Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast

Eighty miles of bad road for two teaspoons of paint and other adventures in the sensitive lane

Joni Mitchell performs live at at The Bread and Roses Festival at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California on October 4th, 1980. Credit: Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty

Joni Mitchell had had enough. One more record, she thought, and that'd be it. Goodbye, rock & roll. So long, jazz. Hello, brushes and paints and canvases and a life of art.

Then she remembered that she'd been making similar threats for 10 years, and she had to laugh. Joni Mitchell has been fighting an uneasy battle with fame for a decade and a half now, and when her latest bout of retirement fever eased, she went out and signed a brand-new five-year contract. So much for retirement.

But Joni Mitchell turns 40 next year, and that gives her latest threats new resonance. We're dealing with a charter member of– – hell, a spokeswoman for– – the Woodstock generation, the kids who venerated youth with a vengeance. Pop music at 40? It's a question mark.

Sitting in a hard-backed wooden chair in her manager's office, Mitchell hardly looks like a woman who's 39. Long, straight hair, just like the old days. Khaki sweatshirt and slacks. "I really did want to change careers," she says. "The idea of making pop music when I was 45 seemed odd to me. I guess that was a minor reason for my attraction to jazz; it's an idiom where you can continue into middle age. And in painting, you know your best work is ahead of you as long as your eyes hold out and you don't get the tremors. But pop music..." She trails off. "It remains to be seen if it's possible."

So what changed her mind?

"I don't know. See, when we started in this business, we were the ones who said you can't trust people over 30. It was inevitable that we would eat a lot of what we said, because you have to turn 30 unless you wanna James Dean out. Now I'm finally hearing some good things about middle age. We need that. If all the war babies turn 40 and get depressed at the same time, the world will not be pleasant."

A pause and a shrug. Besides, she says, her age is not so bad: "My boyfriend likes me."

So she's back in the harness. Five more years. That'll make 19, total. "I don't like to think about that," she says uneasily. "It's a very fickle industry. You wake up and think, am I a has-been yet? Oh, I'm not? Okay, let's keep going."

Looking back, growing up, coming to terms with age, and accepting love –– the themes of Joni Mitchell's new album, Wild Things Run Fast, are the concerns of a woman who has finally decided that it's possible to be both 40 years old and a pop artist. A departure from her past few jazz-oriented albums, the record contains the most commercial music she's made since 1974's Court and Spark, and in many ways, it's the most well-rounded and telling as well. "You don't have to go to art school to listen to it," she says.

And you didn't need art school to understand Roberta Joan Anderson when she moved to New York in the mid-Sixties, on the heels of a short-lived marriage to folk musician Chuck Mitchell. After a few of her songs were covered by the likes of Judy Collins and Tom Rush, introspective listeners began to buzz about the rare talent they had found in this sensitive, lovelorn songwriter.

On her first records, Mitchell herself seemed as fragile as her quavery, unpredictable voice –– "most suited to damsel-in-distress songs," she says, and abetted by a childhood diet of Child Ballads ("the guy rides off and leaves her, and she throws herself into the lake").

"She was real frail and wispy looking," longtime friend Neil Young has said. "I remember thinking, if you blew hard enough, you could probably knock her over." Driven by a compulsion to be truthful with her audience, she wrote about herself, about a woman uneasily navigating the newfound sexual freedom of the times. The songs, she said later, were about "what women think in the confines of their rooms late at night."

Some of the early sing-along-style tunes reeked of an overly precious college-girl mentality, but they were also charged with an unflinching honesty. And she matured with startling quickness. Her tunes became richer and more elusive, her lyrics more intense. "We went into the studio, locked all the doors and didn't let anybody in," says her engineer of many years, Henry Lewy, of her breakthrough fourth album, Blue. "When that album came out, we knew we had something."

The vulnerable romantic struggled to grow up in public, and in doing so, she sealed her bond with an audience that had come to hang on her every word. For many members of a generation recoiling from a disorienting string of social changes and retreating into uneasy introspection and doubt, turning to an articulate, probing, admittedly confused ex-flowerchild was a natural. Joni– – her music demanded that she be put on a first-name basis –– was the ideal combination of role model and confidant. Her audience soon included a staggering list of fellow musicians, from James Taylor ("I've never seen anyone create the way that she does") to Jimmy Page ("She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It's bloody eerie") to Bernie Taupin ("On her level, there is nobody who can touch her").

As the attention grew, so did Joni's uneasiness. "I was not comfortable with the warmth and adulation I got," she says now. "My music was a sedative, made to cool me out, and when people screamed, it seemed left over from someone else's act." She canceled more shows than she performed; one photographer remembers spotting her huddled on the bottom step inside the door of L.A.'s On the Rox private nightclub, waiting for the crowd outside to disperse so she could make her getaway unseen.

Mitchell says that with all the social turmoil of the period and the rapidly changing sexual roles of women, she just "didn't have a foothold. I went through a maladjusted period, which everyone has. I just had mine while I was a public figure." And in public, her other side got lost: the fanatic dancer who got into music as "mindless physical activity," who was renowned among her friends for her beer-chugging ability, who apparently could stuff an entire fist down her throat. She came out looking even more fragile, and more than a little flaky, and people followed the most publicized love life in rock & roll.

Joni even seemed to provide the road maps. There's a song for Graham Nash: "Willy." There's one for disc jockey B. Mitchell Reed: "Rainy Night House." And lots of others, for such friends as James Taylor, David Geffen and Leonard Cohen. It was a game of count the loves: "There's a jouster and a jester and a man who owns a store/There's a drummer and a dreamer and you know there may be more," sang the queen of Laurel Canyon, L.A.'s insular community for soul-bred rockers. In the early Seventies, Rolling Stone voted her "Old Lady of the Year," to her dismay; Flo and Eddie sang, "I'm Joni Mitchell, and I've had Stephen and Graham and Neil and Jackson and the Eagles too/How about you?"

But the frail songstress was not so devastated by lost love that she couldn't skewer many of the men in her songs with damning details, or frequently assert her own independence. "They will lose her if they follow..." she sang. "She's so busy being free." To some, it sounded like arrogance; others never got beyond the voice that sounded to them like nails on a blackboard. To many, though, she cemented her reputation as the time's most incisive songwriter with three increasingly ambitious and probing records released from 1971 to 1974: Blue, For the Roses and Court and Spark.

The obsession with her psyche continued. "She went through some rough times before she became secure and self-sufficient," agrees Henry Lewy. But, he adds, "She never lost her sense of humor. The problem was she'd write a song that she thought was funny and people would misinterpret it as tragic and sad." Joni agrees: "It got to the point where everything was going well in my life, and a reviewer would say, 'Unlike when she wrote such-and-such, when she was happy, she is now miserable.' And I'd be saying, 'You've got it completely backward. I was miserable then, I'm happy now.'" She looks genuinely bewildered. "A funny job, it was. But somebody had to do it."

In the mid-Seventies, Mitchell found an unintentional reprieve from the adulation that made her uncomfortable: She became less popular. Drummer Russ Kunkel had suggested that her music would be better served by jazz musicians, so she hooked up with Tom Scott's L.A. Express (and, after-hours, with its drummer, John Guerin) for Court and Spark and a live album.

But then came the experiments –– and the backlash. A critics' darling after Court and Spark, Joni watched the press bitterly attack her next studio album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It was experimental –– African drums, lots of synthesizers, deadpan third person portraits rather than confessional narratives –– but she figured it was a logical step. She was stunned by the criticism. Hissing, she admits, is to this day a thorn in her side.

From that point on, she had trouble shaking the image of Joni Mitchell as a beret-clad, jet-setting dillettante amusing herself by hanging out with jazz musicians like Jaco Pastorious and Wayne Shorter. She was open about her ambitions and her confidence in her own talents; she wasn't afraid to call what she did art. And as she grew richer, she began to write less about her love life and more about upper-crust rituals. She flitted from coast to coast, bought "completely elegant" furnishings and wrote tunes like "The Boho Dance," inspired by a Tom Wolfe attack on the modern-art community. Her audience, accustomed to watching Joni grow up, was confused.

"The thing that made my early work easy for people is that they could see themselves in the songs," she says. "If they didn't like what they saw, they could throw it back on me and say, 'That's her problem.' But people were getting obsessed with the state of my psychology, so I thought if I removed the I, it'd make my poetry more accessible. It had the opposite effect," she says ruefully. "They needed me to be their safety valve, and when I took the I out, they thought I was getting haughty." She was well aware of the criticism; in her video Shadows and Light, she adds the words 'great big' to a line from "Coyote" –– "I had to run away.. and wrestle with my great big ego" –– and then breaks into a broad, mocking grin.

The experiments continued: Hejira (1976), an evocative, guitar-based set of reveries on flight and escape, and a critical success; Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1978), four widely dismissed sides of sometimes forbidding jazz. She may have become a jazz dillettante, but she found an admirer in the ranks; the late Charles Mingus asked her to write lyrics to the last set of melodies he would ever write. "I'd come snooping into this new idiom, going in blindly, when suddenly there was somebody beckoning me, saying, 'Come here,' y' know? It paid off that cycle."

Mingus, however, didn't sell well. The one radio station that played the album went country soon after it added the record to its playlist. But it got Mitchell where she wanted to be: away from the backbeat. "I wanted to see how far I could go with the rhythm section leaving its usual place, floating around up in the air and being colorists rather than anchors," she says. "It was a good idea at the time, but when I listen to it now, it's difficult to get into." She laughs. "I just kind of went through a Jackson Pollock period."

The art metaphor is appropriate, because it was during this time that Mitchell's passion for painting began to dominate her spare time. Always an artist of sorts –– her first album cover was an amateurish yet endearing neo-psychedelic line drawing– – she found that her compulsion to paint and draw became stronger than the compulsion to write poetry and music.

For Mitchell, these compulsions are serious. "She has more of a need to relieve herself, to satisfy herself, than almost anyone else I've ever met," James Taylor has said of her artistic drives. And according to Henry Lewy, "Those two drives– – to make music and to paint –– are the interests in her life." But what she's doing at any given moment, more often than not, depends on which drive is currently strongest.

These days, she has three homes: a new beachfront house in Malibu, a loft in New York and a "real house" in her homeland, Vancouver, British Columbia. Ask her how she divides her time among the three and she'll quickly tell you there's "no pattern." She goes with the mystic, she says.

But California is her true home base. Her house in Malibu is so new that the plumbing leaks and the smoke alarm sounds in the middle of the night. New York bothers her boyfriend, but she finds it attractive: "They have lots of talkers and listeners. People who can comprehend paragraphs. In L.A. I really don't have a place I can go for anonymous encounters to get into a good conversation or even a heated debate."

The home in Canada calls her, too. During the making of the last album, she made several pilgrimages back there. "She's on the move a lot," says Lewy. "She has her circle of friends in L.A. and her circle in New York, and she moves in and out of them a lot. But she also has a good ability to retain friendships. She still has a lot of friends from long ago, and in general, she just loves people."

So she flits from city to city and from painting to music to poetry (the latter has gotten the short shrift recently, though she says she's thinking a lot about writing some short stories and long blank verse). Lately, she's been spending most of her free time painting. That drive, she says, has never been as strong as it is now; the canvases are beginning to claim all of her available storage space.

She's not planning to sell them. She prints up small private editions to give to friends each Christmas, but shies away from one-man shows or public sales. It's the dilettante image, she admits. "You get treated that way when you're cross-fielding. To be a woman in the field, you have to be twice as good, and to be a woman who has proven herself in another field, you have to be twice as twice as good." She chuckles. "And I'm not that good yet."

But she pursues her painting zealously, she says, and tells a story of when she recently visited director Perry Henzell (The Harder They Come) in Jamaica. She took a guitar, a camera and her brushes, only to find that she could neither sing nor use the camera. But she did have an overwhelming desire to paint – specifically, to paint one wall of a room Henzell was planning to repaint anyway.

"They found me a bit of white paint, some black, some blue and red and apple green, but no yellow," she says. "I started working on the wall, which I envisioned full of Mardi Gras parades and donkeys and all sorts of things. But I needed yellow.

"Forty miles away was a small shopping town, so I went there on this bumpy road only to find that it was a banker's holiday. All of a sudden, I saw this old guy painting curbs yellow. He said I could have some paint, but all I had to put it in was a carved half-coconut and a cardboard bucket left over from when we'd taken champagne on a river raft – –gone completely Babylon, y'know? I filled the coconut with paint, put it in the bucket and bounced home.

"I got home, and the paint had bounced out of the coconut and into the bucket, which didn't hold, so I had paint all over the back seat and about two teaspoonfuls left. That paint was like gold. But I finished the mural. It was that intense, and that magical."

Mitchell smiles as she recalls those 80 miles of bad road for two teaspoons of paint. "I'm a bit mystical about these things," she says.

About 16 years ago, Neil Young wrote a song mourning the fact that at age 20 he was no longer allowed inside a Canadian club called Sugar Mountain. Joni Mitchell wrote an answer song, "The Circle Game": "We can't return, we can only look behind/From where we came."

If Mitchell didn't quite look behind as she recorded Wild Things Run Fast, the album does reverberate with references to places from where she came. After Mingus, she felt that she'd gone far enough into jazz, and since she intended the next record to be a last hurrah, it wouldn't do to make it inaccessible. Besides, she finally began hearing some mainstream music she liked, namely Steely Dan's Gaucho and the Police's rhythm section.

But it took an unusually painstaking year and a half to make her record accessible. She likes to compare her work to film editing; she gets the raw material, and then "I snip and buff and move things around." She recorded several of the songs four times with as a many different bands, looking for the right balance. "She is a perfectionist," says bassist Larry Klein, who played on the album and is scheduled to accompany Mitchell on a 1983 tour. "But she has amazing instincts about what can be improved. She can't always articulate what she wants changed, but it always ends up better."

Midway into the recording, Mitchell decided her album needed "uptempo songs to keep people from thinking that I'm permanently morose. The album was starting to sound like, y'know, a kind of progressive Johnny Mathis.

"But my music is born late at night in solitude, and when I pick up a guitar, I don't usually feel like rocking out. I went to New York to change my scenery, and I had to discipline myself. I couldn't even sit to play the music; I had to strap on the axe, dance around the room and get into this goof."

The lyrics came later. "I would be sitting there in my room with nothing but nonsense in my head for lyrics, staring at a canvas across the room that'd be crying, "I want blue in the right-hand corner.'" She laughs. "I finally just surrendered to it and painted like a maniac, until one day I woke up and could not pick up a brush. All the lyrics came that day."

As the album was being wrapped up, in stepped David Geffen. With Elliot Roberts, Geffen had managed Mitchell in the early days of her career; in 1971 he founded Asylum Records and lured her away from Warner Bros. Eventually, Mitchell decided that Asylum "didn't feel creative." It'd had a string of her most daunting projects to sell, and she wasn't happy with the results. "I can't really blame them, though," she admits, "because for several years I hadn't really given them anything they could run with."

Geffen had an enviable reputation for selling records and was, she felt, a friend she could trust. Asylum, however, publicly suggested it had the record until the last minute. "They had a bit of a tug of war over the record," Mitchell says, smiling. "They worked something out." Geffen got it.

What he got is a confessional record, the kind of record that just might get the parlor game going once again. You know: "Who is she talking about when she says, 'Couldn't you just love me/Like you love cocaine.'"

But what's she's confessing? "Yes, I do– – I love you"? "Hot dog, darlin'"? These are happy songs.

"It made me nervous as a cat to write like that. Because, y' know, I've always had a hard time tapping into my joy. It was always, 'This is nice now, but...' Always a but. Now I sing, 'Yes I do. I love you.'" She breaks up laughing. "You never heard a comment like that out of me before. But I had the uptempo music, the feelings were genuine, I was in New York having a good time and I missed my boyfriend, so I just screamed it out to the skyscrapers. Why not, y'know?"

"She was very happy while she was making this album," agrees Lewy. "The records are always reflections of her mental attitude, and she really found the groove for this record about halfway through, when she got a new boyfriend and everything in her life solidified."

One of the album's most positive songs, "Love," was penned largely by St. Paul about 2,000 years ago, when he wrote, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things... And now abideth Faith, Hope, Love, these three: But the greatest of these is Love..."

"Love," she explains, came out of the time she worked on a soon-to-be-released film project with five other prominent female writers; the idea was to link six short films together in an anthology called Love. According to Mitchell, it didn't work: "There was a film about adultery, one about jacking off. Nobody got to the heart of love except one." That was Liv Ullmann's film, a mostly silent vignette about an elderly man tending to his bedridden wife. At the end of the piece, he reads St. Paul to her, and when Mitchell congratulated the leading man at the wrap party, he suggested she turn that passage into a song.

"It had to be moved around and restructured a bit," she says, "but I only added one word, 'fractions,' for 'fractions in me of hope and faith and love.' It summarized everything: how you have faith and hope and love as a child and lose them very early. You spend your whole life with just fragments of them left. That's what my writing has always been about. That song is a perfect synopsis of every love song I've ever written."

If Joni Mitchell has, in a way, returned to the pop mainstream – –a perception she'll admit to, though grudgingly– – will people listen with the intensity they once showed her? Even Mitchell is worried about her reception. She wonders if her last few projects were enough to bar her from pop radio. If programmers remember "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" rather than "You Turn Me on, I'm a Radio," she may be in trouble.

But she's hopeful. Back in her manager's office for another interview after a day of running around town, she polished off a Welsh rarebit with bacon and shakes a head that's topped by a gray wool cap. "Inside me," she admits, "there's a little voice crying, 'Please play my album on the radio.'"

If she does get played, she has the potential to find a whole new audience with, say, the new-wave-style stridency of the title track. More likely, though, the record will win back the fans who lost interest when she detoured into jazz, or it will intensify her hold on the ones who've stuck with her. After all, if they've followed her since the beginning, many of them are probably going through some aging crises of their own.

"It's a real tightrope," she says of her return to this kind of music, to confession. "The only thing you have for a balancing pole is the empathy with the listener, and if you lose that, you go over the edge. If people don't see themselves in the song, you look ridiculous. You just have to hope." She yells to an imaginary crowd. "Come on, man, you're in this, too!"

The early returns, she says, look promising. "'Man to Man' is a personal song, but it's also the song for all the women of my generation. Unlike generations before us, we have been with several men– – or in some cases, many men. It raises the question, 'Why?'" She breaks into an infectious giggle.

"I remember thinking. 'Oh my God, maybe this is too much,' when I wrote one line. It says, 'I don't like to lie/But I sure can be phony when I get scared/I stick my nose up in the air/Stoney, stoney when I get scared.' I didn't know if I wanted to confess to that. I know it's universal, but I'm the one who has to sing it, and I'm liable to have it thrown back at me.

"Anyway, I sang it for the first show at the Bread and Roses Festival in Berkeley– – a full audience – –and I was creeping on that line, wondering if I wanted to deliver it. So I spit it out." The storyteller pauses for a second and smiles again. Self-satisfied, self-confident.

"When the line came out, there was a little moan. I could hear people sucking in their breath. I thought, 'Hot dog,' y'know?"