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Joni Mitchell’s ex talks heartache as her masterpiece ‘Blue’ turns 50 Print-ready version

by Chuck Arnold
New York Post
June 22, 2021

With the confessional honesty that Joni Mitchell displayed on her classic "Blue" album - which was released 50 years ago on June 22, 1971 - perhaps a more apt title would have been "True."

"A lot of people think she bares her soul, but I think she scrapes her soul," said Lori Majewski, co-host of "Feedback" on SiriusXM's Volume channel. "The confessional nature of 'Blue' is such that I think Joni Mitchell herself actually likened it to Dylan plugging in, to Dylan going electric. It was such a groundbreaking thing to be this confessional."

Indeed, Mitchell's fourth studio LP - which Rolling Stone ranked at No. 3 on last year's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - upped the gut-spilling ante for both female and male singer-songwriters. "It made a lot of singer-songwriters - especially male singer-songwriters - very nervous that they were going to have to lay it all out on the table the way Joni had," said Majewski. "I think that the men, they were singing about the times, they were singing about the moment, but they were looking outward. When you go inward, there's a bravery - and Joni did that with a magnifying glass."

And that "Blue" bravery has inspired everyone from Prince - who, after once writing Mitchell a fan letter before he became "Purple Rain" royalty, would go on to cover "A Case of You" - to today's artists including Brandi Carlile, Lana Del Rey and, of course, Taylor Swift. In fact, on "Blue," Mitchell was getting intimate about her relationships with the likes of Graham Nash and James Taylor long before Swift was dishing about John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal.

"It was such a hugely influential record and remains a real touchstone for everybody," said Patrick Milligan, producer of the Joni Mitchell "Archives" series, whose upcoming second volume (due in October) will include material from her "Blue" period. The collection is previewed by an EP, "Blue 50 (Demos & Outtakes)," which was released on Monday.

"I think because it is so honest, it's so timeless," said Milligan. "People keep going back to it."

For Nash, hearing "Blue" for the first time made him feel just that. "When I first heard the album, I realized that our love affair had come to an end, and that's a very sad feeling for anyone who's in love with anybody, but particularly 'cause it's Joni and me," Nash told The Post.

"People said that we literally lit up the room when we both were in it. Our love was very warm, very tender and very deep, and it's one of the reasons why listening to 'Blue' still tugs at my heartstrings." (Mitchell, who rarely does interviews, declined a request.)

While Nash and Mitchell were living together in Los Angeles, he saw her genius at work writing some of the songs, including "A Case of You."

"I distinctly picture in my head her writing at her piano in our house in Laurel Canyon that we shared for a couple of years there," he said.

The "Blue" tracks that are specifically about Nash - "My Old Man" and "River" - cover their relationship from opposite ends of the spectrum: On the former, Mitchell sings about a domestic bliss that doesn't "need no piece of paper," while the latter is a breakup lament about losing "the best baby that I ever had"."

Nash insists that he never felt as if she bared too much about him and their relationship. "No, I never did," he said. "It was only admiration for her ability to do that."

In fact, he added, it was "tremendously courageous" for her to reveal so much of herself - and yes, her love life - at the time. "She was not feeling particularly strong," he said. "She had a lot of questions about her life and how it should have gone maybe."

Now, Nash still has mixed feelings when listening to "Blue." "I still feel a couple of emotions that shouldn't go together: One of them is sadness, and the other one is incredulity of how brilliant she is."

Nash remains flattered that Mitchell once wrote about him making her "weak in the knees" on "River." And the two remain close: "I've sent flowers for her birthday every year for the last 50 years."

In a way, their love affair continues today, with "Blue" having immortalized it. "All these years later there's a part of my heart that still loves Joni Mitchell," he said. "Once you're in love with Joni Mitchell . . . you're in love with her forever."

Drummer Russ Kunkel - who played on "Carey," "California" and "A Case of You" - connected with Mitchell through the vibrant Laurel Canyon music scene. "I had moved to Los Angeles with a band that I was in called Things To Come . . . and I became friends with David Crosby, I became friends with Graham Nash, and so I was around the scene," he said.

"My wife at that time was Cass Elliot's sister [Leah], and we were living in kind of a studio suite above her garage in Laurel Canyon. Cass' house was kind of a melting pot of everybody that came through Los Angeles, so on any given day in Cass' backyard would be Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, John Sebastian, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, you name it."

In fact, Kunkel had heard some of the "Blue" songs at Mama Cass' house before he ended up playing on the record. And he'll never forget hearing a certain "A Case of You" line for the very first time: "As soon as I heard that lyric, 'I could drink a case of you...And I would still be on my feet,' it was one of those moments where in your brain you go, 'The person that wrote this is, like, of the highest degree.' "

But he didn't initially dig deep into the lyrics of "Carey" or "California," both of which were inspired when Mitchell took a break from performing and went on an extended vacation to Europe in 1970. "What I did know for sure is what I was going to be playing was going to be very simple, just supporting what she was doing," said Kunkel of the recording sessions in Studio C at A&M Studios in Hollywood.

He joined a list of supporting players that included Mitchell's then-boyfriend Taylor on guitar, and Stills on guitar and bass. "Most of her parts were already laid down when we played those things," said Kunkel, who had previously played drums on Taylor's 1970 album, "Sweet Baby James." "But she was always there . . . Joan produced that record."

And for Kunkel, it was all about not messing with the magic that was happening: "My focus when I was in the studio was just concentrating on first doing no harm, playing the appropriate part for the song, because I was listening to greatness."

For photographer Tim Considine, shooting the iconic blue-hued album cover of Mitchell's masterpiece all began because of another female singer-songwriter. "The whole thing was started . . . at a Judy Collins concert," he said. "She sang 'Both Sides Now,' and I was really impressed. Then she said, 'If you like that song, wait till you hear the young Canadian who wrote it: Joni Mitchell.' I thought, 'I've got to look for this artist.' "

Then, armed with film typically used for dental purposes to better shoot in the dark, Considine went to photograph Mitchell during a 1968 concert at the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles.

"I went home, and I developed the pictures, and . . . I loved the images," he said. "So I went back the next night and went up the stairs [to Mitchell's dressing room], knocked on the door and introduced myself. I'd made 11-by-14 prints, and she seemed to like them. And I felt 9 feet tall that this brilliant singer-songwriter, poet and painter liked my images. And then David Crosby came in, and she handed them to him. And he took one look at them and said, 'Needs more contrast.' "

Considine then "immediately refined" the image that would become the "Blue" album cover. He was thrilled when later, in 1971, he was asked by art director Gary Burden if they could use the shot. "She had never had an album cover that was a photograph - she had painted all her album covers," he said. "So I said, 'Absolutely.' "

But Considine wasn't a fan of the blue-tinted treatment of his photograph, which was originally a black-and-white shot. "I hated it when I saw it," he said. "It makes her look hard. It took all of the softness out of the image. It was awful."

Still, Considine said, "I was honored - and still am - to be the first to photograph an album cover for this genius."

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Added to Library on June 23, 2021. (2214)


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