"Quintessential Covina." It was my TV show. And I don't mean like "Lost" was my TV show, (yes, I'm still pissed about the ending). I mean that Quintessential Covina (from here on referred to as QC) was my creation. The place was the cable office TV studio in Covina, California.
The year was 1989. QC was a cable public access show, ala "Wayne's World". Every Saturday night from 10:00pm until midnight. It was live, so we could take phone calls from viewers. We had a news segment, "Covina Newsstand, with all the news Covina could stand."
We taped "Man on the street" stuff, and just generally had a good time making a TV show for fun only, no pay. I co-hosted and produced it. My co-host was David Cluck, who would go on to a busy film and television career including being First Assistant Director on a couple of Academy Award winning films you may have heard of: "Monster" and "The Artist".
There was also our Music segment. Our music and entertainment correspondent was Jeff Plummer. Jeff would usually end the show with "Jeff's Note". In his segment he would interview bands, go to music events, and sometimes have a band play live in the studio. But mostly he (and sometimes Wayne Sakamoto as "Night Rider") would play music videos supplied by a few record labels we had contacted. Music Videos were all the rage then. MTV actually played them, who knew? It was actually pretty nice, we would get high quality ¾ inch video tapes of the music videos. I mean it wasn't high def, but better than VHS. But I digress.
One day we received three videos from Joni Mitchell. A letter had accompanied them saying basically, that Joni had produced these and paid for them out of her own pocket. "So would you please view them and let us know what you think?"
The videos were: "Beat of Black Wings", "Lakota", and the very happy "Dancing Clown".
Immediately a devious plan came to me. "Let's try to talk to Joni herself". The probability factor? It's Not very high. Who the hell did we think we were? But I could ask.
So I called and told them that we would love to give our opinions on the videos, but, we would rather discuss it directly with Joni. You could almost hear the eye rolling over the phone. It was the basic "We'll call you" deal. A couple more weeks and shows go by. A Joni interview was off the radar. It's almost forgotten that I had even asked, because, well, it wasn't going to happen anyway. I mean, what would we do if she actually said yes? We were just a bunch of amateurs with a camera and a microphone. We would most likely embarrass ourselves and everyone involved. We are probably better off.
"Marty, there's a call for you!" (This is before cell phones) I go to pick it up, it's a rep calling on behalf of JONI MITCHELL! "Yes". She would love to sit down with you to discuss her videos. "OK, who's pranking me?" I thought. But no, it was real. We had a date and place. It would be at, as I recall, mind you it could have been some other big name, but I seem to remember it being Peter Asher's office in Hollywood.
Oh crap, we are going to have to rise to the occasion here. We are actually going to talk to her. I have to get a haircut. And, we have to figure out the questions. So we fanned out and asked what other people might ask her. A lot was offered and suggested, but ultimately, it was up to Jeff to ask the questions. He took care of it.
The day came and we made our way to Hollywood. It was Jeff Plummer (the interviewer) and Steve Rhoades, our evil genius camera/engineer guy, and me. We dragged our stuff into the office and set up. Joni soon came out and sat with us talking, for over an hour. She was very accommodating and gracious. It's a pleasure to listen to her speak. So it went pretty well. At the end I explained about a deal I had made with a friend a few years back, to send him a tape of my" Refuge of the Roads" laserdisc in exchange for a cassette of an album he had. This person, by the way, was Jack Merkel, who later turned out to be a valued member of the JMDL community.
I then asked a favor of Joni Mitchell. And she agreed to do it. We rolled the camera again and she said "Jack I don't know what took Marty so long, but here it is now." I took that little snippet and edited it into the beginning of the VHS copy of Refuge I made. My wife took the tape to him on a visit to Chicago. He put the tape on and up came Joni with a personal message for Jack. He wondered how we got somebody who looked just like Joni.
My point is that she was very cool. We all had a fun time. I am so grateful for the experience. On a side note, if you look at the table on her right, you will see a bottle. This was her beverage during the interview. I absconded with that bottle afterwards, and have it to this day, under glass. (Nerd thing)
The interview here, in three parts, is the raw, unedited interview, exactly as it happened. It was taken from three 20 minute tapes. The only stuff cut out of this is the chatter during colorbars, and there actually is some amusing stuff there. Also the "Reversal" shots. Those are the shots of Jeff nodding and such, and asking the questions again, only smoother. These were cut into the finished, edited version along with segments from Joni's videos. As presented here, in uncut condition, they had only been seen by a handful of people in all these years. Even the edited version that we aired on our show in two parts was seen maybe by a couple hundred people in Covina. In 1989. So please enjoy. Long Live Joni Mitchell.
- Marty Getz
Joni Mitchell interviewed by Jeff Plummer.
Transcription by Lindsay Moon.
Watch the video: Part One | Part Two | Part Three
Jeff Plummer: Okay, I'd like to thank you for coming today and welcome to the interview.
Joni Mitchell: Oh, sure.
JP: First of all, the main reason we're here is to kind of find out about your new videos that you have out including "Lakota" and "Beat of Black Wings," also with "Dancing Clown."
You felt compelled to make these videos and, if you did, were the ideas you had at the time at the same time the songs were written or did they come about, later?
JM: They came after the completion of the record in various ways. We should maybe break it down into individual songs -
JM: -- and I'll tell you how they came around.
JP: Okay, first one being "Lakota" since it's the first one we had on the tape. Can you tell me where that came from and how it came to be?
JM: That one came in a kind of a mystical way. We - at the release of "Chalkmark," Gloria (Boyce) and I traveled around the world and running off at the mouth in self-promotional mode. In Japan I also had an art show, and I sold a little more than half of the show so I had a little bit of money. So I put that money into an art kitty, with the intention of using it for video since we get - the videos are billed back to the artist anyway.
Now, in regard to my music, it had always been a difficult decision for the record company to make, it seemed, as to what the single should be. And the video always accompanies the single and sometimes the visions, the most visual songs for me were not the ones that would be chosen. So ideas that might come to you would then have no outlet.
Anyway, completing this journey around the world in self-promotional mode, I came back to Los Angeles. And the entry into the country was difficult. We had a mean, kind of redneck customs official, and it was the only country in the world where you suddenly had to have coins to get your shopping cart. We had hit the commercial world.
I guess I'd have to say there's a post partum kind of depression that accompanies something like that. It was a lot of energy output and very positive experience but coming back to America I was sort of flattened and overwhelmed because I was requested - people wanted me to do this, do that, do this, do that. What do I want to do, I said. So I lay around the house for a couple of days. On about the third day, on a Tuesday, I got an idea. And my idea was this, I said to my husband, "I've got it! We're supposed to go to the Lakota reservation. We'll take all our Super 8 cameras. We had four Super 8 cameras and a bunch of film. We'll go onto the reservation, we'll wave a white flag, you know, so they allow us entrance, because I'm a blonde, and as a custom I don't think they take to blondes too much. And we'll say "We know you love the Black Hills and we want to make a video. Take this camera, here's how it works, go shoot everything that you love, your children, your friends, the landscape, whatever. When you run out of film, come back and we'll load you up again."
So this was the dream, the fantasy on a Tuesday. The following Monday I was talking on the phone to Gloria Boyce, and while we were talking she said, "Oh, Joni, a call is coming in from the chief of the Lakota Sioux." So I said, "Oh! I've been thinking about them. Call me back and tell me what he wants." So what he wanted was for the first time in I don't know how long, the Lakotas, who were scattered over seven reservations or eight reservations, had decided to unite and march in protest in regard to the Black Hills and to speak and hold public meeting. It was a baby step for them in organization. I was invited to march with them as a dignitary.
JP: That's great.
JM: So we went and when we got there I didn't even have to say here's the camera and here's the film. The children that you see in the film kept running up and taking the camera and running off. And the reason that it's all in slow-mo is because when children between the ages of 4 and 14 shoot, they think they're spraying flies and there's a lot of fast movement. Great inside subject matter, but technically you had to milk it to get the stability of the shot so that's why that style evolved.
JP: Yeah, it had a great effect. It's very interesting to find out actually what was behind that because it seems as if - did it seem something that they didn't understand as far as these people coming in and wanting to film their way of life?
JM: Well, it didn't come like that, see, because it was never spoken that that's what we were there for. We were there because I had written a song, "I Am Lakota" in the first person and I think they were curious. I was invited to speak among one of the dignitaries there. As one of them. It was really quite an honor.
JP: That's great.
JM: And I had some confrontation over some of the lyrics. On the second day we were there, I wanted to film people as we got more comfortable with one another, saying some of the lines. And they all had mimeographed lyrics - the chief had mimeographed my lyrics and passed them out.
So I went around and nobody would touch certain lines. You know, "the poor drunk bastard falls." And I did have some explaining. Some people were very confrontational with me, but it was written with a lot of empathy, and basically it was a magnet to a great adventure. It was quite touching. And at the end when the woman passes the peace pipe to me, I was filming that segment. So I mistimed in a way with - because she passed the pipe to me and I didn't know whether I was - I was confused -- what I should do, should I put down my camera and accept it. And you'll see an expression on her face she did it of her own volition but when I hesitated, she looked over to a higher-up, one of the chiefs to see if it was all right to be doing this with me, I think. There's a moment where her expression changes.
JP: Hesitation or ... That's interesting.
JM: It's really a great experience.
JP: As far as "Beat of Black Wings," that's a song that you've carried around with you for quite a while as far as that you haven't put down on recording or video, what brought that to fruition?
JM: Oh, well, that was written for the last album. The vision - that was a collaboration, that piece. The Bauhaus style dancing was contributed by the director. The black soldier was - well, actually, he's multiracial. He looks sort of Sandinista. I mean he/she/it (laughs). That was my idea. And it's an iffy thing because I had to play gender cross, racial cross, and age cross because he's a young soldier. I think the director would have selected a different piece of footage. The parts that I selected were almost maybe too feminine. You know, we did a lot of takes and some of them were much butcher and some of them, I think - what we should do is have another edit. He should edit it also. Because in the middle of it I felt that it was getting away from my vision and I - it wasn't a hostile takeover but I took back the reels and edited myself, and it's a compromise of styles because they had begun editing in the long dissolves and things whereas I like - "Lakota" and "Dancing Clown" is my editing. More hard cut and shorter pieces. That's more the way I would have done it had it been all mine.
So it's almost there, I think, as a piece of art.
JP: So the Bauhaus style of dancing in that wasn't your ideal or idea, excuse me. That wasn't something that you had conceived for the video or was it -
JM: No. With video directors they get visual ideas. And then people come to them and sometimes they'll laminate an idea onto a song whether it has anything to do with the song or not. So Jim Shea had this idea with the sketches from some Bauhaus dance routine that he'd seen. And I thought it was an odd juxtaposition. Originally, you know, I saw this guy drunk in a bar, this soldier, he's mad at his girlfriend, he's mad at the powers that be. And I couldn't understand what he'd be doing in a bar with these kind of dancers.
So the idea then metamorphasized. I said what if he's lying in an alley outside of a theater near a rehearsal. That makes sense. So we found the alley and luck was with us again in that the Black Panther insignia was spray painted all over this alley, and the Black Panther insignia is a guy with a beret and a mustache and looks just like my character; you ever seen it?
JM: So this was sprayed all around in that area. The night we shot - speaking of spraying, they sprayed for - what is that stuff, Gloria? -
JM: Medflies. Yeah, so we took a heavy lungful of medfly poison that night. There really isn't much more to say with it. I feel that piece is almost there. I'd like to see Jim's edit now. I think he's going to do another one. I've had my go at it. I can take one more. Editing is an addiction, you know.
JP: So as far as "Dancing Clown," is that something you want to talk about as far as including it in the package?
JP: How do you feel about that video? It's a different departure, it's light and it's entertaining.
JM: That's all my idea. And I believe in amateur photographers. The Super 8 was shot by a friend of mine, for many years my art director for my album covers. He'd never filmed before that I know of. But he turned out - he's stocky and he has a beautiful weight and classical moves with the camera and I think his footage was quite successful.
The thing that I didn't want was the imposition of direction. I wanted to be alone in my kitchen listening to this piece of music with nobody telling you how to act alone in your kitchen. Just if I could get friends to shoot it - my mother gave me the idea. When the album came out, she said, "I just love that song "Dancing Clown." She said, "I put my headphones on and I dance around the kitchen." So I thought that's a great idea, you know.
JP: That's an entertaining song. And you work on that song with Billy Idol and Tom Petty are in the background at the end.
JM: Right. Originally I wanted to shoot Tom and Billy alone in their kitchens dancing around mindlessly. But things conspired and it never came off. So my cat El Café -
JP: Filled the bill.
JM: -- filled the bill.
JP: I wanted to get on to talk about producing albums. The majority of your albums are self-produced until the latter - other than your first album - your latter albums you've worked with your husband Larry Klein, and I believe on one you had Thomas Dolby help you in producing.
JM: And Mike Shipley. Well, now he - that all comes down to internal politics. Thomas was hired - we were moving into - into synthesizers. Studios are very expensive. If you don't know what you're doing on them yet you're slow setting up yourselves. And with the clock ticking it's a very bad situation economically.
JP: A technical advisor in effect?
JM: So Thomas was hired to set us up colors quickly. Then management got involved and he ended up with a production credit, but in fact he was a player and a colorist. Mike Shipley who's a wonderful engineer also gets production credit. I'm not sure where production and great engineering begin and end.
My husband also gets production credit. He helped in the tweaking of sounds, and he has two songs on that album which he pretty much did produce himself. He developed his tracks up to a certain point and then the choral work, half of it is his production and half of it is mine. So those are two collaborations.
But aside from those two songs, I don't - I've never liked the word "producer." It's like an interior decorator. It is in the final wash my music. Every note that's selected no matter who plays it, is arranged by me, moved around and it's very much like painting but sometimes other people are holding the brush but you can take those strokes that they made and move them. So...
JP: So I was just basically wondering if there was any conflict with working with other people producing but since it's essentially your product, there really isn't.
JM: I'm unproduce-able. I've had my reign too long.
JP: Well, I think you have good control over your product and I think it shows.
JM: Thank you.
JP: Kind of an off-the-wall question: Do you ever feel a void in creativities or over time you feel a void and if so how do you deal with it?
JM: No, I never feel a void. But I work in many fields of expression so when one tires out, which is inevitable, it's like crop rotation, you move to another. So if I'm bored with my music, if I feel that what's coming out is repetitive or I've done it before, I'll go back to painting, give that a rest. And the resting of the soil in the different areas keeps them all fertile.
JP: Okay. As far as the way the public views you and the way you see yourself, is that pretty much close, the same, or does it differ quite a bit?
JM: Hmmm. "The public" is a lot of people. It breaks down into individuals. One person would hear a song of mine and think it was too sad. Someone else would hear the same song and think it was uplifting. I've tried to avoid image traps, to be myself as much as possible in the course of my career, even if it meant belly-up and revealing some rather unpopular things about my own psyche to keep my own human-ness, therefore to keep my ability to walk around so I would never get too star trapped. You know, people are pretty good with me because of that. I think they let me be a human being.
JP: You have a pretty close following as far as your true fans, I mean they're pretty supportive in whatever avenue you take.
JM: I've got my loyal-ies, I think. You know, my generation, like all generations, stops listening to music and waxes sentimental at a certain point, "Oh, they don't make it like they used to in the old days!"
So those people, I have fans like that, who have my records up to, say, "Court and Spark" and it ends there. Those are the people that say, "Oh, you define a certain era." I say, "Oh, really?" What a limiting idea. So there are some people that say I belong to the '60s when in fact I came in late in the '60s and worked through the '70s.
I still feel like I don't belong to any era. I'm not nostalgic for the '60s. I don't think my life lies behind me. I'm still - I still see territory too.
(End Part 1)
JP: How do you decide, when you get an idea or feeling, between putting it into a song or picking up a paint brush and putting it on canvas?
JM: Between painting and songwriting the images fall almost automatically into their categories. One of the decisions is should it be a song or a short story. Sometimes it's hard to get all the information into a song. Like I've got a new one now called "Cherokee Louise" which really is a short story and manages somehow compactly to go into four verses. Sometimes you almost think you need a little more space, that the song form is too short.
But paintings, the ideas that I have for the work that I'm about to do that I haven't done, the main thrust of my work at this point is absorbing surfaces and reflecting surfaces so I - for instance, if you use gold line, in certain lights that line becomes dark and in certain lights it disappears. So I've taken to collecting terrible bad paintings by people with some virtuosity but no imagination so you get a stiff painting that's well rendered but has nothing happening for it, no soul. And then scribbling on it in gold pen. Well, from one angle you don't even see your line. From another angle you've scribbled all over it. So I'm playing around with surfaces like that.
That really doesn't have much to do with songs. Most of the graphic ideas for the art are quite separate. They may have - there's one big canvas that I did that was called "Dog Eat Dog" which was the title of an album. And although it depicted a lot of - like the dogs had all kinds of expressions. The world was a dangerous and angry place for me at that particular time, and it was an outlet for it in that and the music also expressed that theme.
Painting, you express it more broadly, more childlike. Here's the basic thing: like all that a painter - a painter at best because of their juvenile qualities. The reason painters, I think, live to be quite old is because they're children, maybe more than any of the arts, that never grew up, never put their crayons away. And the painting at best is supposed to rejuvenate a person. It's the work of a juvenile, perennial juvenile, intended to rejuvenate. You should get a wonderful "Oooh!" It should make you want to get out your crayons, a good painting, more than anything else.
A good poem, the role of the poet is to be an aspirant, at best. You know, they should take their insights and their human experiences and create something, especially in America which blessedly is not a number one power. Now we can develop some character, some midrange. But because we've been "The Winner" for so long, everything's black and white. You're either a winner or loser. Now we should be able to be a little bit more humane.
But during that winner climate, people didn't talk about their difficulties. You were a social pariah and if you had too many problems, people would isolate you, they'd leave you alone. So the poet during that time period, the "Me" '70s and the greedy '80s - well, less than the greedy '80s because people didn't - it was just a mad race for money. I don't think the poet was needed. He may have been but people didn't know he was.
Let's see, painting ... music is a soothing, tactile expression. Music is really a mystery - how do those notes ... you hear those sounds and you feel things. They do it quicker and more mysteriously than their abstract line equivalent. You may see an abstract painting with certain colors and everything and get a feeling, but I doubt you'd get as intense a feeling as you would if you heard a certain chord progression which is line and color juxtaposition. Music is abstract; abstract painting is abstract. As a communicating tool, music is instant. It's really great, what it does.
JP: About your art, you said you had an exhibit in Japan? Can you tell me a little bit about that.
JM: Yeah, there's a woman named Michico Suzuki who for years when she came to interview me for Japanese newspaper saw that I was always in the process of painting. And after many years she decided that it was time that I would have a show there. We talked year after year after year about it and I always declined in that they wanted me to perform in the gallery and I didn't want to get one thing mixed up with the other. Finally the climate was right, and there was a boy at the Parko Gallery in Tokyo who five years earlier when he was writing out his application form, he was asked what his goal was in the gallery in a long-term plan. He said one of his ambitions was to bring the paintings of Joni Mitchell to Japan because he'd seen some of them on album covers.
So in collaboration with Michico they came and selected certain pieces and took them to Tokyo and we had the show.
JP: Was it well-received, the show?
JM: I think so. We sure enjoyed it. It was beautifully lit. The guy who lit it lit it beautifully and we sold enough to put together this video kitty to have a little money in there to stretch out and be able to do the videos because owing to the number of years that I've been around and the type of videos that are being made, you know, the bathing suit girls. I'm not going to be jumping around in a - it's just not dignified at my age.
But I still wanted - I felt surely there are other expressions. If Jack Nicholson is still acting, why can't I be in videos? Why do I have to be a sexpot? There must be some graceful way. If there isn't then I'm not in the game anymore and I should quit and become a painter, period. So I didn't really --
I didn't really find much company support. David (Geffen) said, "Well, Joan, the kind of videos you do ..." And that I guess gave me a bit of a drive because I said I'd like to see these images. I'm sick of these images that I see.
JP: Do you plan to pursue that in long form or down the road more videos?
JM: Well, I've done two illustrated concert films. That's where I started in editing. Just to spice them up -
JP: Did you work on editing, say, in "Shadows and Light"?
JM: Oh, yeah, I edited that and what was the other one, "Refuge of the Roads." I did all the editing. "Shadows and Light" was my first one, "Refuge" was the second, and "Lakota" was the third.
JP: I think "Shadows and Light" has, at the beginning it starts out with an homage to - it has James Dean at the beginning -
JM: That's right.
JP: And you utilized that almost like in a living room of a household or it was on a - or could you tell me a little bit about it?
JM: Well, that movie came out when I was 12. And we all drank milk - I hated milk - but we all drank milk out of quart bottles because James Dean did. And we wore red cotton jackets with our collars turned up, and I mean he was our hero. And "Rebel Without a Cause," that was right when the women's lib thing was happening. I don't know if you remember the movie but the women of that generation were restless, and while they were still aproned and still domestic, there were things that were bubbling. And the man/woman thing was unsettling. That was kind of the undercurrent of "Rebel Without a Cause" was his mother was bitter and the father had the apron on he wanted to be a man, what was happening. This was just at a sociological turning point before The Pill became available and women were temporarily emancipated until disease struck and we went back into Victorian.
What really happened with that film was it was a five-camera shoot. So with five cameras, when one magazine comes down, the other guy figures he's got it covered. Well, right before we started shooting, the Number 1 cameraman sprained his ankle. Fifteen minutes into the show between the heat and the pain, he passed out; then there were four. One of the other guys was Joel Bernstein, who's a great still photographer, who had never moved one of those big, bulky TV cameras so his stuff was jerky. So then there were three. Two of those were roving hand-held on stage so sometimes when they'd come down, there'd be nothing, there would be no coverage. So we said "What are we gonna do?"
Concert footage at that time was already looking pretty bland, and this was before videos. People were trying to figure out how to make rock and roll look good on television. Because it was never like being there. You put the concert on the little screen and it wasn't quite the same thing.
So we went and did a low-budget thing which was at that time called "Shopping the Halls" like the "Coyote" footage for instance, I directed a scene which was pretty literal with people like suffering in hotel rooms and we rented a floor at this Sunset round tower at Sunset and the San Diego freeway and we set up the whole scenario. And that's when I realized that if you take an image in a song and you depict it literally, the two kill each other off.
So that was discarded and I started shopping around for outtakes from different places to find coyote footage. When we found this thing with the coyote and the mouse, it was just - everything was there. "He drags her out on the dance floor" and the coyote whops the snow bank and the mouse bounces and they go off like the mouse is a hockey puck. It was just great stuff.
JP: It's a great image. I really enjoyed that. A couple of questions about critics. I don't know if they're your favorite people or least-favorite people but how do you handle negative criticism, and does it really get to you or do you just kind of shrug it off?
JM: Well, I think criticism has always bothered just about any serious artist in that the caliber of criticism - well, George Bernard Shaw, I think, had the best line, I think. He said - let's see if I quote this right, "The duty of the critic is to ..." - let's see - illuminate? No. "The duty of the critic is to educate the ignorant, not to emulate them." Right? So most of the time, most criticism is really stupid. I'll give you an example - and the first review that comes out on a project because the critics are so lazy sets the tone for all to follow. Because the second guy gets what's available, what's already been written, and he bases that, that becomes the foundation of everything. On "Dog Eat Dog" the first review came out in Time magazine, pitted me against James Taylor, because they love to pit - not having Carly anymore they decided to pit the two of us. And I came out the short stick, and I believe the word they used was, they called it an "adolescent work" in Time. And so that came up again and again internationally around the world. And yet the music and the ideas that it contained two years later were going to become their headline stories. So in fact was it adolescent?
You know, you say, "Come on! How can you dismiss this?" That was released into a very "Rah Rah Regan" pro period. Any criticism against America, and that album contained some social criticism, was considered negative. "Hey!" you know "We're the greatest!" People were having this one last illusion.
Now, when "Chalkmark" came out, the first review appeared in Billboard, and it was a rave. The guy loved it, he got it. I said to Gloria "Send him some flowers!" because you watch, all of them are gonna follow suit and so they did. And so they're lazy and why do we have them?
JP: We should be our own judges.
JM: We should be our own judges.
JP: I think that point has been made and made and I don't think people - you know, there's always going to be critics, which sometimes is unfortunate that people should be able to judge their own opinion, but I think that's something that we're just going to have to live with.
JM: My husband gave me a book called "The Critics..." - It's a history of criticism, and it's reviews of Stravinsky, masterpieces, you know, all the negative reviews, things that history has proven to be great. It's a pretty funny book to look at. That puts it in perspective.
JP: Do you have any plans in the future as far as touring, playing live?
JM: We get offers to go to Russia, to go here, and of course the omnipresent benefit. I mean, you could do a hundred benefits in a day really.
Touring is a strenuous thing, really, moving the troops. To be able to afford it. It usually ends up costing you money. Prince, I think, it costs him money to put on those shows. Now at this point, even to carry background singers, you want to do it right. And the people I want to play with are great and they're expensive, and it really is almost cost prohibitive. If I had a hit album that really took off, which guarantees a certain populous, I could tour. Or if I took a trio I could tour. But we were out for nine months in '83 and everyone - if you're going to give up nine months of your life and put yourself through that rigor, changing your water, it's unhealthy - it's really like going to war in a certain way. You should be able to come home with something in your pocket. And I didn't on that tour. Everybody made more money than I did. Now, money's not your sole motivation, but I think you should be paid for touring.
So in the event - if this next record is a smash then I'll go out. (Laughs).
JP: Sounds good. I think we're all waiting, anticipating. You've worked with so many artists, so many great musicians. Is there anybody that you'd really like to work with that you haven't yet?
JM: Yeah. Miles Davis.
JP: Miles Davis?
JP: Why do you choose him over... ?
JM: I just love him, he's ... he's one of my great heroes. I learned a lot about singing from him. I learned a lot about pitch as opposed to perfect pitch. I learned about bending pitch for emotional things. There's a song of Miles', for instance, called "It Never Entered My Mind" and at the end of it he draws a long, flat note. He lays on it, it is flat all the way - and he holds it flat all the way through the piece of music to the end and it's brilliant. Because it - you know, music is designed - the technically correct aspects of it, and then there's what it does to your emotional center. That flat note just kills me. Every time I hear it I just go "Oh! it's so sad!" You know, if he'd played it right on pitch it would have been pretty but he flattened it out and you know it just tears your heart apart. It's so perfect, it's just touching.
JP: He's a hero of yours?
JM: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
JP: Out of your body of work what stands out as one of your favorites, album wise or?
JM: I like different ones for different reasons. "Blue" is very emotionally pure. It has its own uniqueness. It's simple and pure. It's like Japanese watercolors or something, haikus. It's very intimate.
"Court and Spark" was my first record with a band, using other players, so - and I think that one, symphonically speaking, band to band, the movement, especially of the first side, and I built connecting pieces to make it do this even more so - the flow of the first album, it goes by like that because the way - it's not just five songs in a row. They move, bridge each other beautifully. I like that for that reason.
"Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" was an experimental project. It's spotty and it's double and nobody can ever wade through and digest a double album it seems. But there are experiments on that. I like the song "Cotton Avenue," I like the spirit of it. We still play that in concert. That has peaks on it.
I like - "Hissing" again was - I let my players go a little freer than I did on Court and Spark, because it was the first time I used a band, I practically sang, I told them everything to play. I was much more in control of every note - (alarm interruption) Hello! On "Hissing" I cut them some slack. As a result I think a lot of people didn't like it because cut some slack, they reverted to being jazz musicians. My music isn't jazz, the harmony is different from jazz, but a jazz musician cut loose against it will play jazz harmony with it. And that intimidates some people.
But I like the Burundi drummers on that; I think that was a good experiment.
JP: So you experiment with all your projects, then. You try different things. You're ever-changing.
JM: Yeah. To keep it fresh sounding. And say "Oh! I've never heard anything like that before." But sometimes you stick your neck out a bit when you're trying to go for it. That's another reason why Miles is a hero of mine. He and Picasso are restless spirits, always looking to discover. There aren't a lot of those in any field. Jimi Hendrix would have been another, I think, if he'd stuck it out, although he needed more audience support. You have to be able to take the rejection of your audience to go that route, and that's why I don't think a lot of people do it. You know, they may come back to you. You have to dare to be yourself and that's not - yeah, there are some dues with it.
(End of Part 2)
JP: I was going to ask you what makes Joni Mitchell happy and what makes you sad?
JM: Well, that's easy. Let's start with sad; that's more universal. Happy is like more the pursuit of; it's more the ideal. I'm sad about the rainforests coming down, I have been for many years. I'm sad about human nature in general, you know, we're so puny really. Our greatest accomplishments backfire ten years later it seems. You know, every miracle - like DDT was a miracle, the car was a miracle, plastics were a miracle. Although any hippie, you know, hippies were real anti-plastic and now you can see with good reasons why. Plastics ate the sky. Plastics are made from the blood of the mother, from the earth, and when it's burnt it goes up and eats the father, which is the sky.
You know, this is the best and the worst of times right now. The best in that the world is beginning to realize how small it is. It's an opportunity to lay down arms with our old enemy the bear. At the same time, the idea that we will be extincted, not by the big one but by a fast food chain, you know, 'cause they're like cutting down all these forests for cattle ranching for hamburger chains. You know, that's some human irony, isn't it? These things make me sad. The '80s in general made me sad, the greed, the negativity, the ostrich-ness, inability of the world to be self-examining and critical, the misunderstanding of the role of depression in a human life, the beauty of depression. You know, that period of retreat, of cocooning where you think through your priorities and your value rather than being seen as a social disease, as a loser.
The things that make me happy are pretty simple. Basically it's zen mind. If I lose self-consciousness - we go around all the time self-conscious, we're all self-conscious - image, the moments in the day when I lose self-consciousness are the moments when I'm happy. When you're purely a witness, and "I" is anesthesized, there's no concept of "I." It's just like, "Oh! Look at that ruby-throated bird sucking on a - " You know what I mean? Like stop and smell the roses. It sounds corny but it's always been the greatest high, I think. Even in a smoggy day you see a bird or sunset - the smog here makes beautiful sunsets.
JP: Do you find yourself having time to do that? Just actually stop and forget about things, forget about recording, business, that type of thing and actually just enjoy yourself or enjoy something?
JM: You find yourself accidentally enjoying yourself. You know, if you're rushing around, rushing, rushing, rushing, which we do all day long, you don't see much. But if during your rushing you sort of rush less neurotically, at a stop sign on your way rushing from Point A to Point B, something could come in. You have an exchange, instead of flipping the bird at somebody in the car next to you, you have some kind of pleasant exchange, that'll carry you for a couple of hours.
So basically human kindness is the thing that impresses me the most these days. You see so very little of it, it's always a welcome surprise. It was out of vogue in the '80s. I don't mean smile button mentality either.
Little things. My cat! My cat cracks me up. I love that cat! Furry Snake we call her. Famous cat, yeah. She'll take over from Morris.
JP: Well, thank you very much for spending time with us today.
JM: My pleasure.
JP: Do we have the brochure of your paintings here?
JM: (To side) Glo? (Shows painting) This was the weirdest painting. This thing painted me. We were making the "Dog Eat Dog" album and this was to be the cover, but the company said it was too artsy. "Hey, we know you're artsy, put your kisser on the cover."
So anyway I would come home after a 12-hour day in the studio, and it was sitting in the living room. And if I looked at it - I had to go up the stairs to bed - after 12 hours' work on the music, you'd be kind of flattened. If I glanced at it at the foot of the stairs, the thing would make me work. And I'd work - it's hallucinatory. You know, like on a lot of seeing the dogs in the paint because it begins with an abstract process, it comes from fatigue. You begin to see things, right? So I began to see a lot of vicious dogs from fatigue (laughs).
There was one up here, it looked so much like Richard Nixon for a while, this guy. And there's a self-portrait in it, there's a cheekbone, teeth, nostrils. There's God Dog over here, he's got sailboats for teeth. He looks pretty bored. Then there's Jesus Dog here too, the crucified one, right in here. He's the long-suffering one. And then you have all the races pushing against each other in here, pink man, yellow man, green man, black man, white man, all nose to nose.
JP: Is that - where is that at the end, the portrait? Do you have it? Is it in a gallery?
JM: This one is in Japan.
JM: Yeah, this one sold and so it remains over there. And this is kind of a noble dog, a statesman kind of dog, isn't he this one? He's very noble. Like a wolf. I love wolves. Did you ever meet any wolves?
JP: Yes, all the time.
JM: They are a wonderful creature, aren't they?
JP: My parents live in the mountains and they get all kinds of creatures.
JM: (New painting) Charles Mingus.
Off-camera voice: Say that again, please.
JM: Okay, this is a portrait of Charles Mingus. I painted this one too in fever overnight. When I met him he was in a wheelchair, and his hands which were big to begin with, were swollen. They looked like he was wearing baseball mitts.
JP: That was a unique project for you too.
JM: Wasn't it? Yeah, really something.
JP: Is that something that you really treasure or is that -
JM: Yeah. That was fantastic really.
JP: He sought you out actually, didn't he?
JM: Yeah, it was like Rumpelstiltskin. He had a project in mind, which was a peculiar kind of thing. And this was to be his last project. He, when he discovered he was dying, he called a friend of his who was not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. And he said, "Danielly, I'm dying, I want you to come over here and talk to me about God." And Danielly said, "Oh, you're talking to the wrong person."
So he went out and he bought him T.S. Eliot's Quartet and he tried reading it. Charles's wife was quite literary. She belonged to - she had a New York magazine of some kind. Anyway, she read it to him and translated for him. So he gets this idea that he wants to do a piece of music with an Englishman, with an Oxford English accent reading from The Quartet, pausing, and then me paraphrasing it, spoken, against this cacophony of a full orchestra, and he wanted me to play lead acoustic guitar across it.
So I went out and I got The Quartet and I read it and I said, "Charles, I can't condense this stuff. I'd rather paraphrase The Bible than this. I think I can see where his inspired lines are and where his filler is. I think I can see what I could take out. But somehow or other the filler is the necessary chain. I can't do it!"
So he wrote six songs, which he called Joni I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and when I went out to visit him, there was one melody that jumped out at me which became a song called "Chair in the Sky." That was the first one I liked, and I said, "What kind of a theme do you hear? What subject matter do you hear for this?" And he looked at me really wryly with this real wry expression - well, I'll show you the expression, it's in here. It's small though, we'll see if you can capture this - yeah, and he said, "Oh, yeah, that's about the things I'm gonna miss, Motherfucker." You can edit that part out. (Laughs)
So anyway that song is pretty much about, you know, he's talking about 'next time I come back, when I come back, I'll be bigger, I'll be better than ever, I'll be rich as Standard Oil.' It was like Rumpelstiltskin, guess my name, what am I gonna miss?
JM: (New painting) When all medical help failed Charles, he went to Mexico and he was seeing a witch doctor in Mexico, in Pachita, who was like one of these psychic operators that reaches in with their bare hands, a lot of blood flying by candlelight - Catholic --
JP: I remember reading about that, there was one down there - surgeon with a rusty knife kind of guy where he was, like, with his hands.
JM: Yeah, well, this is the kind of scene it was. He'd taken a place in Cuernavaca, that was when I first went down to Cuernavaca.
(New painting) This is Georgia O'Keefe and Juan Hamilton.
(New painting) And an old Bowery bum, panhandler. From the Bowery. (Off camera) Get these?
(New painting) This is an LA nightscape. It's full of friends of mine, Jaco Pastorius, Vegetable Woman. I guess Vegetable Woman is sort of a self-portrait there. Turning into full aging warpaint.
(Voice off camera): Do you work in any other mediums?
JM: How do you mean?
(Voice): Well, like silk screening -
JM: Oh, like graphics? No, I don't do much ... I draw and they would translate really well into etching kind of things. Mostly I've been messing around with paint.
(New painting) This is called "Still Life with Commotion," a portrait of my husband in Dalhousie Castle in Scotland. This is the way - see all of that line on there, that's silver pens. There's a lot of reflective surface here, changes in the light.
(New painting) And that's "Dog Eat Dog," we saw that.
(New painting) That one's not finished really.
(New painting) Oh, this one. This one is called "Marriage of Church and State." I crucified two canvases together for Easter, and all of the little dots up in the upper here are the presidents up to Nixon. You can't really see it but there's the assassinated presidents, and Nixon is kind of the black cloud in the middle of the stars there.
(New painting) And these are some of the early abstractions that I got into. I was not a fan of abstract art until I began to pursue it. Now I adore it.
(New painting) This was painted for my wedding. All across the surface - you can't really see it - it says "I do I do I do I do." And I do (laughs). I still do. I do.
(New painting) This is called "Birth of the Earth." It's kind of the earth is seen as an afterbirth, big bang.
(New painting) That was one of the early prototypes for the album cover, painting on the photo.
(New painting) That's kind of like our courtship painting. Klein and I - I painted that of us while we were separated from a photo from a machine, you know those, that's why it's black and white, you have to squeeze your heads together.
JP: They're great.
(New painting) That was the "Wild Things" cover. That one I'm going to scribble and roll all over like the "Still Life With Commotion." It's not finished really. I have to have another go at it. They're never finished.
(Photo from Chalkmark) Oh, that's just me.
JP: That's you. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
JM: You're most welcome.
JP: That was great.
JM: Yeah, it was fun. I'm not nervous anymore.
JP: I'm not nervous anymore. I feel like you're my friend now.