Writer-photographer Anne Bayin and Joni Mitchell have been friends since childhood. Bayin reflects on the Joni she has known — the kid with the great hair and answers to life's big questions, the teenager whose singing came as a shock and the artist who now "steals time from sleep to paint."
As I fly into Saskatoon for the opening of Voices: Joni Mitchell, the first retrospective of the singer/songwriter's visual art, the "feather canyons ev'rywhere" aren't much in evidence. It makes it easy to see the pretty, geometric farmlands below and follow the pencil-straight lines of those highways that go on and on and appear to end nowhere. But I'm a prairie girl; I know differently. Those roads arrive. As the landing gear drops, a familiar quickening tells me I'm home.
Funny, I've always associated Joni with planes, long before she grew up to write beautiful lyrics like those in "Amelia" and paint and sing to the world about her private flying dreams. In fact, she was my first girlfriend who actually did fly. The circumstances were nearly tragic. One October day in 1952, when Joni didn't show up for Miss Fulford's Grade 5 class, there were rumours she'd been taken away on a "mercy flight" to the polio clinic in Saskatoon. When the rumours turned out to be true, it was so dramatic, so Joni, it took my breath away. At the age of 9, I confess, my first unforgivable reaction was one of envy, before reality and fear set in.
Joni says she got up one day and looked in the mirror, and a woman looked back. "I looked older," she says. Walking to school, she got winded and had to sit down for a rest. Her bones were aching and she was convinced she had early rheumatism, like her grandma. Next day, she was paralyzed. This was at the height of the '50s polio epidemic, and it soon became clear that something was terribly wrong. She spent six scary weeks in St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, listening to the wheezing of the iron lungs at night, determined not to be crippled, determined to walk again. She made a vow to the little Christmas tree that decorated her hospital room that if she got better, she'd do something special in life. She got better; the rest is history. At least that's the way I remember it.
Roberta Joan Anderson — Joan, as she was known then — is an artist who celebrates her prairie roots. "I'm a flatlander" she says. Our families both moved around a lot when we were young. Eventually my family settled in North Battleford, Sask., where Joan and I became friends. She was the grocer's daughter; I was the preacher's kid. She liked me anyway.
I felt I had found a kindred spirit in a one-stoplight town, more daring than me, with the best husky laugh, even before cigarettes. Joan was a force of nature, curious, independent, imaginative. Like me, she loved crayons and words and pressing flowers in scrapbooks. She even liked the hardware section of the Sears catalogue. She had other major things going for her: she was blond and was an only child with her own bedroom.
Art was our refuge from boredom, before boys, before rock 'n' roll. I still find it amazing what transpires in the heads of nine-year-old girls. God had yet to invent the multichannel universe so we entertained ourselves by sketching animals and forests at the Andersons' kitchen table or by making angels in the snow in the schoolyard. Family albums show similar phases from our early black-and-white period: the "smiling cowgirl" phase - me as Annie Oakley in a local parade: Joni, a Roy Rogers wannabe settling for Dale Evans chic with cap gun. The "bride" phase — decked out in curtain veils for backyard mock marriages, inspired by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Escape from mundane existence to glamour was always a factor in those days.
Joan's mother was a schoolteacher who made beautiful Halloween costumes for her daughter; Joan's dad played a good trumpet. My mother was also musical, a community theatre director with an endlessly entertaining trunkful of exotic silks and Elizabethan blouses with lace cuffs: my dad, when not in the pulpit, wrote wry verse.
Saskatoon was Joni's home-town from age 11 until she left high school for art college in Calgary. Our paths have never crossed at this airport, although I often think of her when I'm coming down the escalator. We've both arrived and departed from here dozens of times, coming home for family visits.
Joni holds clues to my past, I hold clues to hers. Even though we don't see each other much, the connection is there. On the phone, we'll wake up like female Rip Van Winkles, hit the play button and carry on about old teachers, Chinese mystics, insomnia, Esther Williams, lovers and art.
During intermittent visits, when she was in Toronto performing or, once, shooting a film, I'd pick her up in my sorry Honda, which she didn't mind a bit, and we'd go for the standard: a smart lunch and shopping. Most recently, I saw her in Los Angeles, where I was producing a series of TV specials and she was a guest. It was there, in the back seat of a limo, that she regaled her manager with stories of my father, whom she has cast as one of her first heroes.
In Joni's version of my father's life, he's a "rebel priest" who got "the calling" one day out on the Scottish moors. There's mist involved. It's a scene I particularly love, because he told it to her, and it's different from what I thought to be true. The Scottish part is close; we did live there. In my reality, Joan and my dad had things in common. In his own boyhood in Manor, Sask., he'd had a near-death experience. After life-saving surgery for osteomyelitis, a disease of the bones, he too spent months recuperating in hospital. Like Joan, the experience changed him, and he vowed to do something special in life. He would become a minister. Which led him to study theology at the University of Edinburgh. Where there is mist involved.
While we were driving through Bel Air, Joni kept recalling details about my dad that I'd forgotten. For instance, she had been confused by the Adam and Eve bible story, the part where Cain finds a wife. She challenged him — "Hey, where did that wife come from if Adam and Eve were the first people?" — and my dad explained to her the concept of "symbolism." Symbolism. Cool. For a budding mythmaker, it was a dazzling revelation.
It was on that same L.A. trip that I got to see some of her wonderful paintings, casually propped up on the floor or on easels. I'm looking forward to seeing them formally hung in a gallery. For those of us who grew up with her, it's a special thrill and a homecoming. My mum, in her 80s, is driving down with my sister and brother-in-law from North Battleford for the occasion. Of course, Joni will be there. It's not every day you get to see a collection of 87 of your paintings, photographs and drawings, representing 35 years of work, displayed in the major gallery in your parents' hometown.
"I'm a painter first," she has said many times, "I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy." Well, the painting part I never doubted for a second. It was the singing that initially caught my family by surprise.
I'll never forget my mother's reaction when we first saw Joni perform on Prince Albert television in the early '60s. By this time, my mum was conducting choirs and composing, as well as doing theatre work. She knew her music. I was away at university but home for the holidays. When we got wind that 19-year-old Joan Anderson was to sing on local TV that night, we were glued to the set. Suddenly, there she was, on the flickering screen in our living room, looking like a movie star. She sang several songs in a lovely, lilting soprano, accompanying herself on a baritone ukulele. We were blown away. My mother, from the era of women trained not to show great emotion, raised a brow. "She's good," she pronounced. "Joan can sing."
Myrtle Anderson's recollections of that first performance are even better. Myrtle remembers her daughter arriving home one night from a wiener roast in nearby Waskesiu, where Joan had sung a few songs. A couple of Prince Albert kids said, "Joan, you're as good as Shelby Flint!" and arranged to get her invited on a TV program. Her parents watched her debut on a tiny television in a showroom on top of the Bessborough Hotel - one of the few venues in town that could pull in the signal - courtesy of a friend, the maitre d' at the time. The show was called For Men Only and normally featured hunting and fishing. "It was very tastefully done," says her mother. "But I think they cancelled a moose to put her on!"
When Joni moved to Saskatoon, I knew she had it made. Saskatoon was a happening place. In North Battleford, we deferred to it as "the city." This prairie version of urban sophistication was only 100 miles to the south, but it might as well have been Mars. In our teens, I'd get to travel down for a weekend visit now and then. On those smoky bus rides, where I was doing most of the smoking, I'd repeat the names of the passing towns like a mantra: Brada, Denholm, Ruddell, Maymont, Fielding, Radisson, Borden, Langham, Saskatoon. It was my ride to freedom, more than the sum of the towns. Away from the strictness of the manse and church twice on Sunday. "Why did we get such square parents?" I asked Joni, who not only had perfect hair but knew the answers to life's big questions. "We needed something to rebel against," she explained, laughing.
In retrospect, Joni's parents were anything but square. They may have been mystified by their irrepressible daughter, but they always supported her. Somehow, they had created an adventurer, a non-conformist. I remember her mother allowing her to paint a tree on her bedroom wall, with wide branches on which Joni stuck art and memorabilia. I loved staying over, swapping clothes, hanging out at the Commodore Cafe reminiscing about James Dean.
Once, Joni bought sparklers, poked them in the grass around the front lawn, and lit them. When I hear the words The Hissing of Summer Lawns, I don't think sprinklers. I think sparklers.
There's a special preview at the Mendel Art Gallery this afternoon, and Joni's invited me along. A few weeks ago I called her in California to let her know I was coming in for the show. As usual, she'd been up till dawn, "stealing time from sleep to paint," she joked, happy to be nesting, albeit briefly, in her own kitchen after a concert tour. We talked about how her dedicated Web site was attracting global fans to her old metropolis.
The gallery is as ready as it gets. Its lobby is spiffed up with urns of exotic flowers; out front are chairs for dignitaries, who will include Joni's parents and Premier Roy Romanow. Media vans, cameras, loudspeakers and lights are being set up. Barricades are everywhere, ready to cordon off Spadina Crescent for the anticipated crowd of 5,000. Aptly, a musical carousel is going "round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down" in the Kinsmen Park across the street. And pitched behind the Mendel, overlooking the scenic Saskatchewan River, is a multi-peaked reception tent. Looking very Camelot. Joni, I think, will approve.
An unfettered imagination and love of freedom is what you see in the paintings on the gallery's walls. As an artist, she explores and changes styles as often as in her music. Sometimes this ticks critics off. She doesn't care. She paints for herself and refuses to be pigeon-holed. Everywhere, there's humour. There's the famous Van Gogh takeoff, Joni sans ear, which became the cover of Turbulent Indigo. A piece called Canadian Bacon, in which the sky and the lake look like — well, bacon. Collages. Photographs of Joni's face superimposed on prairie imagery: elevators, old farmhouses, wheat fields. Oil paintings of lovers. Snowscapes. A witty homage to Rousseau depicting the artist and a deer.
There's a buzz of excitement as Joni glides in, smiling broadly, wearing beige, a straw hat and a backpack. No, she's not at all nervous, she tells the press crowd of perhaps 100. Yes, she explores many artistic styles, but isn't that something to celebrate? She paints pure, doesn't want to be shocking or play the art world game. She saw her first Picassos and Matisses at the home of Papa Mendel, the man who donated this gallery. Above all, she loves truth and beauty.
She gives better than she gets. Did she ever dream that one day her art would hang in a gallery like this? Never, she says. Her big dream was to have a bowling alley in her basement. What's behind the name of that elegant abstract painting The Stranger? "Well, actually, when Gilles (the curator) pulled the painting out of the warehouse, I looked at it and didn't remember it at all. I said, 'Who did that?'" She laughs. Joni's having a good time. A few hours later, Gilles Hebert, the Mendel's director, is at the podium, facing the biggest crowd of his career. "Ho-hum," he deadpans. "Another typical opening at the Mendel Art Gallery."
After the speeches, 500 people are allowed into the gallery at a time. It's a rare sight to see people struggle to get inside a building to see art. But Joni's celebrity status has pulled them in from New Orleans, Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile. A woman from Vancouver, who knows the words to every song Joni's ever written, tells me she ran into Joni by accident the day before. She's thrilled. "I told her I'd had a dream we were jiving, and she took my hand and we started dancing," she says.
Back inside, Joni gets caught in a fan jam. She's pinned against a wall, signing books and CD covers. People keep lining up; Joni doesn't flag. She's told me she respects how far some have traveled. When I finally catch her eye, she heads over to meet my mother. "Mrs. Logie!" she says happily, leaning down to hug my mother's 4-foot-11 frame, taking both arthritic hands in hers. She begins to tell my mother a story, above the noise and the din, about how her mum used to mail my mum's health columns to her in Los Angeles in the '70s, and how "true" they were. (After my father died, my mother became a health educator and wrote a weekly column for North Battleford's The News Optimist.)
One column in particular she remembers, says Joni. It was a wise, motivational fable involving a squirrel, a duck and the folly of conformist behaviour, which she passed along to Slash's dad, before Slash went on to become lead guitarist of the metal band Guns N' Roses. My mother, who's never heard of Slash, is taking this in, while plotting her own agenda. For years she's fretted about Joni's smoking, which I've warned her not to mention. She ignores me. "You read my columns, but did they do any good, dear?" she jokes, obliquely. Later, she worries. "It was too noisy. I don't think Joni got it."
Next day, Joni calls and we grab lunch at the Bessborough. First thing I do is try on the hat; it doesn't suit me. She's hoarse from talking too much the night before, but still floating. We do the catch-up thing; we agree the middle years are the best of times and we'll stave off the facelifts. "I'm feeling great," she says, after a bout of exhaustion on tour. Since polio, health has been a concern. Joni's always done yoga, but recently she's found a nutritionist, "an angel" who has her on a regimen of herbal pills and a special diet. No coffee. Across the table, Joni, former java queen, sips tea.
I tell her about the four guys I met standing around her oil painting Middle Point, all excited because they were sure they'd spotted the cat hair in the brushwork around the ocean. She cops to the cat hair and says she hopes they also checked out the painting Georgia O'Keeffe's Rainbarrel. "My cat peed on that one," she laughs. People stop by for autographs, and she handles them with grace. Old pals from high school appear and the memories start jumping.
They're talking about those late-night dance parties. I'm wondering: when Regis Philbin of Millionaire borrows your lyrics for one of his questions: "What did they pave to put up a parking lot?" (even though the Gen-X contestant blows the answer — paradise!); when the King of Sweden wants to meet you; when you've been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame; when fans rhapsodize about how much you've changed their lives; when your music and paintings are famous worldwide and, who knows, beyond; when you're a veritable cultural icon with people pulling you in all directions - how can you possibly stay real? Then I realize one of the things about Joni that impresses me most is that no matter how exotic she's become, how high she flies in her artistic and poetic life, in her private life she remains grounded. She wouldn't hesitate to greet me at the door in pyjamas. Staying real is one of her best achievements.
I drive by Joni's old high school on my way over to see her parents. Take some pictures of colourful chalk drawings on the sidewalk in front. Then, I'm at the house, saying hi to the Andersons, as if decades haven't really gone by, and I can't believe things are so unchanged. The black tree is gone from the bedroom wall, though, and there's a new patio out back.
Down in the rumpus room, Joni's cousin Dave and his wife and family are sitting in easy chairs watching a tape of the All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell, which was held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and aired by the TNT cable network in April. The musical celebration featured stars such as James Taylor, Bryan Adams, Wynonna Judd. Posters for the event said, "Pop, Rock Jazz and Soul: One Woman Changed Them All."
Meanwhile, I've asked Joni's mum to show me the scrapbook she's made, entitled "The Life and Times of Roberta Joan Anderson." I want to tweak my memory as to when this talent first showed up. And it's here, I find, in the early sketches of deer and landscapes, the pastels of dogs and vases, the pencil drawing of a teacher, a Happy Birthday Ode to her father, clever poems like "Sub Marine Symphony - The Lobster's Ball," written in Grade 7.
On TV, Elton John has taken his bows for Free Man In Paris and is gesturing toward Joni from the piano. "I've sung for the Queen, but it's not so intimidating as performing Joni Mitchell songs in front of her," he quips. Here, in the family room, we laugh along, the kids, the parents, and then it goes quiet as we wait for Joni, who's up next, and we know, because her mum told us, that she has to sing and she's only had a banana for supper.
She's doing a stunning torch-singer rendition of Both Sides Now when I find the report cards. I don't expect humourless Miss Bready, Grade 4, to weigh in on the complimentary side, but she does.
"Original in ideas," she says, and "a gift of interpretation." It's our Grade 6 teacher who disappoints. "Joan should pay more attention to other subjects than art." Lucky for Joan, I say, that she moved to Saskatoon when she did, in time to meet the inspired Mr. Kratzman, a Grade 7 teacher who encouraged her renaissance ways and told her to "write and paint in her own blood." Lucky she had parents who stayed calm while she was "busy being free." It's no accident that Gilles Hebert chose to display alongside the Joni exhibit a show called School Art 2000, which is joyful, wild, colourful, unrestrained.
Back at the gala in New York, everyone's on stage now for the rousing finale, led by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. All these famous musicians surrounding Saskatoon's Joni Mitchell, singing The Circle Game as the credits roll. Then the TV world gets switched off. In the real world, Joni's parents, now in their late 80s, have to get ready to go to a local production of Hello, Dolly! with their daughter.
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