Joni Mitchell offers Hits and Misses

by Melinda Newman
August 24, 1996

Few artists would have the sense of humor, much less the humility, to release an album of "misses" alongside a "hits" collection, but that is exactly what Joni Mitchell will do Oct. 8, when Reprise puts out "Joni Mitchell Hits" and "Joni Mitchell Misses."

Mitchell, recipient of Billboard's 1995 Century Award, Century Award, which is the publication's highest honor given for distinguished creative achievement, has released 17 albums in a career spanning nearly 30 years but has never consented to a "best of" or career retrospective. "For years, people have been recommending or pushing me toward releasing a hits album, but in my case, there weren't enough hits technically to fill an album - by that, I mean a single that rides the chart well up into the small numbers," says Mitchell. "I also felt like [a greatest-hits package] would kill my catalog. The only reason I'm doing the hits is to show that I didn't die after 1973."

That was the year Mitchell's landmark "Court And Spark" came out. In addition to being considered one of the most influential and important albums of the rock era, it signifies Mitchell's chart peak. The album spent 64 weeks on Billboard's Top LPs & Tapes chart, including four weeks at No. 2. Although remarkable for their creativity and experimentation, "my next 11 albums are relatively obscure," admits Mitchell. With her forays into jazz and world rhythms, Mitchell says appreciation for her work has risen among her black audience, "but I lost my white audience after 1973. I'm kind of a pale black artist after 1973."

Mitchell begrudgingly agreed to putting out a "Hits" disc if Reprise agreed to also release a "Misses" disc. "Once I got the idea for the 'Misses,' my enthusiasm came in, because there was something in it for me," she says. "This way, it would give me a chance to run some of this overlooked material by the public again".

The 15-track "Joni Mitchell Hits" collection includes such well-known tracks as "Free Man In Paris" and "Help Me," as well as tunes like "Both Sides Now" and "Woodstock," which were bigger hits for other artists than for Mitchell. "Joni Mitchell Misses" is composed of 16 songs, "not of what I consider my best work, but things that were commercially viable. Most of them are things that I would have chosen as singles," says Mitchell. "These are songs of experience, as opposed to the younger songs on the 'Hits."'

The collections will be sold separately. Additionally, Reprise is considering packaging them together for a limited time in a slipcover.

Mitchell is not the first artist to come up with the idea of hits and misses: Devo released "Greatest Hits" and "Greatest Misses" a few years ago. However, the discs were not released simultaneously.

"It's kind of a charming idea," says John Artale, buyer for the Carnegie Pal-based chain National Record Mart. "She's admitting right off the bat that she had a commercial period and then didn't. She's secure enough in her body of work that she can do something like that."

Eric Keil, buyer for South Plainfield, N.J.-based Compact Disc World, feels the timing is perfect for the collections. "Joni Mitchell has had a high profile over the last year, with the Billboard Century Award and winning two Grammy Awards," he says. "She's really come into vogue as the originator of the Sheryl Crows and Suzanne Vegas.
"Elektra and Geffen didn't want this out," claims Mitchell. "They didn't want to be associated with the 'Misses.' I'm proud to be."

Julie Larson, Reprise director of A&R, concurs. "Initially, Geffen and Elektra were a little hesitant, but they came to an agreement . . . It was challenging getting the deals finalized and locating the masters. This was time consuming."
For Mitchell, picking the tracks was agonizing, in part because her albums exist as entire pieces of art and are not necessarily meant for cherry-picking.

"There aren't that many album artists," she says. "It used to be that albums had a couple of good songs in the one, two, and three slots and then a lot of filler, so that if you took the hits off them, there's not a lot left. But I think of albums as a form; I did from the beginning. The Beatles did, Brian Wilson did with 'Pet Sounds.' That's why I hate to tear them apart. That was a hump I had to get over: to take them out of a chronology that was carefully constructed at the time."

Ultimately, she was able to create new bodies of work that stand up to her unyielding scrutiny, especially with the "Misses" collection. "I've taken chapters from 10 books and built a new book. I think it's a whole new album, not just a collection of songs."

Although Mitchell undeniably feels that her work has not always received the commercial acclaim it deserved, her sense of humor about her fate shines through in the clever artwork for the collections. The photo for the cover of "Joni Mitchell Hits" features Mitchell lying, dead, in the middle of the road with a chalk outline drawn around her. "It's very fashionable to have gore on album covers right now," she says dryly. "But I didn't. The only concession is that [the word] 'Hits' is in red."

The "Misses" cover photo shows Mitchell, bent over, back to the camera, drawing with chalk. "I'm fully dressed, but this is a moon shot," she says. "It's kind of a 'kiss my ass' shot. Reprise loves it."

Similarly to Mitchell's 1994 album "Turbulent Indigo," which won Grammys for best pop album and best recording package, "Hits" and "Misses" will be in paper packages, if initial orders are at least 50,000 units, instead of standard jewel boxes. Outside of the U.S., jewel cases will be used.

The projects have no liner notes. "I tried to write the liner notes, but I couldn't get the right amount of levity," Mitchell says. "There was too much pain involved. I feel a certain amount of levity at this time in my life, but then, my time was rocked with slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I wrote and wrote and then abandoned the notes."

For Mitchell, reviewing the material brought back a wealth of memories.

"When I was recording 'Court And Spark' at A&M Studios, John Lennon was recording across the hall," she remembers. "He came in one night. I played him a few tracks. Being a working-class lad, he said all he liked was simple rock'n'roll, and anything too orchestrated was too sophisticated. "He was very drunk, and he said ['Court And Spark's' intricate arrangements] were a 'product of over education' and "Why do you let other people have your hits? You want a hit, don't you? Put a fiddle on it!' I don't remember what I said back to him. I wanted to sputter out that I flunked 12th grade twice."

Her review of her work also led her to propose a third set to Reprise. "I feel the best of my work is on neither of these, so I proposed a 'Misses 2' to put out later, but they said no," she says. "It would have been the more innovative material."

Mitchell is unflinchingly honest about her relative lack of commercial success but unfailingly confident about her artistic contribution to the music world. "I've had an exceptional career in that I kept doing good work, but the system dismissed me. I don't think there are many of my peers who kept doing good work."

Mitchell feels her poor reception at radio is the result of declining to play the game. "My refusing to pay indie [radio promoters] guarantees that I'm doomed to hitlessness," she says.

Mitchell's lockout at mainstream radio extends to most video channels. Even though she has created a fair number of videos, including clips for "Come In From The Cold" and "Beat Of Black Wings," Mitchell says they were either poorly serviced or received scant airplay. "All the outlets that created hits were denied me," she says. Reprise is looking into the possibility of releasing a companion home video.

Despite her limited airplay, Reprise plans to service the collections to top 40, adult contemporary, and triple-A formats. The label and Mitchell are discussing recording a Spanish version of "Nothing Can Be Done" (which is on the "Misses" set) and releasing it in Latin markets.

Although top 40 and AC stations contacted by Billboard doubted they would play anything from the two sets, Rita Houston, music director and on-air personality at Fordham University's WFUV in the Bronx, N.Y., is tremendously excited about the project.

"We'll definitely play music from these sets," says Houston. "This is very exciting news for the WFUV audience. She's one of our core artists. 'A Case Of You' [which originally appeared on the 1971 master piece 'Blue'] is sort of our 'Stairway To Heaven.'"

For Reprise, the new project is potentially a way to correct past wrongs. "I think that Reprise feels the injustice [Joni feels]," says Larson. "She's truly an artist's artist. I look at her and think she's the greatest songwriter that ever lived, and so many artists feel that way. But with the marketing of her albums, she just hasn't had the opportunities that others had, and I feel like that might change for her."

Hits and Misses: Track by Track

Joni Mitchell provided Billboard with a rundown of her selections for "Joni Mitchell Hits' and "Joni Mitchell Misses."

The "Joni Mitchell Hits" anthology opens with "Urge For Going." "It's my 'youngest' [i.e., oldest] song on there,"' she says. "It made sense as an opener." Recorded for (but not on) her 1968 self-titled debut, the song was eventually released as the B side of "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio," but it appears on none of Mitchell's albums".

Like many cuts on "Joni Mitchell Hits," "Urge For Going" (the first song she ever wrote) is better known as a hit for another artist. George Hamilton IV took the song to No. 7 on the Hot Country Singles chart in 1967. It was made famous in the folk world when Tom Rush covered it for his 1968 Elektra album "The Circle Game."

Although Judy Collins' version of "Chelsea Morning" only reached No. 78 on the Hot 100 Singles chart in 1969, it became one of her standards. (It also inspired the name of first daughter Chelsea Clinton.)

"Big Yellow Taxi" was released twice by Mitchell as a single: in 1970, when it reached No. 67, and again (in a live version) in 1975, when it reached No. 24. One-hit-wonder group The Neighborhood took the song to No. 29 in 1970. Both Amy Grant and Clannad's Maire Brennan have since covered the track.

Versions of "Woodstock" appear on three different Mitchell albums, but the best-known rendition is by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The song, which reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 in 1970, is bittersweet for Mitchell. She, like CSN&Y, was slated to play Woodstock in August 1969.

"We got to the airport [in New York], but in the meantime, Woodstock had been declared a national disaster area, and there was no way in," she recalls. "[Her then booking agent] David Geffen took me into the city. [Manager] Elliott Roberts was with the boys, and they rented a plane, and they got to go and I didn't. I watched it on television. I was not allowed to go because I had to do the Dick Cavett show the following day. [Then], they crashed the Dick Cavett show.

"It hurt. It was like I was the grounded daughter, but the boys get to go. Most of the song was written on the last night of the [festival], out of frustration of being disallowed to go. CS&N heard it later and asked permission to record it."

"Woodstock" is followed by "'The Circle Game," which, as Mitchell notes with a laugh, "was never a hit, but it did replace 'Old McDonald Had A Farm' at summer camp as a standard. It slipped into the culture in an unorthodox way. It didn't get radio airplay, it didn't climb the charts, but many people said, 'You have to put it on there. I sang it at summer camp.' Besides being the title track of the aforementioned Tom Rush album, it appears on Mitchell's 1970 set, "Ladies Of The Canyon."

Next are "Carey," which peaked at No. 93 on the Hot 100 in 1971, and "California." Both tracks appeared on 1971's "Blue."
"You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio," from 1972's "For The Roses," was one of Mitchell's biggest pop hits, reaching No. 25 in 1973. It is followed by three songs from 1974's "Court And Spark," which spent four weeks at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart. "Raised On Robbery" peaked at No. 65 in 1974. "Help Me," Mitchell's only top 10 hit, reached No. 7 in 1974, and "Free Man In Paris" reached No. 22 in 1974.

The album winds down with "River," from "Blue"; "Chinese Cafe," from 1982's "Wild Things Run Fast"; and "Come In From The Cold," off of 1988's "Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm."

"Both Sides Now," from 1969's "Clouds," ends the set. "I knew this would be the (closer almost as soon as I started putting it together," Mitchell says. "It had a sense of summary to it."

Again, Collins struck gold with a Mitchell tune. It was the biggest hit of her Collin's career and she took it to number 8 in 1968.

The "Joni Mitchell Misses" ¢collection opens with "Car On A Hill" from "Court And Spark." "I wanted to release it as a single, and [the label] fought me on it," says "Instead, 'Free Man In Paris' released, which never sounded like a single to me."

Next is "Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)" from 1978's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter,"which is followed by "Nothing Can Be Done" from 1991's "Night Ride Home." "This was a regional hit in Miami," says Mitchell. "Radio stations were asking for it. There was a video, but the company didn't move on it."

"A Case Of You" kept "bouncing from the hits to the misses," says Mitchell. "It was my choice off of' Blue' to release as a single but I never had any control over what was released."

As with "Nothing Can Be Done," there was a video for "Beat Of Black Wings," "[but] it was never serviced," says Mitchell. "Basically, I was in the game, but I may as well have been dead. I went to Tokyo and sold $120,000 worth of paintings and took the money and made a number of videos. In this one, I played a black soldier, drunk in the alley, and no one knew it was me.' The song appears on "Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm."

The title track from Mitchell's 1985 album, "Dog Eat Dog," is next. Although Mitchell believes there were songs on this album that "sounded like the airplay of the time, the album was pretty much dismissed," she says. "It was considered negative to think politically at the time and sophomoric. It was at the height of rah-rah Reaganism.

"The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay" from 1979's "Mingus" serves as "connective tissue" for "Misses," says Mitchell. "This is more esoteric than many of the songs on the album."

"Magdelene Laundries" from 1994's "Turbulent Indigo" is followed by "Impossible dreamer" from "Dog Eat Dog." "This song was selected again and again [by others] to show how I had lost perspective, I had lost my sense of melody." Mitchell recall a radio show that highlighted new female artists that considered Mitchell among their major influences. "The person who gave [a copy] to me thought it was flattering, but I thought it was insulting. With one exception, [the music] was entirely mediocre. They had nothing that resembled [my] albums, they had shallow lyrics, three chord changes. I didn't even see a vocal affinity. The [radio host] concluded that these women have all beat [me] at my own game and that I had lost my sense of perspective, and went into "Impossible Dreamer.' "

"Sex Kills" from "Turbulent Indigo" was released as a single but not until, Mitchell feels, it was "way past the mark. It was like playing a dead hand."

The next five tracks—"The Reoccurring Dream" from "Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm," "Harry's House" from 1975's "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns," "The Windfall" from "Night Ride Home," "The Arrangement" from "Ladies Of The Canyon," and the title track from "For The Roses"— are all songs Mitchell considers overlooked single material.

"Hejira," from the 1976 album of the same name, closes the set. However, Mitchell admits that its inclusion as a miss will confuse her fans in England, where "Hejira" went top 10. "[They will say], "how can it be a miss?' But not in America. In America, they thought I lost my marbles with that one."

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