Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Joni Mitchell: the public life of a private property Print-ready version

by Michael Watts
The Sunday Times (of London)
April 17, 1983

One of the few pop singer for whom the term "artist" isn't just gross exaggeration, Joni Mitchell ends a British tour at Wembley next weekend. She has always matched her musical strengths with delicate, confessional lyrics; but the songs don't tell her whole story. Profile by Michael Watts.

Considered in elegant middle-age, Joni Mitchell proves a striking exception to the rule that rock musicians cannot mature with grace. Brushing 40, she looks every bit the million dollars which she is said to earn for each of her albums. The knicker-bocker suit, the deadly little cigars cocked at an angle, and that wheat-coloured hair tucked beneath chic caps hardly recall the folksinging Miss Lonely-Hearts, guitar clasped to her bosom, who shared confidences with countless female aspirants; and she has long since eclipsed Joan Baez and Judy Collins and all the other Joans and Judies of the folk scene - vanquished by her powers of songwriting - just as surely as she has survived the fashion for folk music itself, which faded in the mid-1960s after the arrival of the Beatles and rock. No one has better articulated the doubts and triumphs of women's rites of passage through the so-called sexual revolution. Nor has any other female performer been capable of her ambitious musical journey: from folk through rock to the purlieus of jazz, which are usually minefields for untutored rock musicians.

Wealth has accompanied ambition. As a young Bob Dylan disciple, with only 400 dollars in the bank, she had been prepared at any moment to return to her job in the ladies' wear department of a Toronto store. But since 1968 she has sold 15 million albums, and now travels between four homes, carefully sited throughout North America. Her New York loft is for "good conversation" and painting, a passion that rivals making music. For writing poetry there is a monastic cottage on the Canadian coast north of Vancouver. And in her Los Angeles base she maintains two houses: an old Spanish mansion, dubbed "The Palace", where she entertains, and a Malibu beach-house for everyday living. "My dear, I am very rich - multi," she will say, rather amused.

Her success is nonetheless rooted in paradox. Her most successful quality has been aloofness: concentrating upon albums, not best-selling singles, she has virtually ignored pop stardom, and yet won the kind of reserved adoration usually only bestowed upon opera divas. Despite being a very private person, she is best-known for songs revealing her personal relationships and those of her friends - among whom have been Warren Beatty and a list of variously famous rock musicians, including James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash). They reflect her own life as "Don Juan's reckless daughter" (a self-descriptive album title). And though some critics, a minority, disparage her true confessions as upmarket Mills & Boon, the consensus is that, like Georges Sand, she has raised dangerous candour to an art.

This candour has had its reward, not the least of which has been a steady supply of boyfriends among her backing musicians, who, it follows, sometimes ended up as source-material. Larry Klein, a 26-year-old bass player with dark moustaches, became something better. He is not famous, not even well-known, but last November she quietly married him: news which leaked out slowly, surprising friends and disappointing admirers who cherished the notion of her unattainability. Yet of all her lovers, Klein proposed and was duly accepted. In mid-life she is ready to conclude her romantic wanderings. "My search has ended in marriage," she says, and smiles, "so what in blazes am I going to write about now?"

We met in the Sunset Boulevard office of her manager, Elliot Roberts, a droll Bronx humorist who, after consenting to an interview, shouted to his secretary, "Start the clock, Mary!" The choice of day was ironic, for that very morning there had been a funeral service for an old folksinger friend, David Blue, who is enshrined in her mythology as the inspiration for her album Blue.

Blue's real name was Cohen, and his death was not romantic: from a heart attack, at 41, while jogging. Roberts explained, with rising incredulity, that his ashes were to be laid to rest in Laurel Canyon, a Los Angeles district replete with rich rock stars: a sunny, urban version of Weybridge. At this Mitchell clapped her hands, suddenly gripped by an idea. They would put the ashes in a a friend's yard and plant a bush there.

"Jooan!" Roberts wailed. "Fertiliser! Is that what he ended up being? Mulch?"

"I wouldn't mind being fertiliser for a rosebush or somethin'," she protested; and added, with a hint of reproof, "bear that in mind, Elliot."

Outwardly, Mitchell is poised "woman of a certain age". The high cheek-bones, which suggest her Norwegian and Lapland blood, are fashionably glazed. But her smile, a charming disclosure of pink gum, conveys high spirits. She freely confesses she lacks aptitude for small talk. "The reason I'm very private is because I'm very open. I'm either intimate or I shut up." Accordingly, her conversation, like some of her songs, can be burdened with sincerity. There is an occasional resemblance to a refined lady novelist when she talks of "serving a muse", or flatters her audience as a "thinner-skinned breed, who have been able to follow my pilgrimage in themselves".

Yet she will also debunk her inspiration with men: "I seem to bring out their protectiveness," she laughs. "I could go to the wildest places and the toughest person would look out for me." Journalism often misrepresented her, she said. There were even men who thought, quite wrongly, that she had written about them. She promptly scotched the legend that Blue had been about David Blue. And other torch-bearers turned out to be mere spear-carriers.

The gossip about her personal life madens and amuses her. She has been crowned in the press as the Queen of El Lay, and Rolling Stone magazine once printed a family tree of her conquests. But she replied hotly to the suggestion that she had brought this coverage on herself. "Why is it that open displays of sex are tolerated, while open displays of affection are titillating? The songs have simply been private letters that were published.

"Some of the most vital literature that exists are Van Gogh's letters to Theo; they were never intended for publication, and as a result there's a purity, a vulnerability, that a book written for publication often lacks. I wrote with a feeling that my troubles, when transformed into something beautiful, would transcend gossip - which was, of course, complete foolishness on my part."

For all the candour, there is one part of her life she has witheld. At the family home in Saskatoon, Canada, her mother, Myrtle, a proud matriarch of Scots and Irish descent, keeps her old bedroom exactly as it was, and preserves her achievements in several dozen scrapbooks. None of them, though, mentions Joni Mitchell's own daughter, born illegitimately in Toronto 18 years ago. It is a secret her songs have sometimes hinted at - never more teasingly than on her most recent album, Wild Things Run Fast, where she sings "my child's a stranger, I bore her but I could not raise her".

But she found the subject hard to discuss openly, claiming it still upset her parents. Her manner became severe. "You're thrilled, like it's Watergate or something," she rebuked me, "and here I am, stuttering and stammering." When she finally relented, it was because "there are no secrets in my closet; that's the confessional nature of my work."

The child, whom she called Kelly Dale, had been immediately adopted: by a lawyer, she understood. She had has no money, and there had been her career to consider. "I would have been on welfare. She was much better off." But she believes she saw her again, in a mysterious, unresolved encounter backstage at a music festival in 1968. A young couple approached with a toddling girl:

"The child said, 'Hello, Kelly.' I said, 'My name isn't Kelly, it's Joni.' The mother looked at me and said, 'No, her name is Kelly.'" Intriguingly, she didn't seek to discover whether this was indeed her daughter. "All these years I've assumed it was my child; and I've thought, 'She's well taken care of.' It has liberated me from any remorse I might have had."

Shortly after her daughter was born she made her first marriage. It lasted only two years, but furnished her with a new professional name (she was originally Roberta Joan Anderson) and a theme that she would later elaborate. Chuck Mitchell ("a king dressed in drip-dry and paisley") was an unimportant American folksinger, college-educated and unhip, whose family, she says, were "great supporters of American brand-names". Working as a folk duo, Chuck and Joni Mitchell, they moved to Detroit from her native Canada. But the omens where conspicuously bad; even while the marriage was dying, she modelled wedding-gowns to supplement their finances.

She looks back now with a cold, clear eye: "He would have to do a considerable amount of grooming for me to be a suitable partner, and I tended to rebel. I was a day-dreamer, unfocused, a very young 21 when I got married."

A sense of her abilities came slowly, for grand ambitions were discouraged where she grew up, on the prairie-lands around Saskatoon. Her only formal education in music was one "nightmarish" year of piano lessons which conflicted with Wild Bill Hickock on the radio. But the restlessness which vibrates in her music, especially the wanderlust described on the album Hejira was instilled at this early age.

She was born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, the only child of an airforce instructor, and wartime service kept her folks moving. After the war, Bill Anderson became a buyer for a grocery chain. "We moved to Maidstone. The population was about 400, I suppose, and the town had a water-tower. Water was delivered on horse-drawn wagons, and we had no indoor plumbing. It was a red-letter day when the first washing-machine arrived, and my mother grabbed it up."

She was frequently ill, once with polio, and during the lonely weeks of convalescence she made up little melodies. In high school she bought a ukulele. Then she spent a formative year studying art in Calgary. Joni Mitchell, her first album 15 years ago, has a sleeve she decorated with flowers and arabesques, and is dedicated to her high school English teacher, "Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words".

She began to be noticed performing part-time in Toronto's Yorkville coffee-houses. People were impressed by her innocence, yearning melodies and heart-clenching voice. Soon better-known folk musicians like Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie were singing her songs and praises. But it was while living in New York, performing in Greenwich Village for five dollars a night, that she was discovered by a man so convinced of her future that he guaranteed that she would earn 50,000 dollars a year under his management. Within a month, Elliot Roberts had left his Madison Avenue job managing comedians, and was heading west with Mitchell for a new life in Los Angeles.

It was a time in the late Sixties when Los Angeles found itself the cradle of youth culture, taking its brief turn from Liverpool, London and San Francisco; a time when rock had grown more introspective. This was the mood of the singer-songwriters, the James Taylors and Paul Simons, with their mellow harmonies, soft guitars and confessional lyrics. Laurel Canyon was then an inexpensive place, and Mitchell became one of many folk or country music performers who, re-made in rock's image, cultivated a "laid-back", pot-smocking lifestyle in the hills that sweep down beyond the northern side of Sunset Strip.

She reigned among them, Byronic, a free spirit. It was at her house that Crosby, Stills and Nash was formed. Willy (her pet name for Graham Nash, once a member of Manchester's Hollies) was a song on Ladies of the Canyon, an album which portrayed the idyll of Laurel Canyon's coupling and uncouplings, of "old ladies" with fat babies baking bread and wearing Indian jewelery. On the same record is Woodstock, which she stills performs, her vision of the 1969 rock festival as a modern, miraculous Eden, a biblical gathering of the masses (though a traffic jam prevented her own attendance).

Beginning with Court and Spark in 1974, her music gradually rejected rock in favour of jazz harmonies. Her guitar tunings had often been unorthodox, but rock musicians could not master the new demands of Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. She now proclaimed such unsuspected influences as the trumpeter Miles Davis and Fifties vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. And as she sought fresh musical challenges, so her lyrics became more abstract. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is, in fact, a dystopian impression of the California she once celebrated.

She became infatuated with Negro culture, going to parties dressed (and unrecognized) as a black man. Her story about the experience is anthologized in Love, an unreleased film by a group of women including Mai Zetterling, Liv Ullman, Antonia Fraser and Germaine Greer. But her record sales dwindled. Audiences missed her tunes and could not identify as closely with her feelings. "Women especially felt betrayed," she now says. "I was obviously out of sync with the public."

But fellow musicians applauded her adventure. In 1978 the bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, wasting away from muscular sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair, proposed they write together a musical version of T. S. Elliot's Four Quartets. When she decline because of its difficulty, he wrote six melodies that she was to turn into songs. Mingus was 18 months in the making, but he died before its completion; and his ashes were scattered, not in Laurel Canyon, but at the source of the Ganges. It sold poorly, and its impact upon jazz was small. Yet it had been written for an audience of one, and at least she had achieved her wish to be accepted by jazz musicians. Wayne Shorter, Weather Report's soprano saxophonist and one of the stars of Mingus, says, "I've learned with Joni to break all the taboos of music, which are mostly lies. There are no prison walls."

The experience purged her of further jazz experiments, but also launched her in an entirely new direction. Dissatisfied with the public's response and haunted by the prospect of reconciling rock music and growing old, she started painting seriously, not just album covers but large canvases, done in a mainly realistic style. The results have been gratifying. Each Christmas she prints private editions for friends; there is a "rug-painting" in a Texas gallery; and this year she is exhibiting in Japan. The famous artist and recluse Georgia O'Keefe, still painting in her nineties in the New Mexico desert, has become a special ally.

Then late last year she released Wild things Run Fast. The album has been intended as her final autobiographical statement, a summary of her career before renouncing music for the easel. She is by reputation a notoriously reluctant performer, whose every album is her swansong. But during the actual recording she was rejuvenated. She fell in love with Larry Klein, who played bass on the sessions.

Wild Things is buoyed by her newfound happiness, which in person she eagerly communicates. Always fiercely protective of her music, she now wants to compose with Klein. He is in the band of her current world tour, the first since the mid-Seventies. She has also signed a five-year deal with the recently formed Geffen Records.

So she is starting again, no longer youthful, and confessing as much. Chinese Cafe, a new stage favourite from her album, contains a valediction for the Woodstock generation. "We're middle-class, we're middle-aged, we were wild in the old days," she sings. "Nothing last for long."

But she will continue to make some form of public art out of private love. Marriage represents for her artistic creation, not procreation. "There is not a lot of room for children," she admits. "My husband and I are not about to become John and Yoko, but we have a beautiful balanced relationship that would not be augmented by child-rearing. And I've already reproduced myself on the planet." She looked delighted. "It's a lovely musical relationship".

This article has been viewed 9,926 times since being added on August 18, 2007.

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Comments on Joni Mitchell: the public life of a private property

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.