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Joni Mitchell Defends Herself

The legendary singer/songwriter talks Charles Mingus, her love of dancing, and singing about relationships

July 26, 1979
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Norman Seeff

Several days before beginning these interviews, I overheard two teenagers looking for a good party album in a record store. "How about this," said one, holding up Joni Mitchell's 'Miles of Aisles.' "Naaaaaah," said the other. "It's got good songs on it, but it's kind of like jazz." They bought a Cheap Trick album.

When I told this story to Joni Mitchell later, I could see the disappointment flicker across her face for an instant. Then she laughed and took a long drag from her cigarette. "Here's the thing," she said forcefully. "You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They're going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they're going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options," she concluded cheerfully, "I'd rather be crucified for changing."

Joni Mitchell Honored in Toronto

Joni Mitchell, 36, has been living in exile from a mainstream audience for the last three years. Her last resoundingly successful album of new material was 'Court and Spark,' a landmark in poetic songwriting, performing and in the growth of an artist we had all watched mature. From folk ballads, through Woodstock-era anthems to jazz-inflected experimentation, Joni Mitchell had influenced a generation of musicians.

Then, in 1975, she released 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns,' her ambitious followup to 'Court and Spark.' She introduced jazz overtones, veered away from confessional songwriting and received a nearly unanimous critical drubbing. Mitchell reacted to the criticism by keeping an even lower personal profile. She spent most of her time traveling (the road album, 'Hejira,' was released in 1976), associating with progressive jazz artists and asking questions. With 'Don Juan's Reckless Daughter,' a double album released in the winter of 1977, she and pop music had nearly parted ways. In a time when the record-buying public was rewarding craftsmen, Mitchell seemed to be steadfastly carrying the torch for art. Her sales suffered, but this direction was leading to a historic juncture in her career.

Word first reached her in early 1978 that Charles Mingus was trying to get in touch with her. The legendary bassist-bandleader had been battling Lou Gehrig's disease out of the public eye. She contacted him and they began a longdistance friendship. Mingus had noticed her ambitions and wondered if she would assist him by condensing T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets,' recite it and play guitar behind it for a composition he had been working on. She read the book and called him back. "I'd rather condense the Bible," she told him, and Mingus said he could dig it. They didn't speak for a time. Then, another phone call.

Mingus had written what would later become his last six melodies ("Joni I – VI," he called them), and he wanted Mitchell to write and sing the lyrics for them. She spent the last year and a half working on the project, her first collaboration, working mostly in her apartment in New York's Regency Hotel.

When Mingus died on January 5th this year, Mitchell continued writing and recording and finally finished in late spring. Including tape recordings of Mingus' voice as segues between tracks, she eventually chose to simply title the album 'Mingus.'

About marketing an all-jazz Joni Mitchell album, Elektra/Asylum Chairman of the Board Joe Smith says this: "She has taken a chunk out of her career and accomplished something truly monumental. When we received this album, I got on a conference call and talked with all our promotion men. If any radio station calls itself a trend setter, it must recognize this album and Charles Mingus. I'm also having a contest for my promotion men," he laughed, "first prize is they get to keep their jobs."

Had Smith, in the course of running the company, ever discussed commercial direction with Mitchell?

"You don't tell Joni Mitchell what to do," he said.

It was Joni Mitchell's idea to do this, her first in-depth interview in over ten years. She entered the office of her manager, Elliot Roberts, one afternoon and sat down on a sofa. She wore no makeup, a tan blouse and slacks.

"Let's turn the tape on," she said, addressing my recorder. "I'm ready to go."

An enthusiastic conversationalist, Joni Mitchell speaks quickly and purposefully, structuring her thoughts like a writer's third draft. The sessions continued at various locations over the next three days.

"If I'm censoring for anyone," she warned, "it's for my parents. They are very old-fashioned and moral people. They still don't understand me that well. I keep saying, 'Mama, Amy Vanderbilt killed herself. That should have been a tip-off that we're into a new era . . . . "

Would you like to shatter any preconceptions?
I do have this reputation for being a serious person. I'm a very analytical person, a somewhat introspective person; that's the nature of the work I do. But this is only one side of the coin, you know. I love to dance. I'm a rowdy. I'm a good-timer. Mind you, I haven't seen too many good parties since I left my hometown. People go to parties here mostly to conduct business.

There's a private club in Hollywood that usually is very empty, but on one crowded evening, I stumbled in there to this all-star cast. Linda Ronstadt was running through the parking lot being pursued by photographers, Jerry Brown was upstairs, Bob Dylan was full of his new Christian enthusiasm – "Hey Jerry, you ever thought of running this state with Christian government?" Lauren Hutton was there, Rod Stewart . . . . There were a lot of people and this little postage stamp of a dance floor, and nobody was dancing on it. These are all people who dance, in one way or another, in their acts.

So the renowned introvert comes in, and I just wanted to dance. I didn't want to dance alone, so I asked a couple of people to dance with me and nobody would. They were all incredibly shy. So I went to the bathroom, and a girl came in and hollered to me from the sink over the wall, "Is that you? I'll dance with you." I said, "Great." It was just like the Fifties, when none of the guys would dance. And it was at this moment that the girl confided to me, "You know, they all think of you as this very sad person." That was the first time that it occurred to me that even among my peer group I had developed this reputation. I figured, these guys have been reading my press or something. [Laughs] But as far as shattering preconceptions, forget it. I feel that the art is there for people to bring to it whatever they choose.

I wonder if you feel like you've beaten the odds at this point? Even the biggest pop performers usually become the victims of a fickle audience.
It's typical in this society that is so conscious of being number one and winning; the most you can really get out of it is a four-year run, just the same as in the political arena. The first year, there's the courtship prior to the election – prior to, say, the first platinum album. Then suddenly you become the king or queen of rock & roll. You have, possibly, one favorable year of office, and then they start to tear you down. So if your goals end at a platinum album or being king or queen of your idiom, when you inevitably come down from that office, you're going to be heartbroken. Miserable. Nobody likes to have less than what he had before.

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