Arriving at the Los Angeles home where this historic chat takes place, I try to offer Morrissey – our post-punk poet of misery – my two pence about potential questions for Joni Mitchell, one of the few popular artists who actually deserve the artist part of that tag. I suggest a discussion on their shared reputation for exploring downbeat themes – in other words: Who's more blue? "Why have a discussion?" Morrissey asks promisingly. "Why not a fight?" As it happens, there were no fights, though, true to form, Morrissey did delicately chide Mitchell for smoking and eating meat – this is the man, after all, who once titled a Smiths album Meat Is Murder. And, of course, he ignored most of my suggestions and even started off by bonding with Mitchell – who was promoting her new Hits and Misses anthologies – at our expense by rubbing a little salt in old critical wounds. We expected nothing less.
I just want to say thank you and I'm very pleased to be doing this. Joni Myth No. 1: Is it true that Rolling Stone voted The Hissing of Summer Lawns Worst Album of the Year?
I carried it in my mind that it was Worst Album, but when we researched, it was the Worst Album Title [laughs]. I think they were pretty hard on the project in general.
Also, Rolling Stone once printed a family tree of your conquests. Is that true?
Yeah. I never saw it. I think I was called Old Lady of the Year – some facetious thing that was hurtful.
Did you care?
Yeah, oh, I did, unfortunately.
Were you promiscuous?
In terms of the times, I guess we all were. It was a hedonistic time, you know.
Are you now promiscuous?
No, no. I've always been a serial monogamist. But there was a time when you were traveling – a traveling woman, like a traveling man – and there were some brief encounters.
Do they still refer to you as a female songwriter? It's such a ludicrous title.
It implies limitations.
It implies that it's not a real songwriter. To use the term "female songwriter" implies that the word "songwriter" belongs to men.
They tend to lump me always with groups of women. I always thought, "They don't put Dylan with the Men of Rock; why do they do that to me with women?"
Are you aware of sexist language?
I'm not a real feminist. I've become a little more so as I've gotten older.
In England, feminism is very unpopular at the moment.
It was ineffective from the beginning. I remember when the word first came up. As a matter of fact, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and I used to go out at the time for dinner quite a bit, and they were amused that I'd never heard about the feminists. I was kind of a media dropout. I was lucky if I could name the president. I was much more inner-world oriented.
Don't you find the modern rock-pop interview has to be very confessional, otherwise the public is not very interested?
I put a lot of truth in my songs, and still they're always poking at me to ferret out hidden meanings. But there aren't any. This one guy laid into me for about 15 minutes, trying to get me to confess that "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" was autobiographical. I said, "I do believe God wrote it. I plagiarized it from three different translations and put it together."
Don't you find, because your music is confessional, you have to explain yourself repeatedly in much more depth than anyone who makes nonsense, throwaway, useless music?
I don't think of myself as confessional. That's a name that was put on me. The confessional poets like [Sylvia] Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be. I never wanted to act the part of the poet, with pearls of language and wisdom falling from my lips. The first time I met Prince, he said [at one point], "Are you tired, or are you hungry?" And I think I said, "I'm tireder than I am hungry." It was some grammatical error – still sounds right to me.
The point is not to confess. I've always used the songwriting process as a self-analysis of sorts. Like the Blue album – people were kind of shocked at the intimacy. It was peculiar in the pop arena at that time, because you were supposed to portray yourself as bigger than life. I remember thinking, "Well, if they're going to worship me, they should know who they're worshiping."
I read an interview with a big movie star where he said, "I'm the kind of guy who likes to take his dick out in public." The comment had absolutely no reference to the lines that preceded or followed it. It reaffirmed that interviews now seem useless to the public unless they're incredibly revelatory.
What the American press seems to want to do to an increasing degree reminds me of Oriental torture. It's like how Chairman Mao accomplished brainwashing: You ask more and more intimate questions.
Reading your interviews, I can sense the stifled yawns. Do you ever feel you are far too intellectual for all this messing around?
I don't think of myself as an intellectual.
Well, you are, though.
Not really. It's a nice place to visit; I wouldn't want to live there. I spend as little time there as possible.
Joni Myth No. 72: A small, modular footnote in British pop history is the rumor that the Sex Pistols sacked their original bass player, Glen Matlock, reportedly because he listened to your music. Were you aware of this?
I found it interesting that in between the Sex Pistols and Joni Mitchell, there was supposed to be this massive divide.
There wasn't. When I met Johnny Rotten, I liked him immediately. He was younger than I was, but he was a lot like I was in high school: fashion conscious . . . kind of pale and pimply and avoiding the sun. But I'm a punk. I've never really been in the mainstream. Not that being a punk is a good thing, necessarily [laughs].
You have an extraordinary balance with words. Are you a word snob? Are there any words you would never use?
I don't think I'm prejudiced against any words per se, except the ones that come up in psychology, because they've ruined the English language – neurotic, ego. Doctors love to levy neurotic at just about every woman who crosses their threshold. I had trouble with God for a while. I cornered Bob Dylan at a party one time and said, "You're always throwing that God word in. What does God mean to you?" He said, "It's just a word people use." I said, "Yeah, but you're using it. What does it mean?" And he couldn't answer me. Then he went through his born-again thing about three years later, and he came up to me [in Dylan's voice]: "Joni, remember the time you asked me about God and the devil? I'll tell you now." And he launched into some real Christian rhetoric. I said, "No, no. I didn't ask you about the devil. It's God I was having problems with."
I must say that "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" was the first album that completely captivated me.
Was that the one you came in on?
No, the first one was Blue.
People seem to have a problem after Court and Spark – everything was measured unfavorably against it.
I know you don't like to talk about the plethora of junior Joni's. Does it wound you that some of these vague Suzannas might be selling more concert tickets than you?
I've had that hurt. I'd like to line my pocket a little. They're too good not to recoup cost. That's what Hits and Misses are about – like Dog Eat Dog seemed a little negative in the rah-rah '80s, but it's the '90s now. It's my optimism that people are ready to look at them now.
Did you notice the PJ Harvey sleeve, which mimics the swimming-backward photo of Summer Lawns?
Or Rickie Lee Jones – her first album sleeve bore great resemblance to . . .
The beret and smoking Mores. I remember seeing that picture used with some ad campaign and thought, "Wait a minute. When did I take this picture?"
No guilt about smoking a cigarette?
Oh, no, no, no. I'm a smoker, for better or for worse.
It does kill a lot of people, doesn't it?
So what [laughs]?
What other lyricists would you happily tip your hat to?
Here and there. Leonard Cohen here and there.
I think you're the greatest lyricist that has ever lived.
Oh, my goodness.
I think you're very underrated.
Well, I'm very underrated by the things I'm compared to that aren't nearly as good. But Dylan – there are things that he can do that I can't.
Don't you find it's all a matter of letting the dust settle? And there are fashions for the year, and maybe a younger generation wants their own new people?
I've had 21-year-olds say, "I'm with you," because I give some snotty interview saying I don't like anything on the radio. It's building off something that wasn't very good in the first place. Back before the singe-songwriter, a very competent musician did the music, and a very competent lyricist did the words. But everybody does both now, so you've got a lot of mediocrity.
Do you mind if I throw a few names out at you? If you don't want to comment, please don't. Chrissie Hynde.
I went to see her play in New York, and she was going, "I just played this concert in California, and damn women were screaming at me. I didn't get in this business to have damn women screaming at me." Then Monday night I played Fez, in New York, Chrissie came down, and I forget what she was drinking, but it seemed like she consumed quite a lot of it, and all through the show she was like, "Rock it, Joni!" It was such an interesting juxtaposition – I loved it. There was a bit of fur flying between her and Carly Simon. As I understand it, Carly told her to shut up, and she wrapped her hands around Carly's throat [laughs].
How about Janis Ian? Did you hear her song "Stars"?
Uh, I don't think so.
How about Melanie?
Kind of acquainted. You have to forgive me. I haven't taken in a lot of contemporary music.
I don't think she is really considered contemporary.
No, but I mean she was once.
I'd like to ask you what Ross Perot means to you, because I find him a truly magnetic figure, and I can't come across anybody in this country who is really standing behind him. I find his speeches extraordinary and compulsive. Is he jeered because he's small?
He's like a throwback kind of character. He's like an old American – there's something about him that reminds you of the old America that I like very much.
Who are your favorite poets?
I don't like poetry: always smelled a rat. I liked some Yeats. I set one Yeats poem to music, but I disagreed with a couple of ideas; I put in some qualifications, and I rewrote a part that I thought he hadn't really finished.
That's very kind of you [laughs]. Kirk Douglas was my favorite actor until I read in his autobiography of his candid passion for killing animals. Why do you think the human race treats animals so badly?
Let's look at our culture. If the Western world's guided by anything, it's by the Bible. Our origin story puts the emphasis on the woman screwed by the snake, which is a pretty stupid interpretation of that story.
Have you seen the film Babe?
I loved it.
I saw it on pay-per-view and was fascinated that it was promoted by McDonald's. Why do you think people feel the need to eat animals?
It just abstract. You inherit it culturally. I can speak for myself, because I still eat meat, and I love my cats.
Would you eat your cats?
God, no! That would be cannibalism.
If you sing sad songs, do you think your audience will feel better if they get the sense that you walk offstage and take the sadness with you rather than jump on a Harley and fly down the highway?
I was at a cafe, smoking somewhere, and a girl came up to me and said, "I'm a manic depressive. I love your music, but I hate pictures of you. Every time I see you, you're smiling, and it makes me mad." So there's a person who thinks I'm suffering, she's suffering. If they see evidence otherwise, they feel I'm inauthentic. Whereas I feel more ambidextrous: I suffer, I enjoy; I suffer, I enjoy.
What's the saddest song you've heard?
Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: sweet, sorrowful, sad, beautiful, longing, romantic stuff. Up until I was 13, comedy was all that mattered to me. Why didn't I become a writer of funny songs? I think because of that beautiful melody.
Where do you fit in now?
Well, I should fit in a little better. There was a time when I was excommunicated from everything. Then there began to be people making similar kinds of hybrids – Sting being one – and as the airwaves would open for them, I would say to my management, "Surely you can get me into the game."
That's the trap pioneers fall into: You pave the way so people can reap what you've sown.
I guess so. And the music business has changed so much. [In the early days of rock & roll] there weren't that many systems to play records on – not everybody had one.
Joni, thank you for your patience. Thank you for many years of pleasure and I'm sure many to come.
Thank you. I think it should be a good piece, with some real meat on the bone.
Well, I prefer a different analogy.