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Love Stories Print-ready version

by Grayson Haver Currin
MOJO
July 2021
Original article: PDF

FROM SASKATOON TO LAUREL CANYON, FROM CRETE TO CHAPEL HILL AND THE ISLE OF WIGHT, THE PLEASURES AND PLAINS OF ROMANCE PURSUED JONI MITCHELL. AND 50 YEARS AGO, SHE ETCHED THEM INTO BLUE - A MASTERPIECE OF POETRY AND MELODY, POWER AND VULNERABILITY, THAT ASTONISHED HER PEERS, THEN AND NOW. "IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS I'D EVER HEARD," HEARS GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN.

It was the fourth day of the third Isle of Wight Festival, Saturday, August 29, 1970. The afternoon's line-up suggested some staggering variety show: Time Tim and John Sebastian, The Doors and The Who, Miles Dave with some of the crew that had just made Bitches Brew; and Joni Mitchell, set for the 9pm slot.

Local residents had protested the expected influx of loud ne'er-do-wells, especially after the success of the first two festivals and the chaos of Woodstock and Altamont the year before. Organisers scrambled, moving the five-day affair for the first time to a farm at the base of Afton Downs, a hilly expanse of grass-speckled chalk that offered a prime perch for thousands of attendees who believed all music should be free. As the crowd swelled beyond half a million, though who still wanted in began to crash the formidable metal fence. Promoters debated asking the world's biggest bands to play for free, to appease the growing mob.

"The kids got upset about the commercialisation that was going on. When you get a crowd of that many people, and one guy starts, 'Let's get in for nothing,' there's a ripple effect," the film-marker Murray Lerner told Louder nearly half a century later. "That whole movement began to break apart."

The idealism of the just-expired '60s was fracturing, in part, because of the conspicuous wealth of its stars: Mitchell, for instance, arrived in a rented red Rolls-Royce, with Neil Young and their manager Elliot Roberts. Donovan came with a lavish antique stagecoach, complete with ostentatious beveled windows; it became Mitchell's dressing room.

"It was the hate-the-performer festival," Mitchell remembered in the 2018 documentary Both Sides Now. Four months earlier, she had released Ladies Of The Canyon, her third album, and was steadily becoming a star of the singer-songwriter scene. "There was an expression of wealth taking place."

But at the mid-afternoon, the sun still high in the sky, organizers implored Mitchel to take one for the flagging team. After a slew of cancellations, they needed her to perform in broad daylight, as gates crashed and police clashed with the kids on Desolation Row, and illicit campsite built of straw. Mitchell resisted, then conceded. "I have a feminine cooperative streak," she lamented.

Wearing a long mustard-flower dress and an assortment of turquoise and silver, she strode on-stage with only a Martin guitar for a crowd composed mostly, it seemed, of shirtless men. Standing in front of The Who's Stonehenge of colossal amps, she adjusted the microphone and her capo and, in an attempt to break the ice, joked, "Looks like they're making Ben-Hur or something." She laughed nervously and alone, like a comedian flopping at the start of their stand-up debut.

The set didn't get better: she sang her first few songs to a tide of apathetic chatter and above distracting ripples of feedback. She politely reproached the crowd's noise: "It really puts me uptight, and then I get nervous and forget the words. Just give me a little help, will you?" Then, just as she summoned Woodstock, a man in the throes of a bad trip had to be lifted from the first few rows. A parental panic washed over Mitchell's face. But she returned to the piano for Woodstock, encouraging the crowd to join her in the chorus, in getting "back to the garden."

The moment she finished, Yogi Joe - months earlier, the man who gave Mitchel her first yoga lesson, and had now inexplicably found his way onto the stage with some hand drums - grabbed the microphone and began lecturing the crowd about rock music's crass commercialism. Roberts and a dragoon of security guards tried to ply him off stage, Mitchell eventually pleading with him. The crowd went berserk, drowning her piano as she began My Old Man, an unreleased song about being in love with Graham Nash. Finally, she had enough.

"Listen a minute, will ya? Will ya listen a minute? Now listen," she yelled, spinning toward the crowd while fending off tears. "I get my feelings off through my music. But, listen: you got your life wrapped up in it, and it's very difficult to come out here and lay something down when... you're acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect."

It worked. Mitchell's final six songs were a tour de force of bare feelings, unrecorded songs A Case Of You and California holding as much power and sway as the established favourites Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi. For California, written about her return to The Golden State after gallivanting through Europe with hippies and rick-kid rubberneckers, she even sat down on a folding chair with a four-sting Appalachian dulcimer, a relatively exotic instrument she'd ben playing for a year. "Can you give me a little more volume on the dulcimer - somehow?" she said, beaming and at ease.

"I've run for much less than that," Mitchell would remember. " But I thought, I have to stand up... And the beast lay down. The beast lay down."

It was a galvanising moment for Mitchell, an instant in which she realised the power that her seemingly small sound - her voice and a few strings, a grand piano at most - could have. That vulnerability had been a touchstone for her first three albums, but in the months to come, she pushed it to the centre of the 10 songs she at at the begging of 1971. In the record she would title Blue, she sang candidly of love's joys and follies, of the ways it had crushed and uplifted her. She sang of regret for leaving, of discomfort with staying. She sang, for the first time, of the child she'd put up for adoption six years earlier. Half a century later, Blue remains one of the most complete encapsulations of how it feels to be young and filling in or out of love.

"I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair," Mitchell once said. "That's how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside. I wrote Blue in that condition."

In the spring of 1968, Tim Considine was a former child star approaching 30. The scion of a prominent showbusiness family, Considine appeared in a smattering of films before making a star turn in My Three Sons, a sitcom about a single dad's misadventures in raising kids. But his run had ended three years earlier, so he had turned to screenwriting and tinkering with photography. He was a music fan too, during a boom in California's rock scene.

"I went to a Judy Collins concert, and she sang Both Sides Now. I thought, 'Wow, that's a great song,'" says Considine. Collings had already recorded the song, but it was months away from becoming her hit. "And she said, 'If you like that song, wait until you hear the person who wrote it, Joni Mitchell.' That seemed like an extraordinary thing for an artist to say."

Considine to Collins' advice. Weeks later, early in June 1968, Mitchell was making her debut at The Troubadour, the now-iconic club just off the Sunset Strip. Considine lived a mile away and recognised an opportunity in the club's famously dim lighting. He'd been experimenting with a new film that could capture elegant portraits in low light. "It was like a tunnel, so dark," Considine says. "So I thought, 'Let's give this a try.'"

He was taken by Mitchell, particularly the dynamic sweep of her voice. He pulled out his camera and eased toward the stage. People scoffed, amused that he thought he could get a worthwhile photo. Back home, he was stunned with the result, particularly how sharp grain of the film made Mitchell look like a Greek statue, a wash of marble beauty emerging from the shadow. He made a few 11=inch by 14-inch prints and returned to The Troubadour the following night, climbing to the tiny dressing room to seek out Mitchell.

"She seemed really pleased, and I felt about nine feet tall," says Considine. "But then David Crosby came in, looked at them, dismissed them, and said to me, 'Needs more contrast.' I thought "'Bitch!'"

But after Considine developed the photos for a second time, he realised that Crosby, who was the son of an acclaimed cinematographer, was right. And when Mitchell returned to the club for a six-show stand there in January 1969, so did Considine, with his camera in hand. He found Mitchell in the Troubadour's upstairs green room, lit by streetlights and signs outside. She was painting a Valentine's Day present for Gram Nash, The Hollies star who had arrived in Los Angeles since her first show at The Troubadour and had almost immediately moved in with her. Considine shot a double-exposure of Mitchell, juxtaposing her portrait and a wider frame that shows her painting. "And the light was just magnificent," he remembers. She was practically glowing.

On Nash's first night in town, in 1968, Mitchell rescued him from a wild party at Crosby's, tugging on his arm and saying, "Come to my house, and I'll take care of you," he later wrote. By April 1969, they represented a picture of domestic Laurel Canyon bliss, their house brimming with instruments, an elk's head, two cats and a lamp designed as a frog holding a lily pad. They went into creative overdrive. Mitchell painted incessantly while self-producing her second album, Clouds. Nash worked at stained-glass and photography while Crosby, Stills & Nash cut their debut.

And he doted on Mitchell. During an April 1969 New York Times profile of the pair in their Laurel Canyon nest, Nash promised Joni a kiss because he liked her new version of Both Sides, Now so much. "You would've kissed her, man, if she would have spit," Elliot Roberts quipped. "There sure is a lot of love in this house."

Nash wrote that scene, of course, into the blissful Our House, where her love made everything that used to be so hard so easy. It is an anthem of unqualified happiness. "We were married, you might say," Mitchell, who had split from her first husband a year before inviting Nash over, told Cameron Crowe in 1979.

Mitchell's songs for Nash, though, radiated equivocation. In Willy, recorded for 1970's Ladies Of The Canyon, she worries that it's to good to be true, that he "gave [his] heart too soon." Its corollary, My Old Man, is an ode to her happiness when he's near and a confession of her blues when he's gone. "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall," she sings, her voice diving and rising with the same doubts. "Keeping us tied and true, no."

Indeed, it didn't last. Late in 1969, the relationship disintegrated: a mixture of Nash's self-proclaimed insecurity, her romantic restlessness, and his clandestinely narcotised life with the suddenly famous Crosby, Stills & Nash.

"After Graham and I separated, I was really depressed," Mitchell admitted to Mark Myers in Anatomy Of A Song. "I believed in that relationship, and suddenly it was over. I also lost most of my Los Angeles friends, who had been my constant community. When I left him, they took his side."

So Mitchell fled, first to Crosby's boat, a Belize-build schooner named The Mayan he'd purchased in 1969. But when she climbed aboard in Jamaica in early February, Nash was there, too. She felt she'd been hoodwinked by Crosby, a mentor who had encouraged her to move to Los Angeles and produced her first album, Song To A Seagull. After passing through the Panama Canal, she flew to California and joined a poetry-writing pal, Penelope Ann Schafer, en route to Greece.

At home with Nash in 1969, Mitchell had claimed that nascent fame and her escalating schedule had cost her the space and time to write. She intended to take four months off at summer's end to live a little and focus on new material. "There is a certain amount of life in all my songs," she would later tell Melody Maker. "If I have any personal philosophy it is that I like truth." This was her chance to live a little, to find new truths for tunes.

After tooling around Athens, the pair heard that, since the early '60s, hippies had flocked to the island of Crete, where they lived in seaside caves carved into soft sedimentary rock in the fishing village of Matala. They hopped on a ferry, rented a VW Beetle, and found a cinderblock hut beside a poppy field. An explosion at Delfini's , one of Matala's two taverns, sent a cook sailing through the doors. Mitchell had to meet this character.

Cary Raditz was a North Carolina copywriter who decamped to Greece to get away from the stateside grind. Mitchell was smitten.

"He had steely-cold blue eyes and a menacing grin," she told Myers, "and he was a bit of a scoundrel."

For nearly two months, they were inseparable, hiking though the kills in clunky boots, swimming in the sea in the buff, learning yoga from Yogi Joe, and sleeping in Raditz's cave on a stone-slab bed covered with pebbles, grass, and a rough Afghan rug. Mitchell would sometimes disappear into the countryside carrying her dulcimer, a rare instrument built in California by exclusive luthier Joellen Lapidus Escaping the gaze of the hippies who knew who she was, she wrote Carey, an intoxicating epic about her Matalan adventures and sub-standard living conditions. She adored Raditz but longed for "my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne."

She sang it for him on her birthday, both as a gift and a farewell letter. She flew to Paris, then "caught a plane to Spain," partying and playing dulcimer alongside Nico at the Ibiza home of Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner. But she began to feel the pull of an idealised California, before The Fall, and captured that longing in the song she titled for the state. "I'm going to see the folks I dig, I'll even kiss a Sunset pig," she sang, nostalgic even, it seemed, for the cops on the Strip.

Still, the freedom of Matala clung to Mitchell like salt from the sea. "It was a lovely life, far better than being middle-class in America," she told Rolling Stone. "Even the poorest people seemed to eat well: cucumbers and tomatoes, oranges and potatoes and bread."

By late July, though, Mitchell's expedition led her back home to Canada, where she joined Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Odetta at Toronto's Mariposa Folk Festival. There was a familiar face among the ranks - James Taylor, who had opened for Mitchell in 1969 and worked with her at the Newport Folk Festival.

"She sang something while we sat in the grass, and shew as tauntingly beautiful," Peter Asher remembers of the two at Newport. "I don't remember sparks flying across the room, but Joni was this very magnetic, very charming person. You could see her effect on all the men sitting around her. James was no exception."

This time, they became a couple. Mitchell joined Taylor when he filmed Two-Lane Black-top, a movie about itinerant outlaw drag racers, in the New Mexico desert late that summer, knitting him a sweater vest by the pool. She wrote the experience into All I Want, a song about the extreme emotional vicissitude of falling in love: "I want to knit you a sweater/Want to write you a love letter." Along-side Dennis Wilson in the RV, they drove to a Hopi ceremony with snakes and dancing, an occasion Mitchell would directly reference at Isle of Wight when she called the attendees tourists.

"Why would you not want to hang out with James Taylor, for God's sake?" Nash told Michele Mercer for her inquisitive analysis of Mitchell's Blue period, Will You Take Me As I Am. "Just look at him."

You could hear their chemistry, too. In late October, the new couple recorded a set for the BBC at London's Paris Theatre. They introduced each other's songs, finished each other's choruses, and giggled at each other's jokes. When she explained the curious immigrant history of the dulcimer, she said, "It's a truly American folk instrument, right?" The Canadian paused, as if awaiting the North Carolina-raised Taylor's seal of approval. They played her Carey, then his Carolina In My Mind.

During that trip, Mitchell and Taylor shared a flat with Asher and his wife, Betsy Doster, complete with a harpsichord and piano. Asher remembers her sitting down to rehearse Blue, an incisive and patient ballad she'd just finished about the pain and perseverance of romance and really, living. It stunned Asher in the same way that hearing I Want To Hold Your Hand for the first time did, back when he and Paul McCartney shared the top floor of his family's London home at 57 Wimpole St.

"It's one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard," he says today. "It's hard to be analytical in those moments. You just say 'Please play it again.' It registers as beautiful poetry, but you haven't figured it out. Hearing it was an experience I wanted to repeat."

The new first couple of singer-songwriters fell for one another so deeply that Mitchell accompanied Taylor to Chapel Hill for Christmas, where his father, Ike, was about to finish his tenure as the dean of the medical school at the University Of North Carolina. Mitchell, it seemed, was joining what Rolling Stone would soon call "The First Family of the New Rock." Taylor helped his father cut down a Christmas tree. The couple carolled through the neighbourhood, joined by Taylor's childhood friend, the journalist David Perlmutt. They even showed up on the doorstep of UMC's already-legendary basketball coach Dean Smith.

"As the carollers circled around Morgan Creek, David lip-synched his way through Silent Night, in part so that he could listen to James and Joni sing," Will Blyth wrote in The Oxford American, recounting Perlmutt's memory of the night. "Why listen to himself when such beautiful voices were ringing out behind his ears?"

With her dulcimer and his guitar, Mitchell and Taylor even played an impromptu fireside concert in the living room, performing Taylor's Fire And Rain and three songs that Mitchell had yet to record - the Crete songs, Carey and California and the lovesick A Case Of You. Months later, when Mitchell released Blue, some in attendance wondered if the native cold Canadian prairies had written River, perhaps the definitive ode to Christmas's bittersweet sting, about her time in Chapel Hill. It "stays pretty green" there, after all, even in winter.

For now, though, it was back to sunny California. Mitchell and Taylor had records to make.

Late in 1970, Russ Kunkel had what he calls 50 years later "my own little Joni Mitchell concert."

Only 22 at the time, Kunkel had quickly become one of Los Angeles' drumming hotshots, able to dig into the beat but also play lightly, as if accenting a track without touching it. He had worked for The Band, recorded with Dylan, and befriended Hendrix. And after he married Cass Elliot's younger sister, Leah, the entire rock world appeared to open up before him. The young couple remodelled an A-frame apartment above Elliot's sprawling Laurel Canyon spread, and moved around the time their son, Nathaniel, was born. Kunkel had met Mitchell years before while she cut her debut album with Crosby, and he'd since seen her around Elliot's in the afternoons. She asked him to play on Blue and if she might stop by.

"My first thought was, 'Holy shit, I am sitting here, and Joni Mitchell - the most gorgeous angel in the world - is playing her songs for me,'" says Kunkel, admitting to callow first impressions. He mostly listened, occasionally slapping his hands on his knees or reaching for bongos. Mitchell approved of this minimalism, his tacit concession for her own intricate metres. A few weeks later, he began arriving at A&M's tiny Studio C with a modest percussion kit, listening to Mitchell and falling in place.

"She dictated what the grooves were, just with her guitar parts," Kunkel says. "It was easy to get inside them. When I got into the studio, I fit into what she'd already recorded."

It was a busy time at A&M: just down the hall, The Carpenters were recording in Studio A, while Carole King was cutting Tapestry in Studio B. King described Tapestry sessions as a family affair, with her husband, Charlie Larkey, playing bass and her long-time pal, Lou Adler, producing. Her kids would stop by, as did Mitchell and Taylor to sing Will You Love Me Tomorrow? Taylor himself was recording Mudslide Slim And The Blue Horizon nearby, with king and Mitchell both contributing.

Mitchell would have little of that. Her sessions were sealed to the extent that, when King's engineer requested access to the piano Mitchell was using, they had to sneak into Studio A while she was gone. After the last year, Mitchell needed a sanctuary.

"If you looked at me, I would weep," she told Musician in 1983. "We had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in. Socially, I was an absolute wreck. Imagine yourself stripped of all defences."

Four other people played on Blue - Kunkel, Taylor, Stephen Stills and pedal steel whiz Sneaky Pete Kleinow. But it's possible to listen from start to finish and barely notice them. Kunkel's Sonor drums and Kleinow's steel whinnies during California blend into Mitchell's sharp but shimmering dulcimer chords. Stills' bass line on Carey clings so closely to her see-sawing voice that it feels like a special effect. The players weren't assuming she'd keep their stuff, anyways. "She's so secure that, when she said hello and thanks for coming, I'd do what occurred to me," Stills tells MOJO today. "I was very clear that she was free to erase it."

In this secluded setting, Mitchell could let everything out, the first 27 years of her life's emotional detritus extracted in 10 multivalent songs. She had been playing Little Green, a number she revealed decades later was about giving up her daughter for adoption, since at least 1967. Floating through delicate acoustic guitar, it's examination of lost innocence slipped seamlessly into Blue. As though its happy "icicles and birthday clothes" were metaphorical contrasts for its unnamed sorrows.

In some ways, its inevitable acceptance of hardship offers the anticipatory inverse of The Last Time I Saw Richard, the fraught piano finale about refusing to accept the doomed news of love. Richard warns her about the sad, cynical fate of romantics. "All good dreamers pass this way some day," she rebuts, her suddenly frail voice almost buckling beneath the burden. "Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away."

Mitchell finished Blue early in the spring - a little more than a year since she arrived in Crete, about half a year since she made the beast lay down on the Isle of Wight. Her relationship with Taylor didn't really survive the sessions, becoming a casualty of their individual struggles for meaning. Taylor was there to play guitar on Blue, but, for Mitchell, that was the extent of his support.

"James was a walking psychological disaster, anyways," Mitchell told Mercer decades later. "He was in no position to point a finger."

Or, as Asher puts it: "Joni and James made each other happy. And then they made each other miserable.

Nearly three years after Tim Considine snapped his low-light phots of Mitchell during her Troubadour debut, Gary Burden called. Despite Crosby's criticism, Mitchell had held onto Considine's photo and hoped to use it for the cover of her new album. By that point, Burden was an icon of record art, having worked with Neil Young, Steppenwolf, and The Doors. Considine loved his work and handed over the negative, never thinking about a fee.

"I have never given anyone a negative after that," says Considine, laughing and then sighing. "I like everything Gary ever did - except for Blue."

Burden bathed the picture in a blue light and sharpened the image until it looked almost like an antique daguerreotype - extreme contrast and edges, so that every crease of Mitchell's face looks deep, like a steep canyon on a topographical map. In 1968, Considine felt he had captured a certain softness; Burden, however, tapped Mitchell's experiences since, the windfall of highs and lows. Considine is still not sure who made the call, Mitchell or Burden, and it remains the only album cover he's shot.

Burden's version, at least, aligns with Mitchell's own take on that time, a moment when she felt so vulnerable she soon retreated to a cabin in rural Canada, where she planned to garden, maybe live without electricity, and write. After Blue was released in June 1971, she rarely appeared in public for the better part of a year. Never again would she make an album as exposed, unfiltered, and unflinching.

"I love that record more than any of them, really," Mitchell said in 1983, before her decades-long battle with it's confessional legacy. "I'll never be that pure again."

The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) containing newly remastered versions of Joni Mitchell's Song To A Seagull, Clouds, Ladies Of The Canyon and Blue, is available in 4-CD, 4-LP and digital formats from June 45 through Rhino.

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