This article is dedicated to the memory of Wally Breese without whom it probably would never have been written. Special thanks also go to Les Irvin and the Joni Mitchell Discussion List Internet Community for their insights, information, humor, humanity and continuing camaraderie.
Ask anyone on the street under the age of 35 who Joni Mitchell is and more than likely you will get a blank stare. Mention the songs 'Both Sides Now' or 'The Circle Game' and you may get a glimmer of recognition, 'Oh yeah, we used to sing that at summer camp.' Sing the line 'don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone' and you will probably get the response 'Oh yeah! That's from that Janet Jackson song!' Even people in their 40's will probably only remember songs that Joni wrote & recorded over 20 years ago such as 'Help Me' or 'You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio'. Most boomers seem unaware that Mitchell has even released anything since 1974's 'Court & Spark'.
However, if you were to ask just about any musician, professional or amateur, (guitarists in particular) or if you happened to put the question to one of Joni's loyal fans, they would be more than happy to tell you that she is one of the most brilliant & influential songwriter/musician/singer/poets of our time. They will enthusiastically sing the praises of her more recent records, 'Night Ride Home' & 'Turbulent Indigo'. They will tell you about the 50 plus alternate tunings for guitar that Joni uses in composing & playing her music. They will describe the poetry of her intelligent and eloquent lyrics that somehow manage to tap into the most intimate feelings of the heart. They may express some regret that she rarely plays the piano on her more recent creations but they will also tell you about the beauty and complexity of her melodies & rhythmic structures and how, with the help of the VG-8 synthesizer, she was able to create symphonic sounding pieces of music on her last release of new material, 'Taming the Tiger', using mostly just the guitar. The most loyal fans will probably say that they have been in love with her music from the first time they heard her and that they are still enthralled with her to this very day. Among Joni's admirers & those who cite her as a musical influence are Tori Amos, Chaka Khan, Elvis Costello, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Ani DiFranco, Seal, Sarah McLaughlin, Annie Lennox & Prince.
Joni Mitchell first gained recognition when some of the top folk artists of the 60's began to discover her talent as a songwriter. Her songs began to appear on records by Tom Rush, Fairport Convention and, most notably, Judy Collins who had a huge hit with Joni's 'Both Sides Now'in 1968. Up to this point in time, Joni had been half of a duo with the man who was her husband at the time, folk-singer Chuck Mitchell. Joni & Chuck were a well-known act in the coffee houses of the eastern part of Joni's native Canada & also in the northeastern part of the US. But the marriage didn't last long & the act fell apart. Joni struck out on her own as a solo and eventually wound up in New York City's Chelsea district. She soon built up a solid reputation as a performer & songwriter.
At some point after the breakup of her marriage, Joni met David Crosby who had not yet hooked up with Graham Nash & Stephen Stills. Crosby produced Joni's first record on the Reprise label which was released in 1968. There is some controversy as to the actual title of this record. The spine & label of the original vinyl show simply 'Joni Mitchell' as the title. However, looking at Joni's artwork on the cover, one can see the words 'Song To A Seagull' spelled out by the seagulls in the upper right hand corner. The most recent cd reissue of this record shows the title as 'Song To A Seagull'. Joni Mitchell is also a prolific painter and the covers of most of her subsequent albums would feature at least one & often more than one piece of her artwork.
The cover art for 'Song To A Seagull' is very much indicative of the music contained in the record. It is very detailed & ornamented with a 60's-flower-child, fantasy-like quality to it. Although the songs on 'STAS' are not what you would call psychedelic, they do have a quality of being from another time & place. The album starts off with 'I Had a King', a lament about failed romantic relationships in which each verse is followed by a chorus ending with the line 'You know my thoughts don't fit the man/they never can they never can.' The closer is 'Cactus Tree' which describes a list of men, each in love with the singer who keeps them at a distance because 'she fears that one will ask her for eternity/and she's so busy being free.' These two songs introduce a theme that will run throughout most of Joni's songwriting: the intense need to be in love with and connect with another human being as it collides with the independent nature of a free spirit that needs freedom and space as much as it needs to be loved. The melodies on 'STAS' are complex & hauntingly beautiful. The lyrics are full of poetic imagery, all carefully embroidered with descriptive words & phrases, depicting The City (New York, NY) on the first side and The Sea on the b-side . They reveal the very intense feelings of a sensitive romantic who at the same time is extremely analytical and intelligent. Mitchell sings them in a very natural, expressive voice that is comforting & melancholic at the same time, mostly accompanied solely by her guitar. It was a stunning debut but it did not make a lot of waves on the music charts, even though radio was much more liberal with the various types of music it would play & 'folk' (the genre Mitchell is usually incorrectly lumped in with) was a very successful genre at the time.
Joni's next two albums would show her continuing her development as a songwriter, novice arranger & producer. Gradually she would begin adding to what she would later refer to as her musical 'palette', (insisting that she is, first & foremost, a painter). 'Clouds' (1969) was still a guitar-based album but it showed some signs of paring down some of the embellishment heard on the first album, particularly in the lyrics. The cover of 'Clouds' is a painting of Joni holding a flower with what looks like a castle or large ornate hotel in the background. Although the flower and the castle-like structure still suggest a romantic sensibility, this self-portrait is more grounded in reality without all the flourishes & ornamentation of the 'STAS' cover art. The songs on 'Clouds' reflect this less ornamented style and the vocals have a more solid, less ethereal sound than on the first album. The album featured Joni's version of 'Both Sides Now', the song that Judy Collins had already made famous. Out of all the songs on Joni's first two albums, 'Both Sides Now' probably most clearly illustrates one of the themes that would run throughout Joni's songwriting, that of the dual nature of existence, examining clouds, love & life from both positive & negative perspectives. Joni's joyous ode to life in New York City, the much-covered 'Chelsea Morning' is also included on 'Clouds.'
On 1970's 'Ladies of the Canyon' Joni added piano to the mix and began using more vocal overdubs to create harmonic backup to her melodic lines. By this time she had taken up permanent residence in California and was living with Graham Nash in LA's Laurel Canyon (the song 'Willy' from 'LOTC" is about Nash; his 'Our House' from CSNY's 'Deja Vu' was written about his life with Joni in Laurel Canyon). 'LOTC' is very much about Joni's new life in California and her involvement with the LA folk rock crowd (it has been speculated that the 'Ladies' of the title referred to Cass Elliot, Carole King and other inhabitants of Laurel Canyon in the early 70s). It features three of the songs that would become standards of the singer/songwriter genre, 'Big Yellow Taxi', 'The Circle Game' and 'Woodstock'. 'Big Yellow Taxi' is partially an expression of Joni's concern with environmental issues, a theme that would resurface throughout her subsequent writing. 'The Circle Game' also reflects a recurring theme in Joni's songs, that of the passage of time & the changes it creates as 'the years spin by.' Joni wrote the song 'Woodstock' after having missed the original Woodstock festival in 1969 because of a commitment to do a television program. She was surprised and a bit miffed that David Crosby & Graham Nash, who did make it to Woodstock, managed to show up for the taping of The Dick Cavett Show that she missed the festival to appear on. Jefferson Airplane also appeared with Joni on this program right after their performance at Woodstock. The song 'Woodstock', written from the impressions Joni got from watching television coverage of the festival, would become a hit single for CSNY. Another song from 'LOTC,' 'For Free', is the first hint in Joni's work that she has had a taste of success & is having some reservations about it. Joni plays a lovely piano accompaniment as she describes hearing a musician playing his clarinet on a street corner 'real good for free.' She contrasts this impromptu open air concert with the performance routine that she has become accustomed to; the concert halls, the limousines, the 'two gentlemen escorting me through the halls' and the fact that she plays 'if you have the money.' There is an implied sense of injustice and perhaps just a slight twinge of guilt in the final verse of the song as she goes on to say that 'nobody stopped to hear him/though he played so sweet and high/they knew he had never been on their TV/so they passed his music by.' 'For Free' implies a significant aspect of Joni's character as an artist; an appreciation for quality and a refusal to compromise her work just to sell records. Mitchell would follow her own inner voice in her work, even if it meant that a large segment of the record buying public would 'pass (her) music by.' The cover art for 'LOTC' is the sparest of all Joni's album art of this period, consisting of a line drawing of Joni holding up a skirt on which bright colors depict a scene from Laurel Canyon. The painting occupies only about half of the entire cover, the rest of which is a background of plain white. This record and the subsequent 'Blue' (1971) show Joni frequently using the upper register of her soprano voice (which had a considerable range), somewhat of a contrast to the more grounded, natural sound of 'STAS'.
Joni's fourth album, 'Blue', is almost unanimously considered a classic of the singer/songwriter musical genre. By this time she had established herself as a songwriter in the 'confessional poet' vein, writing mostly very personal, introspective songs, usually based on themes of romantic love & her sharp observations on the dual nature of life. Several events in her life had brought her to an emotional crisis by the time she recorded 'Blue'. There was the breakup of her marriage to Chuck Mitchell followed by very intense involvements & subsequent painful breakups with two well-known musicians, first Graham Nash & then James Taylor. All of this happened at a time when she was beginning to be recognized as a major talent and becoming an increasingly well-known public figure which further propelled the emotional roller-coaster she was riding. There was another excruciatingly painful occurrence in Joni's life several years before 'Blue' was recorded that she would refer to on this record but would keep secret for another 20 plus years.
The result of all of this emotional upheaval was one of the most emotionally naked records ever to be recorded by a pop artist. On the songs 'Little Green', 'Blue', 'California', 'River', 'A Case of You' and 'The Last Time I Saw Richard' she showed a vulnerability & honesty that would have scared the hell out of most pop recording artists of the day. 'A Case of You' has certainly earned a place among the all-time great torch songs with its classic description of Joni's lover as 'being in my blood like holy wine', intoxicating, but nevertheless, 'I could drink a case of you, Darling/and I would still be on my feet'. The song's melody takes full advantage of the broad range of Joni's voice, as do all of the songs on 'Blue,' allowing her voice to soar above & through the emotional extremes that she explores. On the album's title track, her vocal conveys an exquisite ache, climbing to the top of her register as she confesses a love that she knows is doomed. By contrast, an upbeat mood is created by the dulcimer & Joni's lively vocalization on the optimistic 'All I Want'. Four of the songs on 'Blue' are accompanied by Joni playing the Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument that she had not used on her previous records. Joni's piano accompanies another of the album's lighter moments on 'My Old Man' but takes a minor tone as it plays a dirge-like 'Jingle Bells' to accompany the song 'River'. 'River' has become a favorite cover song for many contemporary female singers. It is an unsparingly honest song as the singer confesses 'I'm so hard to handle/I'm selfish and I'm sad' and as a result 'I've gone & lost the best baby that I've ever had.' In addition to Joni accompanying herself on piano, guitar and dulcimer, 'Blue' enlists the talents of James Taylor on guitar, Stephen Stills on bass & guitar, Sneeky Pete on pedal steel & Russ Kunkel on drums, making 'Blue' Joni's most musically ambitious record up to this point. She was adding more 'colors' to her 'palette', fleshing out her music & filling in more spaces on her 'canvas'. Containing some of her strongest songwriting and most impassioned vocals, 'Blue' is the peak & summation of Joni's early work and a mere foreshadowing of what was to come.
Joni took a break from the L A music scene after recording 'Blue', retreating to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. She even considered giving up her musical career entirely at this time. But her creative muse was too strong to be silenced & she emerged from this period of solitude and reflection a stronger & wiser person. She was still vulnerable & a die-hard romantic, but less inclined to be knocked down by the ups & downs of life & love. She also came back with a collection of songs that would comprise her most ambitious & mature album up to that point, 'For the Roses'.
In the song 'Woman of Heart & Mind' from 'For the Roses' (1972), Joni sings: 'I am a woman of heart and mind/with time on her hands, no child to raise/you come to me like a little boy/and I give you my scorn & my praise.' The song and the album are a declaration that she has emerged from her dark night of the soul a survivor, tempered & strengthened, and ready to take on increasingly mature & ambitious work. While the lyrics are much more bare-bones & to the point than anything she had written before, the musical background she gives them is fuller & more complex. The album features woodwinds & reeds played by Tom Scott of the LA Express and also a string arrangement by Bobby Notkoff which is used to suggest a symphony orchestra for the song 'Judgment of the Moon & Stars', Joni's tribute to the tortured genius of Ludwig Von Beethoven. 'FTR' also produced Joni's first top 40 radio hit, the tongue-in-cheek country-flavored 'You Turn Me On I'm A Radio'. Her voice shows an increasing maturity on 'For the Roses', employing less of her stratospheric upper register and taking on an earthier tone while the songs 'Banquet', 'Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire', 'Let the Wind Carry Me' and 'Blonde in the Bleachers' reveal increasing depth & maturity in her songwriting. 'Banquet', the album's opener begins with a rolling piano accompaniment & offers a philosophical view of the different paths people choose in life and questions why some seem to be given many advantages while others are given none at all. 'Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire' is a powerful look at the desperation of heroin addiction sung over a driving acoustic guitar line. Woodwinds accompany 'Let the Wind Carry Me', a song about the two distinct attitudes that Joni's mother & father had toward her free spirit as she was growing up: 'Mama thinks she spoiled me/Papa knows somehow he set me free.' 'Blonde in the Bleachers' gives a brief sketch of what it's like to be involved with a 'rock & roll man' and expresses the sad but realistic conclusion that 'you can't hold the hand of a rock & roll man for very long.' The title track from 'FTR' is the first of Joni's songs that blatantly expresses her growing discontent & disillusionment with the record business and the culture of celebrity. The first but not the last.
'For the Roses' must have been a tough act to follow but in 1974 Joni released the album that would be her best-selling record to date. 'Court and Spark' yielded 3 hit singles: 'Raised on Robbery', 'Help Me' & 'Free Man in Paris' and firmly established Joni Mitchell as one of the top acts in the music industry. The record is a near perfect illustration of the popular song as art. Richly textured with musical contributions from Tom Scott and various musicians from the jazz-fusion group, the LA Express, plus an ensemble made up of some of the top musicians working in the record business at the time such as David Crosby, Graham Nash, Joe Sample, Robbie Robertson & Larry Carlton, Court and Spark is another milestone in Joni Mitchell's career. The tone of 'Court & Spark' ranges from the raucous rock & roll flavor of 'Raised on Robbery' to the introspective chamber music sound of 'Down To You'. In the line 'we love our lovin'/but not like we love our freedom' from the song 'Help Me', she succinctly sums up the emotional conflict wrought by the aftermath of 'free love' in the 70s. With the precision of a clock maker, Joni fit all of these elements together, making them mesh perfectly into an integrated whole. The tracks are sequenced so as to give the record the sense of one song blending seamlessly into the next, making the two sides of the original vinyl seem like a pair of musical suites. The cover of 'C&S' is a pale beige with a rather whimsical, relatively small line & water color work in the center depicting mountains in the background & what appears to be an ocean wave embracing itself in the foreground. The album also featured the first cover of another artist's work that Joni had ever performed on one of her records and it's inclusion on 'Court & Spark' is significant. The song 'Twisted' was an exercise in the jazz form known as vocalese in which singer Annie Ross (of the late 50's, early 60's bebop trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) had put words to a saxophone solo by jazz musician Wardell Gray. The song turned out to be a signpost pointing out the next direction that Joni would take with her music.
In 1974 Joni toured the US with the LA Express. A two record live album was released of performances from this tour called 'Miles of Aisles'. It features live versions of songs from each of Joni's first six albums including two previously unrecorded compositions 'Jericho' and 'For Love or Money'. This album includes beautiful solo performances of some of the songs from 'Blue' and 'For the Roses' plus arrangements utilizing the LA Express, some successful, some not so successful. Overall, 'Miles of Aisles' is an excellent introduction to the first quarter of Joni Mitchell's career. The audiences are obviously enthralled with her, waiting respectfully until she has sung or played the last note of each song and then enthusiastically applauding, whistling & yelling their approval.
Mitchell has said that she had most all of the arrangements for 'Court & Spark' worked out in her head when she recorded it and that she conveyed those arrangements to the musicians by singing or humming what she wanted them to play. She allowed for very little departure from her musical ideas which brought some resistance from the various players. Many of the musicians that had played on 'Court & Spark' appeared on her next studio album, 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns' (1975). She gave them freer rein this time with the result being that 'THOSL' has a very distinct jazz flavor to it. Lyrically it has some of the most complex poetry in her entire catalogue, but the songs are less personal, leaning more toward story-telling & social commentary rather than sticking to the confessional mode of her previous records. The cover has a metallic gray background of a city skyline. In front of this cityscape is a suburban scene with a lush green lawn in the foreground. Human figures in loincloths carrying a humongous snake are winding their way across the grass toward the houses in the distance. The dominant theme of the record, most clearly illustrated in the title track and in 'Harry's House/Centerpiece', suggests that the seemingly perfect, sanitary world of suburban America has dark & sinister underpinnings. Ultimately its inhabitants' attempts to shut out what they fear only imprisons them & makes them more vulnerable to the dangers & pitfalls of modern life. It was not at all what critics & audiences had expected as the follow-up to the very accessible and hugely popular 'Court & Spark' and some of the reviews of 'THOSL' were less than kind. 'THOSL' has withstood the test of time, however, and is now widely regarded as a daring & innovative album and also one of the first pop records to incorporate 'world' or 'ethnic' music. Several years before Paul Simon's 'Graceland' and other records that would mix traditional western forms with the music of other cultures, Joni used the Warrior Drums of Burundi to form the rhythmic base for the song 'The Jungle Line' on 'THOSL'. Several of the thematic threads that run throughout Joni's music are also evident on 'THOSL' 'Sweet Bird' is a revisiting of the themes of growing older & the passage of time that Joni used in 'The Circle Game.' However, time's cycles are now seen as 'the earth spinning and the sky forever rushing,' a more unsettling image than that of the turning of the carousel used in the earlier song. The final song of the album, 'Shadows and Light' is another exercise in contrasts - blindness & sight, night & day, wrong & right - the delicate balance between the positive and negative that Joni explores again & again in her songwriting. The record also included another Lambert, Hendricks & Ross cover, 'Centerpiece', used as a commentary & bridge in 'Harry's House/Centerpiece'.
Undaunted by the lukewarm reception of 'THOSL', Joni forged bravely onward, following her own vision & instincts to create one of her most elegant & greatly revered records, 1976's 'Hejira'. The lyrics on 'Hejira' are once again entirely in the first person confessional mode and they are some of the most soul-searching, analytical, poetic & articulate lyrics she has ever written. Most of the inspiration for this album came out of a road trip Joni had taken across the U S at a time when she once again needed a respite from the frenetic lifestyle of the 70's rock music scene. The word Hejira refers to Mohammed's journey from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution. Joni uses it in reference to her flight from the confusion of her life at this point in time. She viewed this journey as an honorable escape that was necessary for the survival and continued preservation of her sanity. Few artists have detailed the inner workings of the human heart & mind as beautifully & thoroughly as Joni did on 'Hejira'. The songs 'Amelia', 'Hejira', 'Song For Sharon', 'Black Crow' and 'Refuge of the Roads' are some of Joni's most insightful examinations of her own psyche. They show her analyzing and wrestling with many of her life's unresolved issues: the need & desire for romantic love and her seeming inability to sustain a long-term love relationship; the struggle to maintain some kind of balance & humility in the midst of excess & self obsessiveness; the search for some meaning & fulfillment in her life. Joni was still using some of the musicians from 'C&S' & 'THOSL' when she recorded 'Hejira' with the notable addition of Jaco Pastorius on bass. She had been looking for a player who would be willing to play the bass as a lead instrument rather than sticking to the usual rhythm section role of a traditional bass. However, she couldn't find anybody who would even consider trying to do what she had in mind. Pastorius turned out to be the perfect match for what she wanted and his playing on 'Hejira' is completely distinctive & unique yet perfectly sympathetic with the whole. He added an entirely new dimension to Joni's music. The absence of horns, woodwinds and piano make 'Hejira' sound less jazz-oriented. Musically it relies mostly on the interplay between Joni & Larry Carlton's guitars and Jaco's bass. The black & white photo on the cover shows Joni wearing a beret & a fur coat, cigarette in hand and standing in what appears to be the middle of a frozen river or lake. There is a picture of a highway leading out to a cloud-filled horizon superimposed on her coat. It is a perfect visual image for the traveling/spiritual quest theme of the record. It also gives an excellent idea of the overall sound of this record which has a tendency to be a bit mono-chromatic & austere. Several of the songs have a great many verses to them containing a lot of words. As a result, this record tends to be less melodic than some of Joni's previous albums. 'Blue Motel Room' is the notable exception. This is the very bluesy lament of a traveler who is tired of her journey and is ready to go home to try & make things work again with her lover. She wonders, 'will you still love me when I get back to town?' The jazz influence can be plainly heard on this song.
In 1977 Joni released the double album, 'Don Juan's Reckless Daughter' which was largely dismissed by critics as a collection of not-entirely-successful experiments. Some of the material sounded like it was left over from 'Hejira'. Some of it seemed to come completely out of left field. One entire side of the record was devoted to a single piece called 'Paprika Plains' that started with Joni on piano, segued to a long vocal section and then an extended piano interlude accompanied by a full orchestra. It then came back to Joni's vocal for one more verse and ended with a heavily percussive jazz coda, led by Wayne Shorter on saxophone & driven by John Guerin on drums. Another cut from 'DJRD' called 'The Tenth World' is a nearly seven minute percussion piece with a tribal call & response chant in the background, punctuated by short vocal phrasings from Joni & Chaka Khan. The first side of the original two vinyl albums starts with an instrumental & choral 'Overture' followed by the very jazzy 'Cotton Avenue'. Joni also included 'Jericho' which had first appeared on the live 'Miles of Aisles' album, giving it a lush, full, studio treatment. In some ways 'Jericho', with it's hopeful view of what love can potentially be when it is properly tended & nourished is a more mature version of the giddy optimism of 'All I Want' from the 'Blue' album. The title track on 'DJRD' is perhaps Joni's most thorough exploration of the theme of duality. It contrasts a whole string of paired images - male/female, bravery/cowardice, earth/sky, eagle/snake - and explores a broad range of topics: the give & take in sexual relationships; the need for safety & security; the complacency & fear of risk taking that can happen when that security is achieved; the compromising of our ideals as we grow older. Jaco Pastorius's bass is heavily featured throughout 'DJRD.' The cover for this album has a turquoise & paprika background with a collage of photographs on it, the most prominent being that of a rather flamboyantly dressed black man which, on closer inspection, turns out to be Joni herself in black-face & afro wig. Although not well received at the time of its release, 'DJRD' contains some of Joni Mitchell's most interesting & colorful work. In retrospect it comes off as being not so much a hodge-podge but rather a remarkably cohesive work that has a cinematic feel to it as it moves from one song to the next. Some of it is breathtaking. And at least one track caught the ear of a musician who was held in high esteem in the jazz world and who would set Joni to work on one of the most ambitious projects of her career.
Charles Mingus is almost unanimously acknowledged as one of the giants of modern jazz. Composer, bass player, band leader & author, Mingus was a true musical genius. He had been searching for a lyricist to collaborate with him on a project he had in mind when he heard Joni Mitchell's 'Paprika Plains.' He was somewhat outraged when his highly attuned sense of pitch picked up on the fact that the orchestra playing in the middle of the piece was in & out of tune with the piano (as it turned out, Joni was fully aware of this and felt that she was the only person in the world who had noticed it since no-one else involved with recording the piece had been able to hear it.) He was also impressed enough with Mitchell's writing to seek her out as a lyricist. Mingus initially contacted Joni with the idea of having her condense T S Eliot's 'Four Quartets' to be recited over an instrumental piece he was working on. Joni told him she'd rather condense the Bible. However, they did finally hook up and it was agreed that Joni would write lyrics for 6 of his melodies. They turned out to be the last compositions Mingus would create as he was battling Lou Gehrig's disease at the time and would die shortly before the project was finished. As a result, the album 'Mingus' (1979) became somewhat of a memorial to Charles Mingus. It was a difficult undertaking for Joni Mitchell who had never collaborated with a composer to this extent before. It also forced her to immerse herself in the jazz idiom, a musical form she had only dabbled in up to that point in time. She enlisted some a-list jazz musicians to back her up including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Jaco Pastorius is also prominently featured on 'Mingus' and his distinctive bass playing colors the whole album. There are actually only four of Mingus's compositions on the album, 'Chair in the Sky', 'Sweet Sucker Dance', 'The Drycleaner from Des Moines' and the classic 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat'. Joni included two songs of her own, 'God Must Be A Boogie Man' and 'The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey'. Interspersed with the songs are bits of recorded conversations between Mingus and various friends & colleagues that are full of the man's warmth, intelligence & mischievous humor. There is also a snippet of Joni & Mingus playfully duetting on a short ditty titled 'I's A-Muggin'. The overall feel of this record is moody & impressionistic. 'Chair in the Sky' is a dreamy sounding piece with lyrics that describe the invalid Mingus's reflections on his life - what he will miss, what he wishes he had done & failed to accomplish - and his contemplation of its approaching end. 'Sweet Sucker Dance' is another of Joni's ruminations on the ups & downs of romantic love set to a sensual & soulful melodic line. 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' is a tribute to the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, framed by some observations of Joni's own experiences which relate to some of the events of Lester's life. 'The Drycleaner from Des Moines' is the one upbeat number on the record. Set in Las Vegas, it depicts an encounter with the title character who is enjoying an unbelievable run of good luck. Joni's two original compositions frame the first side of the vinyl lp. 'God Must Be a Boogie Man' is a humorous look at the character of the man she has had the privilege of working with on this project whereas 'The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay' is a dark, chillingly evocative piece about a serial killer who 'raids & runs/through the hills of Hollywood/and the downtown slums'. There are several oil paintings on the cover of the original vinyl release of this record. They are some of the most powerful & mature works of art that have graced a cover of one of Joni's records. The painting 'Chair in the Sky' in particular is a poignant portrait in blues & muted reddish-browns of Mingus in his wheelchair. It is contrasted somewhat by the painting on the back cover of 'Charlie Down in Mexico' which shows him again in the wheelchair, but this time looking out at a sunny Mexican landscape.
Joni received one of the worst critical drubbings of her entire career with the release of 'Mingus'. To the pop/rock community she seemed to be a traitor, abandoning the genre she had come up in while the jazz community viewed her as an upstart intruder who had no business trying to interpret classic jazz pieces by the likes of Charles Mingus. In all fairness, although Mingus lacks a certain spontaneity that might have made it a great record (it gives the impression of being carefully & painstakingly put together), its overall sound is quite beautiful & elegant. Joni's vocals are a worthy attempt at interpreting this type of material although she had not yet developed a vocal quality & style to do it full justice. In recent years Mitchell has often cited 'Mingus' as being chiefly responsible for radio's subsequent disinterest in the records that followed it and for turning away a large portion of her audience. Whatever its merits, 'Mingus represents another marker & turning point in the progression of Joni's ever-evolving musical style.
1980 saw the release of another live album, the highly (and deservedly) praised 'Shadows & Light'. Joni had assembled a remarkable band of musicians for her 1979 tour comprised of bassist Jaco Pastorius, jazz guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mayes, saxophonist Michael Brecker, drummer/percussionist Don Alias and vocal backup by The Persuasions. 'Shadows & Light' is an excellent overview of Joni's records from 'Court & Spark' through 'Mingus', what some have referred to as her 'jazz period'. The album features Joni loosening up in her live performances of 'The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines' & 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' from 'Mingus', giving the songs a life & spontaneity that were somewhat lacking in the studio versions. It also has a soaring synth-guitar solo from Pat Metheny at the end of 'Amelia' that seamlessly segues into Joni's opening guitar line on 'Hejira'. There is a playful rendition of 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love' which has Joni imitating Frankie Lymon backed by the doo-wop vocalizations of the Persuasions (taking the part of Lymon's backup group, The Teenagers). The Persuasions join Joni once again for a wonderful, gospel-flavored rendition of 'Shadows & Light' from 1975's 'THOSL'. Joni encores with a jazzy, reflective rendition of 'Woodstock'. Jaco's bass is once again heard prominently throughout. Unfortunately it would be the last of Joni's records that he would appear on. Jaco's substance abuse and emotional instability were sending him into a downward spiral that would eventually lead to his senseless death in a bar fight in 1987.
Joni's next three records would show her once again moving into new musical territory while collectively incorporating the musical & lyrical themes of her previous work. After the critical trouncing of 'Mingus', it would be another 3 years before she released her next studio album, 1982's 'Wild Things Run Fast'. This record had more of a pop influence than anything Mitchell had done since 1974's 'Court & Spark'. It also shows her moving toward an electronic, synthesized sound compared to the more acoustic, organic sound of her work in the 70s. Still the jazz influence can be heard distinctly on this album, particularly in the songs 'Moon at the Window', 'Ladies' Man' & 'Be Cool'. She continues her flirtation with interpreting rock & roll classics begun with 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love' on 'Shadows & Light' with her renditions on 'WTRF' of the Elvis Presley hit '(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care' and a quote from the classic love anthem 'Unchained Melody' used as a coda at the end of the album's opener, 'Chinese Cafe'. 'Chinese Cafe' also contained what at the time was the rather cryptic line 'my child's a stranger/I bore her/but I could not raise her', the significance of which would not come to light for another decade. Wayne Shorter once again adds the shadings of his soprano sax to two of the songs on WTRF. He will continue to be a contributor on Joni's records from here on. The electric guitar of Steve Lukather adds an electronic edge to the title track. Jaco Pastorius was replaced by bassist Larry Klein on 'WTRF' who would become Joni's musical collaborator on her next three albums and also her second husband. This led some listeners to classify this record as a love-happy, 80s-pop-influenced album. It has also been speculated that 'WTRF' was calculated to win back some of Joni's audience, many of whom had seemingly turned their backs on her after the demise of 'Mingus'. The record does reflect the musical influences of the time, but Joni fits these elements to her own unique style & vision, making the record much more than just a stab at 80s style pop. Although 'WTRF' does contain two unabashedly optimistic love songs, 'Solid Love' & 'Underneath the Streetlight', the balance of the original material is mostly representative of Joni's usual view of the duality of love, seeming to focus more on the pain & confusion it creates than on its positive aspects. The record closes with the song 'Love', Joni's gorgeous adaptation of the popular biblical treatise on the subject from Corinthians. It seems to sum up her view that love is 'the greatest beauty' even though the passage from childhood to adulthood causes us to lose the pure & innocent ability of freely giving & receiving it that we start life with.
Mitchell's studio recordings continued to be fewer and farther apart during the balance of the 80s and into the 90s. 1985 saw the release of 'Dog Eat Dog' in which Joni plunged head-on into electronic music. Wanting to use the Fairlight synthesizer to create a tense, unsettling, contemporary sound reflective of her view of life in 80s America, Joni enlisted the aid of synth whiz-kid, Thomas Dolby. Apparently Dolby had ideas of his own as to what the record should sound like & Joni had a struggle on her hands to stay in control during the recording of 'DED'. The album lists Joni, Dolby, Larry Klein & Mike Shipley as co-producers, the first time since Joni's debut that anyone besides herself is given production credit on one of her records. Save for the opening 'Good Friends' (an upbeat duet with Michael McDonald), the lovely 'Impossible Dreamer' (a gentle tribute to idealists who have departed this world before their time that features a lyrical soprano sax backup from Wayne Shorter) and the playful closing track 'Lucky Girl', thematically 'DED' is mostly a scathingly angry look at the social and political state of the US during the Reagan years. Larry Klein is credited with composing the music on two of the songs, 'Fiction' and 'Tax Free'. The latter featured actor Rod Steiger in the role of a TV evangelist, preaching fundamentalist fire & brimstone in the background. Although many of her die-hard fans put this record at the bottom of their lists of Joni's albums, it is a powerful look at the political & social climate of its day and is still very relevant now. Its seemingly harsh electronic sound is actually a perfect fit for the lyrical & thematic content of this most edgy of Joni Mitchell's records.
The follow-up to 'Dog Eat Dog' appeared in 1988. 'Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm' showed Joni continuing her exploration of electronic music but on this record she created a less harsh, more melodic sound than on 'DED'. 'CMIARS' also has a much more personal quality to it than 'DED', although on songs such as 'Lakota', 'Number One', 'The Beat of Black Wings' and 'The Reoccurring Dream', the socio-political themes are still very much in evidence. 'The Beat of Black Wings' is a particularly powerful portrait of an ex-soldier's disillusionment with war & the military and how that disillusionment has affected his civilian life. He describes a man drawing chalk pictures on a sidewalk while the falling rain continually washes the drawings away. He goes on to describe himself as 'just a chalk mark in a rainstorm/I'm just the beat of black wings.' 'The Tea Leaf Prophecy' is another story that war plays an important part in. It is a semi-autobiographical look at Joni's parents' courtship & marriage, beginning with the heroine meeting 'a young flight sergeant on two weeks leave' during WWII. She marries the young soldier and the song follows them through Hiroshima and goes on to hint at the affect this mind-numbing end to the war has had on the couple and their infant child. 'A Bird That Whistles' is her re-working of the traditional blues song 'Corrina, Corrina' with Wayne Shorter's sax taking the part of the whistling bird at the end. Larry Klein's input is increasingly evident on this record & several of the songs list him as composer or co-composer. Mitchell decided she wanted to use male singers in various 'roles' on some of the tracks. Billy Idol plays an obnoxious bully & Tom Petty takes the part of his frustrated victim on 'Dancin' Clown'. Willie Nelson becomes Joni's duet partner, riding through the desert sand on 'Cool Water', a Western standard that Joni updated with some additional ecologically-themed lyrics. Environmental concerns also appear in the song 'Lakota', a hard-edged look at the exploitation of the Native American. The album opens with 'My Secret Place' which features Peter Gabriel singing with Joni. This song has a rolling synth backdrop that underlies a pretty melody. The lyrics are about someone sharing their secret retreat, a pristine mountain setting, with a city dweller. Joni's music was evolving once again on 'CMIARS', shifting its focus to the melodies and moving gradually back to a more acoustic sound.
In some ways, the release of 1991's 'Night Ride Home' brought Joni back around full circle, musically. Her acoustic guitar once again took center stage and the production was stripped down practically to bare bones compared with her two previous releases, 'Dog Eat Dog' & 'CMIARS'. The synthesized sounds are still in evidence but on this record they are not the dominant sounds. Rather they are used more as carefully applied shading, accenting certain phrases or creating a mood at specific points in the narrative. As a result the melodies are much more prominent and 'Night Ride Home' contains some of Joni's best. The title track is a lilting song about a drive on a Fourth of July night in Hawaii, accented by the sound of a cricket rhythmically chirping in the background. 'Cherokee Louise' features an intricate guitar line & tells the story of a childhood friend of Joni's who was a Native American girl brought up in a foster home where she was sexually abused. It is both a nostalgic look at Joni's adolescence and a powerful look at racial prejudice and the damage that is often done to children in the foster care system. Two songs have a spiritual theme. 'Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)' sets the story of Christ's final days against a modern backdrop of 'Exxon blue and radiation rose' and 'Slouching Toward Bethlehem' is Joni's adaptation of W. B. Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming.' In keeping with the themes of Yeats' poem, Joni's lyrics envision the Beast of the Apocalypse being wakened 'out of a stony sleep/by a rocking cradle by the Sea of Galilee.' This song is full of images of the malaise of modern day society and a sense that impending disaster is the inevitable result of that illness. The instrumental arrangement starts out with Joni's solo guitar and gradually adds layers of sound which build to an unnerving cacophony in the choruses, creating an aural picture of a world spinning out of control. The song is a masterful reworking of the source material. Joni had to obtain permission from Yeats' estate to publish and record the song and her work was deemed worthy enough by Yeats' heirs to bear the poet's name. Larry Klein once again is credited as co-producer and bass player on 'NRH'. He is also listed as the composer on one song, 'Nothing Can Be Done'. Wayne Shorter adds his musical shadings to 'Cherokee Louise' and the playfully nostalgic 'Ray's Dad's Cadillac.' There is a distinct sense of Joni reflecting back on her younger years on several of the songs from this record. She was definitely processing the changes that middle age had brought to her life, once again contemplating the effects of the passage of time. The album ends with one of the most stunningly beautiful songs in her entire catalogue, 'Two Grey Rooms'. This song features a gorgeous piano intro and string arrangement that underscore a soaring melody. Joni sings expressively, passionately & with exquisite longing the story of a gay man who is so hung up on someone he was romantically involved with 30 years before that he rents a room overlooking where the former lover passes on his way to & from work every day, just to watch him walk by. Joni's piano playing has become a rarity in recent years. In fact 'Two Grey Rooms' is the last track on any of her official releases that features her playing piano.
Although 'Night Ride Home' continued somewhat with the themes of social & spiritual decline that Joni explored more fully in 'Dog Eat Dog', the overall feel of the record was more one of a settling into middle age and also into her marital & musical partnership with Larry Klein. Unfortunately for Joni, this period of seeming quiet & contentment was about to come unraveled. The early nineties turned out to be very trying times indeed for Joni Mitchell. Sometime after the release of 'Night Ride Home', her marriage began to fall apart. Klein would continue playing bass for Joni & the two would remain good friends but the pair eventually divorced. She was also besieged by legal & financial battles with her label, Geffen records, & by health problems. Joni is a survivor of the polio epidemic that swept North America in the 50s . As a result, she began to suffer from the condition known as post-polio syndrome, a debilitating & painful illness. Although the dust finally settled on her legal hassles with Geffen and through holistic treatment she eventually made a nearly full recovery from her illness, her next studio album did not appear until 1994 and was appropriately titled 'Turbulent Indigo'.
The title 'Turbulent Indigo' could be seen as a reference to Joni's earlier 'Blue' which also was the result of a series of crises in her life. Now, however, the color has evolved from the melancholy, but pure, primary one into a deeper more complex shade of sorrow and despair. The painting that graces the cover of 'Turbulent Indigo' is a tongue in cheek nod to Vincent Van Gogh. It is modeled after one of his self-portraits painted not long after the famous incident where the troubled Vincent had cut off part of his ear. On the 'TI' cover, however, Vincent's face has been replaced with Joni's face, complete with the overcoat, fur hat & head bandage seen in the original painting. The title track is also about Van Gogh, stressing the pain, lack of acceptance & loneliness of the troubled genius and ridiculing the notion of trying to 'make Van Goghs/raise 'em up like sheep' that Joni had heard expressed at a conference of the Canadian Council of the Arts where she had been invited to speak. This song and much of the rest of the album features some of Joni's more complex guitar lines. The alternate guitar tunings that Joni has used almost exclusively in the composition and performance of her songs are very much in evidence here. The chords have a distinctive sound to them, often being played at very low registers with the strings very slack. Although the couple were splitting up at the time, Larry Klein once again plays bass on this album . The production is very similar to 'Night Ride Home', focusing mostly on the vocals and the guitar work with occasional shading provided by synth keyboards & Wayne Shorter's sax. 'Turbulent Indigo' is again a mix of personal reflections and social commentary. 'Sex Kills' is another dissection of life in America at the close of the 20th century and an indictment of the environmental abuse that threatens the earth's health as well as our own. 'Not To Blame' is an examination of spousal abuse that was speculated in the press to be about Jackson Browne, although Joni has never acknowledged that the song is about any specific person. The haunting 'Magdalene Laundries' tells the story of a woman who was imprisoned in an Irish convent, forced to perform slave labor for the nuns, just because, being single & attractive, she was considered a temptress in her native village. Joni was inspired to write 'Magdalene Laundries' after reading a newspaper account of the discovery of unmarked graves at a convent in Ireland where women were buried who had actually been incarcerated in the manner she describes in the song. It is one of Joni's most hauntingly beautiful & powerful works. (She recorded another version of it with the Irish group, The Chieftains for their 1999 release 'Tears of Stone'.) 'Last Chance Lost' is a lament about the death throes of her marriage. 'TI' also includes a cover of a song Joni had heard James Brown perform called 'How Do You Stop'. Singer/songwriter Seal provided the soulful backup vocal on this track. (Joni returned the favor by duetting with Seal on his song, 'If I Could.') The song 'Yvette In English' is a collaboration with Joni's old friend, David Crosby and provides the record's single light moment. The album closes with 'The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)', one of the most ambitious pieces Joni has ever done. It is a retelling of the biblical story of Job. Told from Job's point of view it becomes a dialogue of sorts with the 'Antagonists' who sing choral responses to Job's accusations that God has made 'everything I dread and everything I fear come true.' Joni's borrowing & rearranging of some of the language from the Old Testament, coupled with the commentary from the 'chorus' of Antagonists calls to mind the tragedies of the classical Greek playwrights Euripides, Sophocles & Aeschylus. It is an impressive finale to one of Joni's richest, most complex, albeit darkest, albums.
'Turbulent Indigo' won two Grammy awards, one for the design of its packaging (the cd was released in both a cardboard & plastic jewel case, both of which featured several of Joni's paintings) and one for pop album of the year. It was the beginning of a series of awards and honors that would be bestowed on Joni during the balance of the 1990s. In 1995 she was given Billboard's Century award. In 1996 she was awarded the prestigious Swedish Polar Music Prize. And in 1997 Joni Mitchell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an honor which the increasingly out-spoken singer/songwriter deemed as dubious, at best. She did not attend the induction ceremony, feeling that the honor had little significance and was given with little real appreciation or understanding of her work. In 1996 she was finally persuaded by Reprise records to release a collection of her 'hits'. Joni had balked at releasing a 'greatest hits' compilation, pointing out that she really didn't have enough bona fide hits to make up an album. She finally relented under the condition that Reprise allow her to release a companion collection of material that she felt had been overlooked but deserved revisiting. The results were 'Hits', comprised of the handful of singles she had released over the years and filled out with her recordings of some of her songs that other artists had covered and the companion cd 'Misses' which contained her selection of material that she felt had merit & deserved another listen. 'Hits' also contained her recording of the song 'Urge For Going'. Recorded in 1967, 'Urge For Going had previously been released as the b-side of 'You Turn Me On (I'm A Radio)' but had never before appeared on an album.
Although Joni had suddenly become the critics' darling and was being celebrated & cited by a wide variety of contemporary artists as an influence & inspiration, (including Janet Jackson who sampled Joni's 'Big Yellow Taxi' on her hit single 'Got 'Til It's Gone) sales of her records continued to be stagnant. Joni blamed this largely on what she perceived as her excommunication from the airwaves and the failure of her record label to adequately promote her albums. By this time she had developed more than 50 alternate tunings for guitar, necessitating a lot of retuning during her rare live performances. The post-polio syndrome had also made it extremely difficult for her to stand on a stage, bearing the weight of a guitar for a long period of time. She was once again ready to give up performing and retire to painting full time. With that in mind, she had decided that her performance at the 1995 New Orleans Jazz Festival would be her last. Fate and a technical innovation would intervene and prevent her from giving up on the music business. LA guitar merchant, Fred Walecki had conspired with Roland Guitar manufacturers to bring a new device to Joni's attention that would solve the problems of her alternate tunings and stimulate her creative muse at the same time. Just before her performance at the NO Jazz Fest, Fred introduced Joni to the Roland VG-8, a kind of synthesizer that would store all of her tunings and allow her to play in any of them with the flip of a switch while using one standardly-tuned guitar. The VG-8 is also capable of producing a wide variety of sounds & effects. Eventually, Walecki also had a lightweight guitar developed specifically for Joni, called the Parker Fly, and Joni's swan song was indefinitely postponed.
Even if she wasn't burning up the record charts, Joni's career seemed to be taking a turn for the better in the latter half of the 90s. But for Joni the most joyous and profound event of the decade would be of an extremely personal nature. Sometime around 1995 a tabloid published an article revealing that Joni Mitchell had given birth to an illegitimate child in 1965 and given it up for adoption. To head off a media feeding frenzy, Joni finally made public the true significance of the song 'Little Green', the bittersweet portrait of an unwed mother off of 1971's 'Blue' and the cryptic reference in 'Chinese Cafe' to the child she bore, but could not raise. As a 21 year old art student at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, she had become pregnant. She subsequently moved to the larger city of Toronto and in February of 1965 gave birth to a daughter whom she named Kelly. Initially the baby was placed in foster care but finally, feeling that she could not with any kind of clear conscience keep a child that she felt ill-equipped to give a decent upbringing, Joni made the painful decision to give the baby up for adoption. She never told her parents, fearing their reaction and the whole incident remained a secret for 30 years. This event would seem to shed a whole new light not just on 'Little Green', but on much of Joni's songwriting. The deep feelings of longing and loss, the awareness of what is gained & lost with the passage of time, the insights into the balance between the positive & negative aspects of life that seemed to show a wisdom & experience far beyond her age at the time she wrote them - all of this could very possibly be traced back to this devastating loss she had experienced at a very young age. By the time the whole story had come to light, Joni was already taking steps to find her daughter. Again, fate, a loyal fan & technology would intervene to bring her yet another stroke of tremendous good fortune.
Enter Wally Breese, a long-time, dedicated fan of Joni Mitchell. After being diagnosed with colon cancer, Wally had decided he wanted to create something of significance and lasting beauty. He had found that the Internet had practically no information about his favorite singer/songwriter and so he decided that he would personally fill that void. He went about creating one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive web-sites on the entire WorldWide Web, dedicated to the art & life of Joni Mitchell. The Joni Mitchell Home Page at www.JoniMitchell.com contains a complete bio of Joni, the complete lyrics to all of her recorded songs, including many that she has never put on record plus pictures, articles, reviews & scans of her artwork - just about anything relating to Joni Mitchell that a fan could possibly want on an internet home page. Wally found out that Joni was searching for her long lost daughter and, with the assistance of Joni's management, he put up a list of qualifications on his site that could only be filled by Joni's child. In the spring of 1997 he was contacted by Kilauren Gibb, an adoptee who was searching for her birth mother. Kilauren was the correct age, had the correct birth date and answered all of the qualifications leading Wally to believe that she was indeed, Joni's daughter. He put Kilauren in touch with Joni's management and eventually with Joni herself and it was confirmed without doubt, that Kilauren Gibb was indeed Joni Mitchell's biological child. To add further to the joy of this discovery, Kilauren herself was the mother of a son, Marlin. Joni had not only had her daughter restored to her, she now had the added bonus of being a grandmother. Unfortunately after a long, hard battle with his illness, Wally Breese passed away on February 3rd, 2000 but not before he met, became friends with and helped to profoundly enrich the life of the artist he so lovingly admired.
Joni had been tinkering with her new musical paint brush, the Roland VG-8 and was working on a new album when she was reunited with Kilauren. The material for 1998's 'Taming The Tiger' had already been written by the time the reunion occurred and was centered mainly on Joni's frustration with the music business and also a relatively new romantic relationship with Donald Freed, a singer/songwriter from her hometown, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. However, there is a new quality of peace & contentment in Joni's vocals on 'Taming The Tiger' that seems to relate directly to having finally filled the void left by the loss of her daughter. The cover features another self-portrait but in mood and color it is the direct opposite of the 'Turbulent Indigo' self-portrait, showing a radiant Joni in a garden setting, wearing a straw hat and holding one of her much adored cats. The lyrics booklet contains a number of Joni's paintings, some of her cats, some landscapes, some that reflect her happiness in her new relationship with Donald. With the help of drummer Brian Blade, pedal steel guitarist Greg Liesz and the ever dependable Wayne Shorter, Joni created the instrumentals on 'TTT' using mostly just the VG-8 and her guitar. The finished recording has a definite electronic-synth sound to it but does not so much recall 'DED' or 'CMIARS' as it does some of her acoustic work that has a softer sound such as 'Hejira' or 'Night Ride Home'. Although the VG-8 had given Joni a whole new set of musical colors, the only track that really takes full advantage of its range is the first cut of the album, 'Harlem in Havana.' Joni layers a myriad of sounds on this song to create the atmosphere of a carnival midway complete with a side-show barker beckoning people to 'step right up' & see the 'beautiful girls on the inside!' The listener hears the noise of the crowd and the excited screams from the nearby roller-coaster. The guitar is programmed to an odd sound that vaguely resembles a circus calliope. 'Harlem In Havana is a stunning piece of musical acrobatics that leaves the first time listener with his or her mouth hanging open. It is followed by the electronic keyboard sounds of 'Man From Mars'. Larry Klein had persuaded Joni to write this song for the film 'Grace of My Heart' and a different version had appeared on the initial release of the film's soundtrack cd. That version has a gorgeous piano accompaniment to this torchy ballad. Unfortunately Joni had not given her permission to include this version of the song on the soundtrack and the cd was recalled. A new one was issued with a different singer performing the version of the song that is actually heard in the film. Joni later revealed that the song was written about the two agonizing weeks she went through after one of her beloved cats had disappeared. Her frantic search for the pet is chronicled in the song 'I call & call/the silence is so full of sounds/you're in them all/I hear you in the water/and the wiring in the walls'. However, without this subtext, the song works quite well as a lament for a lost love which is the context it was put into in 'Grace of My Heart'. The title track, 'Taming the Tiger' is a rant on the state of popular music and Joni's frustration with the music business. Its companion piece is 'Lead Balloon', an angry song about a heated exchange with a music industry exec that features an edgy lead guitar played by Michael Landau and is as close as Joni will probably ever get to a heavy metal sound. With the exception of the political & ecological themed 'No Apologies', the rest of the songs on'TTT' find Joni back in the confessional mode. 'Face Lift' is a poignant & bittersweet look at Joni's relationship with her mother and their conflict over Joni's out-of-wedlock sexual relationship with Donald Freed. 'Love Puts On A New Face' is a poetic & lovely portrait of the changing nature of relationships. 'The Crazy Cries of Love' was co-written by Joni & Freed and is a delightful romp about lovers trying to find a private place where their love-making won't be heard through 'paper-thin walls' or by 'folks above.' 'Stay In Touch' is an exquisite ballad that describes the tentative nature of new love. Joni has said that, although this song was written before she found Kilauren & Marlin, the feelings it describes could very well apply to the wary but ecstatic nature of the relationship that was developing between them. The last song on the album is a cover of a Western standard, originally sung by The Sons of the Pioneers called 'My Best To You.' This song is accompanied by arpeggios played on an electronic keyboard that give it an expansive, Great Outdoors feel. It calls to mind a sunset on the vast prairies of the North American West as Joni sings the simple straight-forward lyric of parting & blessing. There is also a bonus track called 'Tiger Bones' which is the guitar line from the title song enhanced & played by itself. It is a fitting end to the record and a neat summation of where 'TTT' fits into Joni's catalogue, exemplifying the intimate, melodic quality of the record but giving a taste of its electronic, contemporary sound.
Prior to the release of 'Taming the Tiger', in the spring of 1998 Joni was invited to tour the west coast of Canada & the US with Bob Dylan & Van Morrison. She put together a tight, minimal ensemble for this tour comprised of Greg Liesz playing pedal steel, Brian Blade on drums, Larry Klein on bass & Joni with her VG-8 and Parker Fly on lead guitar & vocals . The sound of this band was perfect for the material she chose to perform which included songs from 'TTT', four songs from 'Hejira' and a sampling of songs from most of her records, beginning with 'Court & Spark'. She did perform 'Big Yellow Taxi' mostly to appease the crowds who seemed to want to hear earlier work from 'Blue' or 'Ladies of the Canyon' and her encore at several shows was 'Woodstock', once again retooling the song to her current sound and voice. By this time Joni's voice had deepened & she had lost part of her upper range due to age & years of heavy smoking. Although she could no longer reproduce some of the stratospheric vocals of her early recordings, the mature, smoky voice had acquired a worldly sophistication and character that lent itself to a different type of material. At the end of her west coast tour she went into a Warner Brothers television studio and was taped performing with Liesz, Klein, Blade & trumpeter Mark Isham, a set similar to the one she had performed on tour with Dylan & Morrison. Joni had designed the setting of this performance as an intimate venue with couches & love-seats encircling the stage and some of her paintings hung on the walls behind the audience. The concert contained a performance of 'Comes Love' a wry tongue in cheek song that had been recorded by Billie Holiday in 1957 and a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye's 'Trouble Man'. The taping was released as a pay-per-view concert and later as a video and DVD. Wally Breese can be seen sitting behind Joni in this video, beaming and looking like he's in heaven. Reprise had contacted Wally and asked him to put an invitation out to the Internet community to attend the taping of this program. Wally did just that & the result was that several members of Joni's online discussion list had the extraordinary opportunity of attending the taping and meeting Joni afterwards. Earlier in 1998 Joni had performed a couple of pop-music standards with a full orchestra, including the song 'Stormy Weather' as part of a benefit concert for Don Henley's Walden Woods Project at LA's Wiltern Theatre. Joni also recorded two Gershwin songs, 'The Man I Love' and 'Summertime' for Herbie Hancock's 1998 release 'Gershwin's World'. On these tracks she displayed a remarkable knack for jazz phrasing and her mature voice brought a wonderful depth & understanding to this classic material. Once again she was moving in a new musical direction.
On February 8 of 2000, Joni Mitchell released a specially packaged, limited edition of her 21st album, a collection of pop-music standards, some performed with a 70 piece orchestra arranged & conducted by Vince Mendoza. Having had a taste of singing with an orchestra at the Wiltern Theatre for the 'Stormy Weather' Benefit, Joni had decided she was going to fulfill a dream of singing classic pop standards with orchestral arrangements. She included reinventions of two or her own songs, 'A Case of You' from her acclaimed 1971 album 'Blue' and what is probably her most famous song, 'Both Sides Now' which is also the title track of this exquisite collection of music. The album includes her renditions of 'Stormy Weather' and 'Comes Love' plus eight other standards of American popular music. The packaging for the special edition is in the form of a round, fabric-covered candy box. Inside are 5"x 5" reproductions of four of Joni's paintings & the lyrics of all of the songs on the cd each printed on it's own individual white card. Two of the paintings also appear on the front and back of the plastic jewel case edition of the cd. They are a tongue-in-cheek illustration of the album's title and also contain references to the song 'A Case of You'. The painting on the front shows Joni sitting at a bar, her head propped against her hand which holds a burning cigarette. There is a glass of wine in front of her along with a 'cartoon coaster' on which a sketch of a map can just barely be made out. The back of the cd is a painting of the same pose but seen from the rear. We see the back of Joni's head and the liquor bottles on the shelves behind the bar. There is also a 'No Smoking' sign displayed just above the lit cigarette Joni is defiantly holding in her hand. The liner notes include Joni's dedication of the record to 'my daughter Kilauren' and also a thank you to Wally Breese. Joni and Larry Klein are listed as co-producers and the album features solo spots by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter & trumpeter Mark Isham. Thematically, the record is designed to trace the progress of a romantic relationship from the first flush of infatuation through a rocky period of conflict and finally to the eventual breakup & resulting disillusionment. Even though this is basically an album of covers by an artist best known for her formidable skills as a songwriter, Joni makes it her own statement, showing a remarkable instinct for interpretation in her outstanding vocals. The album concludes with 'Both Sides Now' and the wisdom & depth she infuses this song with show that she has finally grown into her own remarkable creation. Joni is now considering doing an entire album of her own songs in a similar format. Judging from the two original songs on 'Both Sides Now', her next record could see Joni taking her listeners into even more exciting territory. The wealth of exceptional material that she has created coupled with the musical skills & life experience she has acquired over the last 30 years are sure to produce new, insightful & vital interpretations of great songs. Even if Joni Mitchell were to quit producing music, as she has threatened to do several times in the past, her place as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century is certainly assured. Here's hoping she will continue to extend her legacy & influence into the 21st! As always, with Joni Mitchell, the best is yet to come!
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