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Pass the Salt, Please Print-ready version

by Les Irvin
September 26, 1997

Photo by FOJ

Allow me to make a disclaimer that most likely does not need to be made. I am not a professional journalist nor much of a writer at all. I am simply a person, like many thousands of others, who has a deep love and respect for the music of Joni Mitchell. Unlike most of those thousands, however, I have been given a wonderful gift. I had the opportunity to sit at a table with Joni Mitchell and two of her friends for almost four hours one sunny Southern California day in June of 1997.

Being in the presence of Joni is an incredible experience. Her rich and fluent speech cannot be fully described, at least not by me. Had there been a tape recorder present I'd simply let you hear it and not bother with writing it out. But all I had with me were my eyes and my ears and I'll be the first to admit how unreliable those items can sometimes be. I can’t remember what shirt I wore yesterday, let alone begin to remember the countless wonderful stories I heard from Joni on that day.

So read this story with that in mind. One thing I clearly understood from Joni was her ongoing frustration with those who write about her and their tendency to quote her out of context. Although I appear to quote Joni throughout this article, please remember that these words are not exactly what she said; they are simply my recollection of what she said – interpreted through my admittedly less-than-photographic memory. It's the spirit of her words that will hopefully come across.

"I don't have a computer… - I don't know the first thing about them," she leaned forward and said almost apologetically, "but I may get one someday."

I was still a little shaken from the realization that I was in the presence of Joni Mitchell. From the table where we were now seated, in somewhat of a daze I had watched her come up the escalator of the outdoor courtyard, walk right up to me, smile and shake my hand. I certainly didn't expect her to almost hand me an apology right off the bat.

Joni pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and began talking excitedly about her grandson. A few months earlier, Joni had been reunited with her daughter that she had given up for adoption and discovered at that time that she was also a grandmother. She felt he was a very special kid and had that certain quality of innocence which Joni said is "one of the essences of life." She hoped he would be able to maintain that quality despite, among other things, what she called the sad state of kid’s toys these days. "They amount to one big pile of plastic junk!" she said.

Meeting Joni was an experience I never dreamed I would have. When I started the Joni Mitchell Discussion List out of sheer necessity nine months earlier it had not even entered my mind that this would have been possible. Yet here I was, about to share a lunch with arguably the greatest singer-songwriter of all time -– a woman whose music I had admired and studied for 25 years. I sat at the table across from Joni, joined by two long-time friends of hers.

It quickly became apparent that this would not be a quiet lunch. Joni likes to talk and this audience was ready to listen. In the first few minutes she spoke of Gershwin and Neitzche and Mozart and the I Ching and somehow managed to relate them all to each other. Long ago, she captured me as an active listener to her songwriting. The depth of her talent required me to pay attention in order to make sense of it. And so it was today with her speaking. She doesn't just speak her words. Her words sing. Her words dance. Her words paint a picture. She cuts a wide path while she speaks, taking off on tangents but never forgetting from where she started. She borrows from all mediums when she talks – having the ability to explain sounds as colors - feelings as physical textures. She is always composing.

On this particular day her thoughts are on her latest album in process. "It's called Taming the Tiger… well, today at least. I'm not sure yet," she said. "The tiger is a metaphor for success. But, as we all know, you can never really tame success. Anyway, I'm still working on it. I've stripped it down a lot. It has a sparse feel to it. And a lot of influences." She mentioned that Wayne Shorter has added some of the best things she'’s ever heard him do.

Joni is obviously totally immersed in her work. According to one of her friends, she can go on artistic binges and not be heard from for days on end. "I think I've written 200 verses to the title song" she said, "but only three will show up on the record. I've really struggled with getting it just right. It's ruined my social life for two weeks straight!" she laughed.

Joni picked up her spoon and dipped into her bowl of tomato soup. Taking advantage of the brief silence, I was reminded of a question that one of the list members had hoped to pose to her and asked "I've read that you consider yourself primarily a painter. When you write songs do you actually approach them as if you were doing a painting?"

"Oh absolutely," she quickly said, "painting, music, and lyrics are all inter-related. Sometimes if I get stuck on a song, I'll move to the canvas and work on it through that avenue. This painting I'm doing for the cover of the new album - I've been working on it for two years now. I can’t seem to get it just right. Something about the face. I keep seeing different people in it – it looked like Rod Stewart for awhile," she laughed. "Many faces have passed across that canvas… the paint is this thick on it!" she said, indicating a gap of about an inch between her thumb and forefinger.

I asked about the curious title of one of the songs scheduled to be on her new album called ‘Harlem in Havana’. "What's that about, in a nutshell?" I asked.

"In a nutshell?" she replied, appearing a little perplexed. Perplexed perhaps at the notion of trying to fit it into a nutshell. She pulled another Native Spirit cigarette from the pack, leaned forward again and began composing her words. Her stories are more than just stories - they are journeys. Fifteen minutes after she began I returned from the streets of New York and the carnivals of her youth with "the midways an actual mile long." I had stood in front of a black burlesque show as a 13-year old girl and had cast my gaze across the wide Canadian prairies.

I began to think of the experience I was having. Somewhere along the line, my nervousness had left me. Here I was, talking to Joni Mitchell as if she was an old friend. From the moment I first heard her music as a teenager, she has been a larger than life figure for me. But here she was now – just a regular human being eating a regular lunch. Most impressive was how she was treating me. She looked me in the eye as she told her stories. She spoke them to me and for me. She, too, was treating me as an old friend. What I had been told prior to meeting her proved true - "Joni will make you feel right at home."

"What do you think of the fact that over 300 people have signed up to talk about you everyday on the Internet?" I asked. Since the existence of the Discussion List was what led to this opportunity to meet her, I thought I would find out what she thought of it.

She took a bite of her tuna sandwich and thought for a few moments. "I don't know.… It's a strange thing. On one hand, I feel like jumping right into the gossip. You know, if someone is in the next room gossiping about you, you want to walk over and hear what they are saying. On the other hand I think it could be unhealthy to get too involved in it."

She thought some more. "I read something from the list in which people were trying to figure out what I meant by a certain lyric. I don't understand why people are interested in that. Who cares what I meant! What does it mean to you? I'd prefer they would focus on the creation rather than the creator."

Joni's friend spoke up and said "Maybe that's what you can take back to your discussion list - that's the message you can give to everyone - creation versus creator."

"Yeah... yeah!" said Joni, becoming a little more convinced the second time.

Her friend pulled out a printed copy of the "Fable" that list member Jack Merkle had posted and said "You've got to read this one, Joni." She asked me tell Joni what the motive was for the post. I began to explain that it was written in response to the list's first flame war. And how it was so easy to be misunderstood on the printed page when one has limited means of conveying any intended humor, sarcasm, or irony that could be easily expressed in person.

"Exactly!" Joni burst in. "Now you know what I've had to put up with my entire career. Journalists and critics take my words and they flatten them onto the printed page so that they no longer express what I was trying to say. What I meant as dah dah dah is often interpreted instead by the reader as DAH DAH DAH."

She picked up the copy of the post and read it, smiling and chuckling in spots. "that's cute." she said. "He used good quotes. I get a kick out of reviewers who quote lines from my songs. I usually say to myself ‘that's not a good line, keep reading, keep reading, the good line is coming up!’"

I sensed that Joni was still pondering the previous discussion. She snuffed out her cigarette and shifted in her chair. "You wouldn’t believe how many times my words have been taken out of context," she said, "especially in regards to other female artists. The public doesn't see the initial punch when someone holds an article up to me and says ‘Look what so and so said about you – what is your response?’ All they get to read is my reaction to that punch."

"Why do you think you get compared so much to other female artists? Could it be considered the ultimate compliment?" I asked, diving off the deep end. "It's my opinion that the critics see you as the standard by which all others are judged."

"No! It's insulting!" she quickly responded. "Some of these people that they are comparing me to aren't doing any original work. I was a pioneer. Back in the sixties I had no one to copy, no one to show me the way. I paved the way for a lot of people."

I was going to continue to press my point that this is exactly what I felt the critics were trying to say, but now I wasn't so sure myself. I had never been on the receiving end of any of the comments. From the articles that have been published about Joni over the years - it would be possible for the reader to form the opinion that she doesn't care for many of the artists that are being compared to her. I began to see a different perspective as I listened to her unedited thoughts throughout the course of the afternoon. Joni, in fact, spoke favorably of a number of artists - among them Sarah McLachlan, Rickie Lee Jones, and Sheryl Crow. I believe that it is not the compared that she dislikes - it's the comparison.

"I'll admit it -… I am arrogant!" she continued. "But I've had to be to survive in this business. It's a lot better than false humility, though. There's too much of that out here." She was silent for a moment, then said with a smile, "I'm thinking about dropping my arrogance though; I'm not sure I need it anymore."

The whole idea of misrepresentation appeared to get her to thinking back on her career.

"I was in Italy at a press conference some years ago and this guy asked who had produced my new album at that point. I said ‘'There was no producer -– I was the producer'.’ He said 'No you weren't'– this guy was,’ and he threw out a name. I said, ‘'This guy was just the second engineer! Do you know what the second engineer does? He goes and gets coffee for me when I want it,'" she laughed.

She was on a roll.

"You know, Court and Spark was written as a complete piece. All the horn parts, all the orchestral parts, I originally sang them all. Because I don't know music theory, I sung the parts and had Tom Scott write them down. Critics then assumed that Tom did all the arranging -– no, it was all me. It's always been that way -– critics see some originality and say ‘'OK… where's the nearest man?'’"

Now, dear reader, here is where the printed page fails us. Here is where her words get flattened onto your computer screen and lose all their energy, wit, and charm. Despite Joni's claim of arrogance, I do not share that opinion of her. What I sensed from her was an artist who knew her place in history and who was not afraid to carry her own torch if that's what it took to get some respect. False humility? Certainly not. But arrogance? No, I think it could be better described as confidence.

The discussion shifted to her voice and how it has changed over the years. "There's a man down here that owns that furniture store." Joni said, nodding in the direction of a small shop that we overlooked from the patio where we sat. "I was in there the other day and he said ‘Oh Joni, are you still recording?’ I told him I was and he said ‘Really... but your voice these days, It's not like it used to be - it's... it's...

"‘Better!’ I butted in!," Joni said with a laugh.

"Like fine wine," added her friend.

"This new album, It's half in the alto/tenor range and half in the soprano range. Not like in the early days when it was all soprano," said Joni.

"But your first album wasn't really in the soprano range," I offered.

"No, it wasn't -… and that's an interesting thing. My mother's got a recording that I did for her on her old reel to reel back in 1965 -… the tape is in bad shape - if you tried to play it now it would probably self-destruct -… but that song was sung in the lower register. I guess I didn't really get up there until after the first album. ‘Joni -… the helium years!’" she laughed.

[Note to archivists: The song Joni is referring to here is not "Day After Day" which has been thought of as the first song she wrote, or at least recorded. Sadly, the title of it quickly slipped from my memory.]

"So are we going to see a tour to promote this new album?" I asked.

"I don't know. I don't like playing large halls anymore. I like to play the small, intimate places."

"By small do you mean five thousand or five hundred?"

"Five hundred? I mean one hundred -… or fifty -… or ten people! I like to have fun when I play. That performance I did at the Gene Autry Theater -… now that was fun. I'd like to do more things like that."

I made reference to the Amnesty International benefit that she did in the '80’s -– a huge event that certainly didn't look fun for her from my perspective.

"I went there just to see [then-husband Larry] Klein, I had no intention of playing. Then Pete Townshend cancelled and Bill Graham came up to me and said ‘Joni, can you play a couple songs? We’ve got a great spot for you -– number three on the bill.’ I once told Peter Gabriel to never perform at those type of events without your own soundman and equipment -– it always ends up in disaster. So I thought, ‘Oh no, this is exactly what I said not to get into!’"

"The first song was with acoustic guitar and the crowd completely drowned it out. On the second song I picked up the electric. I hit the first chord and it was like a power chord - it drowned everyone else out. If you watch the video you can see me looking back for the soundman to turn it down but by this time he was long gone … nowhere to be found. He didn't care."

"The songs were perfect for the event. I picked them for that purpose. But of course, by that time no one was interested in the message. During ‘'Number One'’ they started pitching shit up onto the stage -– things were whizzing by my head. I thought, ‘'Go ahead, stone me up here!' It will be perfect to capture this on film -… this is exactly what this song is about!’"

She sat back. "The road is a tough life. The last tour I did in 1983 wasn't very profitable. After paying twenty-one people'’s road expenses every day for three months there wasn't much left. Of course, the record company would like to see me tour."

"As would thousands of people across the country," I added.

"You know, I only sell about 300,000 records. It takes about 600,000 to break even. I make no money on records, only on song royalties." She seemed a little vulnerable for the first time this afternoon. "I think there are 600,000 people who would buy my record, don't you? For every one there has to be another somewhere in the world."

She quickly switched gears. "I just finished up the lyrics to a new song last night, do you want to hear them?" she asked, looking me in the eye.

"Uh...… sure," I stuttered.

She began reciting the lyrics to the song "Stay In Touch." Once again, she wasn't just speaking them. The words were painted into the air, they danced through the cool California breeze, they took on a life of their own as she spoke them. It was an incredible moment.

When she finished, there were a few seconds of silence, then a collective "Wow" from the three of us at the table. Joni smiled and slightly bowed her head in a moment of appreciation and humility -– with not a trace of falseness at all. I realized then that we had witnessed an intimate performance, the kind of which she had just spoken. And it was obvious that she enjoyed it immensely.

"Joni. It's almost 6 o'clock," said her friend.

"Yep, we'’ve got to go -– the musicians are coming over tonight to work on a few things," she said, pushing back her chair.

We walked through the courtyard down the first of two flights of escalators towards the parking lot. Joni suddenly said, "Les, Les... come over here," and led me to a small tree in the middle of the concrete courtyard. "See that bird’s nest in this tree?" she asked me. "Last week there was a papa bird sitting up on that railing above protecting his territory. Every time someone would walk close to that nest you could see him up there sharpening his beak, getting ready to dive at them. I sat here all afternoon and watched!" she said with a laugh.

Ahhh yes...… innocence. One of the essences of life.

I would like to thank Joni Mitchell for her kind permission to publish this story on the website.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (10332)


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MrMeaning on

Brilliant - and nicely written. How wonderful to have had that meeting! I like your realisation of the distinction between comparison and comparee, with Joni hating the comparison rather than the artist.