It's been three decades since Joni Mitchell first discovered what she calls "the thrill of a three-chord progression," and still the buzz won't let her put down her guitar. A virtual inventor of the modern singer-songwriter genre, Mitchell's influence has been cited by musicians as varied as Prince, Charles Mingus, Chrissie Hynde and Jimi Hendrix. On meeting Hendrix, she says, "there are never that many originals, and usually they recognize each other." ALICE ECHOLS talks to Mitchell on her complicated relationship with her audience, her critics, race, gender, and her parents.
Joni Mitchell, the mother of singer-songwriters, is nobody's old lady
Both of us are apprehensive. I wonder, what if she's aloof and bored? Or worse, a Scientologist? This isn't some abstract worry, mind you. Joni Mitchell and I are doing this interview at the Manor Hotel, which is part of the behemoth Church of Sceintology Celebrity Center on the corner of Franklin and Bronson in Hollywood. The hotel is open to the public, but the first floor is a virtual shrine to L. Ron Hubbard. First you pass a museumlike display of the Great Man's study, and then you enter the lobby, where a small baby-grand piano churns out scholcky ballads as if it were serenading the nearby bust of L. Ron. "Why are we here?" I want to ask her. Instead, I wait and ask her publicist, who assures me the photographer chose the site. When I see Mitchell a week later, she laughs, "I heard you were checking up on me to see if I'm a Scientologist."
After we are introduced, her smile fades into something else - dread, maybe. But her apprehension evaporates as soon as she begins to feel she's "going to get a fair shake," as she later puts it. I've brought four pages of questions, and after about an hour and one page, I worry out loud, "I'm going to wear you out." "No way, I'm a talker," she insists. And what a talker! Disarmingly honest, Mitchell speaks quickly and precisely, all the while chain-smoking and looking directly at you. The interview seems to energize her. As I'm getting ready to leave and making small talk with her manager and publicists, Mitchell bounds down the stairs, squeezes my shoulders, and tells them to send the (mythical) next journalist up. Later, she told me she'd gone to bed that night remembering stories she'd begun but hadn't finished. I went to bed thinking maybe I should write a biography of Joni Mitchell.
"My music is not designed to grab instantly. It's designed to wear for a lifetime, to hold up like a fine cloth. If you're in the right place, these records are waiting to go off in your life, you know. But if you're in the wrong space, which, luck of the draw, for the last 20 years I seem to have had reviewers in the wrong space...and I've been trashed for too long. The final insult is to watch my imitators elevated while I'm still being trashed. So if I don't get my just dues soon, I'm going into hermitdom. Fuck you all. (Laughing.) I'm going to take up my brushes. I don't care.
Joni Mitchell, the queen of rock 20 years ago, can afford to laugh, because she knows hermitdom is not in the cards for her. The critical and commercial black hole she entered in the late '70s, when she moved from pop into what she calls the "forest of jazz," is behind her. Even if she now prefers painting to music, as she claims, the buzz won't let her put down her guitar. After years of bad press, the musician whose mid- to late- '70s experiments with jazz and world music anticipated those of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, is finally beginning to get her due.
The elegantly minimal Turbulent Indigo, her new release on Warner/Reprise, had been getting good notices. KCRW DJ Chris Douridas helped lay the foundation, giving the disc lots of airplay. Suddenly, Mitchell, who told me, "If it's hip, it's too late for me," finds herself, well, hip. Everyone from the usually crusty Chrissie Hynde ("We want you, Joni") to the always acid-tongued Sandra Bernhard ("Joni's awesome") is invoking her name. And after years of omission from the by now obligatory "Women in Rock" articles, Mitchell is now appearing alongside the more predictable, even canonical, figures - Patti, Tina, Chrissie, Joan and Janis. And even a weak back (the result of childhood polio - the same epidemic that hit fellow Canadian Neil Young) the expense of staging a tour (she made less than her roadies on the last one), and negative press have kept her off the road since 1983, Mitchell says she is now "itching" to perform again.
The turnaround began several years ago, when artists as varied as Prince, Jimmy Page and Seal began citing Mitchell as an important influence. Younger female singer-songwriters such as Tracy Chapman, Sinead O'Connor and Tori Amos began paying homage to Mitchell around the same time. With 1991's wistful Night Ride Home the critical drubbing began to let up - after a very long 16 years.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the critical abuse, Mitchell has a healthy ego regarding her work. Friend David Crosby was exaggerating when he (affectionately) called Mitchell "about as modest as Mussolini," but it's true that she exhibits none of the modesty or self-deprecation that marks many female performers. She talks of her place in music history, calls herself a "composer in the small, modern form,"and is quick to point out that, unlike most musicians, she's made 14 albums (including her debut effort, which David Crosby "pretended" to produce) without a producer. "People assume Henry Lewy, my engineer, was my producer, but it's not true." Mitchell's sense of herself, her refusal to submit to the critical disparagement of her late- '70s/early '80s records, doesn't sit well with reviewers. After noting her dismissal of some critics as "jackasses" and "idiots," the Los Angeles Times ' Robert Hilburn recently observed, "Mitchell's outbursts are likely to be followed by disarming giggles - as if she's surprised and amused at her own bratty language."
Although she's not bratty, and doesn't giggle, Mitchell is opinionated, and she cracks up a lot. She doesn't behave like a celebrity. Indeed, Mitchell may be a diva about her work, but there's no haughtiness in her demeanor. When asked if she's listened to Hole or L7, she replies, "No, should I? I mean, if they're good I should." She'll tell you she had more "armor" now than she did in the early '70s, when, as she said to Rolling Stone, "I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes."
But she acknowledges still having "sensitive pockets." In contrast to so many musicians, she cares less about her self-presentation than her music. She is a performer who never compromised, whose creative restlessness took her places the critics and fans refused to go, and she never gave up.
Something is bothering Mitchell tonight, it's her parents. They've let her know she's "disgraced them in front of all of Canada" during her September 23 appearance on the 90-minute program Intimate and Interactive , on Much Music, Canada's music-video channel. In a 1979 interview, Mitchell explained that if she was occasionally less than candid it was to protect her very "old-fashioned and moral" parents. She joked, "I keep saying 'Momma, Amy Vanderbilt killed herself. That should have been a tip-off that we're into a new era." But she was only 36 then. Watching Joni Mitchell now, 51 years old, grappling with parental disapproval is both wonderful and terrifying.
Before the show, producers gave Mitchell some sake to warm up her vocal cords and control her jitters. "I entered the room with a pretty glowy and goofy spirit. It began so lightly that to gear down into the spirit to sing these tragedies that I write was pretty tricky stuff." During a phone-in segment, after her first set, an earnest young woman asked if she was "proud to be a Canadian. Mitchell, who divides her time between L.A. and British Columbia, didn't give an easy answer. She spoke of her "annoyance" with "borderlines" and jokingly termed herself "bi-national." After expressing her affection for Canada, she said she preferred warmer climates. "The cold (Canadian) winters and Scottish and Irish blood (not coincidentally, perhaps, her mother's ethnicity) create an emotionally withholding people." She closed the show with "Happiness is the Best Face Lift," a new song inspired by an argument with her mother. Before singing it, though, she said, "Momma, if you're listening tonight, I love you so much."
It was a tender performance that revealed Mitchell's warmth, vulnerability, thoughtfulness and humor. Although the show generated no negative response, even from Canadian nationalists, her parents were ashamed to see their daughter smoking and singing songs with two curse words. The taping was, in fact, an occasion Mitchell should have been proud of, but instead of reveling in her success, Mitchell seems unable to shake the parental rebuke.
"I'm almost tempted to give them the opportunity to disown me. Yeah, it's too stressful. The last thing I want to do is bring them disgrace, but to fully be myself in the world, apparently that's the effect." Speaking of her performance, she says, "I'm an iconoclast by nature, but in the process I also deglamorize myself. I've always tried to do that so I can walk around." Mitchell's decision to recount this incident was perhaps another way of deglamorizing herself. After all, what could be more leveling than the disclosure that she too gets reprimanded by her parents?
But the story is significant in other ways. It was, after all, the suggestion that she was some how too American that "pushed her button." Mitchell has made a career of assailing various borderlines - the borderlines separating musical genres, the borderlines of hipness, and, more tentatively, the borderlines separating black from white and male from female. An there was something else in the story - the connection between integrity and exile. For Mitchell, being herself involves being disowned, orphaned or exiled. It's not accidental the "Joni (After Van Gogh)," the self-portrait that graces Turbulent Indigo, appropriates Van Gogh's famous self-portrait, substituting Mitchell's face. Mitchell has her sanity, several homes. both ears. and a record label, but, like Van Gogh, she's found her work passed over in favor of "the nice and the normal." But if being "orphaned" was "hurtful," she admits, "It was also, in a certain way, freeing." Nor did it interfere with her sense of humor. On Much Music, Mitchell announced that a "mini-ear" would, "like a Cracker Jack prize" fall out of the first 10,000 copies of her new CD.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson, Mitchell grew up in Saskatoon, a small, dry Canadian prairie town founded by the Ontario Methodist Colonization Society in the late 19th century. As a teenager, Mitchell developed a passion for painting, rock & roll, jitterbugging and all-around carousing. Although John Lennon once chided her for being "overeducated," Mitchell not only flunked the 12th grade, she never even finished the first year of an art school. She began playing music only because the art school she attended was "a joke." In Canada, as in Britain, art school often functioned as a holding tank for those deemed academically ungifted. "We were stuck between cafeteria cooking and auto mechanics. The attitude was 'They're kind of dim, so let's give them a trade."
One of rock & roll's many art-school emigres (Lennon, Richards, Davies, Townshend, Clapton, Page and Bowie), she began performing in folk clubs by 1964, after progressing from a $36 baritone ukulele to the guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger instruction record. The guitar, she claims, transformed her into "an introvert." Formerly a "good-time Charlie," she suddenly had "this portable lover, and I was all curled up around it in the corner at parties. Putting two chords together was, like, oh my God! The thrill of hearing a three-chord progression in the beginning cannot be matched." The one guitarist who influenced her was Elizabeth Cotten ("Freight Train"), but "I couldn't master her style of picking. My left hand is impaired from polio, and my left thumb works in an odd way, so I simplified the left hand with open tuning, which makes the guitar much more orchestral."
The other big influence was a folk singer she'd originally dismissed as a Woody Guthrie clone. But when she heard Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street," it hit her - poetry and music could be combined. "I'd never heard anger expressed in a song. And I thought, This means it's wide open, you can write about anything. It was brilliant." She imitates Dylan's contemptuous, nasal style, but speeds it up, "You've got alotta nerve to say you are my friend." Mitchell points out they also share a similar approach to songwriting. "Dylan's songs are theatrical, and my songs are theatrical. But most songs are made for singers to sings, not actors to act. You almost have to throw away your singing to concentrate (on giving) the words their right reading, There's no room for vibrato or singers' tricks."
Virtually all the white North American rock stars of the last '60's started out as folkies, and Mitchell was no exception: "Folk music was so easy, I was a professional in six months." Mitchell's songwriting distinguished her from others in those days when "The folk world was divided into two camps. There were the Gibson players, who were usually young Jewish kids, singing black blues. And there were the Martin players, who were usually WASP-y and singing English ballads.
After moving to Toronto in 1964, she met and married American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, with whom she performed. Their marriage collapsed in 1966, not long after they'd relocated to Detroit. She continued performing in boho folk clubs as a solo, and moved to New York, where she became known to other folk singers like Judy Collins and Tom Rush, who began covering her songs. Mitchell was making about $15 a night, which, she notes, was "pretty good pin money in those days." To hear her describe those times, it's clear she enjoyed mixing with the audience, even if she didn't always share their assessment of her work. "You'd go out and eat with people who'd say things like, 'Gee, you're as good as Peter, Paul, and Mary, and you don't even have a record deal.'"
By the mid -'60s, in the wake of Dylan's electric turn and the next new thing, folk rock, "Nobody wanted to hire a folk singer. Folk music was dead." Serving as her own manager, Mitchell turned down "slave labor" deals with Elektra and Vanguard. Even after she acquired a manager, Elliot Roberts, who in 1967 got her a contract with Reprise, she still assumed she might have to return to selling women's clothing - a job she'd held as a teen. Her Reprise contract was, she claims, "a terrible deal. But most deals for first-time artists are terrible. The dumber and less talented the band, the more money they can make. It's like share-cropping, because everything is billed back to you. It's amazing how much money I have made given how bad the deals have been."
Mitchell moved to L.A., where boyfriend David ("The Byrd That Got Away") Crosby staged impromptu performances before his famous friends. Peter Fonda recalls Crosby stopping by one afternoon with Mitchell. After borrowing Fonda's 12- string guitar, "She...detunes the fucker and then plays 13 or 14 songs, warbling like the best thing I'd ever heard in my life." Asked if she was nervous about performing before the likes of Fonda, she says, "Yeah, I was round-shouldered shy. But it had nothing to do with them being famous. I was intimidated by them because they were people." Through the efforts of Crosby and DJ B. Mitchell Reed, people in L.A. knew of her before her debut album was even released in March 1968. Although Mitchell was developing her own style on her first three albums, she was still somewhat in the shadows of those covering her songs.
All that changed with her fourth album. 1971's Blue, a painfully honest postmortem of the giddy highs and devastating lows of romantic love, was a critical and commercial success. "At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses...There's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," which is why Blue remains one of the great breakup albums of all time. For the Roses, her follow-up, took aim at the music industry ("They toss around your latest golden egg/Speculation - well who's to know/If the next one in the nest?Will glitter for them so") and avarice, but was centrally, as always, about the travails of love. It, too, had praise heaped upon it. Amid all the accolades about the only sour note was John Lennon's admonishment, "Why do you let other people have your hits for you? Put some fiddles on it." As Mitchell noted years later, "He said this about Court and Spark, mind you."
The Jazzy, rocking 1974 album was a huge success, even without the fiddles. If there was the usual angst and self-doubt, there was also greater compositional complexity and more humor ("Settle down into the clickety clack/With the clouds and the stars to read/Dreaming of the pleasure I'm going to have/Watching your hairline recede (my vain darling.) Court and Spark topped the Village Voice critics' poll and yielded two Top 40 singles. The Voice's hypercritical Bob Christgau rated her "the best singer-songwriter there is right now." From 1971's Blue through 1974's Miles of Aisles, Mitchell experienced the Roar.
And, then, she says, "because I suddenly had commercial success, it was time to get my ass, period. And that's what happens to artists, period." She maintains she would have been creamed even had she continued working the same ground. Mitchell is probably right that her run was up, but she also made a decision, as she admits, to move on. There's a telling moment on Miles of Aisles when an exasperated Mitchell delivers a good-humored retort to fans shouting out their requests. "No one ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a Starry Night again, man.'" Mitchell was letting fans know she wouldn't become "a human jukebox." In fact, by 1975 she had tired of fans' expectations that she "weep and suffer for them for the rest of my life. I had that grand theme for a long time: Where is my mate? Where is my mate? Where is my mate? I got rid of that one." Reflecting back, she says, "There was a morbidity to the public attention. The only saving grace was it was very well put. It wasn't just maudlin introspection. But is was really maudlin. That's why the singer-songwriter (genre) was finally exhausted."
Mitchell claims she originally became a "confessional poet" because "I thought, 'You'd better know who you're applauding up here.' It was a compulsion to be honest with my audience." But by the mid-'70s, Mitchell's audience had grown far beyond anything she could have imagined when she was still contemplating retail as her "ace in the hole." Barring her soul no longer narrowed the gap between performer and audience; it was, after all, the very source of her celebrity. Moreover, from the beginning, Mitchell's confessional songwriting fostered speculation about the identify of the boyfriends behind all this romantic angst. In 1971, Rolling Stone proclaimed her the "Old Lady of the Year," and published a diagram revealing which of her songs were about which of her famous boyfriends. Mitchell was so angered by the sexist, tabloidlike treatment, she refused the magazine interviews for eight years. "There were people on that list I was never with," she says, still irritated and hurt.
So on her follow-up to Court and Spark, 1979's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell banished the "brokenhearted waif" of earlier albums. Although the record reached number 4 on the charts, fans and critics alike seemed to feel betrayed by Hissing, a dystopian view of suburbia rendered in the sounds of cool jazz. "Self-conscious artiness," sneered Ariel Swartley in Rolling Stone. Mitchell believed the back-lash had a lot to do with her decision to write "social description as opposed to personal confession. People thought suddenly that I was secure in my success, that I was being a snot and was attacking them." The photograph - a very L.A. shot of a long-legged, glamorous Mitchell relaxing in a swimming pool - didn't help.
Hissing was Mitchell's "demand for liberty," and in it she crashed through the borderlines of pop and counter cultural hip. In "The Boho Dance" ("Nothing is capsulized in me/on either side of town/The streets were never really mine/Not mine these glamour gowns"), the former Woodstock girl challenged the orthodoxy of the counterculture, which condemned her new sartorical stylishness because it fell "outside the hippie uniform of rock & roll." There were no signs of the terminally unhappy hippie girl anywhere on this album, and, given the public's fascination with tortured and depressed artists, especially female artists (Plath, Sexton, Holiday, Joplin, etc.), this was problematic.
While her next effort, the lush road album Hejira, represented a return to the personal, it was hardly a pop move. Although some critics, such as Swartley, understood that it was about the "motion of the music," which was as "hypnotic" as the highways she sang about, others , such as The Voice's Perry Meisel, were contemptuous ("Mitchell lacks any real understanding of what her work is and how it behaves"). Hejira marked the beginning of her very fruitful four-album association with bassist Jaco Pastorius. "I was already," she says, "forming pretty strong opinions about what the bottom end of the music should be doing." Mitchell believed, "The bass should not only anchor the music, by playing the root, but wander up into the melody register," a style with which Pastorius was already experimenting. "Here was a guy playing the way I dreamed of. He was a godsend." Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, the (sort or) collaborative Mingus, and the live Shadows and Light solidified Mitchell's status as "a person without a country. I was considered an expatriate from pop music." Critics tagged her a pretentious dabbler who had abandoned all semblance of melody.
Jazz purists took aim as well. Although Mitchell says it was Mingus who approached her about collaborating, she believes she was perceived by some as a "white chick" and, worse, an "opportunist who'd come to exploit Charles." Ironically, Mitchell "was not a fan." John Guerrin, her drummer and boyfriend , was incredulous when Mitchell told him of Mingus' overture to her. "'You unconscious motherfucker. You don't even like his music. Why didn't he come for me?'" Mitchell maintains her music from this period was "not like jazz. Only the great jazz musicians could play it. A lot of the lesser jazz musicians were annoyed by it too, because it wasn't like jazz." This refusal to subordinate her vision (and it is a vision - "I paint with notes") to the strictures of any genre infuriated some of her critics, who saw it as hubris.
In 1982, she left Elektra for her old friend David Geffen's new label. But the 80's proved equally inhospitable, as 1982's Wild Things Run Fast was dismissed as "I Love Larry songs." (During the recording, she became involved with bassist Larry Klein, whom she later married.) If the political Dog Eat Dog of '85 was "adolescent," 1988's Chalk Mark in the Rainstorm was "overproduced." Mitchell still bristles at the suggestion that Klein had "interior-decorated me out of my music." Chalk Mark was, she explains, "a sonic experiment in multiples. On most of the album, every guitar part was either 12 or 16 times one guitar. I was seeing how much I could add." The nadir occurred in 1990, when Geffen briefly dropped Wild Things Run Fast and Dog Eat Dog from its catalog.
Compared to Mitchell's '80s albums, both Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo sound scaled-back, which befits albums that find Mitchell confronting the sobering realities of middle age. Although Mitchell had said Turbulent Indigo is about a quest for justice, it also deals with the finiteness of life and love. (She and Klein broke up the day before they began recording the album.)
These are wonderfully warm and intimate albums, but it would be a shame if the hoopla over them overshadows her more experimental work. The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and parts of her double LP, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, remain as compelling as Blue or Court and Spark. In the late '70s, Mitchell dared to paint big, and the remarkable chordal movement of her music is still astonishing.
Mitchell may soon release an album of covers, something she was contractually prevented from doing in the past. She'd like to cover songs by Cole Porter, Franke Lymon, Edith Piaf, Chuck Berry Noel Coward and Billie Holiday, among others. As for a box set, she groans, "Oh, God, I don't really want to do it. It will kill my songs from each album." (This assumes a three-CD set of 30 songs. Mitchell will release no more than 10 songs per CD because, she says, the artist is paid for only 10 songs, even if there are more.) "What two do I take from Court and Spark? How would I reduce my entire repertoire down to 30 songs? And they want outtakes, too. I don't know how I'm going to do it."
"I see like an alien. I don't have the soul of a white woman. I have the soul of a [pauses] Martian [laughing], because I wander through this world as if I'm not of it, which is I suppose the perspective of an artist in the first place - the alien outlook."
Sometimes Mitchell hasn't always even looked like a white woman. In 1977, she decided to go to the photo session for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter with "a trick up my sleeve." Mitchell says this particular photographer "got good pictures," but could be brutal as he struggled to "undo [your] psychology." So, after her fourth costume change, she emerged as a black man. Clueless as to her identity, people on the shoot came up to her and said, "'Can I help you?' The cover of Don Juan is that shot."
This was more than a trick, though, Mitchell's exile from the land of pop may explain why she feels a kinship with African-American artists whom racism has relegated to the periphery. To her, the real geniuses of the 20th century are Robert Johnson, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Jimi Hendrix, and her own musical love, Miles Davis. "I find it offensive to see certain white artists praised and called geniuses, when the person they're emulating went to the grave poor and hardly recognized. Look at Bird, you know. You hear a lot of white saxophonists being called geniuses, and you say, 'No, man, they're not the one that started it.' I hurt for Bird. I hurt for all the great ones who were never fully appreciated."
Mitchell feels black musicians have been more willing than their white counterparts to credit her. "Sting won't admit [my influence] to this day. He will to me, but not to the press," she laughs. Jimi Hendrix was, she says, among those who have appreciated her. "There was a night in Ottawa where Jimi knelt at my feet at the bottom of a very short stage and taped the whole show with a big, cumbersome reel-to-reel. We were both freshly signed to Reprise. He had finished a show at the Capital Theatre. He came up and introduced himself to me: 'Hi, I'm Jimi Hendrix. Can I tape your show?' Jimi was a unique guitarist, and I was a unique guitarist. Everyone else was derivative of something. There are never that many originals, and usually they recognize each other."
There was Mingus, too, though Mitchell admits it's "kind of a mystery" why he sent for her. She suspects it had something to do with Don Juan - both the photos of her cross-dressed as a black man and her composition "Paprika Plains." But as well as they got on, they were, she explains, musically an "odd match. He loved cacophony, and I don't really." Since Don Juan, Mitchell has also worked with Wayne Shorter, who she names "the greatest living jazz musician." Shorter allows Mitchell to edit his sax work when he plays on her albums. "He knows I'm not going to make his performance schizophrenic." Mitchell reports that when he finishes playing, Shorter (who is a fellow painter - thus, Mitchell claims, their rapport) "turns to me and says, 'I'm leaving, now you sculpt.'"
Yet Mitchell is one of the few white singers in rock who hasn't copped a black vocal style. "Yeah, the universal rock & roll dialect is Southern black," she observes. "It's as affected as opera. Hardly anyone sings in their real voice." And, worse, "once white people started playing rock & roll, the roll - the joy that [characterized] the tail end of the Swing Era - went out of it." Mitchell believes some black musicians are drawn to her work because "I write like a black poet. I frequently write from a black perspective."
In these days of hyperawareness about who can speak for whom, Mitchell's conviction that she writes like a black poet is, at best, unfashionable. Everyone knows, or so we think, a white woman is a white woman, is a white woman is a white woman. More to the point, there is no single, monolithic black perspective. Yet I understand the desire to breach the boundaries of race and gender. I understand why Mitchell considers the praise of an unnamed black piano player to be the "greatest compliment" she ever received. "'Joni,' he said, 'I love your music. You make raceless, genderless music.'"
"I hate to see chicks perform," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1987. "Hate it... because they whore themselves."
"Even someone like Joni Mitchell?" asked interviewer Kurt Loder.
"Well, no," Dylan replied. "But then, Joni Mitchell is almost like a man. [Laughs.] I mean, I love Joni, too. But Joni's got a strange sense of rhythm that's all her own, and she lives on that timetable. Joni Mitchell is in her own world all by herself, so she has a right to keep any rhythm she wants. She's allowed to tell you what time it is."
Three years ago, when Mitchell was asked if she was offended by Dylan's remark, she said, "In a way he's right. Music has become burlesque over the last few years." Today, she says, "It's interesting that even for Bobby a certain amount of accomplishment makes you an honorary male, even if you don't act like a male. We are living in a male world here." Unlike some women rockers, Mitchell freely admits that it's not exactly a level playing field out there. In the early '70s, Reprise ran an ad campaign built around the following copy: "Joni Mitchell Takes Forever," "Joni Mitchell is 90 Percent Virgin" and "Joni Mitchell Finally Comes Across." "That's what happens," she maintains, "when you don't show your tits." Worst of all was the Rolling Stone diagram. "I was horrified to see my own generation turn on me like that. I would have expected it from the one before. I thought, 'Oh my God! This whole thing is a ruse. There is no freedom for women. The madonna-whore thing is never going to disappear.'"
Although Mitchell admits that she's sometimes found that male musicians have a hard time taking instructions from a woman, for the most part, music has offered her a refuge from the conventions of gender. In fact, when I ask her why she became interested in music, she tells me a long, revealing story about her childhood.
"It started in childhood. Play should be fun, that's what it's about, right? Okay, I try to play with the girls. All their games are nurses, tea parties and dress-up. Sometimes we don't have clothes to dress up in, so we do imaginary dress. I'd say, 'I'm wearing a gold lame` dress, and I'm Ginger Rogers, and I'm descending a long staircase.' 'No, you're not, I am.' So even on the level of imaginary play, there was a lot of irrational competition.
"So then I try to play with the boys. The boys play Roy Rogers and war. Roy Rogers is the one that invents all the activities and choose the site. They choose a new Roy every day. So I say 'Let me be Roy.' They say, 'You can't 'cause you're a girl.' So Christmas come and I say, 'I want a Roy Rogers shirt and a Roy Rogers hat.' 'Oh dear,' says my mother. There's a big conference with my father. 'The girl wants a Roy Rogers shirt.' This is very bad. My father says, 'Let her have it.' So come spring...here I stand in my red Roy Rogers shirt, says 'Roy' right on it. And my red Roy Rogers hat, says 'Roy' right on it. And I've got all these places...I know this ravine that would be just great...And I say to the boys, 'Let me be Roy.' 'You can't.' 'Why not?' 'You're a girl.' 'But, look, it says Roy Rogers right here!' 'That means you're Dale Evans.' 'Why?' 'Because you're wearing Roy's clothes.' 'Well, what does Dale do?' 'She stays home and cooks.'
"So now I find a piano prodigy, a young boy who can play very, very sophisticated classical music, and his friend who was studying voice. They were both baby classical musicians. Because I was exposed to a lot of classical music, I began to dream I could play the piano. A desire to compose woke up in me at about the age of 8. They were artists. And there was no role playing, so play was able to happen. Had that play not existed, it would have changed my destiny."
For Mitchell and many other female rock & rollers, music exists beyond the familiar territory of gender, a kind of liberated zone. This is why she so resents being categorized as a "female singer-songwriter" who writes "woman songs." And it's why she wastes no time in explaining she's no feminist, even as she is acknowledging male dominance. It's not simply that feminism is "too radical" or "divisional," or that she's "never found a herd she could raise her fist in the air with." Perhaps more to the point, feminism seems to grant too much power to gender. It involves returning to the ghetto, that stifling world of the girls playing dress-up. Mitchell isn't alone in this. Many women rockers see feminism reinscribing the very category they're trying to escape.
But if feminism, by necessity, involves mobilizing women on the basis of their gender, it's often to reuse the very category of woman. As cool as many women rockers are to feminism, their unthinkable without it. Feminism has transformed the ground upon which we all walk, but is does no good to condemn female musicians for the distance they often put between themselves and feminism. After all, Mitchell has addressed the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, the sexual abuse of girls and the battering of women on her last two releases. And she doesn't hesitate to say that the adjudication of her work is the one area where she feels gender has worked against her. "Were I a male, I think it would have been different. The critics didn't lump Dylan in with others" the way they invariably have with her, she points out. Angry about one critic's dismissal of her mid-'80s work as "cranky," she says, "Dylan is far crankier than me, you know. Do they call Dylan cranky for making social commentary? It's like an angry man is an angry man, and an angry woman is a bitch."
"And what about Joni? Why is everybody forgetting about Joni?" Chirssie Hynde asked Rolling Stone recently. "Hell, she's a fuckin' excellent guitar player, excellent. I don't know any guitar player, any on the real greats, who don't rate Joni Mitchell up there with the best of them...We want you, Joni. Get out there. Put down your paintbrush for five minutes, please."
Why had everyone forgotten about Joni? Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently passed her over for its 10th annual inductions. After all, in contrast to most women singer of the '60s and '70s, Mitchell played the guitar and piano, and wrote her own material. Moreover, no one better captured the dilemma facing women in the wake of feminism's revival: how to reconcile the desire for connectedness and intimacy with the equally compelling desire for autonomy.
But Mitchell's problem is that she's never been a bad girl. She was never bawdy, tough or obviously androgynous. Her one experiment in bending gender and race went largely unnoticed, and , in any case, was never part of her self-presentation. Although she believes, "A good piece of art should be androgynous," her androgyny is revealed in her lyrics, the way she sometimes writes from the perspective of a man ("Free Man in Paris" or "The Sire of Sorrow"). Finally, the music for which she is best known reveals a vulnerability at odds with the angry riot-grrrl pose that's been so in vogue. Janis bared her soul, too, but then, she was the rowdy bad girl of the '60s. It's a shame, because Mitchell almost always avoided casting herself as the wimpy girl eager to glom onto a guy ("You said, 'I'm as constant as the northern star.'/And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness/Where's that at?/If you want me I'll be in the bar'").
Reflecting on her exclusion from the ranks of the great "mothers" of rock, Mitchell observes, "Because it's a man's business, some women have the mistaken idea they have to do what men do. Whereas, why can't you make a strong music without losing your femininity? I mean, I think it's silly when a woman plays the guitar like a big cock. The guy who was the best at it was Jimi Hendrix. And he confided to me that he couldn't stand it anymore."
One moment Mitchell is talking about being one of they guys and making genderless music, and the next she's extolling the naturalness of gender. Mitchell emphasizes, "I was always one of the boys," but then quickly adds, "I didn't lose my femininity." The story she then tells, however, reveals that she did sometimes "lose" her femininity. "If I got too rough, I'd embarrass the boys, because they respected me. Although I was one of the boys, they gave me a line out of their respect for me. On occasion I'd get caught up in the spirit of their rough language, and you'd see, you'd embarrass them." In other words, it wasn't that Mitchell had an unerring sense of where the line lay, but that her male friends would let her know when she'd ventured too far into their territory.
It is ironic, given Mitchell's disdain for borderlines, that she, of all people, should talk of obeying the line between femininity and masculinity. But, ironic or not, she's in good company. Women today find themselves at some moments wanting to explode the very category of gender, and at others returning to its familiar shelter. And we all have trouble locating the line delineating the feminine from the unladylike. What's too coarse, too sexy, too bitchy or too ambitious? Although Mitchell never transgressed the line of feminine respectability the way the more celebrated bad girls of rock did, she did cross it. Indeed, the critics' trouble with Mitchell isn't just that she's a woman. It's also that she hasn't behaved enough like a woman. She ranks herself right up there with Hendrix, talks of her place in the history of music and, most important of all, has earned that place with the boldness and originality of her work. In challenging the equation of greatness with maleness, Mitchell is, unbeknownst to herself and all the bad young girls of rock, the baddest of them all.
This article has been viewed 5,313 times since being added on January 9, 2000.
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