Release date: November 24, 2014
I walked into the green room at the Grammys. It was packed with people but it was quiet — weirdly quiet — like a library. Blacks sat on one side — looking like some kind of team in their oversized T-shirts and their baggy pants. Whites sat on the other — nondescript — mixed genders — like a Saturday afternoon shopping-mall crowd.
Suddenly, the back door flew open and a chubby brown-skinned girl with bleach blonde hair shouted, “Girl! You make me see pictures in my head. You come here and give me a hug.” I laughed. I moved towards her with my arms outstretched. We met in the middle and hugged and giggled and did a little dance. Then she turned and left. She was a makeup girl and had work to do.
The rappers were looking at me. I nodded. They gestured for me to sit down. I did. The room filled up with conversation. The Apartheid lifted.
I am a painter who writes songs. My songs are very visual. The words create scenes — in cafes and bars — in drab little rooms — on moonlit shores — in kitchens — in hospitals and on fairgrounds. They take place in vehicles — planes and trains and cars.
What I have done here is to gather some of these scenes (like a documentary filmmaker) and by juxtaposition, edit them into a whole new work. It was a daunting task to distill all that I have written about love and the lack of it — at least four times this much material — down to this length. I tried to reduce it to one disc for a ballet. I tried for a year and half but no matter what songs I chose — no matter what sequences I put them in — all I had was a mere collection. At this length, four discs, themes and ideas have time to develop — to augment and contrast — to interact with each other in a whole new way.
Quartets are nothing new in literature, but for today’s abbreviated minds, this could be a challenge. I recommend that you who are impaired in this way, try to take the trip anyway. Try to notice how the end of one song leads into the next. Try to notice the magnificence of the musical participants. Try to follow the flow of ideas or perspectives contained in the writing. Try to see “the pictures in your head.”
Like a filmmaker, I cast people in my songs. I cast Billy Idol as the bully in DANCING CLOWN. I cast Tom Petty as the guy he picks on — the “pushbutton window.” I cast Willie Nelson as the desert rat in COOL WATER — Rod Steiger as the evangelist in TAX FREE. I cast Iron Eyes Cody as the “grandfather” in I AM LAKOTA.
Let me tell you how Iron Eyes came to be on the record.
There was a show of Indian artifacts at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium — near where I was recording. We (Mike Shipley, Larry Klein and I) were working on I AM LAKOTA. It was almost finished but I felt like it was lacking something. “Let’s take a break,” I said. “I want to go to that show at the Civic. I won’t be long.” It was a little after 5:00. The doors had just opened. “Joan, Joan,” Klein said. “This isn’t like you — leaving in the middle of a session.” I said, “Well, we’re not doing anything important — you can spare me for an hour. They’ve got some rare old stuff over there. Federico told me. Hummingbird baskets, for instance — things you never get a chance to see!” Klein didn’t like it. “Come on,” I said, “Take a little break.” The track was running. Suddenly, the machine seized up. “Oh,” I said grinning. “Downtime. Call in the tech! I’ll be back in an hour.”
As I came through the doors I was met by a film crew. “Why are you here?” said a cyclops — a women behind a lens. “To see the show,” I said. “I only have an hour.” I tried to shake her, but she stuck to me like a paparazzi. “Have you met Iron Eyes Cody? she pestered. “Who’s he?” “You don’t know Iron Eyes? Cry Indian?” “Oh, the ecology commercial.” “Would you like to meet him?” “I guess so, but I don’t have much time”. She disappeared. I looked at some baskets. I looked at some pots. A little while later she returned with old Iron Eyes. He was wearing a grey wig — long grey braids. It was tied on under his chin with a black string. It was tied in a bow like a bonnet. “A bald Indian?” I thought, “I never saw a bald Indian before.” Years later, I was informed by a Lakota Sioux that Iron eyes was a Sicilian.
We shook hands. “Do you know any Indian songs?” I asked him. “Sure,” he said, and performer that he was, he tipped back his head and sang the little song that Lakota opens with. “What are you doing right now?” I asked him. “Well, I was supposed to go to dinner with some people . . . .” “Could you come with me to a recording studio — it’s near here. Could you put that down on tape?” “You want me to overdub?” he said. That made me laugh. “Yes,” I said, “Exactly!” “O.K.,” he said.
So I came back to the studio with three Indians (well, two Mazatecs and a Sicilian) and a film crew. I was half an hour late, but the machine was still frozen. We sat and waited. When it was finally fixed I played the track for Iron Eyes who said, when it was over, “Oh — it’s got the haunting. I think you’re turning Indian.”
Into the studio he went. He “overdubbed” like the pro he was. It was just what the piece needed.
We were relaxing now. The track was finished. Iron Eyes was telling John Wayne stories — tales of how John could hold his liquor. Suddenly it began to thunder and rain — hard. Iron Eyes and I went out on the back steps to watch it come down. As we watched, a ball o fire appeared on the lines leading into the studio. It was sliding towards us. I ran inside and told the boys about it. They pulled the tape off the heads in case the lightening sent the machine into record. I didn’t see it hit but it made the lights flicker. No damage was done and the storm moved on. It only struck Santa Monica — nowhere else in L.A. Strange. Beautiful. Ball lightening.
I create back-flashes in my songs by cutting old songs into them. HARRY’S HOUSE is one example. I cut in CENTERPIECE like a film edit — to illustrate the heart of the broken dream — the white picket-fence dream. I did it again in CHINESE CAFÉ — adding quotes from UNCHAINED MELODY to refer back in time.
I foley like a filmmaker. I use ambient sounds in my songs. A cricket flew into the Kiva, our home studio — mine and Klein’s. We sampled him. I made him the drummer on NIGHT RIDE HOME.
Speaking of drummers — I tried out two great drummers over in England — to play on NUMBER ONE — but neither one of them could swing. They had missed that era. So, for the first time, I programmed the drums. I heard in my head a long liquid brush stroke. I was working in Peter Gabriel’s old studio. There was nothing among his samples like that. Then, one night, as the session was winding down and we were rewinding the master tapes, I heard it — the sound I wanted. It was the sound of the tape flipping at the end of the reel before it came to rest. We sampled it. It was perfect. Years later, in Rome, a man chased after the car I was riding in and he shouted to me, “Joni! The rythmico on NUMBER ONE is fantastico.” Thanks.
We recorded THE WOLF THAT LIVES IN LINDSAY as a demo (the song was brand new). I didn’t have my guitar with me so Studio Instrument Rentals sent over this beat up D18. One fret was sticking up and when I put it into my tuning, it buzzed like rattlesnake. I loved it. It was ominous. It suited the theatre of the song. We only did one take and at the end I got so engrossed in making the guitar buzz that I lost the bar structure, but Don Alias hung in there with me. When we heard it back I decided that the eccentricity near the end didn’t matter. It seemed to make it even more savage — mutilated bar structure — like a pack of wolves stomping around — nervously.
I was headed up to San Francisco that weekend to play in a festival. I told Henry, “While I’m gone, look for a tape of some wolves.” He said he would.
All the artists in the festival were staying at a big old hotel in Berkeley. As I was checking in I heard someone passing by say that Tim Hardin was there. Tim and I were old friends. I asked the desk clerk for his room number so I could call him up and say hello. The man was very irritable. He said, “Can’t you see I’m busy?” and he launched into a tirade of poor beleaguered me. “O.K., O.K.,” I said. “I’ll wait till you you’re unbusy.” I leaned against the check-in window and looked out at the enormous lobby. Just then the bar room door swung open and out staggered a guy dressed like James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” — red cotton jacket — white T-shirt — blue jeans. He was singing “Why do fools fall in love” at the top of his drunken lungs. I was killing time so I sauntered over to him in the middle of the lobby and joined in. Now we’re both singing when around the corner came this black do-wop group — the Persuasions — and they joined in. It sounded so good that I started it over from the top and at the end, we all exploded into laughter. When that subsided, I turned to the uptight clerk and I asked for Tim’s room number again. “You lookin for Tim Hardin?” said the drunk in the red jacket. “Yes,” I said. “He’s in the bar — he’s on stage — singing.” “Thanks,” I said and started across the lobby. “Come up to my room,” the drunk called after me. “Both of you,” he called. “O.K. maybe,” I called back. “I’ve got a tape of some wolves,” he shouted. I stopped in my tracks and turned around. “You do?” I said. “I need a tape of some wolves.” “Come up,” he said and he called out his room number.
I went into the bar. Tim was on stage. He saw me come in and he sang to me, “Hello Joni,” like “Hello Dolly.” I sang back, “Hello Timmy.” He sang, “What are drinking Joni?” I sang, “One white wine.” He sang to the bartender, “”one white wine.” Shyly, the bartender mumble-sang, “One white wine.” The room giggled.
When Tim’s set was over, we went up some stairs and down a long hall. Tim was very playful. While we walked we were playing “the fisherman and the fish.” I was a big sports fish — like a marlin. I was leaping into the air. He would reel me in so I would run backwards, then race ahead and leap again. We did this all the way to the room of the drunk in the red jacket.
When we came in he was rummaging through a box of homemade tapes. There were a few people there. The music was blaring. He kept picking up tapes, looking at them, and putting them down. He heaved a sigh and starred up at us. He said, “I can’t find it, but here, take this.” I looked at the tape he had handed me. It was all African animals — hyenas, elephants, lions — no wolves. I said, “I don’t need this — I need wolves.” “Well, take it anyway,” he said. I looked at the list again and there it was at the very bottom — wolves. I was so excited. I said goodnight to him and to Tim and rushed down to my room. I put it on my tape machine. I twiddled my guitar into the “Wolf” tuning, queued up the wolves, and began to play. The way they fell against the chords was thrilling to me. Synchronicity!
The next night I closed my set with “Wolf”. Back stage, I had the tape queued up and I told my guitar tech, “When I get to this place in the music, hit play.” We had it miked so it would come over the speakers. At the end of the song, people were stunned. They didn’t seem to know how to respond. There was a smattering of applause. I left the stage. It was then that they began to howl. Louder and louder they howled. They howled me back for an encore.
The next week, back in the studio, we put the wolves on the track and added water gongs.
I couldn’t work with a producer. I found that out early. They were tyrannical and trendy. They would have squelched my need for risk and invention. They would have straightened out all the quirks and oddities and steered me towards the dog race where the bigger profits were. I didn’t want to think about music in terms of winning or losing. Music is not a sport. If I had to race, I wanted to be the rabbit. I had a painter’s ego — I took pride in discovering new things. I had a painter’s ability to self-adjudicate.
For 14 albums, I worked with Henry Lewy or an eight-track machine made from salvage parts from World War II bombers. Just Henry and me in Studio C.
Henry once had a radio show called “Helpful Henry The Housewife’s Delight.” He truly was a delightful man and immensely helpful. He had later become a jazz D.J. He had the perfect voice for that — moderately low and velvety. He was gentle and warm and encouraging — no power plays — no technological tyranny — no friction. He truly enjoyed my crazy ideas.
In the studio one night, I ran out of smokes. There was a dispenser in the parking lot. I put in my change and pressed the button for my brand. A little square lit up. It said, “Empty Try Another.” I pressed a second choice. Empty. Third choice — empty. Fourth choice — Kools (yuck). Then I noticed the sound of the gears that push the package out. I ran into the studio. “Henry,” I said. “Get a long extension cord and a good mike. There’s something I want to record.” We ran a cord down the hall and into the parking lot. We stuck a mike up in the slot where the smokes come out and Henry recorded me playing that cigarette machine. The groove went like this — “chinko gua godook — oooh — chinko gua godook — oooh.” You hear the coins drop in at the beginning and drop down at the end. I overdubbed a cough on the 4-beat of each bar. Henry was delighted. No producer would have encouraged that.
Henry took care of the E.Q. (sonic spices) which he used sparingly. He chose the mikes and placed them — which he did expertly. He engineered and I created — no role confusion — a painter and a printmaker. Perfect.
In the mixes, I took care of the proportions and the placement of sounds on the speakers — which I moved around sometimes — like the Doppler horns passing right to left and left to right on CAR ON A HILL.
For years, Henry and I made my records in this manner. I would call him up when I had a batch of new songs and I’d say, “Let’s go in and make some demos.” But there never were any demos because once I laid it down and it was satisfactory, I would begin to hear the choral parts on top. I grew up listening to the Andrews Sisters and the McGuire Sisters, so I would go in and add the “Mitchell Sisters”.
Now we had the nucleus of a record — voice and guitar — voice and piano or voice and dulcimer — with vocal arrangements on top. That done, I craved patterns on the bottom. The groove was already there — so what I wanted was a drummer who locked up to me and a bass player who punctuated the bottom — playing figures — leaving space. But that’s not how they played. At that time, bass player’s strings were dead and they wouldn’t change them. The drummers had a pillow in their kick drum and they wouldn’t take it out. The snare was tight and tubby and they wouldn’t slack it. The bass and drums buddied up and polka-dotted along the bottom, ignoring what my voice was doing or my accompaniment. They missed the rhythmic nuances and left no spaces. They seemed separate and arbitrary. When I tried to assist them, they rebelled, “I’m not playing that — that’s not the root of the chord,” or they ran their credentials, “I played with James Brown and you’re trying to tell me how to play my ax.” Years later, when synthesizers became user-friendly, I was able to be my own rhythm section (HANNA, NO APOLOGIES, NUMBER ONE, HERE’S TO YOU, for example), but at this time I had a fight on my hands. After they left I’d take them off — perpetuating the notion that I was a folksinger.
When Russ Kunkel, a drummer who worked well for James Taylor, said to me, “Joni — you’re going to have to work with jazz musicians”, I began my search.
I found a band — The L.A. Express — that was full of talent. The leader, Tom Scott, was someone I had worked with before. He was very versatile. He played sax and woodwinds. Lots of colors! The guitar player, Larry Carlton, had a fresh and distinctive style. He liked to fly-fish and sometimes what he played sounded like that — lines arcing — spinning out and splashing. The bass player, Max Bennett, was great, too. Although he had that “come in and stay in approach” (I still had my own ideas of what the bass should do), he was tasteful and solid so I didn’t attempt to guide him. It was the drummer, though, that I was most impressed with.
We all crowded into little Studio C and together we made a very innovative “pop” record. I told Henry, “Set me up facing the drummer.” John Guerin wrote out a chart of what I was playing and for the first time a drummer locked up to me and flowed through the figurative eccentricities like water over rocks. I fell in love with him and we moved in together.
In an interview given by Malka Marom, John had this to say — “Joni’s writing and her lyrics and her structures are original. I’ve never heard anyone else do it quite like that. There was a piece we worked on — it’s in 4/4 time and out of the blue there comes some odd time signatures, like 5/8 and 4/8. So, in order to play the tune, musicians have to have knowledge of those signatures. If musicians keep on top of it — and if they’re good — then they can put it right into the feeling without it sounding stilted. You have to be a very good musician to play her tunes.”
One night, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon (who was having a prolonged lost weekend) dropped into Studio C and I played them a couple of tracks. John jumped up off the coach and said, “Oh it’s all a product of over-education! You want a hit don’t you? Put some fiddles on it! Why do you always let other people have your hits for you?”
When the album was finished, I played it for Geffen and Bob Dylan and Bob’s buddy, Louie Kemp, who brought a girl with him. Bob had just completed an album (PLANET WAVES) — not one of his best. We played it first and everyone was very effusive. Then I played COURT AND SPARK. I was so proud of it — my first band! Bob pretended to fall asleep and when the last note faded out, Geffen nodded feebly. Louie said nothing. As they continued to comment on Bob’s work, Louie’s girl came over to me. “Why are they doing this to you?” she said. “I don’t know,” I said, “I think I’m Jackie Robinson.”
Years later, when John Guerin and I split up, I was back to searching for a good rhythm section. The players I tried just couldn’t cut it — back to the old rebellion, “I’m not playing that! That’s not the root of the chord!” I said, “Well, it will be when you play it.” The rebel said, “There’s this really weird bass-player in Florida. He plays with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller. He’s really weird. You’d probably like him. He hardly ever plays the root of the chord.” That said, I sent for Jaco.
Jaco was doing everything I was craving — and then some. He’d play little melodic quotes — Stravinsky, Jimi Hendrix. He left space. He ran harmonics, and where it was needed, he grooved. I was thrilled but he was hard to handle. He’d go up to the board and crank himself up until I became his back up singer. Ironically, he was the one who said I needed to take more control of my sessions. I was in control. If a player contributed something, I left him on. If he didn’t, I took him off. Simple.
There were many sessions for the Mingus project. At first, Charles picked the players. On one date, it was Tony Williams on drums, Don Alias on congas, John McLaughlin on guitar, and Jaco on bass. Jaco was showing off. He was up on John’s ear — pestering him with some self-indulgent sonic nuances. John looked cornered. Tony looked insecure. Alias and I were shaking our heads and laughing. So I announced, “O.K. Watch this! I’m going to take control of my session.” “Jaco,” I said. Deaf ears. I moved closer. “Jaco,” I said again. Nothing. I went right up to his ear. Again, “Jaco!” No response. I threw my hands up into the air and laughed. What can you do with a creature like that? That session was a bust.
I cut the songs that Charles wrote on the Mingus album with a lot of different bands — bands of his choosing. Although the level of virtuosity was high, the level of invention was low. It sounded like Bradley’s (a bass and piano jazz bar in New York). Again, it was “meat and potatoes” jazz. Jaco said to me, “What are you playing that tired old shit for? You’re work is more progressive.” That was the encouragement I needed. I called a session with the players I wanted — my favorites from Miles’ bands — Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter plus some young blood — Peter Erskine and of course, Jaco. I told them, “Everything I’ve cut sounds like a track with a singer — you could take me off and put someone else on — it wouldn’t disturb a thing. I want us to be all woven together like colored threads into a tapestry. I don’t want the bass and drums locking up like on a track — except on the bridges — the bridges need to groove. The key to this is the words are the leader. There is space between them for individual commentary — stretch out there — but when the words are in — support them.”
You have to understand that in jazz circles at that time, the girl singer was called “the chirp.” She was decorative, sometimes necessary, but not a real jazzer — not a spontaneous composer. A lot of derogatory jokes snickered through jazz sessions — like drummer jokes do in rock ‘n’ roll. Like Tom Scott saying, “If she asked us to play ‘yellow’ we’d play it.” I would never call out a color to be played. I don’t think that way — patternistic instruction — metaphorical instruction — illustrative instruction — yes. Laura Nyro asked a band to play “a little more purple.” Jazzers snickered at that from coast to coast.
As a result of this prejudice against singers, most players never listed to the words. Years later, when Herbie recorded THE JONI LETTERS, someone, probably Klein, forced him to listed to the words. “Is that what she’s singing? He said. We had played together for years. John Guerin, in an interview with Malka Marom, said this — “Words are something that Joni brought to my attention. When we started working on her album — the words are so important and they need shading — high and lows and louds and softs. There are multi feels in this music, and those different feels dictate different ways of playing. A lot of that is dictated by the words. Its an interesting enlightenment, so to speak. Well, I mean, for me — as a drummer. I’m not lyric oriented.”
When we cut SWEET SUCKER DANCE, although they grasped the concept (and this was the one and only take, I think), it starts off very tentatively — unsure — but then it takes off. This uncertainty at the beginning plays well against the theatre of the first verse which is saying, “Tonight it’s a dance of insecurity.” I said to them, “That’s it.” Their faces said, “Really — that’s it?” Years later, one by one, they came to me and said, basically, “Do you believe that shit we played?” It was very innovative.
Mingus didn’t dig it. He was an acoustic man. Electric bass, electric piano — he was as down on them as Pete Seeger was down on Dylan when he went electric. Charlie had another problem. He said, “You’re singing the wrong note!” I had changed one note in one place — going into the bridge. I said, “Well, your note is kind of wistful — a blue note. Mine is optimistic — it helps the words. They both lead — into the bridge.” He said, “You’re singing a square note!” I said, “Well, Charles, that note’s been square so long it’s hip again!” He said, “O.K. motherfucker — you sing your note and my note and you throw in a grace note for God!” I scooped up to it, but neither note was his “hip” note. I left it the way it was.
On DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER, the previous album, I gave Jaco some instruction (the one and only time) and he took it without resistance.
The title song is a long song — around six minutes long. My guitar has a rhythmic drive to it, and Jaco and Alex Acuña (the drummer on the date) had locked up together and were pushing it along with a Latin feel. It made the song seem even longer. I decided to break them up and put them on one at a time.
I told Jaco, “This is a kind of surrealistic tune — a lot of Scorpio metaphors and Yagui Indian mysticism. It needs a tom-tom feel — but not 4 on the floor.” It needed a repetitive figure with space between figures to kind of half-time it against the drive of the guitar — something like . . . (and I sang a part to him, making sliding gestures with my right arm), “Ga-ga-ga-goom, ga-ga-ga-goom.” Jaco cradled the neck of his bass in his left hand. He tuned the strings to an open chord and he played the figures without any fretting. He banged the strings at the top of the neck with his fist and he slid to the bottom for the “goom.” Halfway through the take, his hand was shredded like he had run it over a carrot grater. We stopped tape, punched him in, and he finished the song playing with the heel of his hand. At the end of the song it was shredded, too. We wrapped his hand in a paper towel and played back the track. When the song was over, he turned to me and said, “That should’ve been on my album!” I said, “Who cares whose album it’s on? It’s you and it’s on tape.”
Then it was Alex’s turn. I had the notion that he should jingle and thump — that pow-wow sound. I had some native ankle bells — big harness bells on leather straps. We tied them on him. We placed a baffle on the floor. It was slightly curved. Henry put a mike under it and one beside it and Alex danced a Peruvian salsa to the track. I loved it — jingle and thump. It blended into the guitars in an unusual way. It was a bent-knee dance and when the song was over, he limped off the baffle. He couldn’t straighten up for an hour, but he agreed it sounded great.
There was one more casualty on this record date — “the split-tongued spirit.” Boyd Elder, a painter from Texas possessing Cherokee blood and a native sounding voice, was to double my voice with spoken word. He stepped up to the mike and froze. We sent out for a bottle of tequila to loosen him up. Next thing I knew, he was lying on the floor by the mike — the bottle nearly drained and he was saying, “I can’t do it Joan.” His wife and I and his two daughters kneeled beside saying, “Yes you can. Yes you can.” After much coaxing, he was on his feet and the lines were on the song — shadowing the sung words! What a night.
If you hire the right people and they like the music, you don’t have to be controlling. They listen to what is already on the track and they make their contributions — that’s all — they just play. Greg Leisz is like that. He always plays great. He lowers his head and plays with such reverence. Pedal steel is a great color for my music. It seems to fit so well with slack key. There’s a peace and a joy to it — a sensuality that I love about Hawaiian music which used to be pedal steel and slack key.
Some men are just uncontrollable — like Rod Steiger who plays Jimmy Swaggart on TAX FREE. Steiger could do a generic southern accent but I really wanted a mimic — someone who could do Jimmy Swaggart, whose sermon we were reenacting. My first choice was Robert Duvall but he was busy on an evangelical movie of his own.
Steiger was in the studio and blew a line. It was supposed to be, “Our nation has lost its guts. Our nation has lost its strength and whimpered and cried and pandered to the Khomeinis and Gaddafis for so long.” Instead of pandered, Steiger says what sounds like “petted the Khomeinis”. I went into the room to feed him the right words. He screamed at the control booth, “Get this women out of here!” So, it’s wrong on the record. He had requested, for payment, a case of very rare and expensive red wine. We had a hell of a time putting it together but we did it. He was at the playback party and got to hear his scene in context. When the album had played down, I approached him to inform him that his case of wine was collected and he could take it home with him. He must have respected the album because suddenly, he was very humble — hang dog even. He hung his head and muttered something to the effect that he didn’t need it. I said, “No, you earned it. Take it home with you.”
Some of my songs just bug people. They hate them, even. MOON AT THE WINDOW was one. Sarah Vaughan said, “That’s a strange form.” I said, “Well, it’s got an intro — like some old standards, that sets it up and never comes back, but then its just verse, verse, bridge, verse — A B B C B — pretty simple.” She was not convinced.
I hired a vibes player to play on it. During his performance, I noticed a tightness in his face — a discomfort. He was a family man — happily married, I believe. At the end of the take, I went into the studio to find out what was bugging him — the headphones? The Words? “I hate the music,” he said. “You hate it? Why?” “It’s just wrong”, he said emphatically, and he left. Later I found out that he had written a book defining jazz harmony and my harmony must have been too far outside this box of his making for his comfort. I guess it is a rogue composition — a musical outlaw.
Wayne Shorter found the harmony on one of my songs strange, too. I played him the track and he said, “Well, what are these chords? These are not guitar chords — these are not piano chords. What are these chords?” Here we go again — Joni’s weird chords. But he didn’t get uptight. He went out and played like a champ. When he came back into the control booth, he said to me, “Well, well, they taught us at Berkeley School of Music not to stay on a sus chord too long and never to go from a sus chord to a sus chord.” Wayne was so free on his horn — I never thought of him adhering to a musical legal system. His definition of jazz was freedom.
Being a self-taught musician, I called sus chords, chords of inquiry. They depicted complex emotions. They had questions in them. My whole life was full of questions. Will I survive this disease? Will I ever walk again? Where is my daughter? Is she alright? Will we nuke them? Will they nuke us? Is there a mate for me?
I used a lot of sus chords in the MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES — where women were unjustly incarcerated and couldn’t get out. I used them in ETHIOPIA (and dissonant seconds, too) where women were trapped in famine and surrounded by slavers and killers. I use them theatrically to depict unresolved situations. Apparently this was never done before in music — a man’s game. Men need resolution. Maybe only a woman could break that long standing rule. Tom Scott noticed the sus chords — back at COURT AND SPARK. He said, “It’s fascinating to play her songs because you get involved in that suspension that you’ve heard and now we’re beginning to find out what makes up that suspension.”
Occasionally, I hear an illustrative opportunity in a piece, and I ask for it. On BE COOL, I told Herbie Hancock “O.K. Herbie — you’re the ice cubes rattling in a glass.” Listen to what he played — high, glassy notes — clinking. Perfect! Another time, Joe Sample was the piano player and I heard a spot for illustration on TROUBLE CHILD — after the repeating phrase, “breaking like the waves at Malibu.” I asked Joe to play me a Japanese wave there. “A Japanese wave?” he balked. “Yeah,” I said, “like” (and I sang it) — “Doodle oodle loo — breeow,” and I made an ascending arc with my hand that curled and sucked in on itself on the “breeow.” He smiled and listened to how he played it — better than just abstract notes.
Wayne Shorter is the most visual of all the musicians I have worked with and the most profuse with ideas. I give him all the tracks I have for the joy of listening to him explore. I always put him on last so everything is there for him to relate to. Then I take my favorite bits from eight or ten performances and edit them together. It’s like working with Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson when they improvise — every take is different. They play with their environment — aware of and responding to the details in it. They give great choices. When Wayne plays an illustration, though, I always take it. Listen to him playing “high heels clicking” on YVETTE IN ENGLISH. Listen to him play childlike — then darker — more ominous — on LOVE in the verse, “As a child I spoke like a child . . . .”
For years I wondered if he liked what I did with what he gave me. One night, at the end of our session, as he was heading for the door, he stopped and turned to me and said, “O.K. Sculpt.” I had my answer.
In the process of selecting this music — reacquainting myself with it — I was struck, sometimes, by the loveliness of it — the love in it. Not smitten “pheromones in the receptors” kind of love but love like listening to one another and responding to one another attentively. Listening to all the genuine care on these tracks made me happy.
Jeremy Lublock heard a jam we did — Klein and Vinnie and Landau and me. It was unfinished. I had thrown on a scratch, scat vocal. Henry played it for him. He loved it. He said to Henry, “Let me put some strings on it — I have to put strings on it! She can take them off if she doesn’t like them but I hear them — I have to do it.” So, the beautiful string arrangement on TWO GREY ROOMS went on. That track remained unfinished — sitting on a shelf — waiting for the words. It took me years to find the right story. When I did, I edited the strings ever so slightly. The story I found was strange but true. A German aristocrat — a gay man — had a lover in his youth who he never got over. He lost contact with him for many years. Then, somehow, he rediscovered him. He was a dock worker — hard hat — lunch pail. The aristocrat left his fancy digs and rented two grey rooms above street level. From this shabby perch, he was able to watch the object of his obsession going to and coming back from work. He never tried to make contact as far as I know. Unrequited love.
John Guerin and I were in love when we recorded HARRY’S HOUSE. Listening to it after so many years have passed, our chemistry is palpable. No other drummer could have played that piece. Not like that. This is the song he spoke of earlier — full of odd time changes and subtle dynamics.
Klein’s bass on CHINESE CAFE could not be better — suspenseful — symphonic — gorgeous.
Don Alias, playing the congas on THE WOLF THAT LIVES IN LINDSEY, is zeroed in. “Out touch is totally tandem.”
Greg Leisz plays with such tenderness. There is a spiritual power to what he plays — always.
I love trumpets — especially muted trumpets. I even love synth muted trumpets. I have used them on HANNA, and RAY’S DAD’S CADILLAC — along with the real trumpets that make the sound of a plane landing.
I first made and used this sound for the intro to HARRY’S HOUSE. I had chuck Findley hold a note I gave him as long as he could. Then I gave him another track and another note and he held that one. I gave him a third note to hold. When that was recorded, I blended the three notes together and bounced them down to one track. When we mixed, Henry and a pair of hands conscripted from the studio halls, bent the note with an oscillator while I faded it up — bringing it closer and closer. Sounds like a plane landing to me. I sampled it and used it again for the plane landing in RAY’S DAD’S CADILLAC.
I love the way James Taylor’s guitar locks up my dulcimer on CAREY. I love Brian Blade — another drummer who listens to the words. He dots my “I’s” and crosses my “T’s”. I love Joe Sample’s piano on HARRY’S HOUSE and on TROUBLE CHILD — two different styles — both stellar! I love the sound of my friends, Charles Valentino and Chris Kello, on YVETTE — those airy vocals.
Listen to the London Philharmonic — playing their hearts out on all these recordings. The New York Times critic trashed this music. No love in him. Listen to and feel the emotion in BOTH SIDES NOW. At the end of that performance, many members of the Orchestra had their hankies out. That take was like surfing the big one. What a thrill for all of us.
I ran into Robbie Robertson recently and I told him how much I enjoyed what he played on RAISED ON ROBBERY. He said, “But I only got one take,” as if he needed another one. I said, “Well, you nailed it. If it works — don’t fix it. Great rock ‘n’ roll composition!”
There were, of course, over the years, many sessions where things I tried did not come off — where they played the wrong thing or I said the wrong thing. Music like love has its ups and downs. On COURT AND SPARK, I wanted Larry Carlton, who was playing acoustic guitar, to bite a note — to attack it. He wouldn’t or couldn’t. I said, “You know — like Jose Feliciano.” He snapped “If you want Jose Feliciano — you get Jose Feliciano!” I had some smoothing to do. I asked him if he would, please, slide into the note — start it a bit early. He did. After he left I said to Henry, “I want to erase the first part of that note.” Henry looked doubtful. I told him “Put that track into record but first show me the button to stop recording.” He did, and we began to erase Larry’s note. I stopped the erasing where I really wanted the note to come in. I blunt-cut it. There it was. The note was yanked. I had my “bite.”
You can’t play music well if you don’t love it or understand it — like Victor Feldman — trying to play on MOON AT THE WINDOW and hating it. You have to be emotionally engaged — passionate even — like love. If you hate it, do what Victor did — leave.
LOVE HAS MANY FACES was first conceived as a ballet. It was to be danced in the winter of 2014 by the Alberta Ballet — choreographed by my dear friend Jean Grande-Maître. We had done a ballet together in 2007. Our working relationship was delightful. We had no money for costumes or set design. I did the set design — very simple but effective — and I told Jean to paint the kids green. It was a “war” ballet called the FIDDLE AND THE DRUM. Simultaneously, I had an art show travelling around (L.A., New York, Toronto, Dublin). It was called GREEN FLAG SONG and was comprised of 64 large triptychs depicting centuries of war, revolution, and tyranny. Excerpts from these large, complex images were projected over the dancer’s heads in a 20-ft circle. All the bad boys were there — Hitler, Stalin, Bush, etc. — but abstracted in greens and grey-pinks. The circle above and the dancers below was very striking.
The ballet travelled a bit. It was deemed a “block buster” by the Toronto Ballet critic and it received 12 standing ovations one night at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. I made a film of it, working in a “pay to play” position due to bad management. So, it was a labor of love. The film was shown (14? 18 times?) on Canadian Bravo. P.B.S refused it because it contained the “F” word. America! It was shown in a theatre in Czechoslovakia and on an Arab television station, which really surprised me. It has gained a kind of “cult” status and is currently showing in a gallery in Athens, Greece along with several other anti-war films — including an early film of Roman Polanski’s.
Now we were doing another one — this time it was a “love” ballet. I spent a year and a half trying to distill everything I have written about love and the lack of it down to 75 minutes — one disc.
I sequenced and sequenced. I wanted the music to lead and feel like a total work — a new work. No matter what I did, though, at that length, it remained merely a collection of songs. The ballet had been named and advertised. Tickets had been sold. With a sadness and a flattening sense of failure, I bowed out. Tickets had to be refunded. Jean apologized to the press on my behalf. He showed me great understanding but he was now in trouble with his “money people.”
I continued to sequence. I needed to prove to myself that what I was after was possible. First I took the girdle off — the time constraint. Mountains of discs pilled up — mountains of trial and error. The process was like documentary filmmaking. I had forty years of footage to review. Then, suddenly, scenes began to hook up. Then series began to form. Instead of it being an emotional roller coaster ride as it was before —crammed into one disc — themes began to develop. Moods sustained. I was getting there.
I began to see characters from one song appear in others. HANNA, for instance, she’s a housekeeper. She wears an apron. She’s salt of the earth — no nonsense — wise. She has a sense of humor. She could dance COMES LOVE and BE COOL and take part in GOD MUST BE A BOOGIE MAN.
When this long editorial process (2 years) finally came to rest, I had 4 ballets or a four-act ballet — a quartet. I also had a box set. Now, if only one act was danced, at least it was part of a more satisfying whole. Love is a big issue. I could get 12 discs out of what I’ve written but these four say enough.
Act One begins in the fifties. Two 15-year-old girls are standing front of a black burlesque show at the end of a mile-long midway. The music is seductive — jazzy — stripper music. They had been forbidden to stop there. “Don’t even look! Pass right on by!” In the background you hear the barker — “Step right up folks! The show is about to begin!” Rock ‘n’ roll is new and cars have given teenagers an unprecedented liberty. It continues into our materialistic and litigious times. Act Two is dark. It leads us into the perversion and corruption of these times until the wise little housekeeper, Hanna, lights the lamp. A healing begins. Humanity returns. The heart opens. The ability to love becomes a possibility. This act closes with an enchanted NIGHT RIDE HOME. Act Three is the smitten act — the “in love” act until the imperfections corrode the harmony. This act defines what love is — ideally. Act Four is called IF YOU WANT ME I’LL BE IN THE BAR. If danced, much of it would be a barroom setting — characters coming and going. Here, love of land, love of water, wanderlust, obsession, frustration — many “faces of love” appear and disappear. This act, the final act, has a warm and friendly ending — the dancers link arms and wish us all a lot of luck.
I heard a man speaking on the radio — on behalf of many of the record companies. He said, “We are no longer looking for talent! We’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate.” Well, I’m totally out of sync with these tragic times. This package is oozing with talent. Some of the greatest musicians in the world are gathered here. And this “look” they want — well, the Grammies look like a porno convention! Is that the look? I’m 70 years old. It’s been 30 years since I was cougar. Now there’s a look! What about the songs of a sabre tooth tiger? (Or am I a unicorn?) As for “willingness to cooperate,” I’m willing! As long as we are pulling together towards excellence, I’ll cooperate! But push me towards mediocrity — which sells very well — and I’ll fight you like Bette Davis. She said, “Anyone who stands between me and my art is my enemy!”
This box set is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of two dead projects — a ballet and a horrendously ill-conceived box set. They started it without me. They hired two incompetents to “do” me. It was to be a 2-disc set — peppered with discarded and damaged work — for the sake of something “new.” They hired a burglar to enter my storage space (ironically called “A Safe Place”). He rummaged around and came back with the dregs. “Why are you doing this?” I asked the bosses. “That’s the way it’s done,” was the reply. “Not to me,” I said and I squelched it. A little while later, the bosses were fired, and just before the company went belly up, I got the bills — for their mistake.
The ballet is a dream I hope somehow to resurrect. We’ll see. Meanwhile, with these notes coming to an end, my work is done. I’m celebrating. I’m pouring myself a glass of wine. I’d like to drink a toast. If God is dead and love is dead, is talent the next fatality? Let’s all drink a toast to talent. Here’s to you, talent — may you be resurrected, too.
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ken53 on :
Tragic that we will never again fall under the melodic incantations of this bedeviled enchantress in live performance. Rising up from the ashes of polio, this waif of the Saskatchewan plains, learned to transmute her demons whispers into a Siren's voice for every mind and soul. Until now and forever, with only a strum from her twisted tunings and sweet rebelliousness, she draws me, helpless and eager, to revisit her ramshackle entourage of wondrous and tragic timeless characters moving round and round in this circle game only Joni could guide one through. A voice more compelling than the winds or crashing waves....a vision more insistent as life itself...a painter of words... a lyricist of light.
wumple on :
I too "am absorbed and am grateful for every word" of hers... I don't have enough words or ways of putting them together to do justice to the wonder hers always evoke in me... A spell I shall never be out from under nor do I wish to be...
Nigel1234! on :
Joni you have been the soundtrack to my life for forty years, not obsessively but incidentally, the best way. There when inspiration or emotion required, sometimes with tears, others with just a surge of gratitude, genuinely I don't know how you do that but reading these notes I am just beginning to understand. There's a simple truth, that passion and love of your art has always come first and it shines through. Thank you
bob1bob on :
I have loved and been helped by every apect of Joni as a communicator: words, music, songs, performances, interviews -tv, print. These notes are another form equally appreciated--consice, direct, intstructive, guiding, warm, humorous etc. Deep in them there are two computer problems that did not catch 'listed' for "listened" just my way of showing how much I absorbed and am grateful for every word.
TheChatterbox on :
It was a pleasure to read Joni's take on Joni - not one mention of her birth year or where she was born - she was born the day she understood suspended chords - sound - the interplay for her between sound and visuals - you get a small glimpse of how they interact within her both visual, both sound -
it is amusing to hear musicians talking about "the root of the chord" for the root was, is, and always will be creative - the idea that something as fluid as music could be restrained to one highway is impossible to comprehend as coming from the mind of a true musician!
There are a lot of spaces here, suspended chords aside, one can hope she is at last working on the autobiorgraphy for it will be one of the more incrediby interesting reads of any generation!