The Education of Joni Mitchell

by Stewart Brand
Co-Evolution Quarterly
June 1976

Jerry Brown, Governor of California, got us into this one. Last Fall he wanted to help Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles through their financial crisis and agreed to participate in a benefit for them. His idea of what might be interesting was a public debate on education. At this point he called me to Sacramento for consultation. I suggested that the debate be threeway, that Bill Graham produce it, and that we have a musician.

"Joni Mitchell," said Governor Brown.

(The debators were to be Brown, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ivan Illich - Illich wouldn't debate publicly and was replaced by Clark Kerr. At the last minute Joni Mitchell cancelled her appearance so she could be with Bob Dylan and The Rolling Thunder Revue at their Madison Square Garden finale - which explains why Brown said in his Playboy interview, "Bob Dylan is a man with power." Our debate, called "Education and Wisdom," substituted James Taylor for Joni Mitchell and was rather a flop at the Hollywood Palladium.)

In the course of preparing a snazzy program brochure for the $50-a-seat debate, I phoned all of the participants for accounts of their educations. This is Joni's, with details added later. I think it's more interesting than anything that was said at the debate. Artists are educated, but never through a curriculum.

Stewart Brand: Where'd you go to grade school?

Joni Mitchell: I went to different schools in Saskatchewan, all along one highway. Then high school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Was much education happening for you there, or was it just a holding tank?

I was fortunate in the public school system to have one radical teacher. He was an Australian and a handsome spirited man and a reverer of spirit. The year before he taught me he approached me in the hall where I was hanging my drawings for a parents' day. He criticized my habit of copying pictures. No one else did. They praised me as a prodigy for my technique. "You like to paint?" he asked. I nodded. "If you can paint with a brush you can paint with words." He drew out my poetry. He was a great disciplinarian in his own punk style. We loved him. He was more of a social worker or a renegade priest. I wrote an epic poem in class - I labored to impress him. I got it back circled in red with "cliché, cliche." "White as newly fallen snow" - "cliche"; "high upon a silver shadowed hill" - "cliche." At the bottom he said, "Write about what you know, it's more interesting."

I think at that time there was very good academic opportunity. However, I was only interested in art - painting and music and things which weren't supplied by the school system until a later time. I went back to my high school last summer and found it to be extremely progressive - theatre in the round, advanced study rooms with provision for video tape, individual music practice rooms, a fairly advanced musical school, two classes devoted to fine arts.

When I was there it was an academic school of a very high order. It did attempt to make you do things for yourself, and function in a more adult way, but it was wasted on my particular interests. I must add at this point that this marvelous teacher who extracted the individuality of his pupils created monsters who were almost ungovernable within the rigidity of that system. We nearly drove our next year's teacher nuts!

If they had had the art stuff then that they have now, do you think that would have made a difference?

I'm not really sure if it would have or not. I mean the pattern that it produced in me was independent thinking, I have no regrets definitely in retrospect. I do know that some of my art education has been something that I've had to undo. It's been a long time coming for me to find myself as a painter because I was educated badly in that area.

Badly means what?

Badly means being taught to copy things rather than to use my own imagination. And not to copy masterpieces, even, but the covers of magazines and postcards. Bad education in a small town, not progressive enough. They didn't know what to do with a creative child in that environment.

Was the art you were doing mostly painting and that sort of thing or were you doing music by then?

No, I wasn't into music. It's interesting, I wanted to play the piano but I didn't want to take lessons. I wanted to do what I do now, which is to lay my hand on it and to memorize what comes off of it and to create with it. But my music teacher told me I played by ear which was a sin, you know, and that I would never be able to read these pieces because I memorized things. So again there was a misunderstanding. In my drive to play the piano I didn't fall into the norm for that system, so I dropped that. And I finally dropped my art lessons too through a similar disillusionment. I belonged to an extracurricular writers' club in my school, although I was a bad English student because I was good in composition, but I wasn't good in the dissection of English, you know. So even in a subject which I later enjoyed, I wasn't scholastically good in it because I didn't like to break it down and analyze it in that manner, and I liked to speak in slang.

I failed the twelfth grade, finally. It just caught up to me that I would cram at the end of the year and then I would go into the new year with not enough knowledge to continue to build on that subject. So finally in the 12th grade I ended up repeating a couple of subjects and at the and of that year I went to art college where I became an honor student for the first time in my life. And I found that I was an honor student at art school for the same reason that I was a bad student - an equal and opposite reason - because I had developed a lot of technical ability. I was already aware of tonality end light source, and a lot of things that were taught in the first year. As a result I found that I seemed to be marked for my technical ability so that in free classes where I was really uninspired, my marks remained the same standard. Whereas people who were great in free class, who were original and loose who didn't have the chops in a technical class, would receive a mark that was pretty similar to their technical ability. So I became pretty disillusioned with art college, even though I enjoyed being near the head of my class for the first time in my life.

What was the name of the college?

Alberta College of Art, situated at a technical institution in Calgary, Alberta.

You were there how long?

One year. And the first year was like a time to decide whether you wanted to be a commercial artist or fine artist. They were going to decide what your fate would be. So I quit there and went to Toronto to become a musician. In that town there were about 18 clubs supporting singers, so I went up to see if I could get work. This was in '61.

Well, in Toronto there was a very strict union. It cost $160 to get into the union. If you weren't in the union, you couldn't play. So I had to take a job in a clothing store which paid $36-something a week, you know, the minimum wages at that time, out of which a very high rental had to be paid, black dresses for the department I was working in had to be paid, and I could never get ahead to get in the union. And I couldn't write home, because my parents were pissed off at me because I didn't go finish out my art college.

You were what about now - 18?

No, I was 20 at this point. Anyway. I finally found a non-union club in the city that took a chance on me that I worked at for a while. So I made a little money.

Did you aver get in a Canadian union?

I finally did, yes. I finally got enough money saved up. And then I came to the States and gradually began performing around the country.

Have you done any schooling since then?

No, but I've learned a tremendous amount from personal encounters. I continue to paint. I continue my work as a fine artist and a commercial artist.

I wonder where that distinction comes anymore.

Well, I still feel there is a distinction. You've got to remember that at that time, for modern abstractionism there was no real commercial vent. That was what the fine arts were. You didn't see too many Christmas cards, album covers, car ads, or anything like that which incorporated that aspect of painting.

Maybe the distinction is: a commercial artist is any artist whose audience is anybody besides personal friends.

I think that's about it. The fine artist decides that there are only about 13 people in the world who understand him and resigns himself to it. I don't get much from most contemporary art. I find it too noncommunicative.

You're still doing some of that sort?

I'm still experimenting with very personal painting as well as more commercial illustration of my own album jackets and things. I haven't taken any formal training but I have discovered my own educational system. I know how I learn best and I know how I learn most rapidly and how to feed myself information for my particular kind of growth, so I'm out of this a self-educator, but people do feed into me. I'm aware of sources of growth, people who have laid short cuts on me. I can mark the days of those encounters as points of departure. So I'm continuously in school. I do read some, though I seldom finish a book. I read it till I come to a point of inspiration and then work from that point into my own work.

Do you ever look for more in the same book?

Some books I do. Rather than overload myself with fact - like in the school system where they gave you so much information that at best all you could do was regurgitate - I've found that at certain points in a book I would say, "Oh, that's interesting," and I would want to spend some time to develop it or pursue it. I'm interested in the relativity of one thing to another. That's a thing that I do continually, collect information and seek what may seem to be strange correlations. For instance, I know a great studio guitarist, Larry Carlton, whose linear aesthetic tends to arc and splash - Dolphins, I used to call his lines, until I found out he was a weekend flycast fisherman. I find that I interview people all the time. I feel like I'm more in a state of growth and education at this point of my life than when I was in the school system.

Do you think that's true for most of your contemporaries?

I can't speak for them.

Do you find yourself hanging out with people who are more in the learning mode or ones who tend to know something that you feel like you can learn from them. They're not mutually exclusive, I realize.

In my early twenties I met two men who were best friends from childhood - one a sculptor - one a poet. My association with them was catalytic in opening my gifts in two areas. The sculptor, Mort Rosenthal, gave me a very simple exercise which freed my drawing - gave it boldness and energy. He gave me my originality. The poet Leonard Cohen was a mirror to my work and with no verbal instructions he showed me how to plumb the depths of my own experience. It's funny the way information falls in for me, you know. There are people at large... I wanted so badly to go and visit Picasso, even on the fan level that people come to me, even with the possibility that I would be turned away, I wanted desperately to go and see him. Picasso is one of my teachers although I never met the man, I have applied some of his philosophy of painting to my song writing. I don't seek out those things. I'm very fatalistic about the reception of information.

Are there others like that?

Yes. But they live in books. The Castaneda books, are a magnificent synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophies. Through them I have been able to understand and apply (in some areas) the concept of believing and not believing simultaneously. My Christian heritage tends to polarize concepts; faith and God - doubt and the Devil - it creates dualities which in turn create guilt which impedes freedom. Jean Grenier and Camus also are teachers of freedom. I feel closer to Camus since he is more savage - Grenier being somehow to me wise but passive.

Is there anyone you've looked up personally? I should explain partly why I'm curious about this. I've just spent tome time with Marlon Brando, and he is very much an adult educating himself by going around hanging out with people whom he admires. He just shows up at their door.

That's a wonderful way to do it. Warren Beatty also approaches things that way. He calls people that interest him and flies to meet them. Warren and Marlon have that ability - who’s going to turn them away from the door? That's why I was hoping Picasso would like my music, and wouldn't turn me away. I wanted to go and play him a song while he painted or something, because I had so much respect for his prolonged creativity. I've chosen books I guess because I lack the chutzpah to just go up and knock at somebody's door.

When kids come around now to see you, wondering what they should be doing about their own education, do you give them any counsel?

Well, the last time I had contact with a group of kids they had come over here because they had a class in career choice. They live in the valley, and they were all interested in music, but music again in the school was not considered a career and they were being channeled into what they would describe as straight jobs. So they asked me to tell them how I had coma to have an outlet for my music, how I had achieved success. Well, in talking to them, most of them felt they had to make it like the Beatles - by the time they were 21. They seemed to have a feeling of urgency, they didn't seem to have the patience to develop and hone their craft over a long period of time. They were rushing, which I felt would interfere with their growth in a way - setting their goals too high and too close at hand.

You can tell them if they're famous by the time they're 21, it will turn their brains to hamburger and they'll be sorry.

I told them, "You should see the Beatles now, at 30, with all of their glory behind them." I said, "Wouldn't you rather come to fruition later on in life, sort of slow and gradual, so you're still working toward something when you're 30?" I said, "I am 30," and I looked them right in the eye, because 30 you know to a kid is that magic number where you begin to fall apart or something.


Right, they can't conceive of it. So anyway, anybody that comes to me, I don't have any stock thing to say, because they all ask different questions. I find one thing: they'll ask a question and they'll get an answer that I feel could be useful to them. I can tell by how they relate to it that it's interesting enough for them to use for themselves. Then instead of taking that one bit of information, they get excited and they get greedy in a way, so that they wind up with more information than they can do anything with.

One handball instructor I know of tells you one thing during the course of an afternoon's workout, and that's all you get.

That's why I never finish books I think. I get to a point where something hits me so strong that it takes me out of the reading, the non-active activity of intake, and puts me into an output situation, it inspires something, it triggers my work habits, it triggers my... at that point I put that book down.

What books have done that for you lately?

The Boho Dance in Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word. He described the Boho Dance as that period in an artist's existence when he's a Bohemian, when he's established all of his moral justifications for poverty while still striving for success. The second stage is the consummation which he has aimed himself toward, when the public says, "Yes, we like your work, we would like to buy it," and he is celebrated, he finds himself sucked into a social strata which he deplored as a Bohemian. There are different reactions. Picasso went right into it you know and bought himself a Rolls Royce and some little black and white maids, and everybody said, "Look at Picasso, man, he's going to blow it," like he sold out. Jackson Pollock said, "I won't sell out," went to all of these fancy cocktail parties and pissed in the fireplace and did everything just to show he wasn't going to enjoy it. That's the point in that book when I said, "Oh, my God, that is a liberating statement and an understanding to me," and I created a song called "The Boho Dance," taking his title and taking my own experience. I experienced my own understanding of what he was saying so strongly that it almost paralyzed me from reading further. Do you know that feeling? Carlos Castaneda, Rimbaud, Leonard Cohen - they do that for me too.

The only way I can continue is if I can get hold of a pencil and make some mark on the page, turn down the corner, and then I can go on. I've done at least something to acknowledge the hit, and I can come back to it if I need to.

I am fatalistic about my reading lessons. I was working on a song when I was up in Canada. I had gone up to this lake with John Guerin and we got into a discussion about Genesis and Adam and Eve, and I said let's look up the story. I'd taken two books with me, and there happened to be this Gideon Bible in the cottage, in the dresser drawer. One book I took was a book on the history of modern art from a lot of critics' points of view. They were critical essays on the modern art movement through history, and I was still trying to understand. As I said before, I don't understand this period of modern painting, which is why I was reading Wolfe's book. We were looking for how they had arrived at this, since a lot of it seemed humorous and they wouldn't cop to it being funny. And there was such an elitist attitude.

Well, this other book I had was called The Disorderly Poet, which was an explanation of the creative trance, you might call it, taken to different extremes - drug-induced, natural chemical body disorders such as epilepsy and speaking in tongues. And these three pieces of information were so related. In the art book I came upon a passage about witches and how they had actually been used to further the scientific method, and out of the whole book that's all I recall - that's it in a nutshell, believe me. It was as if the rest of the book wasn't intended for me to discover at that moment. And the information from those three books, in conjunction with one another, was my lesson for the day. And it was completely random, it was, you know, opening the book on page 92 or something. It was almost like the I Ching. It was almost like an oracle. But it was the perfect information for that moment. It connected for me in its randomness. So I do feel kind of mystical too about education. I feel that somehow the answers come to you through your inquiry.

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