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Joni Rocks Again Print-ready version

by Ben Fong-Torres
June 1988

Joni Mitchell was a folk star in the '70s, ignored in the '80s when she turned to jazz. Her new album, which tackles everything from Yuppie materialism to environmental destruction, has a slick rock gloss that is putting her back on the airwaves.

Joni Mitchell sits behind the wheel of a brand new, black Mercedes-Benz 560 convertible, and she is not happy.

She's in this car, a rental, because her own car has just been stolen.

Mitchell feels as if she's lost a pet or a best friend. The car was a Mercedes-Benz she called "Bluebird." She bought it brand-new in 1969, with her first royalty check from Warner Bros. Records. It was beautiful, powerful, a survivor.

Now, she's got to contend with this new car her management company has leased for her and which feels...not quite right. On our way to a photo shoot for Chatelaine, she's jerking along the street until she discovers the brakes are on. We consult the manual to find the brake release.

We do, and Mitchell gets rolling - for about 300 meters. She pulls over. Both the left- and right-turn signals are flashing. A parking attendant from a nearby restaurant pops up at her side. "Oh, sorry, we're not going here," a flustered Mitchell tells him. "We're having car trouble." She locates the signal switch. "We're back in the flow," she says, as she pulls out. "We're back in the flow."

She could be speaking about her career. In the last decade, it's been a series of stops and starts. Now, she hopes, with her new album, CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM, she is back in the flow again.

An hour before our joyride, she had been in the Hollywood offices of her managers, Peter Asher and Barry Krost, chain-smoking Camels and doing press interviews. Dressed in a simple black suit by Comme des Garcons, her blond hair defrizzed and once again draping her shoulders, the 44-year-old Mitchell didn't look so different from when I had seen her last, in 1969. She had one album out then and she had just settled in Laurel Canyon, folk-rock's answer to Beverly Hills.

Her early albums - LADIES OF THE CANYON, BLUE, and FOR THE ROSES among them - are still remembered by millions for their witty, whimsical, literate and true- confessional songs. After a string of snappy hit singles that gave her pop-star status in the early '70s, she embraced jazz and released the exotic and challenging THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS. Her last jazz album, in 1979, an immersion into the music of avant-garde jazz bassist Charlie Mingus, was a commercial and critical flop. Around that time, she visited Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico, and her painting blossomed. (Mitchell has since exhibited her work twice in New York and plans a show in Tokyo this year.) In 1982, she was back to pop and rock with WILD THINGS RUN FAST. Having married Larry Klein, a bass player 13 years her junior, Mitchell waxed romantic. But radio wasn't listening to Joni any more. DOG EAT DOG, in 1985, reflected her disenchantment with the American government - but the timing was all wrong. "It was released in a rah-rah America-is-wonderful time," she says.

For Mitchell, making albums in recent years has not equated with making money. Which explains why she hasn't gone on costly tours to push her new one and why she's spending days on end, here and on the road, meeting the press.

"The first feedback you get is with reviews," she says, "and my reviews for years now have been incredibly disappointing."

"I've done good work. Any worker in any field needs the encouragement that her work is good. Otherwise she gets another job. So, if I don't get some enthusiasm somewhere soon, I'm done in this business. It's as simple as that."

"That sounds like something she says just prior to the release of a record because she's expecting another barrage of criticism," says Larry Klein. Mitchell, he says, is always coming up with new songs, and then she has to record them.

CHALK MARK has a chance, if radio's response to the track "Snakes and Ladders," about a love affair fueled by materialistic aspiration, is any indication. It got heavy air play as a pre-album single release. Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records, Mitchell's label, says: "I think we're at a time when radio's perception of Joni is that she's hip. Perhaps it's based on the older artists selling." Last year was a great one for George Harrison.

On CHALK MARK, Mitchell writes and sings about her parents' courtship in Regina during World War II, about war between nations; and as a devoted environmentalist, she writes movingly in defense of the land. But the album's not all gloom and doom. It has a clean rock-and-roll sheen to it with guest musicians like Peter Gabriel and Tom Petty, and includes an unlikely but raucous duet with Billy Idol.

The rapport she felt with Idol was the same feeling she got when rock-and-roll was born and she was Roberta Joan Anderson, an itchy kid, full of art and energy, in Saskatoon. (Mitchell, an only child, was born an air-force brat in Fort Macleod, Alta.) "Rock-and-roll," she says, "was the call of the wild. It was the thing that split a generation." She lived for weekend dances. She also got a ukelele and a Pete Seeger instruction record and, during her one year at The Alberta College of Art, in 1963, sang for free in the local coffeehouse.

Her songwriting began in the mid-'60s, after she had migrated to the Yorkville folk scene in Toronto and formed an act with folksinger Chuck Mitchell. They married and lived in Detroit but divorced after a year as her star rose and such artists as Judy Collins and Tom Rush began recording her material. Mitchell moved to New York in 1967 and connected with Warner Bros. Records. To sign her contract, she went to California and never looked back.

In Laurel Canyon, just above Sunset Boulevard, Mitchell lived with musician Graham Nash and was, indeed, the lady of the canyon. When she became involved with James Taylor and, later, other musicians, she fueled her notoriety, alluding to various friends and lovers in her songs. "I'm not a kiss-and-teller" she says. "I never named names." In the early '70s, Rolling Stone magazine published a diagram of rock stars and their various amours. Mitchell was connected to a long list of musicians, managers, and media stars. She swears the list was "padded...with men I barely knew - and never dated."

Larry Klein, she says, entered her life in 1981, at just the right time. Dating had become "nerve-wracking...I read a magazine article called THE END OF SEX, and the thing the writer said that sticks in my mind is: if you want repetition in a relationship, see other people. If you want infinite variety, stay with one person."

Since getting married six years ago, Mitchell and Klein have been homebodies at Mitchell's house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Says Klein, "We're both compulsive creative types. We'll stay home, and Joni will be at one side of the house painting, and I'll be working on a song. Maybe later we'll go to a movie."

Mitchell regularly sees two close women friends - neither of them musicians. "They're women you can entrust your intimacies to without fear of betrayal," she says. "We meet once a week for what we call 'Ladies' Night Out,' and now it attracts other women." She laughs, thinking back to childhood friends. "I had that kind of sorority with women when I was a preteen, just before the race for men occurred, or whatever that thing is that happens between women."

We're zipping down Melrose Avenue in the rented Mercedes, whizzing by the latest shops (WACKO) and hangouts (Johnny Rockets). I ask Mitchell if she's aging gracefully. "I could do better," she says and breaks out in laughter. Then, she asks, "Think I should get nipped and tucked?" I, of course, say no. But is she seriously considering it? "We all thought about it after we saw Cher," says Mitchell. "Usually it looks grotesque and shiny and weird, but Cher's plastic surgery has INFLAMED the Hollywood community!" Mitchell laughs again, enjoying her dip into show-biz gossip.

She has no regrets about not having had children. "The children of artists are nearly always a terrible mess. They end up being emotionally deprived." Besides, she adds, "The creative drive is a family in itself."

Arriving at the photographer's studio, Mitchell apologizes for wearing black. "I'm in mourning for my car," she says. But she's brought a bright chief's blanket that she can toss over her shoulders and cinch with silver belts and a neckload of Tibetan beads.

In her dressing room, she discovers that the makeup artist and a woman from her management company are from Canada, and the three dive happily into home-country talk, about the weather, restaurants, Mounties and dialects. "There's that old-country accent," says Mitchell. "It's like" - she drops into a drawl - "Don't forget to throw the cow over the fence some hay, eh?"

Mitchell moves into the studio, and the photographer's first few rolls capture a lackluster woman near the end of a long day of explaining herself. But a break and quick costume adjustment later, she's a different woman. With the chief's blanket on, she brightens. Peter Gabriel's on the CD player, and, long day to the wind, the stops-and-starts woman begins shuffling and swaying, smiling blissfully, as if it's a weekend night in Saskatoon many songs ago.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (8096)


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