saucy and breathtakingly articulate.

For an engrossing hour we listened to the two new, fast friends. Then the newspaper photographer stood up and said, "Miss Mitchell, I've got to go now and photograph a race meeting. I hadn't heard of you when I was told to come here. But this has been the most fascinating encounter of my career."

He got his photograph but missed the magic moment. For Mitchell then pulled out a guitar and serenaded us with three or four songs.
-Chris Bourke

Joni Mitchell was at the end of a grueling tour, not of concerts but interviews. For the last five months she had been touring the world doing little but face a continuous stream of reporters who asked the same questions in different accents.

Auckland was to be her last stop before returning home to California, However no sooner had she arrived here than Mitchell and her assistant went down with a bout of influenza contracted in Australia. After five days in bed they'd roused themselves for one final round of meet-the-press. The last interview of the day, of the tour, fell to Rip It Up.

In such circumstances it would be understandable were Mitchell to be a less-than-enthusiastic subject. In fact she proved the opposite. Over the course of two hours, and fortified by several cigarettes and constant cups of coffee. Mitchell held forth volubly on a wide range of subjects by no means confined to her music. She spoke about figures from Freud to John Coltrane to Reagan ("He's senile, He's an idiot."). She quoted Neitzsche and the I Ching. She pondered connections between the invention of the printing press and the witch trials. and she speculated on conspiratorial links between American televangelists and US foreign policy in Latin America.

Laughter

Yet despite the apparent seriousness of what was discussed her talk was constantly punctuated by generous and often self-deflating laughter. She mimicked the voices of Madonna and Bob Dylan and imitated anyone from French TV producers to Japanese journalists. She even vocalized instrumental sounds, including a badly programmed Fairlight synthesizer and a famous session guitarist mis-hitting his notes.

"I'm ranting on you," She grinned at one point during a tirade against journalists. "Once I get wound up! You wanted an interview and you're getting it. I knew I'd do this. I get mean on coffee you know. I'm a happy drunk but a mean coffee drinker."

Equally as fascinating as her steady flow of talk was Joni Mitchell's face. When frowning it became all hooded brow, cool eyes and those famous cheekbones. At such times her small hat seemed to suggest a monastic cap and she was very much the serious-minded artist in her mid-40s. Yet when she laughed the years fell away and, with Chaplinesque chapeau atop long blonde folkie haircut. There sat the fresh-faced troubadour who had first bewitched her audience in the 1960s. (Mitchell herself may not concede such striking alterations in her looks but she does admit they have changed with time. "My face began to change when I really began to think. My eyes got more hawk-like. They were much more attractive to men when they were soft and insipid and stupid looking. ")

Her smiles are quite enchanting, and not merely to this (admittedly predisposed) reporter. Even Rip It Up's editor, not a devotee, was charmed. as was an initially uninterested senior photographer from a daily paper. He'd just stopped by to get a couple of shots before going on to cover a race meeting. Yet he stayed for much longer than required, still not knowing who this strong, fascinating woman really was. Finally, having to leave, he almost bowed in offering his thanks and ventured to suggest that "Miss Mitchell. you really should smile more often." Back came a frown and a "What, with these teeth?" Then, the smile.

Chalk Marks

0f course one reason behind Mitchell's interviews was to publicise her new album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. But more than that the tour has served to mark her 20th year of recording. Initially however, she had felt no inclination to embark on such an extensive junket.

"I was empty. I had put all my energy into making the record It took me two and a half years and a lot of thought and a lot of work. I was very proud of it. But the initial feedback I got on it was terrible. Nobody could recognise it. Everybody wanted it to be something other than what it was. It was depressing, and in that state I was expected to go cheerily into interview mode. I felt completely down and isolated. But as I began to tour, as luck would have it, those things that are empty fill up again. I feel I've grown a lot on this trip in certain ways, Whether it will manifest itself in my art I don't know."

What has proved instructive for Mitchell about the tour was gathering the perceptions her audiences have of her. One idea which followed her around was that she no longer writes intimately.

"While I'm not as introverted as I was in my 20s it's true. Listening to the early work again I realise that some of it is extremely internal. But because I no longer write from that particular place anymore doesn't mean that what I'm writing now is any less personal. Or less valid. It was almost like people wanted me only and forever to be this fainting Ophelia-like creature. Obviously one has to grow some teeth to survive. If I hadn't I probably wouldn't still be here.

"Travelling around I've had a request to write more love songs, preferably of the suffering order. In Japan they were relentless. They wanted to break up my marriage." She laughs and takes another sip of coffee. "People really want me to get miserable so they can have some songs they like. They have an appetite for conflict only of a romantic nature, when there are so many other kinds."

And it's conflict of the social and political kind that have taken an increasing prominence on Mitchell's last two albums. While concerns such as environmental pollution have appeared in her work since the early days - one thinks of 'Big Yellow Taxi' and 'Banquet' - the recent songs are far more angry and direct.

Urgency

"Perhaps it's the urgency I felt regarding the topics on the last two albums. I just found the 80s in America to be such an alarming time. The collapse of the dream for many - the small businessman, the farmer. We were watching capitalism turn into a casino as the high-roller business school wizards took over."

She now considers some of the songs on 1985's Dog Eat Dog as almost prophetic: "The writing on the wall. When I wrote about some of those things people didn't care for it. Dog Eat Dog came out before the Iran/Contra scam and before the fall of the TV evangelists. My function has always been I'm both sensitive enough and tough enough to not just be geared towards popularity. I'm geared to telling it like I see it. In the early days, when I was expressing my internal feelings, others weren't doing that. Then once I started expressing how I saw America crumbling others didn't want that. "

Mitchell has also experienced the sharper edges of 80s capitalism at first hand. "I've just had two of the roughest years of my life with people trying to make a quick buck out of me. My housekeeper sued me. The State of California beat on me for money and I sued them. (I won but they might contest it.) I was ripped off by a bank. It woke me up. I used to feel my terrain was matters of the spirit and that they didn't go together with politics."

Yet she bristles at the suggestion that in turning from matters of the heart to political concerns he songwriting may become less universal, more limited in audience identification. "'The Beat of Black Wings' is a song about war, period. Regionalism is not in that song. It's in the journalism that accompanies it. People read the journalism and decide that's what the song about and don't hear the song itself anymore. The songs will hold up. You've got preachers in this culture have you not? Check them out against 'Tax Free,' You've got greedy businessmen don't you, your own dark little entrepreneurs? Check them out against 'Dog Eat Dog'"

Ripening

If sections of Mitchell's audience are questioning aspects of her recent work - from the lyrics' subject matter to her increasing use of guest vocalists - she believes she has no choice but to risk their disapproval. "It disappoints me but I have to do it anyway. The music is closer to my vision now but people don't know that. They keep lamenting but I'm better than ever. I can hear it. I know I am. And so I should be. You know rock and roll is a youth-oriented thing but I'm not a rock and roller. I'm a musician. I'm in my ripening age and yet I'm being dealt with as if I'm in my decline."

Such pugnacious self-confidence has stood her in good stead ever since she first set foot on a stage in the mid-60s. From the outset Mitchell acted as her own agent and insisted on maintaining her own publishing rights. "I'm an independent cuss. By the time my known career was beginning I thought it was at an end. Every record contract offered me was slave labour. I knew that time was fickle and I realised people had got me confused with Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Although I came after them I was still a girl with a guitar so I got lumped in with them."

She credits David Crosby, producer of her first album and at that stage a folk-rock superstar, with hearing the essential uniqueness in her music and refusing to turn her into "the current thing." Moreover the fact that Crosby brought the record in under budget pleased the company, with the result that, "they've pretty much left me alone ever since. And even though the last couple of albums have been very expensive to make. They took a long time, and with 48 tracks running that's high rent district you know. In spite of the fact that I'm not a platinum selling artist and their profit margin was severely wounded, they still haven't sent an A&R man to breathe down my neck."

Bushy Egos

Talking to Mitchell one definitely imagines any A&R man would have his work cut out trying to impose the company's will. The woman's ego is, by her own definition, "a bushy one. She shrugs. "Art and ego are synonymous. You've got to have a big ego to be a performer. To try and hide it is ridiculous. There's nothing more disgusting to me than false humility. Some of the most amazing artists were outrageous egotists. Look at G B Shaw. Acts of ego of a certain order are not unattractive to me."

She discusses her friendship with the late Jaco Pastorius in these terms, speaking fondly of his bass-playing genius while also describing him as a "full-tilt braggart. He was the only other person I ever met who thought Nietzche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra was funny. He was wonderful company to me. Ho was unbelievably arrogant in a way that to me was amusing, but to most other people on the scene was too much."

Mitchell then grins as she recalls her involvement in two famous all-star gatherings: Bob Dylan's 1976 Rolling Thunder roadshow and, the same year, the Band's farewell concert The Last Waltz. "Both were supposedly ego-less events," she says and rolls her eyes "I mean can you imagine? A real bushy line-up in each one. You should have seen all people busting a gusset to be ego-less. I'd rather we'd all been flying a banner 'We're all huge ego-maniacs here.' It might have brought on some genuine modesty." She laughs and reaches for the coffee.

Surprisingly enough, the idea of indulging one's ego in an autobiography does not appeal, despite the fact that so many of her contemporaries are currently doing so. "l think autobiography is one of the most boring writing forms there is in that it's just a series of self-congratulatory statements. It has little to do with reality. The short story is a better form. You can be more honest in a short story. There are only a few stories I would feel the necessity to tell In an autobiographical way because they involve famous and charismatic people. For instance my visit to [American painter] Georgia O'Keefe or my time spent with [jazz legend] Charles Mingus. But as regards my romantic relationships with men, they would be so much more real written in a fictional way.

Of course many fans suspect she has already done this extensively through her songwriting. It's a game often played, guessing which of Mitchell's past lovers, many of them famous in their own right, have occasioned which songs. Such speculations. especially when they appear in print, receive her scorn. "They get them all wrong. Misconceptions are rampant. But the gossip is so titillating and people get a rush out of it. But it's such a cheap thrill. It's so disappointing for me. Either you can relate to my songs by saying that's what she went through, which keeps it at a safe distance. Or you can relate to it what you've been through, which is so much richer. A beauty, if I may say, of my work is that has given people an option. If you can't relate to it yourself you can always pin it on me."

Intoxicating

During the course of our time together Mitchell twice sang, accompanying herself beautifully on a Martin acoustic guitar. Her singing voice is every bit as rich as it appears on record, the maturing years having added only depth and fullness. The intoxicating effect on this reporter of a private performance from one of his long-time idols should not be underestimated. 'Number One' from the new album sounded quite different, though nonetheless strong with its complex arrangement pared down to six strings. The other song was 'Fourth of July, Night Ride Home,' a short but very attractive new composition written just prior to this tour.

"There's nothing like a new song," she says but acknowledges that such joys don't necessarily come easily. "Like any professional writer there are days when you sit down and pen nothing You scribble a lot of words but there's nothing retrievable. And there are always songs which still have to be finished at recording time. Every writer knows this process. It's agony. Sometimes if I get bogged down intellectually I like to go into random mode. When rationality fails I go for the irrational. The irrational frequently contains superior possibilities. I'll start with any old noise; it's completely blind and intuitive. For people who've never worked with me before It's the most frightening aspect of my process. They think Joni's lost her marbles."

To illustrate she details how 'Lucky Girl' from Dog Eat Dog was written, with her working in the studio to the accompaniment of screeching distortions from a malfunctioning Fairlight programme. However at the opposite end of her writing process are those occasional songs which "seem to come out of nowhere; they come mysteriously. Take 'Dancing Clown' for instance. I set myself an exercise when was in New York four years ago that would write a song. In New York the street is very colourful and just walking out your door something is bound to happen. But I'd been there two weeks, and although it was eventful it was mostly things I'd described in one way or another before.

"My neiqhbour and I liked to play the last few races on the off-track betting just a few streets away. The horses' names were so rich with these strange juxtapositions of nouns and adjectives. I took the racing sheet home with me and made a column of descriptive phrases and a column of surnames. Out of this came 'Dancing Clown' which is just loaded with horses' names from the New York Circuit." A chuckle and another sip of coffee. "I told Dylan about it because he really liked the song and he said, 'Aw, I had that idea years ago but I thought it was a dumb idea."

Soliloquy

Mitchell admits that she is no longer as prolific as she once was but argues that the reason is due to her more exacting standards now. "If I was to write simple three-chord songs they could come much more quickly, but because I demand of myself a certain amount of musical growth, doing something I haven't done before, hoping for something fresh, I ended up with melodies that are soliloquy-like. It becomes harder to set lyrics to them. The other reason I'm not as prolific is that the production is so much more expansive now. The last two and a half years it took to make this album were not idly spent. They were part of my ongoing education with music. I'm learning to be an orchestrator. I'm still in school. I always will be.

As a result of such education she looks back on her earlier work with an increasingly critical eye. "I wish I knew then what I know now because it makes me want to go back and re-do some of them. Some songs are stronger than the performances. For instance 'Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire' [from 1972's For the Roses]. It's nicely presented but the bite of the language isn't brought out. I could sing it now with more coarseness and bring the theatre out more."

She concedes that such self-criticism will probably always be with her. "When Charles Mingus was dying he was pissed off with his own music. It's that divine dissatisfaction that it could always be perfect. I'll probably be like that with mine."

Portrait

An idea she has been mulling over while on tour has been to compile a retrospective selection of her work as a portrait of her artistic development. As she discusses the project and possible tracks from the 15 albums are suggested, the inclusion of "Both Sides Now" inevitably rates a mention. For not only was that her widely known song (largely through the many cover versions) but each of its verses describes a subsequent stage of aging. resignation and (possibly) disillusionment.

"You know," she says, "there's an old TV clip of me singing that from 1969. I'm wearing a long red velvet dress which I've still got and can still get into. I've an idea to recut that clip with me redoing the final verse now." For a moment Joni Mitchell pauses, and then adds with a smile, "l think the comparison would be interesting."

This article has been viewed 2,497 times since being added on May 22, 2020.

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Comments on Chalk Marks & Coffee Cups

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.