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Joni Mitchell: Our Sin-Eater No More
CNE Bandshell, Toronto, July 12, 1983 (8:30 p.m.)
By James Leahy
Free Man in Paris
Edith and the Kingpin
You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)
Song for Sharon
God Must Be a Boogie Man
Big Yellow Taxi
A Case of You
(intermission 15 minutes)
Wild Things Run Fast
Raised on Robbery
Refuge of the Roads
You're So Square
I Heard It through the Grapevine
Underneath the Streetlight
Like most Joni Mitchell afficiandos, I have my favourite Joni periods. In my case, it's the pre-1968 Joni, the Hissing of Summer Lawns to Shadows and Light Joni, and then, of course, whatever she's doing now. I had made the trip with her to introspective, complex jazz and loved where she took me. I was more than willing to go with Joni wherever she wanted to go in the 80s, even if it meant -- omigod -- true love and happiness!
People change. Who am I to expect Joni to sustain that neurotic quest for romantic fulfilment that characterized her music in the 70s? After she met her "solid love" in Larry Klein in 1982, how could her musical themes possibly stay the same? Haven't you seen that with your own friendships? Remember what it felt like to share your longings and frustrations with someone who was in the same boat as you? Remember how you felt when that friend found his or her mate? Suddenly, you didn't have the old familiar crying towel anymore. You had to accept their happiness (and their new lover!).
Being the sort of person for whom relationships are more stress than bliss, I found it hard to relate to the upbeat, "hotdog I love you" tone of Wild Things Run Fast, although I can now appreciate the technical artistry that went into that recording, or the dark, philosophical "Moon at the Window" and the sad, nostalgic "Chinese Cafe." Could it be that I still wanted to cry along with Joni as she sought refuge in the roads and in serial romance?
I'm not sure what I expected of her 1983 Toronto gig. I was just glad to see Joni perform live again for the first time since the early seventies. I went with my friend Janet. At the time, Janet and I were close confidantes -- she a divorced single mother and me just recently out of the closet. We'd met in acting class. As we drove down to the Canadian National Exhibition Bandshell to see Joni's concert, we talked all the way about men (the bastards!) and sex and ... well, you know, girl talk.
1983 was the year of Molson Summer Nights: beer-company-sponsored rock concerts that had already brought us the Police, Marvin Gaye, and Canada's own Carole Pope with Rough Trade. The media were wringing their hands over neighourhood complaints about the noise generated by the concerts, especially by Rough Trade. The nearby residents said they were looking forward to the Joni Mitchell concert, which they figured would be a quiet little affair. Well, I don't imagine they got to sleep very early that night, for Joni came onstage intent on disturbing a little shit -- she and the tight little rock'n'roll band that accompanied her on the tour. With an electric guitar strapped over her pleated black dress, and frizzy blond hair flying out from under a matching baseball cap, she looked like a combination of Rod Stewart and Blondie. Tough-talkin', cigarette-smokin', high-heeled mama.
Joni's voice and demeanour had changed a lot since the 70s. She was now wearing her hair frizzy. She'd put on some weight, and even her voice had toughened up and gotten raspier. On 1979's Shadows and Light tour, her voice seemed too refined and controlled to sing the rock'n'roll songs she was trying to get into. By 1983, her voice did had more power and she was now able to belt out songs like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" pretty convincingly, although she couldn't really hit those high notes anymore (those clear bell tones on the word "golden" in the song Woodstock were now just a memory). She was also trying to create more of a physical presence on stage -- swaying to the beat with a cigarette instead of her guitar to hold onto. I guess this must have been the punk/new wave influence. Perhaps Joni realized that she had to change with the times.
If the number of empty seats at the Bandshell was any indication, Joni's 70s audience had not followed her into the 80s. Her version of Cotton Avenue that night was heavy and loud -- unlike the subtle textures of the album version. But then: "In that very same dance hall, that very same steamy night, a romance is beginning to brew between Edith and the Kingpin." Ahhhh! -- this is one of those songs that Joni always gets right. And what a perfect mood on that still July evening under a dusty rose sunset.
A half-hour into the concert, Joni's remarks to the audience hit a sour note: "What I want to know is, like, why are the most critical and bored people always seated right there?" she said, pointing at the seats immediately in front of her -- perhaps that's where all the Toronto rock critics were sitting, taking notes and judging her. After that, she launched into "God Must Be a Boogie Man." Larry Klein, only in his early twenties, didn't impress me as a likely successor to Jaco Pastorius -- his bass solo never really took off.
A Case of You was the highlight for me, featuring Joni on dulcimer and a beautifully delicate piano obbligato. "Chinese Cafe" drew a gasp of self-recognition from Janet on the line "We look like our mothers did, now, when we were those kids age."
Most of the up-tempo songs from Wild Things all tended to sound the same -- heavy, loud, and overstated. Most of her reworkings of older songs were likewise aggressive. The outdoor PA system may have been partly to blame, since she did some nice versions of "Refuge of the Roads" and "For Free" on the video. On the European leg of her tour she even did a shimmering version of "Amelia."
So what happened? Joni herself has said that she had gone about as far with jazz as she wanted to go and that now she wanted to play with a strong, rhythmic rock band -- at one point she even approached The Police to work with her. In retrospect, I wish Joni had gone even further over the edge, gotten even more "weird" after Mingus -- and become a true alternative instead of the refined, commercial craftsman of Wild Things. The larger question is how true Joni was being to herself and her muse at this time. Intimacy is her strength. As she has proved in her recent work, it is possible to create an intimate, moving portrait or story and still be an objective, outward-looking journalist (witness her performances of "Cherokee Louise" or "Magdalene Laundries"). After all, it is the greatest gift to remain detached from what you're reporting while moving your audience to tears.
Joni never toured again after 1983, and her few public performances in the 1980s were marred by brutal audiences and badly calculated programming choices. By the late 80s, Joni was abandoning power chords and beginning to rediscover her acoustic roots. In her most recent appearances, I've noticed that her singing is better than ever: capable of subtle intensity as well as the occasional burst of declamatory power -- maybe that experiment as a rock singer paid off after all.
Chuty001: Just stumbled across a bunch of ticket stubs and there was one for a Joni
show at the CNE band shell in Toronto 1983.
As I remember wild things run fast had been out for a few months. At the
same time Simon and Garfunkle were having their first reunion show a few
hundred feet away at Exhibition stadium.I would have liked to have been
there too, but there was no way I was going to miss Joni.
You see Joni hadn't played Toronto for Quite some time. Something about her
ripping apart a bar or two and the police objecting (if anybody knows the
details fill me in). There had been a history there definitely. She penned
Big Yellow Taxi many years before but even at this time 83
Toronto police cars were still yellow and did look like taxis.
And while I've drifted this far, I was told at the time the Paradise that
got paved was the old Warwick, a tavern at Jarvis & Dundas. They tore it
down to make a Sears parking lot. Still is.
Anyway the whole front row was full of reporters and cameras, Joni walks on
the stage and takes one look and says can I have some real people in the
front row please.
She put on a great show and took care of the seating arrangements. Multi-tasker or what...