'Joni On Joni' excerpt: 'Joni Mitchell Defends Herself'
Excerpt from 'Joni On Joni,' 'Part II: Stoking the Star-Making Machinery,' written by Susan Whitall. Courtesy Chicago Review Press
Cameron Crowe | July 26, 1979 | Rolling Stone (US)
Cameron Crowe describes his 1979 interview with Joni Mitchell as his favorite of the many stories he did for Rolling Stone. It was to be Crowe’s last cover story for the magazine.
The interview came about because Joni had read Crowe’s other stories and felt that he
was sympathetic to musicians, resisting the temptation to be cruel to prove he was tough enough for the big league. She had a lot to talk to him about: For the Roses came out late in 1972, and then her sunny pop-rock masterpiece, Court and Spark, in 1974. The latter went to number two on the Billboard charts and achieved platinum status. But when Joni ventured further into jazz with The Hissing of Summer Lawns, her brief reign as the queen of pop came to a crashing end. Looking back, it’s a bit puzzling. On the surface, Hissing still has that jazzy-pop polish, and several songs should have been radio-friendly, certainly “In France They Kiss on Main Street.”
It’s hard today to comprehend the widespread disdain the album received from critics
and fans. Surely she was doing nothing more radical than Steely Dan did a few years later, or Sting, or Paul Simon. But, as Joni said to Crowe, the times eventually caught up with Hissing. She also describes how her album Hejira came about.
The album she was ostensibly promoting at the time of the interview was Mingus,
which was made up of music Charles Mingus wrote with her in mind, set to Joni’s lyrics.
The jazz great died in January, five months before the album came out. But with Crowe,
the conversation meandered and touched on everything, such as the nude photo of her on the inside of For the Roses that predictably shocked her mother.
Still, Joni resists being put in a box, knowing that once her image was firm in the
public’s mind as the hippie chic princess of dorm-room fantasies, she would always be
that. The counterculture’s dismay when she appeared in public in sleek, Yves Saint Laurent pants is recounted with glee. (Much like Warren Beatty sneering at her quilted Chanel bag as “unbecoming an artist.”) And she reflects upon her early years, talking about her friendship with Dylan and other peers, and opening up about former boyfriend Graham Nash.
Her musings to Crowe about motherhood, and how she finally felt ready, are poignant.
She hadn’t yet reunited with her “lost” child Kelly (now Kilauren Gibb), given up for adoption in 1965, and she was not yet ready to admit publicly that she had already experienced motherhood.
From the time she championed him in the 1970s and granted him this interview, Joni
has remained close friends with Crowe. One of the rare photos taken of Joni in public after she suffered her brain aneurysm in 2015 was of the two of them at Clive Davis’s 2017 pre-Grammy party. —Ed.
Several days before beginning these interviews, I overheard two teenagers looking for a good party album in a record store. “How about this,” said one, holding up Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles. “Naaaaaah,” said the other. “It’s got good songs on it, but it’s kind of like jazz.” They bought a Cheap Trick album.
When I told this story to Joni Mitchell later, I could see the disappointment
flicker across her face for an instant. Then she laughed and took a long drag from her cigarette. “Here’s the thing,” she said forcefully. “You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing.
But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options,” she concluded cheerfully, “I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
Joni Mitchell, 36, has been living in exile from a mainstream audience for the last three years. Her last resoundingly successful album of new material was Court and Spark, a landmark in poetic songwriting, performing and in the growth of an artist we had all watched mature. From folk ballads through Woodstock-era anthems to jazz-inflected
experimentalism, Joni Mitchell had influenced a generation of musicians.
Then, in 1975, she released The Hissing of Summer Lawns, her ambitious follow-up to Court and Spark. She introduced jazz overtones, veered away from confessional songwriting and received a nearly unanimous critical drubbing. Mitchell reacted to the criticism by keeping an even lower personal profile. She spent most of her time traveling (the road album, Hejira, was released in 1976), associating with progressive jazz
artists and asking questions. With Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, a double album released in the winter of 1977, she and pop music had nearly parted ways. In a time when the record-buying public was rewarding craftsmen, Mitchell seemed to be steadfastly carrying the torch for art. Her sales suffered, but this direction was leading to a historic juncture in her career.
Word first reached her in early 1978 that Charles Mingus was trying to get in touch with her. The legendary bassist-bandleader had been battling Lou Gehrig’s disease out of the public eye. She contacted him and they began a long distance friendship. Mingus had noticed her ambitions and wondered if she would assist him by condensing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, recite it and play guitar behind it for a composition he had been working on. She read the book and called him back. “I’d rather condense the Bible,” she told him, and Mingus said he could dig it. They didn’t speak for a time. Then, another phone call.
Mingus had written what would later become his last six melodies (“Joni I–VI,” he called them), and he wanted Mitchell to write and sing the lyrics for them. She spent the last year and a half working on the project, her first collaboration, working mostly in her apartment in New York’s Regency Hotel.
When Mingus died on January 5th this year, Mitchell continued writing and recording and finally finished in late spring. Including tape recordings of Mingus’ voice as segues between tracks, she eventually chose to simply title the album Mingus.
About marketing an all-jazz Joni Mitchell album, Elektra/Asylum Chairman of the Board Joe Smith says this: “She has taken a chunk out of her career and accomplished something truly monumental. When we received this album, I got on a conference call and talked with all our promotion men. If any radio station calls itself a trend setter, it must recognize this album and Charles Mingus. I’m also having a contest for my
promotion men,” he laughed; “first prize is they get to keep their jobs.”
Had Smith, in the course of running the company, ever discussed
commercial direction with Mitchell?
“You don’t tell Joni Mitchell what to do,” he said.
It was Joni Mitchell’s idea to do this, her first in-depth interview in over ten years. She entered the office of her manager, Elliot Roberts, one afternoon and sat down on a sofa. She wore no makeup, a tan blouse and slacks.
“Let’s turn the tape on,” she said, addressing my recorder. “I’m ready
An enthusiastic conversationalist, Joni Mitchell speaks quickly and
purposefully, structuring her thoughts like a writer’s third draft. The
sessions continued at various locations over the next three days.
“If I’m censoring for anyone,” she warned, “it’s for my parents. They
are very old-fashioned and moral people. They still don’t understand
me that well. I keep saying, ‘Mama, Amy Vanderbilt killed herself. That
should have been a tip-off that we’re into a new era. . . . ’ ”
Would you like to shatter any preconceptions?
I do have this reputation for being a serious person. I’m a very analytical
person, a somewhat introspective person; that’s the nature of the work
I do. But this is only one side of the coin, you know. I love to dance.
I’m a rowdy. I’m a good-timer. Mind you, I haven’t seen too many good
parties since I left my hometown. People go to parties here mostly to
There’s a private club in Hollywood that usually is very empty, but
on one crowded evening, I stumbled in there to this all-star cast. Linda
Ronstadt was running through the parking lot being pursued by photographers,
Jerry Brown was upstairs, Bob Dylan was full of his new
Christian enthusiasm —“Hey, Jerry, you ever thought of running this
state with Christian government?” Lauren Hutton was there, Rod Stewart. . . . There
were a lot of people and this little postage stamp of a dance
floor, and nobody was dancing on it. These are all people who dance, in
one way or another, in their acts.
So the renowned introvert comes in, and I just wanted to dance. I didn’t want to dance alone, so I asked a couple of people to dance with me and nobody would. They were all incredibly shy. So I went to the bathroom, and a girl came in and hollered to me from the sink over the wall, “Is that you? I’ll dance with you.” I said, “Great.” It was just like the Fifties, when none of the guys would dance. And it was at this moment that the girl confided to me, “You know, they all think of you as this very sad person.” That was the first time that it occurred to me that even among my peer group I had developed this reputation. I figured, these guys have been reading my press or something. [Laughs] But as far as shattering preconceptions, forget it. I feel that the art is there for people to bring to it whatever they choose.
I wonder if you feel like you’ve beaten the odds at this point? Even the
biggest pop performers usually become the victims of a fickle audience.
It’s typical in this society that is so conscious of being number one and
winning; the most you can really get out of it is a four-year run, just
the same as in the political arena. The first year, there’s the courtship
prior to the election — prior to, say, the first platinum album. Then suddenly
you become the king or queen of rock & roll. You have, possibly,
one favorable year of office, and then they start to tear you down. So
if your goals end at a platinum album or being king or queen of your
idiom, when you inevitably come down from that office, you’re going
to be heartbroken. Miserable. Nobody likes to have less than what he
My goals have been to constantly remain interested in music. I see
myself as a musical student. That’s why this project with Charles [Mingus]
was such a great opportunity. Here was a chance to learn, from a
legitimately great artist, about a brand new idiom that I had only been
flirting with before.
How did you decide to make this commitment?
Every year, when I’ve completed a project, I ask myself, “What am I going to do now?” In the process of asking myself that question, a lot of possibilities come up. I heard on the street that Charles was trying to contact me. He tried through normal channels and never made it. People thought it was too far-out to be true. They had all sorts of reasons for thinking it was an impossible or ridiculous combination. To me, it was
fascinating. I was honored. I was curious.
Mingus was a man who generally was difficult to get close to. When
did you know that you had really made the connection with him?
Oh, immediately. Immediately I felt this kind of sweet giddiness when
I met him. Like I was in for some fun. He teased me a lot. He called
me hillbilly; it was charming. We went through some of the old songs.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was the one we decided on immediately. So
there was this search for another one, and he played me a lot of material.
Charles put on this one record, and just before he played it, he
said, “Now this song has five melodies going all at once.” I said, “Yeah,
I bet you want me to write five different sets of words for each one of
the melodies, right?” And he grinned and said, “Right.” He put on the
record, and it was the fastest, smokingest thing you ever heard, with all
these melodies going on together.
Did you find yourself cast in the role of easing Mingus from his fear
No, that was up to him. You can’t do too much to assuage someone of
their fears. I wasn’t in that personal a role that I was his comforter. It
was a professional partnership with a lot of affection. But one day I called
him up and I said, “How are you, Charles?” I never really asked him too
much about his illness, but that day I did. And he said, “Oh, I’m dying.
I thought I knew how to do it, but now I’m not sure.” At that point I
had three songs to finish, and I thought, “Oh boy, I want him to be in
the studio when I start to cut them. I want his approval on this. I want
him to like my direction.”
This was a unique position. I’ve never worked for somebody else
before. Although in the treatment of the music, it was much more my
version of jazz. As far as the music was finally recorded. He’s more traditional
in a way—antielectronics and anti-avantgarde. I’m looking to
make modern American music. So I just hoped that he would like what
I was doing. I was taking it someplace where I would be true to myself.
It was never meant as a commemorative album while we were making
it. I never really believed completely that he was going to die. His spirit
was so strong.
Did he hear all the songs before his death?
He heard everything but “God Must Be a Boogie Man,” which he would
have liked, since it is his point of view about himself. It’s based on the
first four pages of his book (Beneath the Underdog).
How did you go about writing lyrics to “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”? This
is a classic piece of music that has . . .
. . . Been around. That was a very difficult one. I had to find my own
phrasing for the notes. The real difficulty for me was that the only thing
I can believe is what has happened to me firsthand, what I see and feel
with my own eyes. I had a block for three months. It’s hard for me to
take someone else’s story and tell only his story in a song.
Charlie assailed me with historical information about Lester Young
[in whose memory “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was written] and his family
background, concerning his early playing days. He used to tap dance in
his family band with his father and mother. He was married to a white
woman, traveling through the South in a time when that was just taboo.
A lot of the great black musicians were forced into cellars or the chitlin
circuit. So I had all these details, but I still couldn’t, with any conscience,
simply write a historical song.
Then something very magical happened. One night Don Alias and
I—he plays congas on the album, and he and I have been very close for
the period of the last two years—were on the subway, and we got off, I
don’t know why, two stops early. We came up into this cloud of steam
coming out of a New York manhole. Two blocks ahead of us, under
these orangeish New York lights, we see a crowd gathered. So we head
toward the crowd. When we get up on it, it’s a group of black men surrounding
two small black boys. It’s about midnight, and the two boys are
dancing this very robotlike mime dance. One of the guys in the crowd
slaps his leg and says, “Isn’t that something, I thought tap dancing was
gone forever.” Immediately I’m thinking about Lester Young. They were
dancing under one of those cloth awnings that goes out to the curb of a
bar. I look up—and the name of the bar is the Pork Pie Hat. The music
they were dancing to was jazz coming off the jukebox inside. There were
big blown-up pictures of Lester Young all around the place. It was wild.
So that became the last verse of the song. In my mind, that filled in
a piece of the puzzle. I had the past and the present, and the two boys
represented the future, the next generation. To me, the song then had
a life of its own.