My goals have been to constantly remain interested in the music. I see myself as a musical student. That's why this project with Charles [Mingus] was such a great opportunity. Here was a chance to learn, from a legitimately great artist, about a brand new idiom that I had only been flirting with before.
How did you decide to make this commitment?
Every year, when I've completed a project, I ask myself, "What am I going to do now?" In the process of asking myself that question, a lot of possibilities come up. I heard on the street that Charles was trying to contact me. He tried through normal channels and never made it. People thought it was too far-out to be true. They had all sorts of reasons for thinking it was an impossible or ridiculous combination. To me, it was fascinating. I was honored. I was curious.
Mingus was a man who generally was difficult to get close to. When did you know that you had really made the connection with him?
Oh, immediately. Immediately I felt this kind of sweet giddiness when I met him. Like I was in for some fun. He teased me a lot. He called me hillbilly; it was charming. We went through some of the old songs. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" was the one we decided on immediately. So there was this search for another one, and he played me a lot of material. Charles put on this one record, and just before he played it, he said, "Now this song has five melodies going all at once." I said, "Yeah, I bet you want me to write five different sets of words for each of the melodies, right?" And he grinned and said, "Right." He put on the record, and it was the fastest, smokingest thing you ever heard, with all these melodies going on together.
Did you find yourself cast in the role of easing Mingus from his fear of dying?
No, that was up to him. You can't do too much to assuage someone of their fears. I wasn't in that personal a role that I was his comforter. It was a professional partnership with a lot of affection. But one day I called him up and I said, "How are you, Charles?" I never really asked him too much about his illness, but that day I did. And he said, "Oh, I'm dying. I thought I knew how to do it, but now I'm not sure." At that point I had three songs finished, and I thought, "Oh boy, I want him to be in the studio when I start to cut them. I want his approval on this. I want, him to like my direction."
This was a unique position. I've never worked for somebody else before. Although in the treatment of the music, it was much more my version of jazz. As far as the music was finally recorded. He's more traditional in a way – antielectronics and anti-avantgarde. I'm looking to make modern American music. So I just hoped that he would like what I was doing. I was taking it someplace where I would be true to myself. It was never meant as a commemorative album while we were making it. I never really believed completely that he was going to die. His spirit was so strong.
Did he hear all the songs before his death?
He heard everything but "God Must Be a Boogie Man," which he would have liked, since it is his point of view about himself. It's based on the first four pages of his book [Beneath the Underdog].
How did you go about writing lyrics to "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"? This is a classic piece of music that has . . .
. . . Been around. That was a very difficult one. I had to find my own phrasing for the notes. The real difficulty for me was that the only thing I can believe is what has happened to me firsthand, what I see and feel with my own eyes. I had a block for three months. It's hard for me to take someone else's story and tell only his story in a song.
Charlie assailed me with historical information about Lester Young [in whose memory "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" was written] and his family background, concerning his early playing days. He used to tap dance in his family band with his father and mother. He was married to a white woman, traveling through the South in a time when that was just taboo. A lot of the great black musicians were forced into cellars or the chitlin circuit. So I had all these details, but I still couldn't, with any conscience, simply write a historical song.
Then something very magical happened. One night Don Alias and I – he plays congas on the album, and he and I have been very close for the period of the last two years – were on the subway, and we got off, I don't know why, two stops early. We came up into this cloud of steam coming out of a New York manhole. Two blocks ahead of us, under these orangeish New York lights, we see a crowd gathered. So we head toward the crowd. When we get up on it, it's a group of black men surrounding two small black boys. It's about midnight, and the two boys are dancing this very robotlike mime dance. One of the guys in the crowd slaps his leg and says, "Isn't that something, I thought tap dancing was gone forever." Immediately I'm thinking about Lester Young. They were dancing under one of those cloth awnings that goes out to the curb of a bar. I look up – and the name of the bar is the Pork Pie Hat. The music they were dancing to was jazz coming off of the jukebox inside. There were big blown-up pictures of Lester Young all around the place. It was wild.
So that became the last verse of the song. In my mind, that filled in a piece of the puzzle. I had the past and the present, and the two boys represented the future, the next generation. To me, the song then had a life of its own.
Looking back, how well did you prepare for your own success?
I never thought that far ahead. I never expected to have this degree of success.
Never? Not even practicing in front of your mirror?
No. It was a hobby that mushroomed. I was grateful to make one record. All I knew was, whatever it was that I felt was the weak link in the previous project gave me my inspiration for the next one. I wrote poetry and I painted all my life. I always wanted to play music and dabbled with it, but I never thought of putting them all together. It never occurred to me. It wasn't until Dylan began to write poetic songs that it occurred to me you could actually sing those poems.
Is that when you started to sing?
I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn't go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.
Do you remember the first record you bought?
The first record I bought was a piece of classical music. I saw a movie called The Story of Three Loves, and the theme was [she hums the entire melody] by Rachmaninoff, I think. Everytime it used to come on the radio it would drive me crazy. It was a 78. I mean, I had Alice in Wonderland and Tubby the Tuba, but the first one that I loved and had to buy? "The Story of Three Loves."
How about pop music?
You see, pop music was something else in that time. We're talking about the Fifties now. When I was thirteen, The Hit Parade was one hour a day – four o'clock to five o'clock. On the weekends they'd do the Top Twenty. But the rest of the radio was Mantovani, country & western, a lot of radio journalism. Mostly country & western, which I wasn't crazy about. To me it was simplistic. Even as a child I liked more complex melody.
In my teens I loved to dance. That was my thing. I instigated a Wednesday night dance 'cause I could hardly make it to the weekends. For dancing, I loved Chuck Berry. Ray Charles. "What I'd Say." I liked Elvis Presley. I liked the Everly Brothers. But then this thing happened. Rock & roll went through a really dumb vanilla period. And during that period, folk music came in to fill the hole. At that point I had friends who'd have parties and sit around and sing Kingston Trio songs. That's when I started to sing again. That's why I bought an instrument. To sing at those parties. It was no more ambitious than that. I was planning all the time to go to art school.
[Informed of the time, Mitchell realizes with a familiar shudder that she is already an hour late for a hairdresser's appointment. There are several more errands to be run before an evening photo session with Norman Seeff, and Mitchell invites the interview to continue along with her.
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