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The secret torment of Joni Mitchell   Print

  Unflinching memoir reveals how reclusive 70s icon battles with a disease that makes her skin crawl, is haunted by stalkers and the heartache of giving her daughter up for adoption

by Caroline Howe
Mail Online
September 1, 2014

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She was the darling of the west coast music scene during the seventies. With a string of highly publicized affairs - Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jackson Brown, James Taylor and Warren Beatty - and a back catalogue of song standards, Joni Mitchell defined an era in the music industry known as much for its sexual excess as its creativity.

But though her years of success have left her financially wealthy, today there is little about Mitchell to suggest they have brought her lasting joy.

She no longer sings - 61 years of smoking have taken their toll on her famously sweet and supple voice. At the age of 70 she is disenchanted with American society she dismisses as 'like Velveeta,' the music industry which she finds abhorrent and consumed by her own angsts and paranoias.

This is the startling reality revealed in Joni Mitchell, In Her Own Words Conversations with Malka Marom (published by ECW Press), and out this month, it is an unflinching insight into the eight-times Grammy winning singer/songwriter's lifelong battle with chronic illness, the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, paranoia and a rare disease that literally makes her feel like her skin is crawling

Mitchell was stricken with polio when she was eight years old and she has been crippled by a lifelong insecurity complex as well as an unnamed disorder that caused her to burst into tears at nothing significant - the book reveals that even the sight of a bulldozer once made her sob.

She has become forgetful and suffers from Morgellons, a rare, mysterious and controversial disease that attacks the nervous system that makes sufferers feel like there are parasites living under the skin. She said it left her unable to leave the house, walk or wear any clothes for excruciatingly long periods of time.

The singer expresses her fear of the dark because she had so many stalkers lurking around the Laurel Canyon home she had when she became a critical sensation after Judy Collins had a hit with Mitchell's song, 'Both Sides Now' - before Mitchell had a chance to record it herself.

It was the early 1970s and famous Canyon residents included Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Brown, the Mamas & the Papas.

Ladies of the Canyon, an album Joni released in 1970, went platinum and had a hit single, 'Big Yellow Taxi'. The next year, her album Blue went platinum, featuring songs like 'Carey', 'My Old Man', and contributions from James Taylor who was thought to be the subject of the Blue album.

It was during that Laurel Canyon period that she fell in and out of love with Taylor and Graham Nash and expressed her heartbreak in her music.

'At that time that James [Taylor] and I were spending time together, he was a total unknown. Maybe I helped his career. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They met in my house and they became a band. I introduced them here. At that time we were all writing new songs'.

'The rock 'n' roll industry is very incestuous. We have all interacted and been the source of many songs for one another. James has written songs for me, I've written songs for him. Graham and I have written songs for one another'.

'Like Paris was to the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, L.A. was the hotbed of all musical activity. The greatest musicians in the world either live here or pass through here regularly. I think that a lot of beautiful music came from it, and a lot of beautiful times came through that mutual understanding. A lot of pain came from it too, because inevitably different relationships broke up and it gets complicated', she told Marom.

It was a strange place, far from home for the girl from austere post-war Alberta to find herself.

Growing up in Fort Macleod, in the southwest corner of the Canadian Province, some two hours from the U.S. border in Montana, she could only dream of a life of glamour by looking at the Simpsons-Sears catalogue - which the young Mitchell dubbed 'The Book of Dreams'.

'It was so glamorous when I was a child, four or five. We would pick out our favourite matron's girdle and our favourite saw and our favourite hammer', Mitchell told Marom. Reflecting on her childhood, Mitchell reveals she was terribly affected by Bambi, particularly the scene where the deer's mother was trapped in the fire. It was an unlikely spark for her artistry. The traumatic scene made her obsessively draw pictures of fire and deer running, in an attempt to exorcise it from her mind.

'I think maybe that's the beginning of my contempt for my species and what it does. How ignorant it is of sharing this planet with other creatures. Its lack of native intelligence, common sense, or spirituality addressed to the earth...', she told the author.

At age eight in 1951, she came down with polio and was sent to recover in a trailer annex outside a catholic hospital one hundred miles from home that she shared with a kid who constantly picked his nose. Her father never visited, her mother came once.

Mitchell was told she would never walk again but she refused to accept that and prayed for her legs to come back although she wasn't sure what she was praying to - maybe even the Christmas tree, she recalls.

A year later, she was able to stand up and walk. Back home, she joined the church choir and it was there at age nine with the other girls that she had her first cigarette. She has smoked pathologically since then.

In fourth grade, she had a friend four years older who was a classically trained piano student, Frankie McKitrick. He introduced her to music, ballet and film.

'I never thought of myself as a musician', she said. She begged her mother for a piano but dropped it when the teacher hit her with a ruler.

Ten years later, she saved up enough to buy a $36 ukulele when she was ten.



'That was the beginning. I got into playing just for spending money, for smoking money and movie money. And for fun; it was just fun when you got a room full of people playing, you know. That's the way I started and it really was to be no more than that. My ambition was to be a painter'.

She played the ukulele at a coffeehouse in Calgary for money to smoke, bowl, go to a movie or eat a pizza. She was teaching herself to play the ukulele from a Pete Seeger instruction book.

Next stop on the coffeehouse circuit was Toronto where she fell pregnant to a boyfriend who left her three months later, and living in a house full of starving artists. Her meals consisted of Ingersoll cheese spread and Hovis loaf.

'I'd come through such a rough, tormented period as a destitute, unwed mother. It was like you killed somebody. I had some serious battles for a twenty-one-year-old', she told Marom. 'The following year I made a bad marriage in an attempt to keep my child'.

But she was haunted by the memory of her parents, who she thought should never have been together, and gave up the baby, a girl called Kilauren, for adoption in 1965. The marriage did not last much longer

Her song, 'Both Sides Now', recorded by more than one thousand other artists, was triggered by her broken heart, and the loss of her child.

When she met manager Elliot Roberts in Greenwich Village in 1967, her life turned around. He was managing comedians at the time but after meeting her at the Café au Go Go, he said he would manage her exclusively.

Her darkest days seemed to be over and soon she was in Los Angeles, and was signed to Reprise Records in 1968 and then to Asylum. Her first album, 'Joni Mitchell', established her songwriting style.

Her second album, 'Clouds', recorded while she was living with her latest lover, Graham Nash, after leaving David Crosby, featured hits 'Chelsea Morning' and 'Both Sides Now'. Her personal life may have been messy, but it was inspiring the hits.

Under the guidance of Roberts, she was invited to Woodstock in 1969 but made a scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett show instead of heading to upstate New York. Watching the unrivaled event on television, she wrote the hit song of the same name that was included on her 'Ladies of the Canyon' album in 1970.

At age twenty-seven, she quit the music business for two years. 'I lost my daughter. I made a bad marriage. I made a couple of bad relationships after that. And then I got this illness - crying all the time. That was the year I burst into tears. They walked on the moon, I cried'.

'Something was biochemical off then. I couldn't be around people because everything made me weep'. She offers no other explanation for the condition.

Looking for land to buy in British Columbia to homestead, she burst into tears beyond consolation. 'I was a basket case', she admitted. Seeing a bulldozer and trees cut down to stumps brought her to tears.

When she found the land she wanted, she realized: 'This land is going to be my companion for the rest of my life'. She intended to be a hermit and never come back.

Taking medicine was not going to get to answer why she felt this way. She turned inwards and analyzed herself over and over, rather than lean on her friends for help.

She took books with her and began to study the self, reading the I Ching, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche.

'Fortune changed the course of my destiny. I became a musician. I wouldn't have pursued music but for trouble'.

And suffering through a broken heart, a broken body and depression, she felt she grew. 'It gives you an inkling that you're an a**hole, but you don't quite know why'.

She still views herself as a freak and a rebel. She never turned up to receive any of her eight Grammys. 'Those prizes are not too valuable to me. They don't seem to be a fair measure', she said.

Mitchell says of her love life: 'Maybe I'm a courtesan or something'. Between 1977 and 1980, she was involved with Don Alias, a jazz percussionist who worked with jazz greats and introduced her to his musical world and the Afro-Cuban musicians.

They would come around to the house they shared and jam in the living room. That would lead to her working with jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

Two years later, Mitchell married longtime producer and bassist Larry Klein from 1982 to 1994 who worked on her best-selling albums during those years. He worked on her 1994 Grammy-winning album 'Turbulent Indigo' that chronicled the end of their marriage when he started going out to dinner with the new girl singers coming up behind her. Mitchell had discovered she was pregnant after believing she was infertile from an earlier infection.

She wanted the baby badly and Larry was excited to be a father but he was off to a recording date in England. Joni suffered a miscarriage and Larry left her in the painful aftermath.

Always searching for something - for meaning and purpose, she said: 'I've had the experience of poverty, middle class, now extreme wealth and luxury, and that's difficult too'.

Now she is alone. Mitchell lives like a recluse, dividing her time between a home she built in a remote area of British Columbia and an equally isolated sprawling villa high up in Bel Air, California, overlooking Los Angeles.

And stalker after stalker after stalker in my yard. A lot of Manson-type butcherous stalkers.'I'm the night watchman. I can't sleep until it's light outside. I am scared of the dark

While living luxuriously between two homes, she's adamantly negative on America and the industry that made her so successful.

'America is like really into Velveeta (the processed cheese). Everything has to be homogenized. Their music should be homogenized, their beer is watered down, their beauties are all the same. The music is the same track'.

But it's in America that her music is playing in department stores and in elevators. Joni Mitchell has become the soundtrack to millions of lives, and the royalties from those songs have made her very wealthy.

She once turned down playing a one-night gig in Las Vegas that would have earned her a million dollars.

She recounts: 'It was just a seedy little place in the desert where you poured your money down a big hole...it was the kiss of death for serious music'.

Invited to perform 'Both Sides Now' at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Joni bailed because she was 'at the height of my illness, when I couldn't even wear clothing'.

She was fighting Morgellons described by the Mayo Clinic as 'an unexplained skin disorder characterized by disfiguring sores and crawling sensations on and under the skin'.

'CDC experts note that the signs and symptoms of Morgellons disease are very similar to those of a mental illness involving false beliefs about infestations by parasites (delusional parasitosis)'.

'I couldn't wear clothing. I couldn't leave my house for several years. Sometimes it got so I'd have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like a polio spasm. It hit all of the places where I had polio'.

But it's not a recurrence of polio.

'Morgellons is constantly morphing. There are times when it's directly attacking the nervous system, as if you're being bitten by fleas and lice. It's all in the tissue and it's not a hallucination. It was eating me alive, sucking the juices out. I've been sick all my life'.

Mitchell broke off friendships feeling she was wasting her time with some people she calls 'deadwood'.

She lost her drive and doesn't follow projects through to conclusion. She's forgetful and can't remember what she just said, Marom writes.

If she's out walking and has a thought she wants to remember but no notebook, she won't remember when she gets home.

There are times when it's directly attacking the nervous system, as if you're being bitten by fleas and lice. It's all in the tissue and it's not a hallucination. It was eating me alive, sucking the juices out. I've been sick all my life

'There's a lot of lethargy with my illness. I'm fatigued', she laments. And the medicines she was taking gave her brain fog, adding: 'My creative energy went into survival and into furnishing the interior of the house [in British Columbia]'.

Her increased irritability and intolerance she attributes to Morgellons.

And she is still tormented by insomnia, from the years of being stalked in LA. She calls it 'personal chronic situations of tension. And stalker after stalker after stalker in my yard. A lot of Manson-type butcherous stalkers.

'I'm the night watchman. I can't sleep until it's light outside. I am scared of the dark'. But she has no fear in British Columbia where there are wolves and coyotes and a neighbor who's like an uncle.'

Mitchell reunited briefly with her long-lost daughter, Kilauren Gibb, she gave up for adoption.

The mother-daughter reunion lasted only until 2001 when it blew up and they separated. They were incompatible.

Despite her obvious disaffection, looking back at the agony and the ecstasy, she said: 'I would not change anything. I would do it all over again'.

 

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