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A Weekend with Joni Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
November 1, 1999

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As some of you know, Joni invited me down to LA for the weekend recently to listen to the tracks from her new album of standards, hang out and get acquainted. I daydreamed a wide range of possibilities as I excitedly prepared for the trip to Southern California, thinking about what my hopes had been when I started the homepage: I know I'd always hoped Joni would appreciate the quality and intent of, and the fact that the Web can do good things for her. I hoped she'd know that this project had my heart in it, in it's purest form. Underneath it all, I think I really wanted to feel that Joni would come to consider me a friend.

My best friend Jim (who most of you know already) and I rode with my old friend Demetrious (who resides in L.A.) as he deftly avoided the LA traffic, getting us to Joni's Spanish style house for a 2:30 Saturday afternoon (Oct. 23rd) lunch date. We briefly gave ourselves a partial, unexpected outside tour as we walked around to the wrong door. At one point in the back of the house, pillars support the overhanging roof, forming a shady walkway along the perimeter. A stone porch leads off into the back yard. Past the porch, the naturally terraced yard drapes down to a lower level, with a pool and gazebo.

We finally made it to the right place, and Joni invited us in; she wasn't quite ready yet. After a few greetings and "how was your trip?" cordialities, she recounted a dream she'd had the night before. Listening to Joni describe the dream was a marvelous experience -- a fascinating story, "technicolored" and deeply, vividly detailed, was appearing out of nowhere. As we sat around an intimate table in her small, cozy kitchen, she smoked and talked. It was wonderful. We were hanging out in the kitchen for some time, talking about everything from the benefits of herbal medicine to the seismic condition of the ground beneath her house.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and we all drove with Demetrious to an outdoor cafe Joni frequents. We spent 4 hours there chatting, eating and getting to know each other. Over a salad and cranberry juice (for Joni) and crab cakes with iced tea (for me), she talked about her grandson and her family back in Canada, her extended family of friends, life in the music business, and about her love of painting. One of the things she loves about painting, she told us, is the exhilarating air of discovery she experiences as she creates her art.

I gave her a CD of rare and unreleased Marvin Gaye songs; "Well! I love Marvin Gaye!" she enthused, accepting the gift. I gave Demetrious (a new convert to Joni's music) a copy of Taming The Tiger. I'm familiar with the kind of music he's liked in the past, and I joked: "Here's a CD from a hot chick singer who also has a lot of depth to her music." He laughed loudly, and I watched Joni to catch her reaction to the album I'd given him. Her eyes lit up when she saw what it was. Calling it "her symphony," she told him a bit about the album.

Later, she related a harrowing story about flying through a tornado while on tour with her band. As their plane spun through the sky, everybody was sure they were all going to die except her, she told us. "This plane won't crash!" she calmly reassured her terrified friends. "We haven't played New York yet!" And they did. Play New York, that is.

As we left the restaurant, a woman at the next table shyly stopped us, telling Joni how she loves the album Court and Spark, how it had comforted her when her mother died. Respectful of Joni, she didn't want to bother her. Joni was sympathetic and tender to this woman, who was quite overcome emotionally by what that music meant to her. I smiled at her as we left, just to let her know that I understood how she felt.

It was time to head back to Joni's house and listen to a tape of the just completed tracks for "Both Sides Now," Joni's upcoming CD of standards. We returned through the kitchen and walked back into the house; the doors just past the kitchen opened to reveal a few small, lovely rooms where orchids and pothos plants thrived. We entered a large, casual living room with a high, beamed ceiling and tall windows. Just to our right, a very long, wide white couch reached back into the room from where we stood; matching chairs, against the right wall on either side of a fireplace, faced each end of the couch. A coffee table almost as long as the couch sat before it, displaying hints of past activities: an ashtray, a pad of paper with something scribbled on it. At the far end of the room, a covered regulation-size pool table stood just in front of a loft. Stairs to the loft were in one corner, while a small stereo was tucked into a cabinet in the other. Joni disappeared momentarily, reappearing with a large pitcher of ice water and four glasses.

Before playing the tape, Joni made a few comments about making the recording. Four of the tracks were performed with a 71 piece orchestra, and four with a 40 piece orchestra; she also sings four of the songs with a 20 piece band. It was nearly complete, with possibly a few very small adjustments to be made for the final version. Joni mentioned how certain vocal phrases on the songs were informed by the styles of singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. To Joni's surprise, Judy Garland also popped up as an occasional reference during the recordings (mostly on the songs performed with the smaller band). Once, during a phone conversation, she described the CD to me as "A History Of North American Romantic Love In The Twentieth Century." The progression from song to song tells that story, the story of a relationship as it is born, develops and finally ebbs, followed by renewed desire and fresh realizations.

She pushed play on the cassette deck, and "You're My Thrill" flowed into the room at fairly high volume; the orchestral sound was so big and full the speakers started rattling, requiring a slight reduction in volume. The "Both Sides Now" CD is intended to be much more than a period piece, and that intention is fully realized with these interpretations. Joni has taken classic standards and given us the opportunity to listen to them from an affecting new perspective, integrating the familiar with sometimes unexpected, always intriguing phrasing, melody and arrangement. One by one, the songs settled in as we closed our eyes and listened, each of us entering our respective "secret place." As I invented for myself one of what would probably be many inner stories inspired by the new "soundtrack," I glanced at Joni sitting on the couch with her eyes closed; I wondered what goes through her head when she listens to her music.

A lush, beautiful new version of "A Case of You," deep, clear and heartfelt, closed the first half of the recording. I let a sigh escape, and Joni looked over at me; I made the "OK" hand signal to express my satisfaction with the performance. We all very briefly shared a few personal impressions during a twilight moment while she flipped the tape over, again closing our eyes and settling into the music when the story continued on side two; wait 'til you hear this version of "Stormy Weather." After the final notes of "Both Sides Now" (the last song) had faded away, she graciously accepted a string of clumsily worded compliments from the three of us. I wondered to myself if the exhilaration I felt while discovering a new Joni Mitchell CD was in any way similar to the exhilaration of discovery Joni experiences when she paints. If anybody could communicate that exhilaration, here was the person who could do it, I decided.

Joni had been working to finish her cover art paintings in time to meet a looming production deadline four days later; one of the paintings leaned against the wall close to a doorway by the stereo. If you want her, she'll be in the bar: a striking, dimly lit self portrait of Joni nursing a drink, her temple resting lightly against the heel of her hand, holding a cigarette; trails of smoke fill the upper third of the picture. The sleeve of her coat billows into a heart shape over her forearm. She wasn't quite satisfied with it, and needed at least two more paintings to complete the package ("That's a lot of work for four days," I thought to myself). She was considering painting this same image as seen from behind for one of the additional cover art paintings.

Sample proofs of a graphic arts package design she'd just received were spread out on the pool table. The orange/sepia toned artwork appears over a black background and recalls 1950s-60s jazz album cover art graphic styles, using bold typography (sometimes in white, which really makes it stand out) with simple square and rectangular elements. Many of the squares contain duotones of photographs taken in London during the sessions. Joni liked the graphic arts design package and was considering using it, since it was ready to go and she wouldn't have to rush to finish her paintings. We discussed how her departure to a different style of cover art could work well for this particular CD, given that the graphic design style was an appropriate departure for the style of music, and because she wanted to return to using her own paintings for cover art on subsequent releases of original material. We went over the alternate cover proofs she'd been sent, talking about which variations we preferred. When she asked me which package idea I liked better I told her, "I always love to see your paintings, of course, since it makes your work so personal. But if it would stress you out less and get the album out quicker, the traditional-looking package is perfectly fine."

(The original paintings won out in the end.)

There had to be more paintings somewhere. "Where do you do your painting now?" I asked. Joni led us through a short, wide, almost-a-room hallway, and into a large room that at one time was the bedroom of the house; it became a recording studio when she lived there with husband Larry Klein, and now it's where she paints. It struck me as an ideal place for painting, where the tall windows and balcony would allow plenty of natural light to come streaming in. As in the rest of the house, plenty of unpainted, natural wood was in evidence, imparting a rustic, earthy feel. Canvasses of Joni's paintings sat on the floor around the woodwork, some in frames, some not; I recognized many from previous album packages, like Taming The Tiger. Some I've never seen before. A few were mounted on the walls, including the well-known painting of Joni's nose-to-nose encounter with a deer. Also up on the wall is the "ideal" painting of Don Freed sitting on a cliff in B.C., which was used both in the TTT album package and as the curtain backdrop during many of the shows on her first tour with Dylan in 1998. I was told that during an exhibition of Joni's paintings, the frame of this picture caused quite a ruckus with those folks who are "in the know" about such things. They insist it's important to keep up with the trends, apparently -- note to self.

I asked if she'd ever gotten her "missing kitty" painting back but she hasn't found it, unfortunately. I got to meet her four real kitties as I'd hoped to. I had to visit with them quickly, as they were being kept out of the back rooms (one of them had piddled on Joni's couch). Some of them were immediately friendly to me and others were more cautious (cats are like that); I did get to pet them all, at least once, during the evening. Nietzsche (the prime piddling suspect) wouldn't give up -- he scratched the door periodically throughout the evening to see if the house rules had been relaxed yet.

Back in the living room, Joni was talking music again, not only about personal influences such as Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, but about Dylan's huge influence on music, the genius of Wayne Shorter, Paul McCartney's knack for catchy melodies. She also mentioned David Lahm, who, as many of you know, is the jazz pianist who this year released a CD of Joni's songs (to positive reviews). She'd read a Billboard article on him and said that he seems to understand her work, although she hasn't heard the album yet.

It was fascinating and illuminating to hear Joni talk about anything related to her creative process. She said it is important for her to have a free flow while in the process of creating music, not editing or second guessing as she goes; there's plenty of time for listening back and editing later on.

A process of "mulching," as she calls it, is something Joni said she does in life as well as with her music; she told us it stems from a spiritual train of thought very similar to Indian beliefs. She said our fast-moving Western culture of snap decisions all too often rushes past this sensitive consideration.

She went on to describe moving around a circle of passionate "I feel" emotionality in the Black South to sensitivity and "mulching" in the Red West, gradually accumulating an "I know" list of components in the White North. Eventually, after repeated Westmulching-Northaccumulating, the yellow "I see" clarity emerges in the East. The middle of the circle, where everything intersects, is where spirit can be found. (I hope I at least got close on this.) Jim found the concept interesting enough to ask Joni if she'd mind his drawing a "map" so he'd remember the gist of the conversation, and Joni helped him jot down a few details. He now wishes he'd remembered to ask for her autograph too, since he was sitting right there next to Joni with a pen in his hand!

Because of my illness and the painkillers, I did close my eyes to doze for a while. It was extremely pleasant to ease in and out of consciousness, hearing Joni talk about all the things Joni talks about. At one point before I drifted off, Joni was telling the story of how she prayed to her Christmas tree when she was nine, not to be a cripple. "That's the same thing you did when you asked for something worthy to do after you first got sick," she told me. It was good to hear her make that connection.

At one point, I stood up and walked to the open screen door on the other side of the room, behind the couch. Jim followed me to ask how I was feeling -- did I need to leave? I turned to look at him and everyone was looking at me, including Joni. I certainly didn't want to disappoint her or anybody. "No, I'm fine," I lied (and very effectively, I might add).

"Why don't you lie down here on the couch and we'll move to the chairs?" Joni offered. As it turned out, there was more than enough room for all four of us on the long white couch and I snoozed comfortably for a while. The next time I woke up, I finally admitted that I had to get back to my hotel for the relief of silent sleep.

"I'm really sorry, but I guess I'm going to have to go," I announced. It was almost midnight. Joni walked over to me, and hugging me, she exclaimed, "Oh, Wally! I wish I could make you all better."

"I wish I could make you better too," I replied, referring back to a point earlier in the evening when she had mentioned some of her health concerns. We hugged each other as we walked slowly back through the house toward the door. Back in the kitchen, Joni asked if I'd call her at 1 PM, her usual rousing time. "Of course I'll be your wake-up call," I said. And off we went.

At exactly 1PM Sunday afternoon, I phoned Joni with the promised wakeup call. She was a bit drowsy, so I told her I'd call again in a half hour to discuss where she wanted to go for brunch. She was much more lively when I called back, telling me she had talked to her friend, Shel. He'd suggested a cafe where we could have a long, casual lunch. "How about if Jim and I come and pick you up?" I offered. "You can direct us to the restaurant." Soon, we were bouncing over to Joni's in the little tin can of a car we'd rented. We'd have exchanged it for a better model if we'd had more time, but there were better things to do!

Upon our arrival, we briefly waited outside in the garden while she finished getting ready, since it was another gorgeous day. Joni looked so beautiful when she came out that I suggested we take a few good pictures for use on while outside in her garden. (We had so much fun the previous day that we'd forgotten to take a single picture!) After Jim took a few shots, we fearlessly jumped into the rent-a-car and, with Joni navigating, drove to another cafe not too far from her home. Her friends Shel, Valentino and Chris showed up almost immediately after we were seated, and Demetrious arrived a bit later.

I sat directly across from Joni, and we had another lovely, leisurely lunch that lasted through the afternoon. Joni's friends are friendly, engaging people who made Jim and me immediately feel comfortable and welcome; everyone enjoyed an afternoon of lively conversation and laughter. At one point Joni softly put her hand on mine, asking if I was feeling all right. I assured her I was fine.

We climbed back into our cars around 6:00, headed for Shel's house -- Joni likes to hang out on Sundays, play pool and relax. After we got settled, I gave her copies of a few of my favorite pictures, taken at various times and locations. I knew she hadn't seen them, so we spent a few minutes talking about where they were taken. Some were taken by my good friend and contributor Leslie Mixon. Some others were shots of her birthday concert in Atlanta last year, taken by David Mingus.

A casual and fun pool "tournament" materialized in Shel's basement; luckily, it was the sort of atmosphere where even those with dubious pool-playing abilities could have a good time. We all joked around and socialized, a few friends passing through over the course of the evening. Joni was relaxed and smiling, at turns funny and serious; interesting and engaging as always. A few CDs were shuffling on the stereo, one of them "Turbulent Indigo;" at one point I noticed Joni humming along softly as she took a shot. Everybody got to play a few games, with Joni playing more than most of us, since she was usually on the winning team. (She claimed that wasn't always the case!) Jim and Demetrious both brought cameras, and snapped pictures of everybody as the games continued. Jim got a great picture of Joni shooting pool, as she demonstrated a practice move she learned from a pool hall owner in Canada.

It had been a very full day already. At one point, I momentarily laid my head back on the couch and closed my eyes; Joni was right at my side making sure I was OK. It was a very tender, very genuine gesture.

After everybody had their fill of pool, we relocated upstairs to Shel's living room. He'd rented the film "The Thirteenth Floor," which we were going to watch on a huge projection TV. I perched on the end of the second long white couch of our weekend to watch the movie but Joni, continuing the caring manner she'd treated me with throughout our visit, invited me to sit back and relax with her. She commented on how she liked some of the camera angles as we watched the movie, nibbling on pizza Shel had ordered. Note: Joni did not eat her crusts.

We all talked for a while after the movie ended. Inevitably, it started getting late; Demetrious said goodnight, and Val was getting ready to go. I asked Joni if she needed a ride back home and she said, "Yes, please." After saying our goodbyes and thank yous to Shel and Chris, we headed out to our cars, parting company with Val.

Driving back toward Joni's, Jim mentioned how happy it made him to see her relaxing as part of a close-knit group of longtime good friends. Joni answered that she'd rather hang out with her friends than "make the scene" any day. As we drove, she related a film idea that she's been developing in her head for some time, a dream within a dream. Another unique, original, ingeniously conceived, exquisitely detailed story. Joni always treats us to so much. There were so many ideas, concepts and stories over the course of the weekend -- I remember being in awe of how her creative mind never stops percolating. I've never seen a human being capable of such a constant, steady river of creative thoughts; she'd have to have herself cloned a few times to produce all those creations in one lifetime!

Standing in Joni's driveway, I gave her one last gift -- the winning essays from last year's writer's contest. I told her a little about the contest, and she looked pleased. "Send greetings to my Internet community," she smiled.

"Now that you've been down here, you should come more often," she told me as we said our final goodbyes.

"I'd love to," I answered, "as long as my health holds out."

"It will, it will," Joni replied, looking at me like if she had the power to make it so, she would.

As we backed out of the driveway, I saw Joni fumble a tiny bit putting her key in the door before disappearing into the house.

Jim and I drove back to the hotel tired and happy, a little stunned. What an incredible human being! What a great weekend! We hoped we'd remember enough details to write about it all tomorrow (or a month and a half later, as it turns out). Flying back to San Francisco, I realized that I now felt Joni was my friend. My very special, very loving, very talented friend.

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Added to Library on November 10, 2005. (13987)


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