Biography: 1985-1989 Experimental 80's

by Wally Breese
JoniMitchell.com
January 1998

Land of snap decisions
Land of short attention spans
Nothing is savored
Long enough to really understand
In every culture in decline
The watchful ones among the slaves
Know all that's genuine will be
Scorned and conned and cast away...


In late 1984, Geffen Records wanted to hire synthesizer-wizard Thomas Dolby of "She Blinded Me With Science" fame as co-producer on the tracks that Joni and Larry Klein had been working on. Joni had written some angry songs and Larry and she were experimenting to get the right colors on modern machinery like their FAIRLIGHT CMI synthesizer. Joni told Digital Audio magazine: "Larry and I knew the sounds we were after, but it took us a long time to find them. Thomas was hired in that capacity...as a colorist and a player."

Joni did not want someone else re-decorating her music, so she agreed to hire Dolby only as a guide to the modern programming techniques that she and Larry were still learning.

Joni told the U.K's New Musical Express: "I was reluctant when Thomas was suggested because he had been asked to produce the record (by Geffen), and would he consider coming in as just a programmer and a player? So on that level we did have some problems." She also said about the collaboration with Dolby: "He may be able to do it faster. He may be able to do it better, but the fact is that it then wouldn't really be my music."


Following the recording of the mega all-star single "We Are The World" at the end of January 1985, Columbia Records wanted an albums worth of superstar songs for an April release date. Canada's contribution, a song called "Tears Are Not Enough," was recorded mostly on Feb. 10, 1985 and Joni, who had been in the studio starting work on her next album, flew in to Toronto to contribute her vocal lines along with the likes of Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bryan Adams (who wrote the words with his longtime partner Jim Vallance). The music had been written a day proir by David Foster.

Joni spoke to writer Iain Blair about her Northern Lights For Africa experience. She said: "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was literally starving when we did the session 'cuz my yoga teacher had sent me to a psychic dietician who, while rubbing her chin and swinging her arm around in a circle, had diagnosed a lot of food allergies. The result was, predictably, that I was hardly allowed to eat anything, so by the time I arrived with an apple and a rice patty, my poor stomach was making all these strange noises. Then we get in the studio, and the engineer says he can't record 'cuz he's picking up some weird rumbling sound coming from my direction. (She laughs). And it was all pretty ironic, considering the subject matter."

The song "Ethiopia" was written after the "We Are The World" album had been recorded, and in response to the songs on that album. Joni felt that the tunes were all from the point of view of the stars with their "We Can Change The World" themes, so she wrote "Ethiopia" from the point of view of an Ethiopian who was going thru the famine. The song also pointed out how any country could succumb to the same misfortunes.


Your top soil flies away--Ethiopia
We pump ours full of poison spray--Ethiopia
Between the brown skies and sprinkling lawns
I hear the whine of chain saws
hacking rain forests down
On and on--insanities
On and on--Short sighted greed abounds
Ethiopia--Ethiopia--Ethiopia...


At the Grammy Awards show on February 22, 1985, Joni and Dionne Warwick presented the final Grammy of the evening for Album of the Year to Lionel Richie for his mega-hit collection "Can't Slow Down."

In early 1985, Joni also split with her longtime manager Elliot Roberts, saying he was the one who needed a manager; they still remained friends. After a few weeks of trying to manage herself, Joni hired on with Peter Asher Management.

Joni, Larry, Thomas Dolby, and engineer Mike Shipley recorded and programmed for more than 7 months from February thru September until they felt that the tracks were ready for release. Since Joni is a night owl, the sessions were mostly wee-hour events with Larry assisting. Larry would then work on adding his bass lines to saxophonist Wayne Shorter's solo album each afternoon.

Two songs: "Fiction" and "Tax Free," were Larry's instrumentals for which Joni wrote words and music. His rhythm tracks caused her melody lines to come out in shorter phrases.

The use of modern technological machines, such as the FAIRLIGHT CMI and various drum machines caused the DOG EAT DOG album to be Joni's most expensive record to date.


When the album credits were printed for the album, Thomas Dolby was listed as a producer on most of the tracks on DOG EAT DOG, even though had Joni hired him only as a guide and an assistant. I suppose that his agreement with Geffen required this credit.

Some of the other musicians credited on DOG EAT DOG were Mike Landau on guitars, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and drum samples, Michael Fisher on percussion samples, Zyg Winard and Dan Marnien as engineering assistants, and Mike Shipley as engineer and co-producer.

Joni and Larry had a traffic accident on the Pacific Coast Highway in the summer of 1985 that they were lucky to survive when a drunk driver jumped the meridian and hit their car. Joni attributes their survival in good condition to the size of the automobile they were driving. "It was like a tank," Joni said.

In early September, Joni became part of a controversy and was treated unfairly by the press in Canada's B.C. provence. On what is called The Sunshine Coast near Vancouver, where Joni has had a house and property since the early 70's, a salmon fishing company had begun to build a huge $2 million plant. The other property owners, Joni's neighbors, asked her to join a protest aginst this enterprise that they believed could destroy the natural state of affairs in the area. Joni spoke to the press from her home in L.A. and said: "I thought I'd purchased a piece of wilderness, but it's being corrupted by industry." The Alberta Report newspaper took the side of the fish farm reporting that it would bring hundreds of jobs to the population who was heavily unemployed, and they claimed that Joni was not really a current resident and was rarely even in B.C. The salmon company complained that this was a case of a Hollywood celebrity trying to smear an honest fish business. I don't know exactly how this affair was settled, but at the price of sounding cynical, I'd bet that today there's a batch of fish farms on the Sunshine Coast.

The Farm Aid concert was held on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. Joni volunteered to perform at the benefit partly because her mother had grown up on a farm in Saskatchewan and Joni had always fancied herself settling down on a farm in her later years.


I picked the morning paper off the floor
It was full of other people's little wars
Wouldn't they like their peace
Don't we get bored
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones
Artifice, brutality and innocence
Artifice and innocence....


The DOG EAT DOG release party was presented as a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was held at the James Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles in October 1985, billed as: "Joni Mitchell, New Paintings New Songs", featuring a gallery full of large collage paintings done in her new abstract expressionism style. The new album played on a continuous loop throughout the gallery all evening long.

Joni spoke that evening to Alan Jackson, a writer for Britain's New Musical Express, about the new album and it's angry tone. She said: "I'm a witness to my times. We're all only a hairline and a few laws from incredible censorship. They're already trying to censor rock'n'roll. One of the reasons this album is so outspoken in the context of my work is that I think it's a case of use it or lose it."

This event got huge coverage from MTV, ET, Japanese TV, and many newspapers because it had a celebrity attendance that ensured notice. From Jack Nicholson to James Taylor to Christopher Cross to Sheena Easton, the list went on and on. The party was considered a huge success. Jack Nicholson told a writer that night: "It's very easy to repeat past successes. Joni hasn't done it, and that takes a lot of strength. Another thing I like about her is that she kind of dresses up cute. When she goes out, she makes an effort. She's a sweetie!"

Sometimes change comes at you
like a broadside accident
There is chaos to the order
Random things you can't prevent
There could be trouble around the corner
There could be beauty down the street
Synchronized--like magic
Good friends you and me...


The video for the first single "Good Friends" premiered on MTV on November 27, 1985. It was directed by Jim Blaschfield, who had found fame with his video for the Talking Heads "And She Was," by inserting color xerox images that move independently within the live action. The premiere of "Good Friends" was announced with some fanfare by MTV VJ Mark Goodman: "Joni Mitchell-at last!", but the video received only light airplay for the next 2 months.

In December, Joni & Larry continued the promotional junket in the U.K., doing Capitol Radio's "Rock Master Class" in front of a packed house at the Duke of Yorks Theatre in London. Joni talked, answered questions, and sang 3 songs including lovely solo-piano versions of "Dog Eat Dog" and "Impossible Dreamer," and a guitar take of "The Three Great Stimulants" with Larry in the background noodling around on the piano. Joni also improvised a piano instrumental tune for the rapt crowd of devoted Brits.

The critical response to DOG EAT DOG was mostly negative. Not surprisingly, the album turned out to be only a moderate seller, charting at #63 on Billboard's Top Albums chart. This was Joni's lowest chart position since her first album peaked at #189 almost 18 years before.

The video for James Taylor's new single "You Are My Only One" premiered on VH-1 in January 1986. In the film, Joni and Don Henley lip-synched to the background vocal tracks they'd recorded back in the summer of the previous year.

Also in January, Joni visited New York City and was a guest on Pete Fornatale's show "Mixed Bag," a well-respected series originating on New York radio station WNEW-FM. The retrospective approach used with Joni resulted in a three-hour program of album cuts and Joni's recollections on the songs, closing with a live performance of "The 3 Great Stimulants."

MTV reported in January that Joni had just recorded back-up vocals on Daryl Hall's new solo album, with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics producing. The song was called "Right As Rain," and it didn't appear on album until more than 2 years later.

Plans for a six month tour to start in the summer of 1986 were squelched when DOG EAT DOG was received with disappointment by most record buyers and sold poorly. Joni also didn't particularly want a rehash of the taxing tour of 1983, and preferred to stay home and paint.

The room was dark
And full of sharks
and I thought of you
I thought of you
Dreamer
Give peace a chance
Don't think just dance
Impossible
Impossible dreamer...


In early 1986 Larry was hired to play bass on 2 songs on Peter Gabriel's album "So," and to produce the first solo album from the Car's sideman Ben Orr. Joni went along with him when he traveled for an extended working-visit to the U.K. Peter's studio in Bath was called Ashcombe House, and since he had mostly finished his album, he offered Joni and Larry the use of his studio if they wanted to record. They did, of course, and the result was the beautiful track "My Secret Place" featuring a duet of Joni and Peter. Joni told Musician magazine about this song: "It's a love beginning song. The song's about the threshold of intimacy. It's a shared thing so I wanted it to be like the Song of Soloman, where you can't tell what gender it is. It's the uniting spirit of two people at the beginning of a relationship."

Peter's studio was directly in the takeoff path of planes from the U.S. Air Force base nearby. Seeing the planes fly off in formation triggered a memory song from Joni about an encounter she'd had back in the late '60's with an embittered Vietnam vet named Killer Kyle. The song was named "The Beat of Black Wings" and contains the line "...like a chalk mark in a rain storm", which would become the title of her next album.

At the Amnesty International Benefit "Conspiracy of Hope" held at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on June 15,1986, Joni was sandwiched in between Bryan Adams and U-2. The unruly crowd had been in the stadium for more than 6 hours when she went on. By then, they weren't very receptive to Joni's slow and plaintive song "The 3 Great Stimulants." At one point someone from the crowd tossed something onstage and it hit Joni's water glass causing the liquid to splash in front of her as the camera caught her blinking at the sudden trail of water. Before singing her next song, Joni chastised the crowd by saying "Save the bombs for later. I'm not that bad, you dig? Quit pitching shit up here!"

Joni says of this show: "I was asked to go on at the last minute, so we rehearsed backstage with borrowed equipment and went on and did 3 songs, and people threw things at me."

Another in a series of tiresome year-end awards from Rolling Stone came to Joni for her Amnesty show: Worst Performance of the Year.

In the summer of 1986, Joni released a U.K. only 12" single release of a very clever and fun remix of the track "Shiny Toys."

On Thursday 8/28/86, Joni joined other musicians such as Neil Young and Warren Zevon in a "Get Tough On Toxics" concert at Long Beach Arena. The show was a benefit for two propositions on the ballot that fall: Prop 65, which was an anti-toxic waste initiative, and Prop U, which was an attempt to control building development in the city of L.A. Joni played with a full band and performed a half dozen songs including "Cool Water," and a still wordless version of "Lakota."

Also in August, the video for Joni's second single from DOG EAT DOG premiered on VH-1. The track "Shiny Toys" was shot in black & white and mostly featured Joni lip-synching to the song and dancing and mugging aound L.A.

In February 1987, Joni saw Billy Idol performing his song "To Be A Lover" on the Grammy Awards show. She felt he captured the original spirit of rock'n'roll along with a new spark of energy, and would be perfect for a cameo on her song "Dancin' Clown" as a character named Rowdy Yates. Billy came over to Joni's studio one evening a few days after the Grammys and recorded his part, complete with yelps and howls. Joni told Macleans magazine about this pairing up: "It was for the contrast he provided. It's a great little cameo for him, and he brings real life to the part." Later, Tom Petty recorded his cameo on the same song as the shy boy named Jesse.

There's a man drawing pictures
On the sidewalk with chalk
Just as fast as he draws 'em
Rain come down and wash 'em off
"Keep the drinks comin' girl
'Til I can't feel anything
I'm just a chalk mark in a rainstorm
I'm just the beat of--
The beat of black wings"


A Showtime series "Coast to Coast" hosted by Herbie Hancock premiered on August 29. Joni was a guest on that first show for a jam session with Herbie, Bobby McFerrin, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, and Larry. The 2 songs they jammed on were Joni's compositions "Furry Sing the Blues," and a pepped-up latin-flavored version of "Hejira."

Jaco Pastorious, who had played on 4 of Joni's albums in the 1970's, died on 9/25/87 of injuries inflicted in a beating a few weeks earlier outside a nightclub.

The "Free Leonard Peltier Benefit" at the Pacific Ampitheater in Costa Mesa, Ca. held on October 28, 1987 featured Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Joni, and other socially-concious musicians. Joni performed with a band that included Larry on bass and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and premiered the song "Tax Free." The $90,000 raised was to be used to finance a new trial for Peltier who'd been convicted of killing 2 FBI agents during a politically charged dispute with Native American activists in the '70's.

In late 1987 Joni's favorite car, a Mercedes-Benz nicknamed "Bluebird" was stolen. She deeply missed the vehicle: She'd purchased it with her very first royalty check in 1969, so the sentimental value was great.

Rolling Stone had a 20th anniversary TV special which aired on ABC on December 2, 1987, and Joni talked at a few points during the program. Also shown was a bit of rare footage of Joni singing "Woodstock" on the Tom Jones Show in 1969.

The studio that would be called "The Kiva" was begun in very early 1988. It was built in what used to be the bedroom of Joni's Bel-Air house.

For the recordings on CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM, Joni and Larry continued experimenting with synthesizers, drum machines, & sequencers as they had on DOG EAT DOG, but the results were smoother and more listenable on these new tracks. Including their early sessions at Peter Gabriel's studio, they recorded in 9 different studios for this album.

On CHALK MARK, Joni said told interviewer Kristine McKenna: "I've discovered that with your focus no longer on finding a mate, you get a heightened sense of community, and I've become a bit more political- not too political though."

The album contained 8 new songs and 2 remakes: "Cool Water," with an appearance by Willie Nelson, and a recording from 1981 featuring Joni, Larry, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter called "A Bird That Whistles" (an update of the old blues tune "Corrina Corrina").

Three songs on CHALK MARK were co-composed with Larry, including two instrumentals, "Snakes And Ladders" and "Lakota," that he'd intended to give Robert Plant back in 1986. Plant had been searching for new songs, and had actually wanted to record Joni's bluesy "Number One," which he felt was a "man's" song, but Joni decided to keep the song for herself. Plant never did record any of either Joni's or Larry's compositions.

Some of the musicians credited on CHALK MARK were Manu Katche on drums, Steven Lindsey on organ, Michael Landau on guitar, Steve Stevens on lead guitar, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. Guest vocalists listed were Peter Gabriel, Ben Orr, Don Henley, Iron Eyes Cody, Wendy & Lisa, Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Julie Last, and Willie Nelson.

CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM was readied for release in March of 1988, but a pre-release single was serviced to radio stations in January with Joni's duet with Don Henley on her song "Snakes And Ladders." It received decent airplay on rock radio.

The official first single was "My Secret Place." It was released in March and "bubbled under" for a few weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The video, a gorgeous black & white film featuring Joni and Peter Gabriel, got a bit of video airplay on VH-1, where it premiered in May of 1988.

I'm going to take you to
My secret place
It's a place that you
Like no one else I know
Might appreciate
I don't go there with anyone--but
You're a special case
For my special place
For my secret place...


Larry Klein shot the photograph that was used as the cover of Joni's 15th album CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM.

Billboard magazine's Steve Gett reviewed the new album and awarded it an early rave. Other reviews were mostly very favorable, and the fact that there were cameos by many well-known musicians brought it a great deal of notice. The album easily bested DOG EAT DOG's chart position, peaking at a friendly #45 on the Billboard Top Album chart.

Joni and Larry went on a promotion jaunt for the album, covering big cities in the U.S. and Canada before going to the U.K. in the spring. While in England, Joni appeared on a music show called "Wired" and performed solo guitar and vocal on the song "Number One" from CHALK MARK, and unveiled a new tune she'd just written and never performed in public called "Night Ride Home."

On May 20th, Joni had a solo art exhibit at the Parco Gallery in Toyko that coincided with the release there of CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM. This show was her first "for sale" art exhibition.

To promote the album, Joni also travelled to Australia in late May, appearing on a few TV shows including "The Midday Show with Ray Martin," "Rock Arena" and a morning show called "Sunday" where she performed "Number One" and "Night Ride Home."

Sweaty work
And lucky breaks
And blood and tears is all it takes
To be a winner!
People cheer
And people gasp
People want your autograph
When you're a winner!
Run, run, run, run
Let's see you run
We'll be betting by the starting gun!
Shall we shower you with flowers
Or shall we shun ya
When your race is run?...


Joni and Larry traveled to Italy in October 1988 so that she could accept a songwriters award from the San Remo Song Festival. They performed a short set of live duets including "Night Ride Home," "Lakota," and a number from her middle period, "Hejira." She also accepted a lovely guitar-shaped award from the officials in recognition of her years of creative acheivement in songwriting.

A tour was planned and then canceled for the fall of 1988. The simple touring quartet probably would've consisted of Joni on vocal and guitars, Larry on bass, Manu Katche on drums, plus a second guitarist. Too bad we never got to see those shows.

In early January, Joni joined a "rainbow coalition" of famous folks in the arts and politics and presented an N.A.A.C.P. "Presidents Award" to Jesse Jackson. The ceremony was taped and shown around the country on a syndication basis.

In January 1989, the nominations for the 31st Annual Grammy Awards were announced and for the first time in more than a decade, Joni received a nomination in the Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female category. The nominees were:

On February 22, 1989 the Manhattan Transfer presented the Pop Female Grammy award, and sang a jazzy song called "She's the Most" as an intro to their reading of the nominations. When they read Joni's name, and she appeared on screen sitting in the sudience, it was a surprise to many because she usually didn't show for these types of events. Although she was a sentimental favorite, the tailwind behind Tracy Chapman and her first single "Fast Car" was just too strong, and Joni went home awardless. Ironically, Tracy was represented by Eliott Roberts, who was Joni's manager for 15 years from the beginning of her recording career thru early 1985.

In addition to his bass playing and co-production duties on Joni's albums, Larry produced Karen Peris' group The Innocence Mission in mid 1989, and later in 1990, a new group named Indio.

An all-star group gathered in Britain on March 5, 1989 to record "The Spirit of the Forest" single, with proceeds going to the Earth Love Fund for the preservation of the Brazilian rainforests. At the end of the month, recording on the single continued in New York City and it was there that Joni added her one line about saving the birds and the monkeys. Some of the other musicians and singers involved in the project were Chris Rea, XTC, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, Olivia Newton-John, Thomas Dolby, and Kate Bush.

A video of "The Spirit of the Forest" was released to video outlets on June 2 to coincide with United Nations Day.

On Saturday June 3rd, there was a worldwide broadcast of a U.N. benefit show called "Our Common Future." The multi-hour show featured performances live from New York City interpersed with short films about troubled areas around the world. Joni performed with Herbie Hancock, Larry, Wayne Shorter, and Andy Summers (formally of the Police). They were billed on-screen as "Herbie Hancock's Super Band" and Joni was tagged as Joni Mitchell Klein. Mrs. Klein and the super band's performance was joined in progress near the end of their first number "The 3 Great Stimulants." Joni then got about halfway through the second number "Night Ride Home" when the producers cut away to commercials. I think it was just a case of bad timing. If the network had gone on air from NYC at the beginning. of either of her songs, there would have been enough time for her to finish.

In September on HBO, the Jim Henson muppet series "The Ghost of Faffner Hall" featured Joni lip-synching to her newly-recorded studio version of the composition that would become the title song of her next album, "Night Ride Home." She hinted that her newest recordings were a gentler and sparser collection of songs, and said "It's kind of fun to hear it bared down again."

Once in awhile
In a big blue moon
There comes a night like this
Like some surrealist
Invented this 4th of July
Night Ride Home..."


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