Photo by LAUREN HICKS
Joni Mitchell is as mad as hell, and she's not going to take it any more. She's had to sit back and listen to media ignoramuses comparing her — unfavourably, of all the nerve — with girlish upstarts like Tracy Chapman or Tanita Tikaram. She's been written off as a woman who lost her way up the arid and infertile back-alleys of LA jazz-funk.
Unfeeling commentators have even had the nerve to lampoon her ecological and spiritual concerns, or to detect only leisured rock star self-indulgence in her efforts to pursue a second career as a painter. They should take a closer look, though. By the time Joni Mitchell opened a show of her own paintings at London's Rotunda gallery last September, as part of a festival of Canadian art and culture, she could already command as much as £35,000 for an original work.
Mitchell's response to those who argue she's a burnt-out case is NIGHT RIDE HOME, her best record in a decade. The slick studio licks and aural collages have been pared down, and Mitchell's voice and guitar have been turned up. Predecessors like DOG EAT DOG or 1988's CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM seemed too cerebral, form often fighting a losing battle with unwieldy content, but this one sounds as though it comes from the heart, particularly songs like Cherokee Louise and Come In From The Cold.
"It's still, I think, going forward, but the general consensus of people is that this is what they want," Mitchell cackles, barely perceptible through the hovering — and growing — fog of cigarette smoke. "It's almost like they viewed the last two projects and my experimentation with a synthetic orchestra as a loss of my marbles, but then I've always lost my marbles for one reason or another in a lot of people's eyes, y'know?"
Perhaps the warmth and accessibility of the new record reflect inner harmony or domestic peace. Or maybe they mean nothing of the sort. Joni Mitchell has never been a simple proposition, from the day she was born in Fort Macleod, AIberta, in 1943. Her willowy figure and gleaming Silvikrin hair belied her abundance of talent and belligerent cussedness. There has always been more to her than the nervously-giggling mountain girl who pinged away at a dulcimer in the '60s — or the "old lady" in Graham Nash's monstrously twee Our House — who wrote the hippy hymn Woodstock without actually appearing at the show.
In the end, it has been Mitchell and her Canadian contemporary Neil Young who have proved to be among rock's most enduring talents. She built up to a scorching creative peak in the '70s, moving rapidly from the acoustic nakedness of BLUE through FOR THE ROSES and the mainstream-with-wrinkles triumph of COURT AND SPARK.
THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS followed, a lush and dense work in which Mitchell made one of the earliest forays into what would now be termed World Music. "Jungle Line was in a way one of the first World Music tracks and one of the earliest House music projects," she claims. "I loved this piece of Burundi drumming and I made a loop of it. I recorded it off a record and built my base off recycling music. I did that quite a bit, here and there."
SUMMER LAWNS divided the critics, provoking a particularly hostile reaction in the States, but time has not diminished its author's achievement. Next, Mitchell flipped the coin and made HEJIRA, the elegant desolation of her open-road lyrics finding an inspired counterpoint in Jaco Pastorius's unearthly bass-playing.
It is no surprise that she idolizes Miles Davis and his unbending search for change and innovation, but Mitchell's evolution hit rockier terrain on DON JUAN'S RECKLESS DAUGHTER and the curious MINGUS collaboration. By then, though, Joni Mitchell had established the sort of creative legacy that dreams are made of.
As she likes to point out, Dylan spawned his imitators early, but it took rather longer for her own strange dissonances and idiosyncratic melodies to filter down to what she contemptuously views as lesser inheritors.
"It offended me when they would call Donovan the new Bob Dylan," she rages, fidgeting on the edge of her chair and squirting off malevolent jets of smoke. "Think about it. Really, it's absurd! Who in their right mind could compare that kind of talent to Bobby's?" An excellent question, Shaun Ryder.
"I think it's insulting to call someone the 'new' anything while the other person is still alive. When those girls get sick of being called the new me and start attacking me, when they're not that talented, then at a certain point I start to say what I really think, and that's unattractive print!" She explodes once again into a fraught guffaw.
"Some of them are more gracious than others, but they have to kill mommy, to get their own identity." By now, Mitchell is striding round the room in search of more coffee. If she ever did resemble a laid-back hippy chick, today she appears to be firing on neat adrenalin. "I sympathise with them intellectually, but emotionally they hurt my feelings because what they say a lot of the time is really stoopid."
Not so stoopid is Prince, an enthusiastic Joni worshipper who has been known to sing A Case Of You in concert. She has also found a kindred spirit in Sinead O'Connor, in whom she sees something of her own instinctive dislike of the star-maker machinery: "She keeps saying 'look, I'm just a young girl, I don't know anything and I don't want to be treated like a star'. I think it's part of that same thing. I think she genuinely doesn't like it. I genuinely didn't like it."
Mitchell's own response has been to ignore most of the superstar baggage, despite a career at the hub of the West Coast rock business during which she has rubbed shoulders with all the aristocracy, all the Brownes and Taylors and Henleys and Nashes and Geffens. Once romantically linked with any or all of the above, with her albums painting an evolving portrait of a woman forever tripping over lumps of her own emotional wreckage, she has found stability with her musician husband Larry Klein, and even feels sort-of comfortable with their Los Angeles home.
"It's hard to think of LA as home," she reflects, frowning. "I don't think we'll ever get out of there, but it's like that song of Don Henley's, Sunset Grill — the last line is the reason we stay, 'All our friends are there'.
"I've touched down in the same house for a lot of years. I'm happy with my marriage, I made a good marriage. My husband's from LA. He's traveled the world with bands, he's a bit of a drifter, but he has genuine roots there. I'm a transplant, like most Los Angelenos."
Flitting across her own strange interiorised landscape, Joni Mitchell has been conspicuously absent from most of rock's great benevolent beanfeasts of recent years. It is not, she says, that she doesn't care, it's just that she senses the vibes are all wrong. For instance, she wouldn't participate in Little Steven's allstar Sun City record because the original version singled out her friend Linda Ronstadt for having played in South Africa (the reference was later deleted). Again, her song Ethiopia, from 1985's DOG EAT DOG, was critical of the way the West treats African famine as a distant Third World problem, rather than as part of a global ecological crisis.
"The point is to have a good heart," she insists. "Every time I get involved I see the state of people's souls surrounding these issues and how off course it is. The money never gets there, it gets ripped off here or there, or if it gets there it never gets distributed properly and the bulk of the energy goes into self congratulation. It just creates do-goodery, but it doesn't do good." John Lydon couldn't have put it more pithily.
"It's hard to do good," she goes on. "I thought okay, one must practice charity to be a fully rounded human being. It doesn't work with these organized things, it just gets ugly, so I'll try to do it on a one-on-one basis... but that is really hard too. A Philosophical Question — is pure altruism possible? Maybe I'm just too much of an idealist for these things, but they break my heart."
It takes Joni's travelling companion Gloria, quietly eavesdropping across the room, to point out that Mitchell spent last Thanksgiving touring American-lndian reservations and buying food for their occupants. This happened after the chief of the Lakota Sioux tribe heard Mitchell's song Lakota, from the CHALK MARK album, and invited Mr and Mrs Mitchell to join his people on a protest march.
"They've been so badly ripped off," Mitchell explains, though she can't help lamenting that they spent her money on such undesirable foodstuffs as sugar and white bread. "They weren't making unreasonable demands, but they're not organized. They're seven or eight scattered tribes, and there's a lot of alcoholism. They're trying to get strong and when they made their first little move we were invited to participate in it. It was a high honour, and a good experience."
Getting ripped off is something she understands. No doubt she is relieved at having finally settled (out of court) with her Guatemalan housekeeper, who tried to sue Mitchell for $5 million after the star kicked her in the shin — a rash act undertaken "because she was ripping me off." The woman ran through a string of lawyers in a fruitless effort to lay her hands on the Mitchell millions.
The star also battled for years against the State of California to win repayment of an arbitrary "wholesale tax" levied against her and a handful of other rock stars. This, she believes, stemmed from the sinister influence of the Evangelical right under Reagan's administration.
"The Moral Majority was beginning to get very hostile towards rock'n'roll. I kept likening it to Nazism in Germany. I said they'll be making us wear stars or guitars on our sleeves or something at any moment, and start confiscating our property.
'Well, in fact they did. The Governor of California levied a tax against 12 of us as an experiment. They charged me 15 per cent of my income between 1972 and 1976, they just took it. I fought City Hall for ten years and finally won."
The State's case apparently hinged on an artistic control clause in the singer's contract. "Neil Young and America were also taxed. Their contracts were modeled on mine. When I got this special slave-with-rights contract, then so did everyone else in my management stable.
"Somehow or other, to these people who knew nothing about the music industry this clause technically made us seem like independents and therefore taxable. So we fought and fought and finally got the money back, but of course it's mostly the lawyers who get fat off it by then. So that woke me up politically."
With all this stormy water at last under the bridge, it may be that NIGHT RIDE HOME signals a new clarity and sense of purpose. La Mitchell is even contemplating assembling a band and hitting the road for the first time in years, though she's frets about the cost of hiring LA's finest studio-guns, and worries about the strain on her back which was weakened by a childhood bout of polio (Neil Young caught it in the same epidemic).
"If you handed me a guitar now and said, 'go on play something', or a piano, I couldn't play you anything," she confesses. "I really have to drum it in, because there are 50 different tunings. I have to learn it 50 different ways. But sure, I would love to tour. I've been off the road way too long.