New York gives me an opportunity to flex a muscle that I don't really get to use; for instance, out there there is directness. I find that it makes me stronger. You don't have so many anonymous encounters out here. In New York, constantly, the street is challenging you to relate to it.
What do you think of the theory that great art comes from hunger and pain? You seem now to be living a very comfortable life.
Pain has very little to do with environment. You can be sitting at the most beautiful place in the world, which doesn't necessarily have to be private property, and not be able to see it for pain. So no. Misery knows no rent bracket [laughs]. At this time in my life, I've confronted a lot of my devils. A lot of them were pretty silly, but they were incredibly real at the time.
I don't feel guilty for my success or my lifestyle. I feel that sometimes having a lot of acquisitions leads to a responsibility that is more time-consuming than the art. That's probably one of the reasons why people feel the artist should remain in poverty. My most important possession is my pool – it's one luxury I don't really question.
Do you have many close women friends?
I have a few good women friends. I like them and I trust them. But generally speaking, I'm a little afraid of women. I don't know, it's a funny time for women. We demand a certain sensitivity. We've made our outward attacks at machoism, right, in favor of the new sensitive male. But we're just at the fledgling state of our liberty where we can't handle it. I think we ask men to be sensitive and equal, but deep down think it's unnatural. And we really want them to be stronger than us. So you get into this paradoxical thing.
I believe in equality. I believe that I am male and I am female. Not that I'm saying I'm bisexual – I believe in heterosexuality. I think ultimately it's the most difficult and nourishing of them all. But I do understand homosexuality in these times. It seems to be a peculiar, in many cases, necessary, alternative to this mess that's happening between the men and the women. I know a lot of women now who have come through the whole gamut and they're at the position where they almost don't want to deal with it anymore. They want to be celibate. Men are not at this place at all. The new woman is embracing this as a possibility. If there wasn't always this intense sexual competition between women, it might provide a climate for them to develop a camaraderie. In my observation, what passes for feminine camaraderie is conspiracy. I would love to make new women friends, but I hardly have time to do justice to the ones I have.
Did it change your concept of dying to spend the last year and a half with Charles Mingus?
Not completely. See, in my lifetime, I've had so many brushes with death myself, not that I'm saying that I'm not afraid to die – of course I still am. Afraid of it. 'Cause it's so final, you know. As far as a ceremony, of how I would like it to be treated, I'm not really sure. I mean it's an inevitable thing. I feel I'll live a long time. I'm confident that I'll live to be in my eighties. So I have a more immediate problem than confronting death.
Filling those years?
Aging gracefully. Which is easier in some societies than in this one. Especially in this very glamour-conscious town where women become neurotic at a certain age and go for surgery and any number of things to disguise that fact.
I had an interesting experience concerning aging in Hollywood. A friend of mine and I went into this Beverly Hills restaurant. It happened to be Fernando Lamas' birthday. So, sitting at the table next to us was this long supper of the old Hollywood. They were drinking toasts to Marilyn Monroe and there were lots of stories flying around about celebrities and people who they had known. There was a tremendous amount of glamour represented. Well-tended glamour. The fourth face-lift. Maintaining the youthful silhouette. I looked around and thought, "Is this the way that we must go in this town?" Is our hippie philosophy going to surrender to this?
I think if you're healthy, aging can be quite a beautiful process, and I think we've created an artificial problem for ourselves. Generally speaking, men are very generous. But I think that's the main problem, you know, at thirty-six, I'm examining.
You hold Georgia O'Keeffe as an ideal. Yet there she is in her nineties, living in the middle of the desert with only her art. She has no children. It seems like it could be a very lonely life . . . .
That's the part about it. I don't know, really, what your choices are. Obviously that's a constant battle with me. Is my maternity to amount to a lot of black plastic? Am I going to annually bear this litter of songs and send them out into the marketplace and have them crucified for this reason or that . . . .
Or praised. Let me not get lopsided about that. I certainly get my fair share of appreciation. You know, in a few years, I'll be past a safe childbearing age. I don't see many women raising children successfully alone, and as yet I haven't been able to bond with a man who I could see myself with in constant company for the twenty years that're necessary to do a good job of that. I would take that job seriously. I wouldn't just frivolously get pregnant and bring a child into this world, especially a world that has such a difficult future as the one we're facing. Also, the children of celebrities have been notoriously troubled. But when it comes to the business of raising children, I finally feel emotionally stable enough to deal with it. It's taken me this long, but it may be something that's denied me. It may be one of my little regrets in my old age. I still leave the future open, and given the right relationship, even if I thought the relationship had a potential longevity of, say, six years, I might do it.
David Crosby once said this about you, with all affection: "Joni Mitchell is about as modest as Mussolini." [She smiles, shakes head] And while it's been my observation that you have a much better sense of humor than Mussolini, it's also true that you have no apologies to offer for anything in your career.
I like to work myself up to a state of enthusiasm about anything I do, otherwise, what's the point? I see a lot of people and say, "Hey, you got an album coming out, what's it like?" They say, "Oh, it's okay." I say, "Gee, you're putting out an album and you think it's okay? Where is your enthusiasm, man?" They don't like to hear that. I'm not talking about arrogance, but I believe in real enthusiasm. That's probably where Crosby's quote comes from.
There is also a deeper point to be made. In looking back over all that we've talked about, it seems that everything about you is geared to your creative muse, and it is to that muse that you have remained true. At any expense.
I'll tell you, any acts of frustration or concern or anxiety in my life are all peripheral to a very solid core. A very strong, continuing course I've been following. All this other stuff is just the flak that you get for engaging in the analytical process in the first place. Even Freud knew that; to me it was the hippest thing he ever said: "Dissection of personality is no way to self-knowledge." All you get out of that is literature, not necessarily peace of mind. It's a satisfying, but dangerous, way to learn about yourself.
Ever find yourself the only one speaking out on certain subjects?
All the time. On many nights I go home and say, "Mitch, you know, you're gonna have to start going only to comedies now. And only reading Kurt Vonnegut. Put those Nietzsche books away."
Last question. What would you have listed, as Woody Allen did at the end of Manhattan, as your reasons why life is worth living?
It would be very similar to his. I would name different musicians, but it might finally be a beautiful face that would make me put the microphone down. I would just be thinking fondly of someone who I love, you know. And just dreaming off . . . . Basically if you want to say it in one word? Happiness?
It's a funny thing about happiness. You can strive and strive and strive to be happy, but happiness will sneak up on you in the most peculiar ways. I feel happy suddenly. I don't know why. Some days, the way the light strikes things. Or for some beautifully immature reason like finding myself running to the kitchen to make myself some toast. Happiness comes to me even on a bad day. In very, very strange ways. I'm very happy in my life right now.
This story is from the July 26th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.
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