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Joni in conversation with Timothy White Print-ready version

by Timothy White
Rock Lives (Book)
March 17, 1988

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The French poet Alphonse de Lamartine has written, "God has placed the genius of women in their hearts because the works of this genius are always works of love." Yet love, like hate, is a natural exaggerator, seeking outlets but never limits, the unrelenting fire of life that either purifies or consumes.

Like the erotica of Anais Nin, the songs of Joni Mitchell have been a move, in a world generally dominated by men, to express the experiences of physical and spiritual love solely from a purposeful woman's vantage point. Through an often-angry admission of her emotional weakness for and dependence on the opposite sex, of her foolhardy miscomprehensions and unrewarded acts of faith, and of her ability, however imperfect, to make the process of self-love and the search for romantic fulfillment compatible, she has forged a fresh image of the autonomous female artist. It is not a political representation, tied to trends or to movements like Women's Liberation, but a forceful announcement of her own singularity. She began by embodying the archetypal fair-haired hippie-chick singer, ornamenting the male folk-rock enclave, taking lovers (Graham Nash, James Taylor) from among her associates, yet making it plain that they were her peers, that she claimed co-ownership of the experiences, and that she reserved the right to think out loud about them. Mitchell, like the rest of the obstinate rock and roll community, was on the way to satisfying herself, and she made no bones about it.

David Crosby—who is credited with discovering her in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida, producing her debut LP Joni Mitchell/ Song to a Seagull—is said to have commented once that his protegee was "about as humble as Mussolini." Perhaps, but certainly no more arrogant than David Crosby. She has insisted on having her own mind, and she has flourished in a contest where she found she was "outside the uniform of rock and roll, and it annoyed people."

A native of Alberta, Canada, she was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943. At the age of nine, she contracted polio in an epidemic that swept Canada, and it was thought that she might not walk again. She remembers spending Christmas in a hospital, shouting Christmas carols at the top of her lungs in the polio ward as a gesture of defiance. Regaining her strength, she plunged into social dancing, organizing weekly Wednesday-night get-togethers. Joni was a precocious child, interested in painting and music. She began her art studies in Saskatoon and bought her first record in 1953, a Rachmaninoff theme used in the score of the Ethel Barrymore-James Mason movie The Story of Three Loves.

Mitchell took up the guitar and ukulele in order to play Kingston Trio songs at parties (the hootenanny/sing-along fad was then extremely popular). She attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, planning to concentrate on commercial graphics, but got sidetracked by folk music and became a regular at the Depression Coffeehouse. After moving to Toronto to have greater access to clubs, she met and married Chuck Mitchell; and they formed a loose duet. In 1966, they relocated to Detroit, where the relationship fell apart as her solo career took off. She headed for New York, where he became known as a songwriter, singer Tom Rush adding her material and that of newcomers Jackson Browne and James Taylor to his sets. In 1967, she signed a contract with Reprise and went into the studio with David Crosby, whom she credits with helping her fight to see that her writing wasn't diluted to fit the current folk-rock trend. A year later, her material had gained wide exposure; Tom Rush recorded her "Circle Game" as the title track of his 1968 LP, and Judy Collins hit the Top 10 with "Both Sides Now." Mitchell's own Clouds album, which featured her version of "Both Sides Now," benefited from the attention, and "Chelsea Morning" became ubiquitous on FM radio. Nineteen seventy's Ladies of the Canyon sold 500,000 copies, and "Big Yellow Taxi" landed on the charts.

Her next two records, Blue and For the Roses, were the sharply confessional works of a woman resentful of her inability to stand loneliness and eager to place the blame on others even as she denies that she is doing so. But Mitchell's delightful vocal animation was a leavening factor, her trills, ululations, and sandpapery skips along the scale revealing a personality increasingly willing to laugh at its willfulness. Her guitar-playing was also distinctive, the humming heft of her open-tuning chords and hard-strumming style anchoring the whole with impressive authority.

Court and Spark, released in 1974, showed that her overall musicality had matured to a point where she could look beyond herself for input and thereby achieve new dimension. A virtual collaboration with hornplayer-arranger Tom Scott and his L.A. Express, the LP was an immaculate jazz-rock exploration; the wide-open, freeway-entwined vistas of Los Angeles seemed to become aural landscapes in which the singer loses, rediscovers, and surrenders herself. Court and Spark was considered a brilliant new direction for both Mitchell and rock, and artists as diverse as David Bowie and Jimmy Page expressed envious admiration of the album.

From there, however, Mitchell became more obscure as she drifted further and further into a jazz-like fringe of her own invention. The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975 was as overwrought as the title implies, as was Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, although they did feature landmark Afro-rock and jazz-rock hybrids. Mingus, a 1979 tribute to the terminally ill jazz bassist, was brave but brittle. Two live albums released in 1974 and 1980 were only occasionally winning; while her 1982 release, Wild Things Run Fast, found Mitchell returning, almost apologetically, to the conventions of Court and Spark. Dog Eat Dog in 1985 showed Mitchell's work acquiring an astute topical faculty as she assailed the smarmy triumvirate of TV evangelists, advertising executives, and junk bond salesmen who were brokering America's moral fiber. The lucid, sublimely sung Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm consolidated her social concerns while showcasing her ease in shifting between jazz, rock, and folk veins. Co-produced by husband Larry Klein, a distinguished bassist, keyboardist, and arranger, Chalk Mark utilized guest star Don Henley ("Snakes and Ladders") and Peter Gabriel ("My Secret Place").

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm was also Mitchell's most captivating effort since 1976's Hejira, a work whereby she entered an entirely new realm of creativity, producing a ghostly, ethereal record of stalking, abandon, and flight. Like Chalk Mark, Hejira probed a twilight realm in which the dark side of love is directly confronted, the soul subsumed, an otherworldly eroticism achieved. It was the kind of handicraft Henry Miller was pushing Anais Nin toward when he kept advising her to concentrate on the carnal and "leave out the poetry."

The following conversation took place over chicken salad sandwiches one March '88 evening in a dimly lit studio in North Hollywood, just two weeks before Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm was released. Mitchell was lighthearted and charming but involuntarily jumpy because of her "darned hypoglycemia." Once the sandwich had been digested, she relaxed, growing soft-spoken and touchingly sentimental.

Tim: Joni, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is a powerful composite statement, so pretty to the ears, but upsetting in its content. Is the title describing something deliberate that's ephemeral at the same time?

Joni: [Nodding] It's an image of impermanence. It's also a line from the song "The Beat of Black Wings." A young soldier delivers it, and he's drunk in a tavern somewhere, talking to anyone who'll listen. Mainly he talks to the woman who is serving him his beer, and his outlook is pretty gloomy. He says he's never had anything in his life, so it's from that standpoint that he delivers the line, "I'm just a chalk mark in a rainstorm, I'm just the beat of black wings." An individual is a kind of a chalk mark in a rainstorm in view of the direction we've taken as nonecological animals.

Is that soldier character, Killer Kyle, derived from anyone you've met?

Yes. In the sixties, while all my friends were busily avoiding the draft in any way possible, I was playing a coffeehouse circuit on the Eastern Seaboard which took me down to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I played for gung-ho boys coming and going from Vietnam.

One person I met there introduced himself as Killer Kyle. He was like a Tennessee Williams character, very young and short. I walked into the room, and he was red in the face, livid, his fists clenched, and he said to me in a drawl, "You've got a lotta nerve sister, standing up there talking about love, because there ain't no love. Not where I come from. Love is gone, love is dead, and I'm gonna tell you where love went."

This is approximately the way he opened up, and he proceeded to tell me a terrible, but I guess typical, story of a Vietnam experience. For a while afterward he wrote to me, but basically all he wanted to do was get strong enough to get over his shell shock so he could go back and kill a Commie for God, although that illusion was broken.

As a matter of fact, Killer Kyle is mentioned in "Cactus Tree," one of my earliest songs. I hadn't thought about him for many years until I started recording this album at Peter Gabriel's studio in the southwest of England, near Bath. On the other side of the valley from the studio is an army base, the base from which U.S. planes attacked Libya. So it crossed my mind when we were recording that if there was retaliation, we might very well be the target. Also, the radiation from the Chernobyl accident was drifting toward us. It was a very pensive time for Yanks in England, and gave everyone an awareness that this planet is a tiny place indeed. Accidents from one country and wars in another now affect us all.

There is no safe or secret place anymore. Yet the notion there might be seems more entrancing than ever. Your duet with Peter Gabriel on "My Secret Place " seems intended to depict the birth of trust and affection between two people, even two strangers.

Exactly. Rather than a duet of a boy singing to a girl—or at a girl—it's the beginning of the optimistic one-mindedness at the start of a love affair. You're on the same wavelength. That's the time when you're liable to say the same thing at the same time, and giggle a lot about it. It's a psychic period of bonding.

I prefer to see life as an undulating force—which is more an Oriental process of perception. I disagree with Western thought, with its mind/body split, its good/evil split. You have to cultivate a dialogue with life that's less judgmental, yet has a greater attention span. I'm still living in the days of radio; I'm not a channel-changer. I'll watch anything on TV because moving pictures fascinate me, as does conversation.

Reviewing your career, there's always been a tendency to cast you as a confessional writer and singer, but I'd say your overall approach is more conversational in spirit.

Here's how I look at my songs, and it's very simple: I feel that the melodies, if they're "born" first, require words with the same melodic inflections that English has in its spoken forms. So I'm singing with an ear for the music and meter of the spoken word. And then from jazz I took the liberty to not necessarily nail the downbeats all the time. I enjoy dialogue, and I'm a big talker, and my music helps me be a big listener too.

Besides the "confessional" assumption, people assume that everything I write is autobiographical. If I sing in the first person, they think it's all about me. With a song like "Free Man in Paris," they attribute almost every word of the song to my personal life, somehow missing the setups of "He said" and "She said." Certainly, most of the song is eyewitness accounting, but many of the characters I write about even if their tone is entirely first-person—have nothing to do with my own life in the intimate sense. It's more like dramatic recitation or theatrical soliloquy.

Granted, but you've made albums like Dog Eat Dog, in which you seemed to function as a journalist, and others like Blue, in which you let listeners in on your private emotions.

Well, we're talking about several things here: the poetry of the lyrics, the reporting in them, and my own emotional makeup. In a certain way, I do see myself as an eyewitness reporter. Some of my things are purely fictional, though, in that I begin from an eyewitness vignette to depict it. Then I find it won't rhyme [laughter], or it lacks a certain dramatic quality, and there's a necessity for exaggeration.

We're talking art's artifice here, and it has its own truth. It's not necessarily a literal truth. It's a creative truth, a larger truth.

I have, on occasion, sacrificed myself and my own emotional makeup, singing "I'm selfish and I'm sad," for instance. These are not attractive things in the context of rock and roll. It's the antithesis of rock and roll—which is "Honey, I'm a lover and I'm bad!" [laughter] You don't go saying these other things in pop circles because they're liable to bring terrible results: unpopularity. Which is what you don't want.

When I started to do this "confessional reporting," partially it was artistic integrity, and partially I wanted to sabotage any worship that was setting up around me. If I was being worshiped, something was wrong. If you're worshiping things, it means you're not really leading a full life. It's healthy to admire; all of my musical growth has come out of admiration. But to worship, that's taking it too far. You've got to get yourself together if you do that.

Blue was the first of my confessional albums, and it was an attempt to say, "You want to worship me? Well, okay, I'm just like you. I'm a lonely person." Because that's all we have in common. Happily married, there are still lonely moments.

Loneliness is the main thing we have in common with animals. Unfortunately, we have this ability to perceive more strongly— unlike, say, the coyote, who's born and sits in the bushes until one day his mother bites his nose to the bone and says, "I'm not feeding you anymore!" And then sends him cruelly out into the world to be on his own.

We all suffer for our loneliness, but at the time of Blue our pop stars never admitted these things. Now, I'm a public person, and my life's an open book.

When did it begin to feel that way for you?

Around the time of For the Roses. There was an adjustment period to be made, and that album was that adjustment period. In my teens, I wrote a poem for some class assignment about Hollywood called "The Fish Bowl." It was based on Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, and having all of your business in the public eye. Sandra Dee was the Madonna of that decade, a cute kid with her blond hair flipped up at the ends.

So this poem went: "The fish bowl is a world diverse / where fishermen with hooks that dangle / from the bottom reel up their catch / on gilded bait without a fight. / Pike, pickerel, bass, the common fish / ogle through distorting glass / see only glitter, glamour, gaiety / and weep for fortune lost. / Envy the goldfish? Why? / His bubbles are breaking 'round the rim / while silly fishes faint for him."

With that point of view as a teenager, it's very peculiar that I ended up in this game in the first place, because I knew that I was more of a private person. And I've always been the ages of three, seventy-five, and twelve all at the same time. As a baby, I was very old, and in my twenties I was very young. It's strange how it seems that you contain all of the people you are and were and will be.

Anyhow, For the Roses was a time of withdrawal from society, and intense self-examination. Maybe I don't handle adrenaline very well, but even the applause was hard. I know I have adrenal problems now, and I'm hypoglycemic—but back then I didn't. So my animal sense was to run offstage! Many a night I would be out onstage, and the intimacy of the songs against the raucousness of this huge beast that is an audience felt very weird. I was not David to that Goliath.

Fight or flight? I took off in flight, a strange reaction. I didn't know anyone else who did that. I had to adjust to the din of that much attention.

So For the Roses was written in retreat, and it's nearly all piano songs. I was building a house in the northern British Columbia forestry, with the rustle of the arbutus trees at night finding its way into the music. There was moonlight coming down on black water; it was a very solitary period. It was melancholy exile; there was a sense of failure to it.

The title itself was facetious. I wanted to use a drawing of a horse's ass for the album cover. I did use it for a billboard ad. It was my joke on the Sunset Strip, the huge drawing of a horse with cars and glamour girls, and it had a balloon coming out of the horse's mouth which said, "For the Roses." But nobody got the message.

I started this thing, all this star machinery "that brings me things I really can't give up just yet." That was the dilemma. And I threatened to quit all the time, but it's, hey, you're in show business until you're in the poor house! [laughs] You either stay up there, or you begin your decline and the vultures come and pick the last little bit as you go down. As your money diminishes, so does your ability to buy good lawyers to fight the monsters.

You wonder about people who made a fortune, and you always think they drank it up or they stuck it up their nose. That's not usually what brings on the decline. It's usually the battle to keep your creative child alive while keeping your business shark alive. You have to develop cunning, and shrewdness, and other things which are not well suited to the arts.

Success has an interior and an exterior dimension, and it can also have an effect on your core drive. You're waking up to things you can do, but you seek an audience for each of them.

There are different kinds of success. Mingus to me is a successful project from my core, and yet it pretty much cost me my airplay, my radio presence.

Yet it began with the incredible compliment of Charles Mingus valuing your work so much that he wanted to pull you closer to him as an artist.

That's what I'm saying: there are different kinds of success. I'm not a jazz musician, but I had the experience of being invited into an idiom with which I had been flirting.

My husband and his generation of musicians didn't exist in my early days. They're ambidextrous and can play hard rock with a light jazz feel, or funk with a rock feel. He can do anything. I loved rock and roll, but I had to make my choice at a certain point, because the rock and roll musicians around when I began were fairly primitive, frankly, and couldn't sense rhythmic nuances; they'd just bruise them. Since I didn't belong to any camp anyhow, I was drawn to people like Larry, and of course to Mingus, which became a great privilege.

It used to be embarrassing to myself and to Laura Nyro in particular to play with technical musicians in the early days. It would embarrass us that we were lacking in a knowledgeable way, and that we would give instructions to players in terms of metaphors—either color descriptions or painterly descriptions.

That feeling of embarrassment persisted until one day when I turned on the television in the middle of the film Never on Sunday. The scene was this: there's a drunken American, I guess it's Melina Mercouri's wedding, and he's yelling at the band in his intellectual manner, saying "You're not musicians! You can't even read!" And the bouzouki player or guitar player, he's a sensitive little guy, and he suddenly stops playing because he's injured by the belief that the American's words might be true. And he locks himself in the bathroom.

Mercouri's upset and says, "Now look what you've done, you've ruined my wedding!"—I'm paraphrasing the scene—and she's standing outside the bathroom door, wondering how she's going to restore this musician's confidence, until finally she knocks and says, "It's okay! The birds don't read either!!" And he comes out elated and goes back on the bandstand. That's how I felt, before and then afterward.

There was a smugness to studio musicians in the early days, and I was an illiterate rock musician who had none of the A-chord and B-chord languages. But you can imagine the thrill for me when I first met great musicians like Wayne Shorter, who spoke to me in my language of metaphors for a track like "Paprika Plains" on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Before he started to play his sax, he said to me, "It's like we're in Hyde Park, and there's a nanny with a baby in a boat on the pond, just nudging it, her hand's nudging it." Or sometimes he'd say, "I'm a string section now!"

Tom Scott was also very open to metaphorical instruction on Court and Spark. I'd say, "You're playing the Doppler effect: just give me straight lines." And he was a great sport. It was an exciting project, that record with Tom, and so was Don Juan with Wayne.

But once you'd get the lexicon down and the album done, you sometimes had to teach your muse to your public. The Hissing of Summer Lawns had tracks that experimented with mergers of rock and African forms.

There was a big stink about that. It was taboo, you see. I don't think I realized how culturally isolated we were until the release of that record. In white culture it was problematic, but it got good reviews in the black magazines, where it was accidentally reviewed because there was an illustration of a black person on the cover. I thought it was adventuresome, but it was shocking how frightened people were of it. I think the record was inadvertently holding up a mirror to a change that people were on the brink of in this hemisphere, and people were disturbed by the teetering they were experiencing. The Third World was becoming more important and they were disoriented.

Another revolutionary record of yours was Hejira, which was accepted because it had such a strangely pretty sound to it, yet I 'm not sure it's been entirely understood yet. It treads on a metaphysical plain in terms of inner experience, dream states, psychic journeys, and flights of imagination.

Hejira came out of another of my sabbaticals, another time when I flipped out and quit show business for a time. This instance was in '76. I'd been out with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, which was an amazing experience, studying mysticism and ego malformation like you wouldn't believe. Everybody took all of their vices to the nth degree and came out of it born again or into A.A. Afterward, I drove back across the country by myself, and I used to stay in places like light-housekeeping units along the Gulf Coast. I gave up everything but smoking, and I'd run on the beach and hit health food stores. In New Orleans, I wore wigs and pawned myself off as someone else. Meanwhile, nobody knew where I was.

I'd do these disappearing acts. I'd pass through some seedy town with a pinball arcade, fall in with people who worked on the machines, people staying alive shoplifting, whatever. They don't know who you are: "Why are you driving that white Mercedes? Oh, you're driving it across the country for somebody else." You know, make up some name, and hang out. Great experiences, almost like the prince and the pauper.

So whenever possible during these breakdowns in my career I would pawn myself off as someone else, or go to some distant clime and intentionally seek out a strata of society I was sure I would never have gotten near otherwise.

How do you feel about the fleeting acquaintance you've had with the Top 40 via singles like "Big Yellow Taxi, " "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio, " "Help Me, " and "Free Man in Paris "? Those bits all occurred during the early 1970s, and your impact teas since come from other less obvious angles.

I have nothing to do with the choosing of tracks for singles. Generally speaking, I don't agree with the selections, and there are tracks that never get played on the radio that I regret won't get that exposure. So I like the idea of well-received singles and am sorry when they don't get a chance to happen. "Car on the Hill" was one I thought would have been a good single; I wish that was circulating in the golden oldies department because it has a vitality today, it would work. "Troubled Child" too, and "Just Like This Train," which I'd rather hear on the radio than "Raised on Robbery."

I like the song "Big Yellow Taxi" better than I like my rendition of it. I don't think my version is definitive. "Help Me" is a throwaway song, but it was a good radio record. My record companies always had a tendency to take my fastest songs on albums for singles, thinking they'd stand out because they did on the LPs. Meantime, I'd feel that the radio is crying for one of my ballads!

"Ladies' Man" is another song radio missed, and it's a song that Aretha Franklin could have sung. In fact, there's two little catches in my vocal that are out of admiration for her. I also have at least one note I got from Tony Bennett, who I liked as a kid. And there's a lot of the Andrews Sisters in my choral work, although my harmony is different from the harmony of that era.

The Andrews Sisters era, of course, was World War II and its aftermath, a period that's the setting for "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms) " on Chalk Mark. It's such a wistful song. Tell me about it.

That song began as a music track that Larry wrote. For the lyric, I kept thinking about World War II and my parents' courtship, which was unusual in a prophetic way. My mother had been a country schoolteacher, and she had come to the town of Regina in Saskatchewan to work in a bank. It was wartime, and nearly all the men in the town had been shipped overseas. So there weren't many prospects for her, and she was a good-looking woman, thirty years old—which was old for that time.

There was a fancy hotel in that town that served high tea, and you had to wear hats and gloves in those days to get in. One day she and her girlfriend went over there just for the dress-up of it all. When they were finished, a gypsy came over and read her teacup and said, "You will be married within the month, and you will have a child within the year—and you'll die a long and agonizing death." The last part was a horrible and hideous thing for even a clairvoyant to tell anybody.

My mother laughed in her face. She said, "This is ridiculous. Look at this town. There's no men left, just frail boys and babies." Two weeks went by, and a friend of a friend had a friend from out of town, and they put my mother and father together on a blind date and it was instant chemistry. My father had two weeks' leave. He said, "I know this is sudden Myrtle"—her name was Myrtle McKee; in the song it's Molly McKee—"but would you marry me?"

So they ran off to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and got hitched. I was born within the year, and to this day she feels a little funny about the rest of the prophecy, considering the odds of the other parts coming true. She's seventy-six, and she's never been sick a day in her life. I mean, she's a real germ fighter because she's convinced it's a germ that's gonna knock her down. She does yoga, Tai Chi, cross-country skiing, and doesn't even have a quaver in her voice yet.

I say to her, "Don't worry about the gypsy, Mom. Two out of three ain't bad." The gypsy got it wrong. It's me who's gonna die the long and agonizing death, with my bad habits.

But I had to ask her, "What made you marry Dad? You were so picky." And she said, "Because he looked so cute in his uniform." So that's in the song too.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (13922)


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