I'm notorious in some circles as a freestyle fuckup champ. Thing is, I make stunningly bad choices, and never mind what a shrink would say about that. Once in a while I fool even me, like the other evening when I went to Donte's in the Valley to see Roger Kellaway. It was also that evening that Joni Mitchell opened her truncated stanza at the Troubadour before an audience which was, according to my spies, like a very large people pudding.
Time was when I cared a lot about Joni Mitchell and the fresh vitality she brought to that particular sub-gallery of the music long monopolized by Joan (Baez) and Judy (Collins) and to a lesser extent by Buffy (St. Marie). Lordy that seems long ago. Before I wearied of the personal travails of Joan & David (Crosby), and of the chilly sincerity of Ms. Collins, as of the crooning of Gordon (Lightfoot) and the whining of James (Taylor). Before the Irish trickery of Van (Morrison) began to wear thin, (I hear he's gone to court to block the reissue of his scrumptious, bumptious early rock 'm rolling with Them, which seems like an asshole thing to do...) before Ms. Sainte-Marie's vocal defects began to make me wince.
Precious and the pretentious, these singles super acts. Few of them having the wry self-perspectives of a Randy Newman, or the musical and poetic preemptions of a John Hartford, nor even the joyous love of the act of making music which was simply to the likes of Peter Jameson and Spencer Davis. (I hope you have a copy of their modes classic, "It's Been So Long")
Back there in the days of my innocence, Joni was singing of Michael from the mountains, and such was her impress that I kept running into people who swiped a little glory by claiming to have known this Michael, a real kind of folkie guru, very together and superhumanly tranquil, so that the image I retained (forgive me Michael wherever you are) was that of a stifling bore.
She was also singing, and not for the last time, of love's bummers, of a faithless "king in drip-dry and paisley," Some King, huh!" Some shmuck, because remember that this was before Women's Lib and what I call the testicular backlash.
Warner's held a tidy little Troub' opening for her. Openings were relatively sober and courteous affairs then, sort of like being presented at court, in contrast to our current system of bacchanalia, which are a re-staging of the revels of Nero with highlight from the fall of the Bastille and the Mason City Hog Show. You would have been thrown out then for what you're expected to do now.
Laura Nyro was there, or so Ellen Sanders told me later. And other "ladies of the canyon". I was there, recklessly sober and so was another Leonard Cohen, friend and countryman of the star. Plus less than half-a-roomful of Jes' plain folks.
An intimate setting, so casual that when she broke a string, she could call out to Leonard Cohen to fix it for her. He raced upstairs with her guitar and was back in a trice. But when she made to tune it, the peg was wound backwards, and Cohen called out that he'd done it in front of the mirror. Did that honestly happen in that relentless career machine where Roy Harper once offered stonily to piss on the ringside customers (not as a Lenny Bruce Rip-off, but really piss on 'em) and Judy Sill called a heckler an "asshole?" Yes, it did. It was neat and people love it....
The second time I saw her, she kissed me on the mouth. She was in her dressing room before a concert, and someone said "Leonard is here". And she turned and kissed before she realized it was a different variety of Leonard. I guess she was disappointed, but I had already kissed her back so all I could do was grin and mumble, "I told you when I came I was a stranger."
And the next time was at Big Sur, just a few short days after the third act climax of the 60's at Woodstock, which inspired her to write that dreadful and rhetorical hymn of premature self-congratulation which described that singular event in quasi-religious terms.
But there was another time between- again at the Troub', where she no longer endured the squalor of the dressing rooms but rather held court like a lady Donovan in the club's offices. I had a tape for her of a Vietnamese folk singer, but it was difficult to get near enough to hand it to her because the floor was littered with teenie girls in various attitudes of adoration. She was doing a watercolor and wasn't much interested in anything else. (Later, to my disgust, I had to ferret out a set of watercolors, "just like Joni Mitchell's" for my lady, alone enough to take the bloom off any act.)
By then her frail voice, always dependent on glottal gimmicks, was showing the strain of over-exploitation, and she'd run though most of her best material, while here new songs glinted more of green that solid gold.
And in another meantime, I had seen Judy Collins, or maybe it was a replica by Mattel, and I drank up fast so my drink wouldn't freeze in its glass. And walked out on a flabby earnest Gordon Lightfoot. And thought so little of Van Morrison that I didn't make the usual effort to give my tickets away.
What's been lost- the humor of it? The intimacy? The illusions which paradoxically were most plausible close at hand, and shallowest at the distance? All of these I would say, but less these than that deadliest of human impoverishments, the failure to grow.
All that happened was that the audience got bigger, stifling in its rigid loyalties, and immensely stimulating to artists' managers, who shape careers with little or no concern for the creative frailty of a singer-writer.
Yet what would you do if you had a client who was perishable, who had only so many sound performances in her, and who was also a woman subject to fading from what the public conceives of as beauty? You'd owe it to her, to yourself, to make her as rich as possible as quickly as possible. Go for gravy and let her plan another career off there in the diminished days beyond stardom.
I'm troubled by all of this, knowing that it is so because we make it so. And alienated with every passing day from this sorry use of the joyous art. There are better ways, and I draw my optimism from thinking about Roger Kellaway...
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