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, 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 long distance 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.
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.
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.
Later, you know, Neil abandoned his rock & roll band and came out to Toronto. I didn’t know him very well at the time we were there. I was just leaving for Detroit. We didn’t connect then. It was years later, when I got to California – Elliot [Roberts] and I came out as strangers in a strange land – and we went to a Buffalo Springfield session to see Neil. He was the only other person I knew. That’s where I met everybody else. And the scene started to come together.
By this time, David Crosby had “discovered” you singing in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida. What was he like back then?
He was tanned. He was straight. He was clearing out his boat, and it was going to be the beginning of a new life for him. He was paranoid about his hair, I remember. Having long hair in a short hair society. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Crosby has enthusiasm like no one else. He can make you feel like a million bucks. Or he can bring you down with the same force. Crosby, in producing that first album, did me an incredible service, which I will never forget. He used his success and name to make sure my songs weren’t tampered with to suit the folk-rock trend.
I had just come back from London. That was during the Twiggy-Viva era, and I remember I wore a lot of makeup. I think I even had on false eyelashes at the time. And Crosby was from his scrub-faced California culture, so one of his first projects in our relationship was to encourage me to let go of all of this elaborate war paint [laughs]. It was a great liberation, to get up in the morning and wash your face . . . and not have to do anything else.
Is there a moment you can look back on when you realized that you were no longer a child, that you had grown up?
There’s a moment I can think of – although I’m still a child. Sometimes I feel seven years old. I’ll be standing in the kitchen and all of a sudden my body wants to jump around. For no reason at all. You’ve seen kids that suddenly just get a burst of energy? That part of my child is still alive. I don’t repress those urges, except in certain company.
My artwork, at the time I made the first album, was still very concerned with childhood. It was full of the remnants of fairy tales and fantasia. My songs still make references to fairy tales. They referred to kings and queens. Mind you, that was also part of the times, and I pay colonial allegiance to Queen Lizzy. But suddenly I realized that I was preoccupied with the things of my girlhood and I was twenty-four years old. I remember being at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and having this sensation. It was like falling to earth. It was about the time of my second album. It felt almost as if I’d had my head in the clouds long enough. And then there was a plummeting into the earth, tinged with a little bit of apprehension and fear. Shortly after that, everything began to change. There were fewer adjectives to my poetry. Fewer curlicues to my drawing. Everything began to get more bold. And solid in a way.
By the time of my fourth album [Blue, 1971], I came to another turning point – that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives. The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes [solemn moment, then a gale of laughter]. And you have to work on from there. And decide what your values are. Which parts of you are no longer really necessary. They belong to childhood’s end. Blue really was a turning point in a lot of ways. As Court and Spark was a turning point later on. In the state that I was at in my inquiry about life and direction and relationships, I perceived a lot of hate in my heart. You know, “I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some, I love you when I forget about me” [“All I Want”]. I perceived my inability to love at that point. And it horrified me. It’s something still that I . . . I hate to say I’m working on, because the idea of work implies effort, and effort implies you’ll never get there. But it’s something I’m noticing.
Having laid so much of your life out for public ears, do you now look back on some things and wince?
The things that I look back on and sort of shrug off, maybe in a weak moment grimace over [smiles], are the parts when I see myself imitating something else. Affectations as opposed to style. It’s very hard to be true to yourself. For instance, I don’t care too much for the second album I made [Clouds]. I like the first one, the first one’s honest. Blue is an honest album. Clouds has some honest moments on it, but at the time, I was singing a lot with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and they had a style, out of necessity, to blend with one another. They had a way of affecting vowel sounds so that when they sang together, they would sing like a unit. I picked up on that and there’s a lot of that on the album. I find it now kind of irritating to listen to, in the same way that I find a lot of black affectations irritating. White singers sounding like they come from deep Georgia, you know? It always seems ridiculous to me. It always seemed to me that a great singer – now we’re talking about excellence, not popularity – but a great singer would sing closer to his or her own speaking voice.
I think Billie Holiday was a very natural singer. In the context of opera, Maria Callas was an excellent singer. I think the lead singer from the Doobie Brothers [Mike McDonald] is a very natural singer.
[“I think Bob Dylan had the right idea when he wore the same leather jacket for ten years,” Mitchell says on the way back to her Bel Air home to pick up several changes of clothes. “Georgia O’Keeffe has got it down to a uniform she wears every day.”
She buzzes open her gate, whips her Mercedes sedan into the garage and disappears into an upstairs bedroom. Her home is spacious, filled with plants and with her own paintings. The Mingus oil works – done at the Regency during her worst periods of writer’s block – lie stacked in the hallway just outside the kitchen.
A few minutes later, Mitchell comes bustling into the living room with a small wardrobe, and it’s back down Sunset Boulevard to Norman Seeff’s studio. It’s her fourth session in as many years with the photographer, and they work well together. Both coach each other. Mitchell lectures him on how “you try celebrities here, you push them to the limit, test them against your zen training.” Seeff shouts at her to be quiet and “transcend yourself.” Every now and then Seeff puts down the camera and they have a brief cross-fire philosophical discussion. They continue working all night.
The interview continued the next afternoon by Mitchell’s pool. We sat in a small nook under the scorching sun, and for several hours, she talked with unflagging energy.]
Ten years ago, you had begun to represent the Woodstock ethic. Someone could say, “There is a Joni Mitchell type,” and you would know exactly what he meant. Was that a concern of yours?
Very much so. I remember showing up at a Carole King concert in Central Park in a pair of Yves St. Laurent pants. And a good shirt. They were simple clothes, but they were of a good quality. And I felt . . . really uncomfortable. I felt there were certain things that I liked, that were a part of me, that were outside the hippie guard. Things that were a part of me from before this delicious period in the Sixties when we were fresh and were thinking fresh things . . . . It was a good time period. It was a healthy idea that we were working toward, but there came a time when it had become a ritual, a flat-out style.
I began to make this transition, under a lot of peer pressure. I remember seeing, even when I went to The Last Waltz, “Miss Mitchell showed up looking like a Beverly Hills housewife.” I was outside the uniform of rock & roll and it was annoying to some people. And as a reply to this prejudice, I wrote that song, “The Boho Dance”: “Nothing is capsulized in me/In either side of town.” As a demand for liberty.
There was a time when you and Laura Nyro were considered to be the two purveyors of female singer/songwriting. Now it’s all but taken for granted that Laura Nyro wasn’t “tough enough” to survive in the business. Do you think that your own survival has meant a certain toughness?
Gee, I don’t know if that’s the case. Inspiration can run out, you know. Laura Nyro made a choice that has tempted me on many occasions. And that was to lead an ordinary life. She married a carpenter, as I understand, and turned her back on it all. Which is brave and tough in its own way. Many, many times as a writer, I’ve come to a day where I say, “None of this has any meaning.” If you maintain that point of view, if you hold onto it and possess it, that’s it for you. There’s a possibility that you can come firmly to that conclusion, as Rimbaud did, and give it up. I’ve always managed to move out of those pockets.
At a certain point, I actually tried to move back to Canada, into the bush. My idea was to follow my advice and get back to nature. I built a house that I thought would function with or without electricity. I was going to grow gardens and everything. But I found that I was too spoiled already. I had too much choice. I could take the more difficult, old-fashioned way for a s