'Joni on Joni' excerpt: 'Two Single Acts Survive A Marriage'
Excerpt from 'Joni On Joni,' 'Part I: We Are Stardust,' written by Susan Whitall. Courtesy Chicago Review Press
A. L. McClain | February 6, 1966 | Detroit News (US)
In the spring of 1965, Joni met Detroit folk singer Chuck Mitchell at the Penny Farthing
coffeehouse in Toronto. On June 19 they were married in the backyard of his parents’
house in the Detroit suburb of Rochester, as a string quartet played. The couple moved
into Chuck’s apartment on the top floor of the Verona, a once grand nineteenth-century
apartment building on the edge of Detroit’s seedy Cass Corridor. The Verona was the
“tenement castle” of Joni’s song “I Had a King,” and Chuck, of course, the king who
“carried me off to his country for marriage too soon” (and changed the locks on her
In between gigs at Detroit folk clubs including the Chess Mate and the Raven Gallery,
Joni sewed curtains and transformed their lair into a medieval green and gold–hued fantasyland.
The couple put up visiting musician friends such as Tom Rush, Gordon Lightfoot,
and Eric Andersen in their spacious pad. Hosting Andersen was fortuitous; he showed Joni some open tunings on the guitar, which led her music in a new direction. Joni had already written four or five songs before she met Chuck, but it was at the Verona, where she lived with him from 1965 through 1967, that she wrote some of her best-known early compositions, including “Circle Game” and “Both Sides, Now.”
There is even a Motown connection. Chuck said he sought out someone to write lead
sheets for Joni’s songs, and he found a musician he describes as a lean six footer, “definitely from Motown, African American, fortysomething, a reed man,” which fits the description of flutist/saxophonist (and, for a time, Motown bandleader) Thomas “Beans” Bowles. The “reed man” trudged up the many stairs to their bohemian pad, Chuck remembered, but was skeptical of Joni’s unusual tunings until he watched her hands on the guitar and found himself caught up in the melodies. —Ed.
In this era of computers serving as matchmakers, it seems unlikely that
Chuck and Joni Mitchell would have been paired off as matrimonial
But seven months after their marriage, they seemed to have beaten
Their wedding required more sacrifice than the average couple’s. Each
was a folk singer. Chuck had played numerous engagements as a single
in the Detroit area; Joni filled dates in her native Canada as a soloist.
They decided to combine single acts into one, and the honeymoon
took a slight detour. Chuck explained it, “We are both strong-minded
people, and we both had our own ways of doing a number. There were
some hectic times until we blended our styles.”
Joni’s disposition also suffered when he took her home to his apartment
in the Wayne State University area. They had to climb five flights
of stairs, and he was too exhausted to carry her across the threshold.
Joni walked in herself.
“But I carried her the last flight of stairs,” laughed Chuck.
Chuck grew up in the Rochester area. Joni was used to Canadian customs.
She had wanted to be an artist and had gone to school to study art.
The girl who bears a striking resemblance to Mia Farrow, of TV’s
“Peyton Place,” explained it:
“I got interested in a ukulele, and from there I turned to the guitar
and folk singing. Thirty-six hours after I met Chuck, he asked me to
marry him. But we waited two months.”
Now their marriage and careers are on firmer ground. They recently
finished an engagement together at the Chess Mate, and hope to get a
tryout at the Playboy Club in Detroit.
Occasionally, they break up the act for separate engagements. This
weekend, Joni backed up blues singer Jesse Fuller at the Chess Mate and
Chuck sang at the Alcove on Woodward.
On Feb. 15 they join forces again for a week’s stand at the Chess
Mate, and on Feb. 22 they appear together at the Living End, a nightclub.
Chuck said, “Joni and I have developed our act. We are not just folk
singers now. We do comedy, sing some ragtime and do folk-rock. We’re
ready for the big clubs now.”
Joni nodded her approval, as any dutiful wife would do.