Meeting with Joni Mitchell

by Jacques Benoit
March 2011

I first encountered the music of Joni Mitchell in 1976, while I was taking classes at the Art School Met de Penninghen in Paris. It was this encounter that made me become a painter. In effect, it was the pictorial research that I undertook between 1979 and 1989, inspired by some lyrics and music of Joni Mitchell that I had selected, that led me to painting.

A student at the art school named Agnès d'Andon, with whom I had become friends, and whose sophisticated and smart tastes made me trust her judgement, had introduced me to "Court & Spark".

The lightning strike was immediate.

Fate decided that this thunderbolt would be inextricably linked to another one, of a less happy nature. Not being a fan of the exhibitionism that is so fashionable nowadays on the Internet, I will not go into further detail. I am only mentioning this very personal episode because, in respect of the work that was produced, it should be made clear that, beyond the artistic qualities of Joni Mitchell's work, it is the rapport between the range of themes that she favoured then (mainly love, its failures and the resulting hopelessness) with my own experience that engaged me into making these images inspired by her work.

In the context of this story, of a love that had turned my life into hell between 1976 and 1979, (three years: an eternity when one is only twenty years old and the time it took for this story to hatch, then to burn and finally to die for good, after I left Penninghen at the end of 1979), this "instrospective" aspect of Joni Mitchell's work brought me comfort and literally saved my life

When asked about her early albums, Joni Mitchell has often said that it seemed that the more she bled in her writings and storytelling, the more her audience could identify with her, and would be pleased that she bled still more - in this case the infamous sacrificial transfer. In my case, if the latter ever existed, it can be said that it will have had at least the merits of being the trigger for a process leading to this series of illustrations, engravings and paintings.

If I thought for a moment that I did what I did only because of a compelling kind of catharsis, then the release of the album "Night Ride Home" in 1991 made me change my point of view. One of the poems it contains made me think that if "things never happen by chance", like so many of us often feel, my history with Joni Mitchell was no exception to this rule.

"Two Grey Rooms", inspired by the experiences of a man who was part of the filmmaker Fassbinder' scene, is one of the finest compositions by Joni Mitchell, with regard to both its music and meaning. "Two Grey Rooms" which closes the album "Night Ride Home", is about a love story between two men, where the spurned lover, twenty years after their separation, rents "two grey rooms" with windows overlooking the route taken by his former lover when he goes to work, just to watch him "walk by", from afar.

To me, it would have taken a certain amount of blindness, deafness and amnesia not to be struck by the resemblance between certain issues raised in the story of "Two Grey Rooms" and part of my own story with this art school student, when, during the moments of rupture in our three year liaison, loss and pain pushed me to go and wait for him, late every Sunday night when he returned to Paris from the country at the end of the weekend; me hiding under a porch and pondering the floor of the building where he lived from the sidewalk in front, scrutinizing his windows just in the hope of seeing him "walk by".

Of course, this similarity between the writings and music of Joni Mitchell and my own feelings, which proved to be extraordinarily accurate, is not unique, since the majority of her audience could claim the same kind of experience, with all the possible variables attributable to each personal history. But in my case (and this is truly the only reason why I have recounted the very intimate story above), it is because the mark has been so striking that the outlet of art became the only possible therapy, and explains why and how I came to be working on pictorially reflecting the writings and music of Joni Mitchell.

Therefore, in this respect, having discovered her music only in 1976, I jumped on a train that had already left the station, since at that time her ninth album, "Hejira", had just been released.

Mesmerized by "Court & Spark," I remember going to the local music store and buying all the albums prior to that disc, the three that followed, as well as "Hejira" that had just landed in the trays. I listened to all of them in loops; in disorder; and in order for months and months, which quickly turned into years. I found that I listened to her music more and more, and the more I listened to it, the more I was fascinated and the more I could see of myself in her "confessional" works. I was equally charmed and bewitched by the works more distant from my personal concerns, such as for example, those developed in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."

Experiencing the work of Joni Mitchell for the first time "in bulk", probably spared me the disappointment of her fans of the first hour, who did not accept that the flayed bleeding waif from "Blue" (1971) had turned her back on them by focussing more on the suburban housewives' emotional sorrow than on their own (sorry for the shortcut that is a bit of a cliché, as, I suppose, all shortcuts are). So I fell in love with Joni Mitchell's work without bias or prejudices, I absorbed her artistic, literary and musical achievements all at the same time, simultaneously immersing myself in her music through all of her released albums. Therefore, I did not have to separate the Joni from "before" in opposition to the Joni of 1977, who had moved away from the Folk Song fields towards the direction of the territories of Rock and Jazz.

So, when I decided to embark on a series of illustrations inspired by her lyrics and music, I dug randomly into her repertoire without worrying about the period of gestation of the works. My choice was motivated solely by the text at stake (or rather, should I say, what I understood of it at the time...) and the music. It was never due to the relationship of the work to a particular period of the musician's development, since I loved them all indiscriminately (although, of course, with age, my choices today are much more affirmed and selective).

I created a collection of eleven images that I assembled in a cardboard box. The box was very heavy because each painting, mainly in oil, was made directly on (or sometimes its support glued to) very thick cardboard. This was topped with a cover, on the back of which, was a visual opposite a French translation of the original English text.

The collection, which I simply entitled "Songs by Joni Mitchell," included a version of:

- "Amelia"
- "Hejira"
- "Hary's House-Centerpiece"
- "Same Situation"
- "People's Parties"
- "Shades of Scarlett Conquering"
- "Edith And The Kingpin"
- "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter"
- "Song for Sharon"
- "Down to You"
- "Jericho"

Years passed . . . until in 1983, Joni Mitchell gave two concerts in Paris as part of the world tour she undertook for the release of her album "Wild Things Run Fast". The first concert was staged at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on April 30th and the second one at the Casino de Paris on May 1st. It was the second series of concerts, and the last to date, that Joni Mitchell gave in France. Her first appearance on a French stage had taken place a decade earlier at Salle Pleyel, with Jackson Brown as a guest during the first part (at the time, I had not yet heard of Joni Mitchell). The concerts of 1983 were therefore events and I wanted to attend both. Ultimately, I could get only a ticket for the concert on the Champs-Elysees. Naturally, needless to say that I broke my piggy bank and bought the best seat in the centre of the first row.

Previously, I had managed to learn where Joni Mitchell would be staying by asking my British friend, Robert Key, (with whom I developed a friendship that only ended with his untimely death in 2009), to make enquiries. Robert worked in the music industry and held a key position at Rocket Records in London, a record company that Elton John had created along with his lyricist Bernie Taupin and his manager John Reid (the latter figures in the illustration that I did, inspired by "Edith & the Kingpin" from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns). In 1974, at the request of Elton John (whom I idolized), I had made a series of illustrations for the musician's world tour. At my request, Robert had been in contact with Anne Philonenko at CBS France, who was responsible at the time for the Joni Mitchell catalogue. Anne, with whom I developed links of friendship later on, was a young blonde woman, lively and friendly. She agreed to let me know, thanks to the 'sesame' provided by Rocket Records and Robert Key's support, where Joni Mitchell was staying, i.e. the Warwick Hotel in the Rue de Berri, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

A day before the arrival of the musician, I stopped by the hotel reception and left my collection of illustrations, with a little note and my address.

The concert finally took place (the quality of which I cannot be objective about since too many things made it exceptionally dazzling to my eyes and my ears). At the end of it, it happened that a boy, dodging the surveillance cordon (and being especially nimble compared to the security thugs who seemed totally devoid of any reaction when they were supposed to protect the star from the ardour of her fans), had jumped onto the stage carrying a bouquet of red roses that he gave to Joni Mitchell who was leaving the front of the stage with her band in order to join the backstage area.

This meant that only a few meters separated her from me in the first row from the stage. Despite the hubbub in the theatre and the background of 'airport' music that accompanied the exit of the spectators, I could distinctly perceive the exchange between the young man and Joni Mitchell. Having seized the bouquet of roses, I think I heard her ask the boy, "Are you Jacques?" Unable to understand why she had asked the question, the boy of course answered in the negative.

I am not sure to this day that this episode really happened exactly in that way, but no matter whether it did or not, I took what I thought I had heard as a sign. This gesture of Joni Mitchell seemed to me to be an encouragement to try to meet her "for real", when, due to shyness, I was totally paralyzed by fear at that moment. And afraid above all, because of the certainty that a meeting would have no meaning, since it could only happen on a completely artificial and superficial "fan"-to-"star" level, that would exclude a discussion of her music and texts in relation to the illustrations that were born from them. The butterfly was attracted to the real light, not by the sequined lampshade used for filter.

But strengthened by this incident, my friends were able to convince me, so we went - me shaking like a leaf and them dying with laughter - to wait for Joni Mitchell's arrival in the lobby of the Warwick Hotel, situated close to the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. Not knowing if the artist would return to the hotel right after the concert, or if she would go somewhere for dinner instead, we decided to go immediately to the spot, thereby being sure of seeing her go into the hotel if she returned immediately. A course of action that gave the possibility for the young babbling and liquefied man that was me to meet her. It was lucky that we did, for very soon after our arrival and installation on the Warwick sofas, Joni Mitchell, accompanied by her husband, band and management, appeared in the lobby and walked towards the reception to collect their keys.

Virtually pushed in the back by my friends, I managed to crash in front of Joni Mitchell, and before her management could intervene, uttered a few words stating that I was the author of the things that had been handed to her upon her arrival the day before.

Joni Mitchell was impressive with her simplicity, spontaneity, kindness and warmth. Especially since she had just given all of herself for several hours on stage. Yet, despite her fatigue, and the fact that she had not even had time to grab a bite, she invited me to follow her into her apartments in order to have look together and to comment on this book of drawings and illustrations by a small unknown French guy, insignificant and without notoriety, which had been brought to her attention only the previous day.

It is well known that some stars, notoriously resplendent in their art, are equally disappointing and uninteresting when the curtain falls and the artistic representation gives way to the human person. Do I need to say that Joni Mitchell does not belong to this category, and that the woman "of heart and mind", her lyrics and her music, allowed me to glimpse what was there fully? Inasmuch as that which I could see and perceive during the four hours we spent together, from midnight until I left at four o'clock in the morning (her husband, Larry Klein, who had stayed with us, fell deeply asleep after a while in one of the armchairs in the lounge of the suite that he and his wife occupied). I spent most of my time hanging on to Joni Mitchell's every word, listening to her telling me about the context that gave birth to each of these texts, while at the same time looking at the images they had inspired. At this point, we had few opportunities to laugh at them.

Thus, I had made an illustration inspired by "The Boho Dance" (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975). In that song, Joni Mitchell wrote this line: "Like a priest with a pornographic watch, looking and longing on the sly". I had understood that Joni Mitchell alluded to a priest wearing a watch on his wrist designed like those glasses one can find in Chinese restaurants, where a naked woman or a bare man appear at the bottom when the liquid filling it has disappeared. A porn watch then! I liked this idea of a clergyman, promised to chastity, looking furtively, with all the lust required, at the silhouette of a naked and helpless being hidden under the hands of his watch; a gadget symbolic of the hypocrisy of religion where sex is concerned. This interpretation seemed logical in the context of writings by Joni Mitchell that had never been particularly lenient, and even less indulgent, towards religions, the absurdity of their doctrines and their ridiculous and hypocritical taboos about sexual matters. Still, my English had betrayed me (this would not be the only time that it would happen), which caused Joni Mitchell much laughter. She explained that the priest here was just supposed to look at his prey with the lust of a salacious look in his eyes, - the famous pornographic watch - adding with a giggle, that she actually found my interpretation, "unexpected" as it was, "... very interesting" and concluding with a burst of laughter!

For the record, I did experience similar types of confusion again with my future translations into French of other Joni Mitchell's texts. This was often due to my imperfect knowledge of the English language at the time, or ignorance of facts specific to the Anglo-Saxon culture with which I was not that familiar. An example of this occurred towards the end of this cycle of works, inspired by the writings of Joni Mitchell in 1989. I produced a painting after "The Tea Leaf Prophecy" (a track appearing on "Chalk Mark In The Rainstorm" / 1984). Set in the Second World War, it was the story of a woman, Molly McGee, (the embodiment of the musician's mother, Myrtle) and her meeting with a soldier on leave, who was back visiting his town - the soldier in question being the musician's own father, Bill Anderson. The soldier returned to the front and one year later a daughter was born - Joni. All this was predicted by a gypsy who told Molly McGee what she had read in the tea leaves about her future, fifteen days before she met Bill in the tearoom of some Grand Hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Joni Mitchell, referring to what constituted McGee's life of "routine" during wartime, mentioned: "Tokyo Rose on the radio." But where the author cited "Tokyo Rose", (a Japanese propaganda programme broadcast in English and intended to undermine the morale of Allies, and a show quite famous at that time), I understood - without paying attention to the "R" capital employed for "Rose"- that she described an element of decoration in Molly McGee's home. This detail enabled me to evoke symbolically, a time of war when the evil powers of the Axis - Nazi Germany and Japan-, raged. Hence, I imagined that she was talking about a vase containing a rose of the "Tokyo" variety, placed on the radio that gave out news of the conflict. Therefore, in my painting, I fancied a vase showing the Japanese flag, which made sense in relation to other elements of the text, such as the "Nazi dread", symbolised in my painting by booted soldiers marching in goose step and making the Nazi salute. I apologize to Joni Mitchell, this rose (with a small "r") placed in its Japanese vase was no more relevant in "The Tea Leaf Prophecy" than the priest wearing a "pornographic watch" on his wrist was in "The Boho Dance"! These are thus the vague misunderstandings arising from an incomplete knowledge of English; the communication flaws between people since the Babel incident.

Before leaving at dawn, I offered Joni Mitchell a painting that I had made for her. It was, if my memory serves me correctly, an oil on carton, about two feet by three feet and a half, on which I represented an episode quoted by her in an interview, which had had a great impact on me because I found it so very symbolic of her commitment to painting and also very representative of that special magic that characterizes her narrative talent and makes it so unique. The work was ready to be delivered, in case I succeeded in meeting her, and if the opposite had been the case, I would have deposited it at the hotel reception before she left France.

This painting showed her in silhouette standing on some kind of street or road, her face not visible as her shoulders reach the limit of the frame. Before her, a black man is crouching in the process of painting a yellow line on ground and offering her some of the paint that he used for his signage.

I created this painting from an anecdote related by Joni Mitchell in an interview with "Rolling Stone" magazine (edition of November 25, 1982). While she was in Jamaica, visiting her friend the director Perry Henzel, she went through a sudden and uncontrollable urge to paint. Henzel had offered her one of his walls so that she could execute a mural, providing her with paint in all colours except yellow. Joni Mitchell had then jumped into a car to get to the nearest town (some seventy kilometres away) to acquire yellow, but had realized after she had started, that everything was closed (It was a bank holiday around Mardi Gras). She then came upon a road worker who was kind enough to let her have some of his yellow paint, which she had been forced to store in an old chipped coconut, encased in an old champagne cardboard bucket that she had found in the car. Arriving back at Henzel's home, virtually all the paint had been spilt and had sunk to the bottom of the champagne bucket, which in turn had been dislocated, spreading the entire contents around the back seat of the car. However, with the two spoons of yellow paint that remained at the bottom of the coconut, Joni Mitchell had been able to finish her fresco. I had found that story funny, poetic, meaningful and engaging. It epitomised all the feelings that could have inspired the work of Joni Mitchell when she wrote joyful sunny humorous songs like "Raised on Robbery" or "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines", for example. It seemed obvious to me to make a painting out of this in order to offer it to her.

Between 1983 and 1989, encouraged by this decisive encounter with Joni Mitchell, I produced a whole set of new illustrations, engravings and finally paintings, all inspired by her work. This body of work allowed me to become a painter, and as I explained in the catalogue of my work inspired by Brasilia in 2010, I owe it to Joni Mitchell. I started my work making illustrations (the vast majority of them seem childish and academic to me when I see them again today) and I finished this work making paintings - even though I find the majority of them hardly good enough to be looked at today.

But what's done is done. The fact is, that without this work, none of the paintings that I have done since, on Brasilia or something else, would ever have emerged. This is the value of my debt to Joni Mitchell.

I had the opportunity, joy and honour to be able to show her the second part of this work that was inspired by her lyrics, in a second encounter that occurred early in 1987. This time it was in Bath, England, where Peter Gabriel owned a recording studio called Ashcombe House, located near the city. Joni Mitchell was there with husband, co-producer and bassist Larry Klein, recording (with a bunch of musicians, including the French Manu Katché) what would become her thirteenth studio album, "Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm" (released in 1988).

During the period from 1983 until 1987, I made a model of a book, "Hommage to Joni Mitchell", in which I included some of her texts and the illustrations or paintings that matched them.

Again, with the help of my friend Robert Key at Rocket Records, I had knowledge of Mitchell's presence in England. My contact, Anne at CBS, had sent copies of the artwork I had designed to Ashcombe House, with a request for an appointment, in order for me to show the musician some samples of the new works I had made since our first meeting. Joni Mitchell said yes.

I had then jumped in my car and travelled to the United Kingdom by ferry, with all my originals spread on the rear seat of the vehicle. After much wandering around and problems on the British motorways (a nightmare of a trip, I recall), I managed to reach Beckington and locate Ashcombe House and get there on time for my appointment at 8pm in the evening. Upon entering the large room where Joni Mitchell was waiting, I remember passing Larry Klein whom I briefly saluted. I could read in his eyes a weariness, though lit somehow with an amused glint, something like "Oh My God, there we go again, here is this little one again! They'll discuss painting at length, all night long - we're not out of the woods yet! "

In a flash, I remembered Larry Klein asleep in his chair while I was finishing bombarding Joni Mitchell with questions about the front cover of "Hejira" showing these photos by Norman Seef, and how the final visual for this sublime artwork had been assembled (at the time photoshop did not exist). At four o'clock in the morning, hanging onto her every word and the interesting answers about the way they had done it all, in their suite at the Warwick Hotel four years ago - and I could understand his fears. He was seeing me landing again, hoping that the tediousness would not happen again! But his fears were to be realised.

Again I spent four hours with Joni Mitchell, talking about painting, showing her the things I had made since our first meeting and admiring her own work when she showed me a whole set of canvases on which she was working. Most of them were abstract researches, cousins of some of the compositions she had created at the time of "Mingus" (that is what I remember), until the moment she took out an entire family of smeared paint bottles, which I understood to be works of their own. Handicapped by my English as usual, I tried to look smart, pretending to understand something that somehow looked a bit weird to me. Fortunately, after a while, Joni Mitchell took pity on me, realizing that I did not understand what she was talking about. She then explained things more slowly and I finally understood that these bottles were only instruments she used to achieve certain effects in her work.

Discovering my new illustrations and some engravings, Joni Mitchell had exclaimed with a loud, friendly and warm laugh: "Hey, Jacques, some of these are real Kamasutra, aren't they? "- Or something like that. In reviewing this work today, I do not know if I would have the courage to show some of them to her again, because of that reason. But again, what's done is done. It was a period in my life as a young man, when young men in general, whatever their sexual orientation is, have their blood boiling and I was no exception to the rule. So I was painting with boiling paint that which was making me boil inside - a reason why I still feel a lot of affection for some of these paintings today, even though I know that their artistic interest is probably very limited. Of course, I selected for this site those that still can bear the shock. Among those that I rejected, there were one or two that I found interesting, even today. But because of their visual violence, and in deference to Joni Mitchell, I decided to disregard them, which is what happened to "That Song About The Midway" ("Clouds" - 1969) or "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" ("Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" - 1977). Regarding "Midway", I'm not even sure that I understood everything when I translated the text before I did the painting, therefore... No regrets! But this is a painting I still like, because I think it is a strong one - perhaps irrelevant, but strong.

From that perspective, this is why I prefer the second version I gave of "Amelia", even if it does not evoke, because of the bluntness of sexual representation, and in its colours and composition, the poetic, melancholic, bashful and very "autumnal" mood of the text by Joni Mitchell. The first version, which was part of the collection shown to Joni Mitchell in 1983 in Paris, is certainly more poetic, softer and more in line with the image that many followers of the musician carry of her. However, for me the second version is more interesting, maybe because it conveys a feeling of magnitude, and is more about tragedy. The commentary is also valid, in some of its aspects, for the two versions I did of "Song for Sharon".

After this second interview, I started the third and last series of works inspired by Joni Mitchell's writings, giving birth to things that I never had the opportunity to show her (all works post 1987), which in my view started to become paintings.

On that topic, I think that the difference between an illustration and a painting is not a matter of dimension, as it is commonly believed. An illustration is above all servicing the story or text that originated it and it is hard to evaluate it without referring to that origin, no matter what its artistic merits might be. A painting tells a story of its own, occult or obvious, and does not service anything else but itself. At the end of the Eighties, I presented the model of this book, "Homage to Joni Mitchell", that the musician had seen in Bath, to many publishers in the US and in the UK. None of them were interested into publishing it. I remember one of the verbal comments that one of them made, saying more or less: "Too bad you are not Van Gogh and that she is not Madonna, I would have published that right away". Well, just as the first part of that comment might make sense, I am not that sure that the second one was particularly smart...

The last time I saw Joni Mitchell was that night in 1987 at Ashcombe House. So far twenty-four years have gone by since that night. In 2006 I reconnected with her, via her management, when I was preparing a catalogue for my "Three Traces of Oscar" exhibition, which took place at the Espace Niemeyer, the exhibition space of the French Communist Party headquarters designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. I wanted to include the text of "Both Sides Now" in this catalogue, along with a text by Oscar Niemeyer from his Memoirs, and inspired by the clouds, in front of the reproduction of a painting I did then, entitled "Nuages". That painting showed Oscar Niemeyer and Joni Mitchell together, the first sketching the second, while she was skating on the glass roof of the Espace Niemeyer with the plaza of the building designed by Niemeyer in the background, as on some allegory of a frozen river, holding a paintbrush in her hand. I explained to her management that I had met Joni Mitchell previously, telling them my story, so that when they questioned her about clearance for authorization she could remember me - may be - and decide whether to give me permission to reproduce "Both Sides Now" in my catalogue, or not.

"Both Sides Now" does figure in my catalogue.

So for that reason and for all the many times that I wish that I could express it to her (that is, whenever I listen to her music, that is... quite often, to say the least!), here is, in conclusion of my story, the only word that I can think of for her work, and for everything that she meant - and still means - to me.

Thank you.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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