Nineteen Seventy Eight is a watershed year for Joni Mitchell; DON JUAN's RECKLESS DAUGHTER (Asylum) is the superlative singer-songwriter's tenth album; its release marks the tenth year of her association with 'personal manager' Elliot Roberts. While last year's European tour was cancelled on account of exhaustion, sources close to Roberts claim that Joni 'just may' play the States in '78. But whether Our Lady of the Canyon opts for seclusion or the road, her new, deluxe double-set crowns a decade of ambitious record making.
She was born Roberta Joan Anderson, in 1943, in Fort Macleod, Canada. Her early inspirations, like those of Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, were drawn from the well of folk music. Like them, she travelled the folk festival and concert route during the early and mid-sixties. Primarily, she began as a song-writer, only incidentally plucking a guitar and singing her tunes. In those days it was virtually impossible to get anyone to 'do' your songs. So you sang them yourself.
Curiously, it was the opposite of this formula that became the foundation for Joni's recognition. Married to American folksinger Chuck Mitchell and then divorced, she continued to ply her trade in the States while, almost without effort, other performers began to include Mitchell material in their programs. Among others, Tom Rush and Buffy Saint Marie recorded Joni's Circle Game, in 1967. Buffy's version, with its rockabilly background, became a hit and listeners began to wonder about the name behind the song. In 1968, Judy Collins' version of Both Sides Now sold a million copies, Joni was poised and ready for public acceptance as a performer in her own right.
And circumstances were in her favour. Buffy's manager, Elliot Roberts, was so taken with Joni's presence on stage that he left his management position to devote himself full time to her career. He signed her to Reprise Records in 1968 and then, when he joined with partner David Geffen, brought her to Geffen's fledgling label, Asylum.
Joni eventually settled in LA's fashionably rustic Topanga Canyon where, for many years, she shared the company of peers Crosby, Young, Nash, Browne and assorted Eagles. Most of the material for the series of albums that followed, though gathered through her travels, was formulated there.
DON JUAN is an all-studio double — but, at just under an hour, it runs only six minutes longer than 77's stunning HEJIRA single LP. DON JUAN is only one song bigger than HEJIRA's nine, but what a song: the seventeen minute autobiographical epic sprawled across Side Two, complete with full symphony orchestra, called Paprika Plains:
"I would tie on coloured feathers and I'd beat the drums like war…"
Joni sings, forecasting Side Three's Tenth World, the pop poetess's first instrumental track, a conga jam featuring ace Brazilian percussionist Airto Moriera.
There's much more: an all-rhythm (cowbells, congas, shakers, snare drum, sandpaper block) back-up on Dreamland, Joni's gem-like contribution to Roger McGuinn's 1976 CARDIFF ROSE LP. Mitchell's rendition evokes her '75 HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS set, with its startling Jungle Line track courtesy of the Warrior Drums of Burundi.
Jericho on the other hand, is a straight studio re-make of the delicate tune which Joni debuted on her live MILES OF AISLES package, with Tom Scott's LA Express. Here, drummer, and sometime lover, John Guerin is the only Express holdover, cooking with the likes of Weather Report's Wayne Shorter on sax. Report veteran Jaco Pastorius, who shared bass duties with Max Bennet on HEJIRA, defines DON JUAN's moody sophistication with a haunting, single handed vibrato.
Around Elliot Robert's office, they're calling DON JUAN "Joni's best album in years. She's grown from the jazz proficiency of the Express to the sheer virtuosity of Weather Report." And, more to the point, "DJRD was the highest FM add-on the last week in December."
Three months and "lots of money" in the making, DON JUAN assumed many names — including "some really long, weird ones that nobody remembers" — before taking its title from "the song with the ankle bells."
According to a studio assistant, Mitchell decided, mid-session, that she really needed "ankle bells" for "tempo and atmosphere." Longtime engineer Henry Lewy put out a frantic call, with no luck. "Finally," the assistant laughs, "somebody came up with a dancer named Alejandro Acuna. They dimmed the lights, stuck her on a little stage, and ran the tapes. I think they got her from the Screen Actors Guild, actually. But she is a real Indian."
Real Indians — the North American kind — tend to recur ("They cut off their braids and lost some link with nature") throughout the lyric, as do Black Men, mostly pimps with dizzy, adoring White Broads. All three prototypes figure on the cover photograph — and all three are Miss Mitchell, in degrees of disguise. "Norman Seeff took a bunch of pictures," tut-tuts a friend, "and Joni happened to like these the best. So they cut 'em up, and stuck 'em on the sleeve." What the friend fails to mention is that, among her ten album covers — all designed by Mitchell, who once studied at Alberta College — DON JUAN may sport her most provocative image. Joni Goes Jolson: how could it miss?
It couldn't. Between her professional family of Roberts, Lewy, Steve Katz, David Geffin and what Billboard calls "her steady legion of fans," Joni carved a comfortable, serious and significant niche in the barracuda-heavy record biz. Her smoky, folky jazz will always make money for Mitchell and Asylum, even should DON JUAN take a tail spin in the year of You Light Up My Life. But what's she like to work with, this auteurist who hires orchestras, handles graphics, disdains the press and rarely performs? Is Joni a sublime Barbra Streisand?
"Believe it or not," the studio assistant swears, "she's always running around hugging and kissing everybody between takes. She's real affectionate, isn't temperamental because she surrounds herself with friends and pros. There's always David Crosby hanging out, and Henry Lewy getting skinny. Joni doesn't have to be 'demanding,' either, because she always knows exactly what she wants." Pause. "And she always gets it."