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A Witness to Troubled Times Print-ready version

by Jeff Bradley
Associated Press
May 13, 1988

Her confessional lyrics were set to long, winding melodies and described loves past and present, and the shadowy thoughts a woman might have in the confines of her room at night.

But after a 20-year career, Joni Mitchell's latest album, "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm," shows the Canadian singer's evolution into a tougher, more issue-oriented chronicler of the era.

"These are troubled times," said the 44-year-old troubadour, born in the prairie town of Ft. Macleod, Alberta, and now living in Los Angeles.

"I think my main function is to try to articulate what it is to live in these times ... to be a scribe or witness to my times. It's fairly neutral reporting."

For her 15th album, Mitchell and her bassist-husband Larry Klein co-produce 10 songs on such topics as the Vietnam War, commercialism, the U.S. bombing of Libya and the plight of Hopi Indians.

The project builds on the social commentary Mitchell introduced in her last album in 1985, "Dog Eat Dog," which contained a savage attack on TV evangelists and addressed the famine in Ethiopia.

Recorded in nine different studios in England and Los Angeles, "Chalk Mark" includes contributions from Willie Nelson, Wayne Shorter, Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and American Indian actor Iron Eyes Cody. It is the most ambitious list of guests on a Mitchell album to date.

One powerful song, "The Beat of Black Wings," was recorded at Gabriel's Ashcombe House studio in Bath, England, near the air base from where U.S. bombers took off for the 1986 foray on Libyan targets.

"It was very close and it occurred to all of us that should there be a retaliation, we were on target," Mitchell said.

The Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl occurred around the same time, and "all of our thinking turned to war and how small the planet was. Suddenly, the globe seems so small and we all seem so fragile."

Her long, blond hair spilling from under a broad-brimmed black hat, Mitchell was relaxed and chatty, and the new album reflects her less introspective personality with a light-hearted rocker, "Dancing' Clown," and a lazily-paced rendition of the old Roy Rogers favorite, "Cool Water."

"It's not an autobiographical album particularly," she said. "I don't live there anymore."

Born Roberta Joan Anderson, the skinny young folksinger from the prairies was fresh from art school when she hit the coffee houses of Toronto's Yorkville district a quarter of a century ago. She worked in the women's wear section of a downtown department store to pay the rent.

After a brief marriage to folkie Chuck Mitchell, she moved to New York where her sinuous melodies and soul-baring lyrics attracted Judy Collins and Tom Rush to record two of her songs, "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game."

With a quavering voice as individual as her song-poems, Mitchell soon emerged in her own right with classics such as "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock" and "Help Me."

Yet despite a devoted following, she never quite won the acclaim of a Joan Baez or Judy Collins, especially after experimenting with jazz in albums such as "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" which Rolling Stone magazine rated the worst record of 1975.

On the other hand, the late jazz great Charles Mingus liked Mitchell's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" so much that, knowing he was dying, he invited her to collaborate on his last six songs and the result was "Mingus" in 1979. Future goals, she said, include working with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

All of Mitchell's albums feature her imaginative paintings and designs, and she is now marketing her work after discovering that limited editions handed out by record companies were selling privately for large sums.

"It would be nice to have the luxury to do nothing else. It's hard to have two careers," she said.

Asked to define her contribution to the Woodstock generation, she said Bob Dylan was the prophet while she "chicken-scratched" for immortality.

"I won't be remembered for the best of my material," she lamented, listing her own favorites as "Furry Sings the Blues" and "Song for Sharon" from the 1976 album "Hejira," and "Car on a Hill" from "Court and Spark" of 1974.

"That would make a great golden oldie," she said of the latter.

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Added to Library on February 22, 2004. (8364)


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