They've all been coming out of the woodwork this past year, the artists who'd never deign to speak to anyone — ole Neil, Dylan a bit, and now the reclusive Joni Mitchell. The recent DOG EAT DOG is her fourteenth album, and it's a mighty long way from her 1968 debut SONG TO A SEAGULL.
I didn't even have to go to California, because Joni flew into Europe just before Christmas to face the press. Still, not doing interviews for years does have its advantages. It means you actually have something to say for yourself. About how DOG EAT DOG isn't a collection of songs written on the move, for instance.
"When I did HEJIRA, that writing year was spent driving around in the States. I drove across country with a couple of friends of mine to Maine, then to New York, and from New York I drove back home across country by myself, so that year was spent writing against a moving landscape, as was BLUE. BLUE was mostly written in Europe, in Greece and France. It has a lot of longing for going back to America.
DOG EAT DOG is a very domestic American album in a certain way, it has a global overview but mainly it was written... married, settled, staying home a lot, watching a lotta television, which puts you in contact with millions of other people watching television. You are the recipient of communications that are going out that a lot of people are picking up."
DOG finds Mitchell handling some big and disturbing topics alongside her more familiar personal cryptograms. The sound is weighted towards some sort of rock mainstream, unlike MINGUS or DON JUAN'S RECKLESS DAUGHTER, so in that respect it follows on logically from her last recording, 1982's WILD THINGS RUN FAST. Mitchell's musician husband Larry Klein appears as co-producer, writer and musician, while Thomas Dolby also figures prominently among guests with famous names like Don Henley, James Taylor, saxman Wayne Shorter and even actor Rod Steiger, enlisted to enact the role of an ultra-right wing evangelist on Tax Free.
The growth of the TV preachers and the Moral Majority with all its hideous hawkishness has alarmed Mitchell more than somewhat. A child of the flower power years, she still cherishes the American ideal of plurality of thought and deed. She's Canadian herself, of course.
"The ideals of the Sixties and Seventies have a true and clear enemy in this new idea, absolutely focused," she said grimly, exhaling a jet of Camel smoke. She admits to being a chain smoker, and evidently can't kick the habit.
"I guess people, finding that there was an emptiness in their lives, and a lack of community in a certain way, turned to the churches and the more flamboyant of these speakers. Looking for wholesomeness, looking for something that perhaps had been lost in America with the family unit disintegrating and so on, they turned to this idea of the paternal figure at the head of the family, the wife in the kitchen and the children coming up, and temperance. This idea seemed to flower and expand. A lotta people stopped drinking, became born-again Christians."
And the perfect father was, of course, Ronald Reagan, who has been at pains to court the evangelists of the new right as publicly as possible.
"A lot of people think Reagan's a nice guy," said Mitchell, wryly. "Neil Young thinks he's a nice guy." She paused before adding: "He's an actor, y'know." She rocked back in her seat, laughing.
In retrospect, 1985, might be remembered as the year when rock finally faced a few facts about itself. It was no longer radically or unruly, but had become institutionalized and safe. But it still wielded enormous media clout and earning power, factors with huge potential if suitably harnessed.
Joni Mitchell decided rock ought to speak up against the preachers and zealots trying to emasculate it further and subject it to self-righteous censorship of the most obnoxious kind. Hence Tax Free — "tonight I'm going dancing with the drag queens and the punks/Big Beat deliver me from this sanctimonious skunk."
On the other hand, the Live Aid and Sun City operations left her with some reservations, though she took part in a Canadian Band Aid project. She was asked to appear on the "Sun City" disc, but then discovered that the original lyric went like this: "Linda Ronstadt, how could you do that?/Rod Stewart, tell me that you didn't do it/Julio Iglesias, you oughta be ashamed to show your face/Queen and the O'Jays, what you got to say?"
Linda Ronstadt is an old friend of Mitchell's, part of the whole LA/Asylum/Geffen crowd, and Joni was damned if she was going to have her pilloried on disc. She declined to take part, and insists Ronstadt's visit to Sun City was undertaken in all innocence on the basis of "art should cross any border." Perhaps Linda's watched the "Sun City" video by now, which ought to have rocked her ivory tower.
Meanwhile, Joni's song Ethiopia is designed to put that God-forsaken hellhole into some kind of global context. She reckons that world's in a critical ecological state, with the oceans turning toxic, eradicable nuclear pollution everywhere and the rain forests coming down in tons. But how much impact does she expect a song like this to have? Live Aid and Sun City seem to have set some wheels in motion, but who does her song really influence?
"Well, there's the appearance of wheels in motion and then there's the actual motion. For instance, Bangladesh (the concert for) appeared to set wheels in motion, right..." And the money disappeared. "No it didn't disappear, it went into escrow. It was just released in 1984. It was held all that time — by who, for what, who got the interest I don't know, but the fact was wheels appeared to go into motion but the direct influence on the cause was all an illusion. The same with the No Nukes festival. There was a big to-do and a movie and a this and a that, but the funds have a mysterious way of being snatched by government and being disarmed along the way by, if not the government of the country from which they emanate, then the country to which they go. There's a hundred and one ways to stop the ball in motion."
So you think this will happen to "Sun City?" "Well, I don't know. All I know is we just find out these things after the fact. I don't know how much good it does. It certainly seems to elevate people's spirits and they can feel like they're doing something anyway. That in itself is something."
Skeptical or what? Tell it to Bob Geldof and watch his blood boil. Mitchell isn't optimistic about the state of the world. Nuclear disarmament for instance. "Even if the miracles happened and both sides said yes yes, we've been fools all along and we must lay down our arms, what do they do with all the crap that they've got? All of that stuff is toxic. Where are you gonna put it? And supposing they get the bright idea they'll ship it into outer space and blow it up out there. With the forces being what they are out there it's the same ideas as the oceans — 'oh, we'll dump it in the ocean, the ocean is so big.' Well, nothing is so big. Even the universe isn't so big that one of those little bangs isn't gonna create some kind of chain reaction out there."
Not much to look forward to, then, though, it seems Joni may just be going through a particular phase of doomwatching. She once had a reputation as a kind of professional bleeding heart whose albums were chunks of her personal diary set to music, thinly veiled accounts of her liaison with various rock 'n roll personalities. As her music grew more complex and idiosyncratic, her lyrics developed a broader reach and sought out less obvious targets.
But, she cautions, "I may go back to bleeding all over the public at any moment" (laugh). "The thing that's peculiar is what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to do it in a pop context and apparently that's unusual. It they were short stories they wouldn't be unusual at all, and unless it's a case of Hemingway where they go picking through all of his short stories to link it up to his own life, most of the time they blessedly take a short story at face value as a short story."
So it won't surprise you to learn that Mitchell is considering devoting herself, for 1986, to having a bash at some short stories. She says she's been devouring volumes of other people's lately, by writers including Raymond Carver and the great John Cheever.
"My work is a combination of fiction, autobiography, a lot of the names are the actual names of friends and acquaintances, some are fictionalized and some aren't. How do you figure the whole puzzle out? How much of it is fact or autobiography and how much of it is theater or fiction? And what difference does it make as long as it's a good piece? I'm trying to write short stories or small movies, I guess, in the pop song idiom. Because I have this musical ability I've decided to use that form to communicate. It creates all kinds of difficulties because it's so much more of a public life than that of a short story writer. They tend to confuse the artist with the art more in this idiom than any other."
And if writing fiction doesn't work out, she can still go back to her painting, an increasingly important part of her life in any case. She refers to this juggling of creative media as "crop rotation." "David Geffen said to me once that I was the only star he ever met that didn't want to be one," she observed. "The reluctant star, y'know." But it seems to suit her just fine.
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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (2694)
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