Mention Joni Mitchell’s name to the average woman, and her eyes mist over with a deep devotion. Joni! She’s been there for the good times! (“We are Stardust, we are golden.”) She’s held our hands through the bad times! (“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”)
Thus it is a pleasure to report that Mitchell is just the way you’d imagine she would be – warm, unpretentious and quick to smile. Sitting cross-legged on a plump couch in her New York hotel suite, she remains a serene beauty, dressed casually in light-green overalls. Mitchell has just released her 17th album, the critically revered Turbulent Indigo, which includes the song “Not to Blame,” rumored to be a missive aimed at Jackson Browne (“Your charitable acts/ Seemed out of place/ With the beauty/With your fist marks on her face”). Mitchell chats as she pours tea and chainsmokes. “Bad habit,” she says, firing up perhaps her 200th cigarette of the day.
“Borderline” is a very affecting song. What led you to write it?
Borderlines – roads, fences, they’re like cholesterol in the arteries. In terms of the psyche, my country is in a state of division. Every province wants to be its own country. In L.A. we’re racially divided. We have the man and the woman differences. Everybody seems to love to draw these lines. So, as we come to this millennium, everyone’s a divisionist in some way. So it was a contemplation of that.
Why did you paint a Van Gogh take of yourself for the cover?
Van Gogh did several self-portraits after he cut his ear off, and the turbulence of his stroke is always associated with madness. Madness is kind of a chaos, but the world is mad right now.
What’s your favorite album cover of yours?
I like Hejira. A lot of work went into that.
Do you sell a lot of your paintings?
Generally, I don’t. I have exhibitions from time to time, usually in Europe. But I had one show in Japan because the record company at that time would not allow me to make videos, and I needed to flex that creativity. So I went to Tokyo, and I sold $120,000 worth of paintings. And I plowed it back into two videos that no one ever saw. MTV won’t play me, VH-1 barely plays me. It’s beyond my control.
Why don’t you exhibit in the U.S.?
No one asked me. In America they’re uptight about twice, let alone thrice gifted. Every time I exhibit here, I take a lot of flak for it. They call me a dilettante.
What book do you reread the most?
The I Ching.
Who do you think are today’s rock stars?
Gee. Rather than answer that, I’ll tell you what’s knocked my socks off: Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso, Chuck Berry. A lot of it’s very derivative now. It’s two and three generations away from greatness, and some of it is building off of what was mediocre in the first place. [Laughs] It’s geared to a very young and undiscerning audience.
What’s the most random celebrity encounter you’ve ever had?
I met Jimi Hendrix at the Capitol Theatre in Ottawa, and after his set, he came down, and he brought a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. He introduced himself very shyly and said, ‘Would you mind if I taped your show?’ I said, ‘Not at all.’ And later that evening, we went back, we were staying at the same hotel. He and his drummer Mitch [Mitchell], the three of us were talking. It was so innocent. But management, all they saw was three hippies. We were outcasts anyway. A black hippie! Two men and a woman in the same room. So they kept telling us to play lower. It was a very creative, special night. We were playing like children.
Describe Jimi in three words.
I could tell you in a paragraph – I’m not good at snack-size bites. His main concern at that time was that he wanted to drop the phallic aspects of his showmanship. The big, flamboyant dick stuff was offensive to him, and he wanted to stop it. But every time he tried, he told me, the audience would boo. He wanted to take a different kind of band out, with a brass section. OK, three words? Sensitive. Shy. Sweet.
What do you do to relax on weekends? I’m picturing dinners with friends, wine flowing, candles . . .
I have a little cottage up in British Columbia; I’ve had it since 1970. The last couple of years I had a weekly social event that kinda happened by accident. It was a potluck where people would drop by, and yeah, it was usually outside with candles and two strings of Camel lights.
I smoked 150 packages of Camels and sent away for two strings of Camel lights. [Laughs.]
You collected Camel Cash, those coupons in packs of Camels, and sent away for camel-shaped lights?
Yeah. [Laughs] You wouldn’t believe how cheap the plastic on them is. The paint peeled off of it, and I’m really pissed off. Because that was a lot of smoking, and why couldn’t they have sprung for real yellow plastic? [Laughs.]
How’s your health, by the way?
I have post-polio syndrome, which is like multiple sclerosis. Victoria Williams and I were comparing notes, and the two diseases are very similar. It’s a deterioration of the nervous system. We’re still mobile, but depending on the rate of deterioration, the muscles seize up and just don’t work. So it’s a magical mystery tour – you don’t know what lies ahead of you. There’s no known cure. But you know, I’m all right. Like Neil says, “It’s better to burn out than to rust.” Well, I don’t want to burn out, and I don’t want to rust! There must be a third choice.