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John Cameron's Musicology Print-ready version

Episode XVIII: Joni Mitchell (1977 - 1979)

by John Cameron
JCS Musicology
November 2, 2019

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[The following is John's original working script and may differ slightly from the final recording]

For anyone that can claim to know anything about music, Joni Mitchell is one the greatest artists of all time. In 1977, she had 8 albums to her name, each more remarkable and innovative as the last. Somehow undertaking a smooth transition from folk to jazz, her powers of adaption seemed unfettered, with little-to-no indication on what she would progress to next.

Jazz legend Charles Mingus was dying, diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrings Disease). But in a true artist's mentality, he became attached to the notion of a final project. He and his wife Sue began to deliberate on how best to execute such an opusculum, with considerations to Charle's limitations brought upon by his illness.

Joni Mitchell had released just a couple of albums that had veered into, by that point, the very broad Jazz genre. A successful as her pursuits would later be regarded, she received a lot of criticism for doing so at the time. Her work labeled as "pretentious" back then, regarded as "genius" now.

The stars were perfectly aligned a partnership of sorts between Mingus and Mitchell. Time was short. Expectations were high. The result was, for many, unsettled. Even now, forty years later - a masterpiece for both catalogues, that still divides.

Paprika Plains

Joni Mitchell's 1977 album, "Don Jaun's Reckless Daughter" is an experiment with no predicted or forceable outcome. Musically, it's intimidating. If you can process the lyrics, it's confronting. But it's also profoundly alluring.

Arguably the opus of the album and perhaps her carer, "Paprika Plains" is Mitchell narrating a meeting of Indigenous Canadians in a bar, describing afflictions of homelessness and alcoholism, but never once swaying away from the beauty of the people and the Canadian environment.

In addition to all of the technical and compositional trickery, if you read the lyrics in the liner notes of "Don Jaun's Reckless Daughter", where Joni stops singing, the words continue during the instrumental section.

Ultimately, "Paprika Plans" would be more than Joni once again proving her genius. Jazz legend, Charles Mingus would hear the piece, enchanted by its improvised piano playing and would make contact. That was mostly the extent of his knowledge of her work. And likewise, with Mitchell to Mingus. She was more of a Miles Davis fan.

Interim

Charles and his wife Sue felt that Joni, with her inimitable lyricisms, proclivity to explore new music and aspersions from the music press and jazz snobs, would be an appropriate fit for that final project. Although Mingus would initially have a vision for the collaboration that was not suited to Joni's style.

Charles would dispense of that idea. Instead, his instrumentals would provide guidance for Mitchell to do what she does best - lyrics. What's often not appreciated about the project, even with acknowledgements of its eccentric nature, is that Joni was frequently writing and singing to instrumental solos. A difficult task for both a writer and a singer.

Another point of contention between the two is that Joni embraced Jazz fusions of both acoustic and electric instruments. Charles, played an upright bass until he couldn't. This conflict of styles, from the perspective of someone trying to write a person's epitaph, to the subject of that epitaph, would result in multiple versions of each song being recorded, as the discovery for the ultimate balance or resignation was found.

A Chair in the Sky

The piece that Mingus wrote that most appealed to Joni the most was "Joni One". She asks Charles, what's this one about? He says it's all the things that he's going to miss and the things he should have done. He didn't tell her what exactly though. This was Joni's first challenge; to fill in the blanks.

Charles gifts Joni with a copy of his autobiography, "Beneath The Underdog". It's very much psychoanalytical assessment of oneself, that only certain people would find appealing. In it, there's a story of Mingus and his wife, Sue before their relationship truly bloomed. She asks how you would approach life if he could do it all over again. His response was selfish, claiming that he wouldn't fall in love, he would be ruthless to others and focus only on his money.

Mingus then writes, "and if she believed that, she would never have become my wife".

Joni incorporated the attitude of that story into the lyrics, while maintaining the sensitivity of the song's nature. Charles IS dying. Mingus IS looking back.

She submitted a tape to him the moment it was done. He loved it. However, Joni wasn't happy with the vocal performance and decided to polish up the track, making it more congruous with what would become the rest of the album.

For a short time, "A Chair In The Sky" would be the project's title. Protested by Mingus' wife Sue, for the perceived physical representation of Charles in his final days. She wanted him to be remembered as a lively genius, rather than lacking physical or mental mobility.

Edith and the Kingpin

For reasons unknown, an early configuration of the Mingus album would open with a rerecording of "Edith and the Kingpin", previously featured on Joni's "The Hissing of Summer Lawn" album four years earlier. Arguably, that album was the first really display of Jazz tendencies in the Joni Mitchell catalogue. In terms of this production it's an excellent example of how the rest of the album would be produced.

Perhaps this was just slotted into the early configuration as a placeholder, but it's still a remarkable performance. It's not superior or inferior to the original, it's just a different experience and an exciting one for any fan to discover.

Copies of these more experimental sessions would begin to circulate in the 90s, sourced from a degraded cassette tape, but the internet would bring them to light in more recent times.

There is a lot of material relating to these sessions that have never surfaced, despite a significant amount of hype spoken over the years. An unexpected gem like this is just a brief insight into some unreleased magic, just as spectacular as what was heard on the final product.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a jazz standard composed by Mingus in 1959 as an elegy for the recently deceased saxophonist Lester Young.

Listening to Charlies recollections of Young, is a narrative of observed change, from and for the perspective of the two black men. The first verse is the sad admission of history that no matter how talented or popular a black artist might be, they still risked rejection or persecution of their art, not for it.

As the lyrics were penned by Joni, integrating her own experience of the time was essential to completing the double-tribute.

Again, it's important to note that Joni's writing and vocal are accommodating to the base material of what around it, not the other way 'round. The instrumental and vocal are towing the line of a conversation that only few musicians can make intelligible.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines

"The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" touches on a similar mentality that anyone facing death might resign themselves to.... "Well, maybe I'll get lucky... Look at that sign... Look at that guy". All this, while knowing the odds are against you. It's a light hearted song, until you start apply a more psychoanalyzed meaning to it, particularly the circumstance of its writer. Some people have all the luck.

With that said, when Charles played Joni the instrumental, he said that it would be about gambling. Mingus declared himself an expert slots player, proclaiming frequent wins. Remember, Joni wasn't just writing her own lyrics of even Mingus' epitaph, she was taking facets of his personality and turning them into diamonds.

The alternate mix seems to have more horns peppered throughout, in a much more reverberated presentation. There are also a few synth stabs, accompanied by a completely different vocal performance from Joni. Other than a few additions or changes to the multitrack, the song appears to have always been structured the same, a very clear, consistant vision for its final product.

Sweet Sucker Dance

While most songs on the album would lyrically have some level of association with Charles, "Sweet Sucker Dance" seems to deviate from the central theme. If anything, it would have been more appropriate on "Don Jaun's Reckless Daughter" than on "Mingus". That however, didn't seem to be an issue for the man himself.

The first section seems to be an internal monologue of one assessing their own depressive state and the potential effect such mentality could have on their partner.

Now the narrator is posing criticisms of love. Revoking it to something undertaken by "fools" and perhaps trivializing it to only "a dance". Something fleeting. Something in the moment. But by using "a dance" as a metaphor, it acknowledges the symbiotic nature of these feelings.

Joni continues the movement metaphor, now assigning characteristics. "Needy and nonchalant" - one's exterior different from their interior. "Greedy and gracious" - a successful, but appreciated outcome of one's own yearning.

As would be repeated to close out the song, this section contains generalizations of a diversity of circumstances. Whatever can be assigned to an individual, by the end, most of us get through it. We're all survivors.

In this part, we're given further insight into the relationship. For whatever reason, the narrator's partner is away, leaving them to dance by themselves. "Tonight's a dance of insecurity" is seemingly a description of the necessity of having that counterpart around to undergo the activity with conviction.

The internal monologue continues, this time questioning the integrity of the person's feelings of love. What's brought their thoughts to this is hard to decipher, especially as it leads into the next part...

In this section, it's almost as if she's fighting against her earlier doubts, highlighting her man's character. This time, it doesn't come across as though love is merely a dance, but the one she loves makes that dance so easy.

The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey

While most songs on the album would be based on compositions by Charles Mingus, towards the end of production as his health was further declining, Joni would need to contribute more of her own.

These convenient circumstances gave rise to "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey". The sounds of howling and saturated reverb on the guitar gives the mix a more tense personality. Perhaps further accentuated by the fact that Joni and percussionist Don Elias recorded the track live. Overdubs of keys and the ever-important wolf sounds would be added to the track at a later point.

The described character, Lindsey is used as a portrait of the darkness that resides in a man's mind, represented by that of a wolf.

As we learn more about Lindsey, what's painted is a caricature of someone engaged with morally questionable activities, perhaps stemming from a less-than-perfect upbringing. A victim of lacking role models - a common cause for darkness.

Corruption. Cronyism. Criminality. Perhaps temporarily auspicious, but ultimately, the human employed becomes less human. They're more removed from what should be considered important in life. Including themselves.

"The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey" is also out of place on the album. It's perfectly suited to the lyrics of "Hejira" or the experimental instrumentation of "Don Jaun's Reckless Daughter" - which is around the time it was first conceived. But it clearly had its essential approval from Mingus - and why wouldn't it? The song isn't her most famous or even her best, but it is everything that makes Joni Mitchell great.

God Must Be a Boogie Man

Joni Mitchel would write in the album's liner notes, "Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5, 1979 at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination".

The last song recorded for the project, was "God Must Be A Boogie Man". The only track that Charles never got to hear. Like "Chair In The Sky", it was based on the opening pages of Mingus' autobiography. And seems to be the perfect surmise of Joni's relationship with Charles.

The song was attempted with three different bands. One night when Mitchell was mixing one of those versions, revolutionary bassist and significant Joni collaborator Jaco Pastorious wanted to play on it. Creating a more stripped-back mix. That is the version that opens the album. An epitaph that, even for Joni was imperfect, but was enough to capture the spiritual and humored nature of the legendary Charles Mingus.

It's almost hard to think of "Mingus" as a Charles Mingus album. Joni Mitchell had never been produced before and in a sense, she still hadn't with that project.

Ultimately, she had her choice with the band that was featured on the final product, having tried several versions with several bands chosen by Charles himself. The ethics behind that decision are... questionable. But the final product is a best-intentioned collaborative opusculum that will forever hold significance in the catalogues of two great artists.

This article has been viewed 326 times since being added on November 6, 2019.

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