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Joni Mitchell Has The Last Laugh Print-ready version

by Bill Flanagan
Musician Magazine
December 1985

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Joni Mitchell's songs pour from her soul , but her head gets in there, too. When Mitchell came up with the line "Sometimes change comes at you like a broadside accident," she first paired it with, "You get minor cuts and bruises, that's all/You could hammer out the dents." That was a cute little metaphor in the tradition of "Electricity" and "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," but the songwriter wasn't happy with it. After some fiddling she changed the second line to: "There is chaos to the order, random things you can't prevent."

That said more; perspiration added to the inspiration. Mitchell finished the song, called it "Good Friends," and cut it as a duet with Michael McDonald. A nice tune, if not as autobiographical as her best-loved work.

Then one night Mitchell and her husband, bassist Larry Klein, were driving down California’s Pacific Coast Highway when - BaBoom - a drunk driver plows right into them. Joni destroyed the windshield with her head, her car was totaled - but she and her husband both walked away okay. Sometimes autobiography is imposed from above.

"If we hadn't been driving a luxury car we probably would have been killed," Mitchell says. "That tank saved our lives." Which brings up a subject almost as central to Mitchell's recent work as autobiography: Money.

"I can't say that I don't like money," she admits, mentioning her penchant for buying out the local art store's whole supply of her favorite paint. "But I don't like what money does to people. I know I could live quite happily with so much less, but once you've had something and you come down to less you're really in danger of embitterment. No furry human animal likes to have less than they had before."

Dog Eat Dog, Joni Mitchell's new album, is full of the fruit of the root of all evil. Throughout the LP untaxed TV evangelists sprout hypocrisies while Ethiopian children suffer the fall-out of corporate greed. Mitchell has always been sensitive to social issues, from "The Fiddle And The Drum" to "Woodstock," but this latest collection represents her most sustained political statement. "There's danger in this land," she declares in one song, making no bones about her contempt for the rightward swing of the political pendulum. Hard to believe Joni and Neil Young go so far back together.

Melodically Dog Eat Dog continues in the pop vein of Mitchell's last LP Wild Things Run Fast. The arrangements, prone as ever to the songwriter's audio idiosyncrasies, make use of the Fairlight and other rich man's machinery.

Before the album began Larry Klein got up early mornings to take Fairlight lessons, and when recording started sonic scientist Thomas Dolby was brought in to act as co-producer/synth tour guide. But the new technology Mitchell employed never overpowers her material in the way that the jazz players on Mingus sometimes challenged her spotlight. Every sound on Dog Eat Dog serves its song. And the sounds need not
have been generated by high-tech gear to merit inclusion; on "Empty, Try Another," an ode to frustrated smokers, Joni used a cigarette machine for percussion. Tone colors add nuance to the pieces, but space is used as generously as virtuosity.

Maybe in the long run the biggest lesson Charles Mingus taught Joni Mitchell was how to know what not to say.

Dog Eat Dog is articulate, beautifully crafted and heartfelt. The only possible source of concern for long-time fans is that the pop figure who has written most movingly about love here all but ignores the subject. Could it mean that marriage is the antidote to romance?

"No," Mitchell smiles. "The last album was so dominantly about love, I guess for a while I just exhausted the field. You know, you plant wheat one year and maybe flax the next. I don't like to repeat myself too much."

Repeating herself has never been one of Mitchell's problems. She was the doe-eyed folkie of "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning," the confessional poet of Blue and For The Roses, and the slick pop craftsman of "Help Me" and "Free Man In Paris." At the height of her fame Mitchell began exploring unusual rhythms and long, droning structures with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, a still controversial album which, a decade after its 1975 recording, Prince said was the last album he loved. That gave Mitchell a big kick not because Prince is a superstar to a new generation (he's paid tribute to her by performing "Case Of You" live and dubbing a Time album Ice Cream Castles) but because he said it in Rolling Stone, the magazine that labeled Hissing the worst record of its year. Ten years later Mitchell still feels bad about that. She still feels bad, too, about the abuse she took for Mingus, a collection of collaborations initiated by the great bassist but not realized until after his death. That album cost Mitchell the world, but it helped her to realize her soul.

In Hollywood in the fall of '85 Joni Mitchell carries all these years, all that history, and all the contrasting impressions. Her manner as open and outspoken as her new songs, Mitchell is willing to answer any question and let the writer decide what's fit to print.

"I'm a pretty open person," she explains. "One of the reasons I have a rep for being reclusive is because I'm either open all the way or I'm shut down. There's a penalty you pay for going through life being an open person: You deliver information into the hands of people who will use it against you. So you pay the dues and after a certain point you have to withdraw to charge your batteries. Then you go out again when you get strong enough. I don't know how to keep things at arm's length. I'm a truth monger."

Do you ever feel you have an unfair advantage in a song? You get to tell the story from your perspective, and everyone hears your point of view. It must be rough on your subjects: "I Had A King," "The Last Time I Saw Richard."

I never thought of it as an unfair advantage. I often thought that in daily life there's an unfair disadvantage. It's the great afterthought. You say things to people and suddenly you're aware they think you're an asshole. You're not, but they don't have the background on what you meant and misinterpret it. I think songwriting is an advantage. All poetry is. I picked up a girl hitchhiking and she said, "I used to write poetry." I said, "What do you mean 'used to'?" She said, "I used to stutter. When I stopped stuttering I stopped writing poetry." I thought that was a great analogy. Because if you were really having a good time, if everything were going really well, if every communication you have in the course of the day goes smoothly and gives you a sense of unity with your fellow man, well what kind of day is that? Those are rare days. Nothing you say is misunderstood. For most people the day is full of misunderstandings. That's why they come home with nervous tension around their neck. They lie in bed and say, "Why didn't I say that!" The Great Afterthought.

So yes, it's a luxury to have a voice to be able to express these things. It doesn't matter if it's private, just to write it down helps. And the process of making this thing - a poem or a painting - probably prevents cancer.

But sometimes you really nail somebody. Like in "Just Like This Train."

Oh that was intentionally mean. "I hope your hairline recedes" [laughs]. That was mean. That was the meanest I ever got, though. You should've heard the first draft for "Carey!" Oh, that was a mean song. I wrote it for this guy's birthday. He was very mean to me, but he was a character and I liked him anyway. He just picked on me unnecessarily. It could have been anyone, any woman. So for his birthday I wrote him this song and after every verse said, "Oh, you're a mean old daddy but I like you." It had a few stings. I'm a double Scorpio, you know. Supposedly that makes me a stinger. I think I've pulled a lot of punches, considering what the stars endowed me with.

If you have a power, you can use or abuse it. I really enjoyed playing clubs for about forty people. I liked being center of attention. It was like being the life of the party. That I could handle. When it got to the big stage I found that I didn't enjoy it. It frightened me initially. I had a lot of bad experiences, including running off many a stage. I just thought it was too big for me, it was out of proportion. This kind of attention was absurd. I never believed that there were that many people who felt and thought that way, since I hadn't run into it as an individual. There was something deceptive about it. So I couldn't enjoy that power.

At that point I decided, "Okay, if you're going to worship me you'd better know who you're worshipping." Let me be on a pedestal that is not separating so much.

That was a conscious choice. It was a turning point. It was almost testing people. "How much human frailty can you take from your stars?" I think in retrospect it was worth it.

I don't like receiving things that don't mean anything. I couldn't get work in these little piddling clubs, and then I couldn't believe that suddenly overnight all these people loved me for the same songs. These same people sat in clubs when I was the opening act and talked through my show. Now suddenly they were rapt? I wanted to see where they were at. I wanted to show them where I was at.

I had a great seventh grade English teacher who told me it was important to write in my own blood. And I had become a fan of Thus Spake Zarathustra: "The Poet is the vainest of the vain, even before the ugliest of water buffalo doth he fan his tail. I've looked among him for an honest man and all I've dredged up are old god heads... He muddies his waters that he may appear deep." And on and on, insulting the poet mentality. His disciple says, "But Zarathustra, how can you say this? Aren't you a poet?" And Zarathustra says, "How
else do I know?" [laughter]. And at the end he says, "But I see a new breed. They are the penitents of spirit. They write in their own blood." And I thought, "Yeah, that's the only way to do this with any kind of dignity." I don't think I even thought about the risk. I just thought this had to be done. But then you find out that when you get slammed, it's you that's getting slammed, not your act. Everything is that much more personal.

When Dylan sang, "You've got a lotta nerve..." I thought, hallelujah, man, the American pop song has grown up. It's wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can write about. Up until that time rock 'n' roll songs were pretty much limited to "I'm a fool for ya baby."

Actresses often complain that there are no good parts for women. In my job I have the luxury of creating a soliloquy that I think is valuable at the time. So out of the nonsense that pours from my pen, I have to do my own censorship based on what I want to put into the world. What do I think is nurturing, what do I think is valuable.

Like that line in "Just Like This Train." I thought, do I really want to say this? It seemed like a valuable human line. If I were given that line to read in a play I'd think "What a pithy part!" Obviously not all of what a person is, feels, thinks is worthy of putting in a song. You don't have to display your asshole any more than you have to limit yourself to only heroic roles. I guess the best of it would be to chronicle as much as possible the heroic parts of your thinking as well as your frailties, so you give a balanced picture. That's what makes a good part in any art form. Otherwise it becomes a caricature.

The tonal colors on your new album are beautiful. That was a great strength Charles Mingus had.

Charles was a very poetic character. He was a very open person. His nature had a larger spectrum of display than anybody I ever met. Now I met him when he was paralyzed and couldn't really do the violence he was capable of. But he was a very open person and very vulnerable. He cried easily and got angry easily and couldn't stand bullshit. If he thought a guy was faking his notes, playing jive, showing off, he was liable to come swinging at the guy right on the bandstand. He was very true in a certain way and kind of crazy because of it. That's my take on him, anyway. I may have romanticized it some because I was so fond of him.

I hope this isn't touchy, but what you just said made me think of a lot of Jaco Pastorius playing with you. I often felt he wasn't playing for the song, he was just playing for Jaco.

Well that's Jaco. Jaco had at that time what I thought was a beautiful inflamed ego. He had a huge ego and it offended a lot of people, but I didn't mind it. He'd say things like "I'm the baddest I ain't braggin,' I'm just tellin the truth." He was one of the few other people I ever met who thought Nietzsche was funny. We used to laugh about "Thus Spake Zarathustra." Jaco was a good friend, I enjoyed his company. But as he got on the scene, he kind of went too far over the other way. He used to push his bass up in the mix. Everybody thought it was because he was my new boyfriend! They'd say, "You can always tell who Joni's going with by who's loudest in the mix." But he was just such an absolutely dominant male that I couldn't control him.

As a matter of fact he said to me one time, "Joni you've got to take more control of your sessions!" And right after that we had this session in New York with a great band: Don Elias on drums, John McLaughlin on guitar, Tony Williams on kit and Jaco. It was a great band! It was during the Mingus project, and there was no chemistry that night. Jaco was up on McLaughlin that night, playing in his ear. It was a duet as far as Jaco was concerned. I said to Elias, "Watch this. Jaco says I've got to take command of the band." So I went up and said right in his ear, "Jaco!" Nothing. No response. I'm in his ear saying his name and he's still playing all his flashy licks for McLaughlin. At that point he was a monster. You couldn't get his attention.

But I liked his playing enough, he was such an innovator, that in a way I was proud to present him. Even though those mixes are awful because of it. It's his solo and I'm the background singer. And I allowed that to happen on my own date. But one of the things I like about being my own producer is that I get to make my own mistakes. I've got no one to blame. I can just chalk it up to experience.

Do you feel Mingus' influence in your current work?

Oh yeah. Even in the coffee houses folk musicians were divided into two camps: those who played Gibsons and those who played Martins. And the Gibson players played the blues and the Martin players preferred more melodic English and Irish ballads. To tell you the truth, the blues never really registered for me at that point. Although I had great opportunities to see Mississippi John Hurt, it wasn't enough. I didn't get it. It didn't come out of my roots. I went for the Anglo-melodic.

Charles pulled me through the die of - very sophisticated - blues. His music was based on blues - with this wide polyphonic harmony that I had gradually gotten into, ironically, because of the open guitar tunings. Those tunings originally come from black blues players, but I had modernized them by putting them into very broad twentieth century harmony. Being pulled through the die of his more sophisticated blues on the other side of it, all the blues opened up. So he did me this one service. I don't think up until that point I could really sing rock 'n' roll. Now my roots have changed. I can feel that as if it's part of my being. It's not pretension. It's a spirit.

Was part of the reason you moved away from standard pop forms to avoid competing with your past work? Did you say, "I don't want to have to do Blue again?"

I'm as fickle as anyone. I'm part of this culture, too. I crave change and I assumed that I was in sync with my times and other people needing change would be able to follow. Why would you want to repeat yourself? You want to show some kind of growth. I had no choice but to go with jazz musicians - I tried to play with all of the rock bands that were the usual sections for James Taylor when we made our transition from folk to folk rock. They couldn't play my music because it's so eccentric. They would try, but the straight ahead 2/4 rock 'n' roll running through it would steamroller right over a bar of 3/4. My music had all these little eccentricities in it, and it would just not feel right to me. Finally one bass player said, "Joni, you know really you should be playing with jazz musicians." People used to call my harmony weird. In context of today's pop music it's really not weird, but it was much broader polyphonic harmony than was prevalent ten, fifteen years ago. Now, much of it has been assimilated. But they couldn't figure out how to play those chords. In the standard tuning they're really virtuosic chords. The way I'm playing them in open tuning you can do it all with one finger. So with a simple left hand I was getting these chords that I liked the sound of, but which look like minor ninth inversions. Write these chords out and they have long names. So that's when I started playing with the L.A. Express and while they could play the changes, a jazz drum kit is light compared to a rock 'n' roll kit. The two camps were so orthodox then. They didn't like each other. Rock 'n' rollers were down on jazz. They thought it was too cool and they had all sorts of slanderous things to say about it and vice-versa. The two camps were absolutely polarized at that time, and l found few exceptions. I couldn't find anybody who liked both. Now there's a new generation, there's a whole crop of Berklee students who started in high school playing rock 'n' roll, went on to a higher musical education, studied classical music, can sight read, spent some time playing in jazz bands, and love heavy metal. Now, I know dozens and dozens of players, but there wasn't then. So I had no choice but to play with the virtuosity available. Just people who could understand these little rhythm changes. Otherwise, I was going to have to just play by myself. So, all things transpired in a natural order. I did one album cover dressed up like a black man; Charles Mingus who was dying saw it, and called me to write his epitaph. And who would refuse a thing like that?

I've never been a jazz musician, but I have been called jazz in the rock 'n' roll press. And jazz - they don't want to have anything to do with me! "Who is this Joni-come-lately?" So I'm a person without a country now. All because I'm an eclectic, I like a lot of different kinds of music. So I went through this kind of persecution which culminated with the Mingus album, because when I moved to do that the jazz camp was all up in arms, considered me an opportunist. Little did they know that album cost me everything. They stopped playing me on the radio. Because I did not fit into any orthodox camp. The record company, Joe Smith, sent a letter saying, "In all my years in business, I have never been so honored as to present this album." Then he shipped five copies! [laughter] So few copies went out, that the thing actually began to move up the charts! I mean, they sold ten pieces or something like that, but there were reorders coming in, so now the thing is going up the charts - it sold nothing because they shipped nothing - and it passes Carly Simon, whose thing is selling a lot. I heard about this because she found out and she was p.o.'d! I don't blame her. This shows you how the charts can be misleading. I've been out here in no-man's land, where jazz is a dirty word to the record company. The thing that killed me in playing this record was one of the executives heard "Lucky Girl" and he said, "I really like this one - it's good. It's jazzy!" I thought I'd die. Suddenly, jazz is hip! They're thinking about putting this thing out as a single because Sting - with all his personal power from being a huge pop star and craving virtuosity - has now made the possibility of playing with virtuosos and still being popular kind of hip. So go figure.

I've heard several people say about Sting's project "Isn't this what Joni Mitchell was doing years ago?"

Doesn't matter who did what where or when, I consider it excellent. When I did it, obviously I did not have enough personal power to make the thing open up. And he does. The fact that he's doing this kind of music and selling a lot of records is good for the whole industry. Because there's now a lot of really good music on the airwaves that went to #1; it's not dumb music. Not only Sting, but what's this little English group now - Tears for Fears. That's a great album, it's a very musical album. It's almost like a symphony with a little bit of pop vocal. A lot of musicality there. The fact that it went to #1 thrills me. Because it was always my optimism that eventually we would have an American music - it wouldn't be all divided into these little cliquey camps - this is idealism speaking - that an artist would not be persecuted for a diverse interest in music. It seems to me a crime against the artistic impulse to persecute a person for being broad-minded. I would like to see that change - I don't care who does it. Sting can do it - Hallelujah! It can only bode well.

You were rumored to be about to work with the Police a few years ago.

Yeah. I put in a call because more than any band that I had heard in a long time I thought there was a band intact that could play this music, that would understand it. In a way what they were doing was kind of what I heard in the back of my head. I love the Police. They were mixing up in Montreal and I was going to ship up there. I forget what happened. Oh, I met my husband and his band! And we started working together. So all things fell in.

Marriage and all its icons - has a double-edge in your songs. There's a great attraction but there's also a resistance to it as a trap. Now that you're married have your feelings about it changed?

I like my marriage. It's the kind of relationship I was looking for in a marriage. While the singles game is real exciting - and we like excitement - it's pretty repetitious. In the excitement of a new relationship, you're mutually charming. You run your best stories and show off your best aspect and you have this enthralled audience. It's very exciting, but it's very hectic. If you had to stay in that space the early
courtship is nerve-wracking. It's very hard on the nervous system. You can't live there. And yet some people get an appetite for that romantic thing and spend their whole lives going only for that. The only way you can keep a relationship alive for a long time - and it's a hard thing to do - is to not get an image, to never think you know the other person. Every time you see that person fresh, when you don't see them through a collected image you've stored up, it's right back to the beginning of the relationship. Everything is new and exciting. But you have a tendency to build up images of people. As soon as you look at your loved one with this file you've built up—"There he is, he always leaves the cap off the toothpaste"—things begin to deteriorate.

Leonard Cohen said years ago that marriage is the new church. I ditto that. Relationship is everything. Obviously both people have to have patience. Everybody is a pain in the ass sometimes. But you can't run out the first time a person is burdensome. I'm really glad I'm married. It frees me up in a lot of ways.

There's an awful lot of anger in Dog Eat Dog. That will surprise people.

Yeah. I want to ask you a question. Do you feel angrier in general this year than you did last year? Do you feel an increase?

No. I think I felt worse right around the time Reagan was elected. Things like Nicaragua make me feel bad, but I can't say I feel worse.

I just wondered. Because it is an angry album, and I have felt more angry in the last year, I would say. Some of it's personal and some of it is general - that's what my antenna is picking up. I just noticed an increase in my outrage at the general direction of things. At the way the government dispenses authority and money, and the Star Wars insanity and all that business. It's an angry album.

Was "Ethiopia" written for the We Are The World album?

No, it was written after the fact. It was written after I did the Canadian Band-Aid thing. "We Are The World" is a beautiful idea. I believe that we are the world - it's a very idealistic idea, but a good one. I just felt that in singing the words that the general overtone of these anthems was self congratulatory and that there's another way to look at we are the world; it can narrow down to simply "we." All this heroism. In all the big charity events of the past - Bangladesh, No Nukes - a lot of self-congratulation went on, and everybody that appeared in these things was "the new consciousness," and inevitably it did all their careers some good and everything - and the money never got to the people. Never. It got stripped off by the government, by the inevitable expenses of presenting such a thing. It never got there.

So, you say well why do you go to those things? You go there with optimism that if you gain an inch, it's worth it.

You can take these evangelists with their tax-free, the government doesn't take the cut, so the chances are if they were true benefactors, which is how they present themselves, that they are in a position where that would not happen. They have direct access to money and they can actually put it into effect without anybody stripping it off. But it gets stripped off in the production cost of the hundred and one million reels that are running and these things which are broadcasting their message all over the place. That's the truth and the irony of it.

Are many of your songs completely fictional?

When I first started writing, I used to write more fictionally. The first three albums were more or less characters, like "Marcy." Like any fiction writer there was some basis in something that happened, but after the Blue album I went through a period where I wrote very personal songs. I did a series of self-portraits, scrapings of the soul and I went through that for a long time. By the time I got to Hissing Of Summer Lawns I was back to doing portraits again. By that point, people were used to me being a confessional artist and the result of that subtle change was a lot of people didn't like Hissing because if I was saying "I'm" like this, that "I" could either be them - if they wanted it to be - or if it got too vulnerable, they could go "it's her." But the moment I started doing portraits again, saying "you," a lot of people saw themselves more than they wanted to. Then they would get mad at me. That happened a lot. "Shades Of Scarlet Conquering" for instance, is a portrait of somebody. I had girls come up to me after that really mad and say "Who do you think you are?" There's no way you can control how people interpret or what they see in those things. It has nothing to do with you really.

Fifteen years ago it was perfectly acceptable for a man to sit down and sing about the whole range of his emotions. But now it's not. Of all the new groups on MTV the one who sounds like the most interesting person to me is Aimee Mann of 'Til Tuesday....

Yeah, exactly! Because nobody for a long time has really dared to put back the anxiety. It's true. I think that's really astute.

Every male rock artist now measures himself against Bruce - and the way most of them do it is to get out there and strike a leather jacket pose. I don't think that a new guy can come on and expose himself the way that James Taylor did fifteen years ago and get away with it. Yet people accept it from a woman.

Do you think they accept it from a woman? I don't know. The feedback that I get in my personal life is almost like, "You wanted it, libertine!" I feel like I'm in the same bind. That's not going to stop me, I'm still going to do it but I don't feel like I have the luxury because of my gender to do this. Uh uh. It's just as hard. The things that to me as a writer have the most vitality are those kind of details. Those are the things that would make a novel or a screenplay good and have some depth as opposed to just being a caricature. I sacrifice myself to them. I've never really sat that easy. I just don't know any other way to be. If I could think of a way to change and get consistently strong so that I could sing about strong, it's a delicate thing. I wouldn't go putting it into a gender bag at all.

But I know what you mean about Aimee. A guy could not get up and deliver that. But I don't think there are many people that can, period. For the people that can, it's not even a risk; it's just kind of an inevitability.

Do you ever feel like you gave away too much?

I remember when Blue was first recorded that was the first really confession kind of writing. It was like, nothing left to lose let's spit it out, and when it was finished I went over a friend's house and Kris Kristofferson was there. I played it. He said, "Joni, save something for yourself." It was hard for him to look at it. There was an odd sense of respect, like it was a Diane Arbus photo book or something. I've heard some of the writing called that, and yet I find it hard to relate to those images. These are not strange people in the basement of apartment buildings. These are all of us.

The big difference is that Diane Arbus' photographs make the ordinary seem grotesque - while Blue makes it beautiful. It's a real nice combination of emotional truths that everybody can relate to, with literal specifics - the map of Canada - that make it hit home. You really touched something with that album. It's just about unequaled.

I'll just tell you, though, about what you have to go through to get an album like that. That album is probably the purest emotional record that I will ever make in my life. In order to get that clean... you wouldn't want to go around like that. To survive in the world you've got to have defenses. And defenses are necessary but they are in themselves a kind of pretension. And at that time in my life, mine just went. They went and you could call it all sorts of technical things. Actually it was a great spiritual opportunity but nobody around me knew what was happening. All I knew was that everything became kind of transparent. I could see through myself so clearly. And I saw others so clearly that I couldn't be around people. I heard every bit of artifice in a voice. Maybe it was brought on by nervous exhaustion. Whatever brought it, it was a different, undrug-induced, consciousness. When the guy from the union came to the studio to take his dues I couldn't look at him. I'd burst into tears. I was so thin-skinned. Just all nerve endings. As a result, there was no capability to fake. The things that people love now - attitude and artifice and posturing - there was no ability to do those things. I'll never be that way again and I'll never make an album like that again.

Have you seen Scorsese's After Hours?


Everything bad that could happen to the hero happens. This woman invites him to her house, she's got peace symbols all over, and she puts on a Monkees' record. He's sitting there depressed and she goes, "Oh, you're crying!" He says, "Yes I've been through a tough experience." She goes, "Don't worry, " and runs over, takes off the Monkees and puts on "Chelsea Morning."

It's a pill. Like a Kleenex. I remember Paul McCartney said he didn't mind being an aspirin for a generation at all.

I think some people identified with your stuff so strongly that they not only don't want to see you change - but they don't want to be reminded of all the vulnerability they once felt. Maybe in 1971 Blue exposed everything they were feeling. Now they might have toughened up, grown up. You remind them of who they used to be.

That's why I was so pleased when Prince said Hissing was his favorite. You know, that album was called all sorts of awful names, of all my children, that was the one that really got beat up on the playground. So for him to say that in the same rag that kind of started the war against it was a treat for me. When I listen to it I don't see why it was so hated really, but one thing that I did was I changed "I" to "you." Dylan sang a lot of personal things saying you. As a male that's better. It's easier for a man to go "you." I'm sure that when he says "you," part of it is actually a "you" and some of it is an "I." But I hadn't used that device. I had been writing "I" this and "I" that. And it was easier to stomach or something because when I started writing "you" people said, "Who does she think she is?" And "Why is she taking pot shots at us?" This simple dramatical device became a large point of contention. That constituted an enormous change for some of my fans.

It would be like a person you knew who was sort of wimpy. If a person you met when they were vulnerable suddenly got strong it would threaten you, because you have to readjust your role. Now your friend is not someone you protect or comfort. They are standing on both feet. How nice did you treat them? What was going through your mind? Will they get you now? What will they think now that they're strong? Sometimes somebody's strength makes another person weak. Some people have a hard time making those transitions.

You wrote a pretty funny letter to Musician about Rickie Lee Jones.

Oh... I can just see me when I'm an old woman writing nasty letters-to-the-editor all over the country.

She made a crack in Musician about Linda Ronstadt trying to sing jazz, and you wrote that jazz wasn't a private sidewalk; anybody who wants to can walk there.

She said that Peter Asher had appeared at a concert of hers, and she knew for sure that night that he would go and tell Linda to do a jazz album because jazz was now hip. What she didn't know was that Linda had this idea to do those albums with Nelson Riddle all on her own, had no support. Peter was chewing his arm up to the elbow thinking, "Oh God, this is terrible, this could kill her!" Just like Mingus. It was very risky.

Losing another one to jazz.

Yeah. This did not look like a good move. She did it purely on her own impulse. It was something she wanted to do. It was completely her own idea and her own artistic motivation. So at first I tried to write the letter from that tack and then I thought of Geraldine Campbell when I was a kid. She used to chase me with a hatchet if I crossed in front of her house. If I'd go up the back alley she'd be there saying "This is my property. You can't cross over it!" And I thought, man, it was like Rickie was possessing jazz. It was there before her, it'll be there after her. I was dabbling in jazz and being persecuted for it by the time she had some public success with it. And I'm not the innovator of it, I didn't invent it. It's all a totem pole.

Well, just to take this completely to National Enquirer level, do you feel Rickie Lee has lifted stuff from you?

No. I can feel she's influenced by me, but she's made it her own. First picture I saw of her, though, I thought, "Where did they get that picture of me?" She was smoking a brown cigarette, she has a turned up nose and a long space above her lip which makes our faces there kind of similar, and her hair was long and sandy and she had this beret on. I used to wear a beret all the time. I didn't see the name at first and I thought, "Oh no! They've put out a Greatest Hits or something." And then I looked and it said. "The Real Thing." And I thought, wait a minute! We don't look that much alike but this one photograph, the way it was angled and all these little details, looked exactly like me.

But in her music she's got her own synthesis. I hear a lot of Tom Waits, I hear a lot of Laura Nyro, I hear myself. I hear various influences. Some early black rock 'n' roll girl singing. I don't hear that much jazz. That's what I don't understand. I don't think of her as a jazz singer. I don't know where she gets that idea she's a jazz singer. Any more than I am or Laura is. We're not. That's kind of a traditional form. It has some kind of modality and chord structures we all borrowed from, but I don't think you could call any of us jazz singers.

I think what Rickie Lee is thinking of is more what a novelist would pick up about jazz; the wet streets and smoky saloons.

I know, it's more environmental. Because when I did the album with Charley (Mingus) an article came out and she got really mad at me in it. And I thought, well, maybe she played in a lot of clubs and got a lot of comparisons to me and wants-to kill mommy or something. At this point she probably hates me just 'cause she heard my name a lot. Well-meaning people used to say to me, "Gee, you sound just like Peter, Paul & Mary."

Anyway, she said that she could sing jazz and I couldn't because I didn't walk on the jazz side of life. And I thought, "What does that mean? Do you have to shoot up to like this music? What is 'the jazz side of life'?" Who's to say? She doesn't even know me. She doesn't know if I'm straight or....

Maybe you are on the jazz side of life.

Maybe I am.

For all we know you're the Charlie Parker of the 80s.

For all you know I'm a bad junkie with a spit shine on my shoes.

Blinded With Science:

"For years I played a Martin D-28. When I went electric, I went to an Ibanez George Benson. I have five of them all set up differently to contain the different tunings. I play in open tuning, so they have to be specially worked on, 'cause to hold that on an electric guitar is kind of tricky. On an acoustic, you just twiddle the knobs and do it the best you can, but on an electric, we had a little bit of work done on all of them. So they hold families of tunings with different weights of strings to balance up the tensions that that creates. With open tunings those electronic tuners don't work that great. You have to compensate. Say you have a slack bass string that's going to be flapping around anyway; to get true pitch to measure on those things is tricky. You almost have to play the first four or five chords of a piece of music to get it relatively in tune between the low chords and the higher-up-the-neck chords.

"Dog Eat Dog was written the old way on acoustic piano and guitar and then translated over to electronics. But now that I have all this equipment, I noticed in the process of playing around with it that starting with it would make you write differently. In a Fairlight setting where your sample has a pulse, if you hold it down, every note the pulse rate is different. If it's not looped quite right it speeds up and down.

"For instance, on a particular chord I really liked the tempo of the beat in the sample. So I was thinking to lay about four minutes of holding this down. This would be: your click track. Now, it would keep me from modulating, because the sample was a chordal sample; it wasn't a single note. It was a chord with a pulse so if you laid down four minutes of that and then began to add your chordal movement against that, it would make a monochromatic kind of music that I've never done, because I'm a modulation freak. I jump all over the place. I'm sure playing with the equipment will change the way I write."

Found Sound:

I assume the cigarette machine sound on "Empty Try Another" is a Fairlight sampling.

No. On the last record, three years ago, we were particularly bogged down in the studio. No progress. I went outside. They had a cigarette machine in the parking lot and the man who serviced it hadn't come very regularly and during the course of the record first my favorite brand was out, then my next favorite brand, and then it was down to Camel plains and Kools. It got to be, even for a hard core smoker, a disgusting choice. So one night we were bogged down and we needed to shake something up, so I said, "Skip, get the long extension cord. We're gonna tape the cigarette machine." When you hit the open channel the light would come on and it would say, "Empty, try another/make another selection" and the gears made that sound. So that's not even a loop - we recorded four minutes just playing the cycle, and then Larry played bass on it, and I put this chant on it. It didn't fit on the last record which was thematically kind of a romantic album, my love album, so I decided to put it on this.

Everyone kept saying, "Why don't you sample it?" And I thought, "Why would you want to sample it? It sounds good. We could spend days trying to synthesize that sound. The same thing happened on "The Three Great Stimulants." I made a super-8 movie of a wall of graffiti in SoHo. When I got the film back I couldn't believe what I heard in the background; there was a guy hammering and a burglar alarm going off in that natural amphitheatre of New York City. The concrete resonance gave it this incredible foreboding sound. So when we started putting together "The Three Great Stimulants," I wanted a five beat punctuation with that sound: "Deep in the Night," Bam Bam Bam Bam. Everybody was critical of the fidelity of it but I thought, "We'll be here for days diddling with machines and I'll never get that sound again."

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Added to Library on April 7, 2000. (14028)


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SamShepard on

I had a subscription to Musician Magazine at that time and watched the whole thing go down. It's funny to read about it so many years later.