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Off The Record

Joe Smith
[Book]
1988


As spoken to Joe Smith

This Canadian lady turned the folk world into something else with her notable records over a fifteen-year stretch. She continues to be revered as one of the finest songwriters and musicians.

I was in the industry for a long time before I had any idea of what drugs people were doing. I mean, I'd say, "Geez, he looks awfully skinny. Why doesn't he have an appetite?"

I was very, very sheltered by Elliot Roberts and Crosby, Stills and Nash, when I first entered the business. Even in my early teens, in Canada, I was always protected. People always looked out for me in that way.

In high school, I was kind of like the school artist. I did backdrops for school plays, I was always involved in illustrating the yearbooks. I designed a UNICEF Christmas card for a guy who was like the school leader, the senior watchman. He reimbursed me with a Miles Davis album.

Friends of mine who were older than me and in college began talking about Lambert, Hendricks and Ross as the hottest new sound in jazz. Their record flipped me out, but it was already out of print. I had to finally buy it off somebody and pay a lot, maybe fifteen dollars, which was unheard of at that time. But you couldn't get the record anywhere. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were my Beatles. In high school, theirs was the record I wore thin, the one I knew all the words to.

When I was nineteen, I went to art school. I had six months of playing baritone ukulele under my belt, so I was sort of a novice folkie when I got there. There was the one folk club, and some of the people from the art school frequented it. I got a weekend job working there. Sometimes, on my way up to Edmonton, I would pick up some pin money. But it was just a hobby. Art was still my serious direction.

When I went to Toronto, to the Mariposa Folk Festival to actually see Buffy St. Marie, I still didn't have an image of myself as a musician. I found I couldn't work, and I didn't have enough money to get into the union, which was $160. So I worked in women's wear, in a department store. I could barely make ends meet.

And then I finally found a scab club in Toronto that allowed me to play. I played for a couple of months. Then I married Chuck Mitchell, and we moved across the border. We still scrambled for work. As a couple, I think we were making fifteen dollars a night.

In Detroit, we had a fifth-floor walk-up apartment with some extra rooms, and so when Eric Anderson and David Blue and Tom Rush and people like that passed through Detroit, they would stay with us.

Eric started teaching me open tunings, an open G. a drop D. For some reason, once I got the open tunings I began to get the harmonic sophistication that my musical fountain inside was excited by. Once I got some interesting chords to play with, my writing began to come. But still, I was pretty much a good-time Charlie. I was a bad student, I failed twelfth grade, I did my book reports from classic comics.

I was anti-intellectual to the max. Basically, I liked to dance and paint and that was about it. As far as serious discussions went, I found them boring. To see teenagers sitting around trying to solve the problems of the world, I figured, all things considered, I'd rather be dancing.

My husband was different. He had an education, a degree in literature. Chuck always said that you couldn't write unless you read. He considered me an illiterate, and he didn't give me a great deal of encouragement regarding my writing. But Tom Rush did. Tom would say, "Do you have any new songs?" I'd play him a batch and he'd say, "Any more?" I always held the ones out that I felt were too sensitive, or too feminine, and those would always be the ones he chose. Because of Tom, I began to get noticed.

I liked playing in small clubs the best, still do. I really like holding the attention of thirty or forty people. I never liked the roar of the big crowd. I could never adjust to the sound of people gasping at the mere mention of my name. It horrified me.

And I also knew how fickle people could be. I knew they were buying an illusion, and I thought, "Maybe they should know a little more about who I am." I wanted to believe that the attention I was getting was for me. I didn't want there to be such a gulf between who I presented and who I was. David Geffen used to tell me that I was the only star he ever met who wanted to be ordinary.

I never wanted to be a star. I didn't like entering a room with all eyes on me. I still don't like the attention of a birthday party. I prefer Christmas, which is everybody's holiday.

I went to the Newport Jazz Festival. Judy Collins called me up. She was supposed to take me. Al Kooper had put us in touch and we were supposed to meet and go. Well, Judy stood me up, and she was my hero. It was kind of heartbreaking, I waited and waited and waited and she never came to pick me up to take me to Newport.

A day went by and I got a phone call from her and she sounded kind of sheepish. She said somebody had sung one of my songs in a workshop. It was a terrible rendition, she said, but people went crazy.

Judy really felt I should be at Newport, so she gave me instructions on how to get there. When I played there, I got that large roar and it made me incredibly nervous. That night, my girlfriend Jane, who was road-managing for me, and I went to a party at one of those old mansions. Standing at the gate was like being at Studio 54 in New York. People all over the place who couldn't get in. A guard asked us for credentials. I kind of waxed passive and backed down. Jane, who was always trying to get me to use my existential edge, said, "Do you know who she is?" Well, she said my name and these kids standing at the gate went, "Aaaah," and sucked their breath in. My heart started to beat like crazy. I turned around and ran in the other direction like some crazed animal. I ran, and I ran, and I ran. I must've run about five blocks before I realized how strange my reaction was.

Speaking of strange reactions, right at the time I made Court and Spark, which was my most successful album, David Geffen was trying to sign Dylan for what turned out to be the Planet Waves project. David and I were sharing a house. I'd been working on Court and Spark under his nose, and maybe he heard it through too many stages, but I knew I was making something special.

I was so excited the night I finished it. I brought it back to the house to play it. There were a bunch of people there, including Dylan. I played Court and Spark for everyone, and Bobby fell asleep and snored all the way through it. When the record came to the end, the people went, "Huh?"

Then they played Planet Waves and everybody jumped up and down. There was so much enthusiasm. Now, Planet Waves wasn't one of Bobby's best projects, and I hadn't expected it to be a competitive situation, but for the first time in my career I felt this sibling rivalry. It was an ordinary record for Bobby, a transitional piece, and yet everybody was cheering. Finally, one of the women took me aside and said, "Don't pay them any attention. Those boys have no ears."

From the book Off The Record by Joe Smith - published 1988
Copyright 1988 by Unison Productions, Inc.
ISBN 0-446-51232-X

 

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