Queen Joni Holds Court

by Bruce Elder
Sydney Morning Herald
May 31, 1988

It is not every press conference which starts and ends with a song. Joni Mitchell, the heroine of the hippie generation, is holding court. This is no ordinary gathering. The room is tiny. There are no more than twelve people---and all are reverential. She sits down with her guitar, smiles, leans forward slightly, and says: "It seems to me that sometimes the talk gets so far away from the music that I would like to start by playing a brand-new song."

It is vintage Joni. "Once in a while / In a big blue moon / There comes a night like this." The distinctive guitar, the beautiful voice. There's not a hint of journalistic cynicism here. This is the court of Queen Joni: only one radio station (2JJJ-FM), no TV, and a bevy of fans masquerading as journalists, who, as the conference ends, ask for another song and then line up for photographs and autographs. Suddenly the room becomes a folk club. She closes her eyes. Her head is raised slightly, showing those sharp, high cheekbones. She finishes and the tiny audience claps enthusiastically.

"So I still write love songs," she says, flashing a smile and opening proceedings. No-one can quite match Joni Mitchell as the emotional voice of the baby boom generation. Bob Dylan and John Lennon can make legitimate claims, but their voices were essentially political and the causes they championed were fashionable and intellectual.

Mitchell mined an altogether more difficult and more important seam. She explored the realm of the senses---the realms of love, romance, freedom, liberation, vulnerability and suffering---at a time when, because of changing moral and sexual values, everything was in a state of flux.

Her life and art became one. She wrote directly from her experiences. As the newly liberated woman loving the company of men, she explored the complex world which lay between femininity (the romantic and the vulnerable) and feminism (the freedom and the liberation).

She did this through a cycle of songs spread over the 10 albums she released between 1968 and 1977. It is a body of work which articulated the uncertainties of a generation of women while alerting men to their need to understand the struggle for emotional re-definition.

It was serious and complex material and Mitchell approached it with the rigor of a poet and composer. Her imagery was profound and exciting, her themes complex and ambiguous, and her insights were honest and uncompromising.

On her first album, in the song "Cactus Tree," she portrayed herself as a woman loved by men, but incapable of settling down because she loved so many. This theme was reworked over and over on songs like "Both Sides Now," "Blue," "A Case of You," "Carey" and "The Circle Game."

They were articulate, unsentimental explorations of the insoluble tensions which existed between freedom and vulnerability. It wasn't until 1976 and her widely recognized masterpiece, Hejira, that Mitchell reached a point where she acknowledged that freedom and rootlessness were painful. In a song called "Amelia" she reached the painful truth: "Maybe I've never really loved / I guess that is the truth / I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes."

It wasn't until she was nearly 40 that she descended from those "icy altitudes" and "crashed into the arms" of the jazz bass player Larry Klein. They were married in 1982. Mitchell recorded the less-than-wonderful Wild Things Run Fast as a celebration of her love and marriage. Since then, the love song has all but disappeared from her repertoire.

"In the natural order of things," she once confessed, "your primary instinct as an animal is to find your mate. When you do and settle into your family, then you turn your attention to the civic. You begin to expand. Love is taken care of. I'm A late bloomer: I didn't find my mate till I was almost 40."

In this she was still being the truly modern woman. But for many women who had associated Mitchell with the wider cause of feminism, a happy, almost blissful, and perhaps "suburban" marriage was a betrayal. They argued that the cause was larger than the individual. They did not understand that Mitchell's cause was the individual.

There is no doubt that, after a seemingly endless string of love affairs with people such as James Taylor, David Crosby, Neil Young and Graham Nash, her marriage to Klein is one of those rare relationships built on self-knowledge, self-confidence and trust. They enjoy working together and have shared production credits on both Dog Eat Dog (1985) and her recent album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

So what is left to an artist when the reason which has fueled her creative endeavor for nearly two decades is suddenly, and under very happy circumstances, removed?

"You have ideas. You have feelings, flashes of insight. You have all of these areas to draw from. At a time when I was introverted I wrote from my insides. At a time when I am more gregarious I write more about what is around me. It's the same process; it's just different perspectives. Also, when you're a kid you're looking to find out who you are. As you get older you're still examining yourself and watching. But the work has always been intimate."

But artists are rarely the best judges of their own work and Mitchell is no exception. In middle age, and with love no longer a central theme, she has moved away from the primacy of the lyric and made an entire album which explores the textures of sounds, particularly the fascinating textural interplay which is possible with vocal duets.

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm sets Joni Mitchell's striking voice and highly distinctive phrasing in a series of exciting and unusual contexts. On "My Secret Place" she duets with Peter Gabriel, on "Cool Water" she reworks the old country classic with Willie Nelson, and on the hit "Snakes and Ladders" she works with ex-Eagle Don Henley.

The [press] conference winds to a close. Someone asks humbly, "Joni, what will we have to do to deserve another song?" She picks up her guitar and with an ease born of years of experience delivers an acoustic version of "Number One" from her new album. It is again greeted with applause followed by a flurry of album covers and photographs and eager requests for autographs. Everyone wants a memento. A photographer is kept busy snapping journalists with their heroine. Queen Joni is gracious and obliging. One person enthusiastically declares, "That's the best conference I've ever been to."

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