After a short drive down Sunset Boulevard, we arrive at the shop, situated directly across from a gigantic Bee Gees billboard. She is greeted warmly by the attendants, who find her exactly "on schedule," as usual. We resume the interview with Mitchell under the hair dryer, cloaked in a plastic coverall that coincidentally bears a repeating pattern of two be-bopping couples and the phrase, The Jazz Age.]
What kind of student were you?
I was a bad student. I finally flunked out in the twelfth grade. I went back later and picked up the subjects that I lost. I do have my high-school diploma – I figured I needed that much, just in case. College was not too interesting to me. The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think. There was no liberty, really, for free thinking. You were being trained to fit into a society where free thinking was a nuisance. I liked some of my teachers very much, but I had no interest in their subjects. So I would appease them – I think they perceived that I was not a dummy, although my report card didn't look like it. I would line the math room with ink drawings and portraits of the mathematicians. I did a tree of life for my biology teacher. I was always staying late at the school, down on my knees painting something.
How do you think other students viewed you?
I'm not sure I have a clear picture of myself. My identity, since it wasn't through the grade system, was that I was a good dancer and an artist. And also, I was very well dressed. I made a lot of my own clothes. I worked in ladies' wear and I modeled. I had access to sample clothes that were too fashionable for our community, and I could buy them cheaply. I would go hang out on the streets dressed to the T, even in hat and gloves. I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians; they were more emotionally honest and they were better dancers.
When I went back to my own neighborhood, I found that I had a provocative image. They thought I was loose because I always liked rowdies. I thought the way the kids danced at my school was kind of, you know, funny. I remember a recurring statement on my report card – "Joan does not relate well." I know that I was aloof. Perhaps some people thought that I was a snob.
There came a split when I rejected sororities and that whole thing. I didn't go for that. But there also came a stage when my friends who were juvenile delinquents suddenly became criminals. They could go into very dull jobs or they could go into crime. Crime is very romantic in your youth. I suddenly thought, "Here's where the romance ends. I don't see myself in jail . . . . "
So you went to art school, and at the end of your first year decided to go to Toronto to become a folk singer.
I was only a folk singer for about two years, and that was several years before I ever made a record. By that time, it wasn't really folk music anymore. It was some new American phenomenon. Later, they called it singer/songwriters. Or art songs, which I liked best. Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it's a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning. I always knew what I meant by art. Now I've got all three of them back [laughs].
Did your folk-singing period include the time you spent in Detroit working with Chuck Mitchell?
Yes. We never really were a full-fledged duo. I'm a bad learner, see. I bypass the educational system. I learn by a process more like osmosis. It's by inspiration and desire. So when we would try to work up songs together, we would bang into differences of opinion. Some people say, "Oh, Joan, that's just because you're lazy." But in a way, more than laziness, it's a kind of block that runs all through my rebellious personality. If someone tries to teach me a part that I don't find particularly interesting, it won't stick. I'll end up doing what I wanted to do in the first place, and then they're annoyed.
We had a difference of opinion in material. It was more like two people onstage at the same time, sometimes singing together. We had a difficult time.
When your marriage broke up, you moved to New York City, and artists like Tom Rush began covering your songs. You became totally self-sufficient – booking your own tours and handling all your financial affairs. Was that your nature, or was it a reaction to the end of the marriage?
Both. At that point, I didn't know how far it was going to carry me. I had a little circuit of clubs that I could go in and say, "Okay, your capacity is such and such. I've got you up to full capacity now. Last time I made this much; this time, why don't you pay me this much more, and you can still make a profit. Let's be fair." People were starting to record my songs; I drew [audiences] even though I didn't have a record out. I really felt self-sufficient. I was working constantly, every night, and I was trying to build up a bank account because I didn't think it was going to last too long. I thought I was going to have to go back into what I knew, which was women's wear. Become a buyer for a department store. But I was going to go on with it as long as I could. Or maybe go into commercial art. Whatever.
So you were less sure then that the songs would keep coming?
In some ways I had more confidence. I was outspoken. I enjoyed performing. I loved the compliments I received when I came offstage. Everything seemed to be proportionate to me. I had $400 in the bank. I thought I was filthy rich. I liked the liberty of it all. I liked the idea that I was going to North Carolina, visiting all these mysterious states. I used to tell long, rambling tales onstage. It was very casual.
I remember the first time I played the Newport Folk Festival. It was the first glimmering of what was to come. We went to a party – it was held at a fraternity house and it was guarded. Only people who were supposed to be there were there. I was with a road manager at that point, a girlfriend who was helping me out. They said, "You can't come in." My girlfriend said, "Do you know who this is?" She said my name and these people standing by the door let out this gasp. My eyes bugged out of my head. I had the strangest reaction: I turned on my heel and I ran for ten blocks in the other direction. It pumped me so full of adrenalin, I bolted like a deer. I came back to Janie and said, "I'm so embarrassed, man, why did I do that? It's a mystery to me." Well, she had lived with . . . [laughs] retarded children, right. And a retard is smart in a lot of ways. They're simplified down to a kind of intelligence that a more complex mind is not hip to. Janie said, "I think that's one of the sanest things I have ever seen, you know."
Then it began to get really disproportionate. I couldn't really enjoy it after that. I know it was good, but the adoration seemed out of line. The next thing was going through the primary adjustments, where more people are attracted to you because you smell of success. And they're simultaneously saying to you, "Don't change." But as soon as you have so many hangers-on, you have to change, and then you go through the pains of hearing that you "Changed, man." It goes to your head. There's a whole lot of levels of adjustment. There are no books written on it; nobody tells you what to expect. Some people get all puffed up and say, "I deserved it." I thought it was too much to live up to. I thought, "You don't even know who I am. You want to worship me?"
That's why I became a confessional poet. I thought, "You better know who you're applauding up here." It was a compulsion to be honest with my audience.
You and Neil Young have always been close. How did you first meet?
I was married to Chuck Mitchell at the time. We came to Winnipeg, playing this Fourth Dimension [folk] circuit. We were there over Christmas. I remember putting up this Christmas tree in our hotel room. Neil, you know, was this rock & roller who was coming around to folk music through Bob Dylan. Of course. Anyway, Neil came out to the club, and we liked him immediately. He was the same way he is now – this offhanded, dry wit. And you know what his ambition was at the time? He wanted a hearse, and a chicken farm. And when you think of it, what he's done with his dream is not that far off. He just added a few buffalo. And a fleet of antique cars. He's always been pretty true to his vision.
But none of us had any grandiose ideas about the kind of success that we received. In those days it was really a long shot. Especially for a Canadian. I remember my mother talking to a neighbor who asked, "Where is Joan living?" And she said, "In New York; she's a musician." And they went, "Ohhh, you poor woman." It was hard for them to relate.
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