Here’s Joni Mitchell doing a 35-minute interview on cable TV in 1989. I think it’s lovely the way Mitchell gives it her all despite being seen by only a few hundred people somewhere out in the ether. A great communicator with a high regard for her audience, no matter how small.
She speaks with great specificity about her recent LP release, 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, the Lakota people, political activism, film making and modern American culture.
The TV show originated in Covina, California. The interview is thoughtfully conducted by Jeff Plummer. Produced by Marty Getz.
If you would have told me back when I was a defiant teenage post-punk fanboy—clad in Doc Martens and a black trench coat festooned with badges of PiL, The Residents, Kraftwerk, Nina Hagen and Throbbing Gristle—that one day I’d go through quite a long “phase” (as my wife calls my penchant for perhaps slightly over-exuberant musical enthusiasms) for the type of music that I HATED MOST when I was a kid, the laid-back, singer-songwriter sounds of the Southern California folk-rock, I would not have believed you.
I’d have (truly) been horrified. To me, there was nothing worse than The Eagles (maybe just “Southern rockers” like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet) and anything that even vaguely smacked of the So Cal sound was shit to my ears.
Part of it was really getting into Neil Young (which for me happened in 2002, only after I first read Jimmy McDonough’s masterpiece of biography, Shakey, a book I’ve re-read twice in the past year alone), The Flying Burrito Brothers and Joni Mitchell, and then it sort of spread out slowly from there. A lot of it also had to do with our own Paul Gallagher sending me a copy of Barney Hoskyns’ excellent 2006 overview of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter/folkrock sound, Hotel California.
Hotel California‘s subtitle is “The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends” and aside from some of the aforementioned artists, the book also turned me on to the music of both Judee Sill and the Byrd who could not fly, the great Gene Clark. It’s a great place to dive in, a perfect roadmap through the Canyon sound.
I even found, to my surprise, that there were some Eagles songs I really liked. A lot.
It just goes to show. In any case, Hoskyn’s excellent book was made into an equally essential BBC produced documentary, Hotel California: L.A. from the Byrds to the Eagles, a highly entertaining account of the rise and fall of Laurel Canyon rock. It’s a must see and worthy of multiple viewings.
For Joni Mitchell fans, there are few visual documents of the earlier part of her career more coveted than the famed BBC In Concert special from 1970. The full title was Joni Mitchell Sings Joni Mitchell and it’s an intimate and closely miked performance shot in front of a respectful and quiet audience. The show was recorded at the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush on September 3rd. but not broadcast until October 9th. Mitchell, although seemingly nervous at times, is at the height here, of her powers as a musician, and of her considerable beauty.
The whole thing, in my opinion, is really just off the scale. She doesn’t sing a dishonest note here.
It’s also one of the very first things I ever downloaded on Bit Torrent and the quality was so perfect that, being used to crappy bootlegs, I was really pleasantly surprised. Here was something that was of a higher quality than I could have purchased at Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore. If there was more stuff like this out there, I thought to myself, “I’m going to dive right into this whole Bit Torrent thing…” Within a year or two YouTube launched and there was, of course, an avalanche of amazing rock era rarities that were instantly rare no more.
Over at the Sixties Archive blog, they’ve recreated the entire set list with the best quality versions of the video and audio they could assemble, plus numbers that were cut from the broadcast.
In the video below, Mitchell sings “Chelsea Morning,” “Cactus Tree,” “My Old Man” (about the very lucky Graham Nash), “For Free,” “California,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Both Sides Now.”
Fanboy Morrissey, who counts her masterpiece Blue among his favorite albums, interviews the great Joni Mitchell on NPR around the time that her matching Hits and Misses anthologies came out in fall of 1996.
From his very first question, Mozzer really hits the ball right out of the park:
Morrissey: Do they still refer to you as a female songwriter? Because it’s such a ludicrous—well, it’s become such a ludicrous title because to be called a female songwriter—
JM: Implies limitations.
Morrissey: Well, it implies that it’s not a real songwriter.
Morrissey: I mean, you couldn’t imagine, for instance, saying Paul McCartney’s a great male songwriter.
JM: Right. Well, they wouldn’t do it that way. But I mean this has always been true of women in the arts. We supposedly made some progress in this century. We got the vote for one thing. But if you take the female impressionists, there were several of them that were very good, and they were not really allowed to belong to the academy. There was an extra “A” in front of their name, associates of the academy. So—and it was said of them that they were incapable of really tackling the important issues that men could tackle, that, you know, not that the subject matter of the impressionists was particularly important. It was just mostly delightful it seemed to me, people boating, people on beaches, you know, landscapes, so on. But they seemed to think that women could only handle domestic situations. And Mary Cassat painted women and children very beautifully, and that seemed to confirm it, but she had all the chops that they did.
One would think in this time period that I came along—mind you, there weren’t very many women writing and singing. There weren’t as many women as there are in the business now definitely. There were only a few of us—
Morrissey: But to use the expression “female songwriter” is to imply that the word songwriter belongs to men.
Morrissey: So do they still in this country call you call you a female songwriter?
JM: Well, they tend to lump me always with groups of women. You know, the women of rock. I’ve been always lumped in—I always thought, well, they don’t put Dylan with the men of rock. Why do they do that with me, with the women of rock, always within the context of the women that were happening within every decade I would get lumped in in that same manner.
One of my favorite compliments that I ever received was from a Black blind piano player, Henry, I don’t know what his last name was. And said to me, “Joni, you know, you make genderless, raceless music.” And I thought, well, I hadn’t set out, you know, saying “I’m going to make genderless, raceless music,” but in some part of the back of my mind, I did want to make music that crossed—I never really liked lines, class lines, you know, like social structure lines since childhood, and there were a lot of them that they tried to teach me as a child. “Don’t go there.” “Why not?” “Well, because they’re not like us.” They try to teach you those lines. They start at about 12. And I ignored them always and proceeded without thinking that I was a male or a female or anything, just that I knew these people that wrote songs and I was one of them.
Mitchell goes on to describe meeting John Lydon in Jamaica in 1977! Pure pleasure. There’s a transcript here.
Joni Mitchell and Mary Travers appear on The Mama Cass Television Show recorded on Jan. 18, 1969. This was a pilot for a weekly series. It was produced by Chuck Barris of Gong Show fame.
Joni and Mama Cass radiate the last glow of the flower child era. Both will move on in different ways. Travers does Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” which Nyro sold to Traver’s group Peter, Paul and Mary for $5000. As much as I appreciate Travers as a vocalist, her folky take on the song just can’t touch the gospel feel of Nyro’s version.
Joni Mitchell: ‘Both Sides Now”
Mary Travers: “And When I Die”
Cass, Joni and Mary: “I Shall Be Released”
Laura Nyro 1966 demo of “And When I Die” and short interview after the jump…
As an avid and longtime collector of “bootlegs” (LPs, cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD or now torrent files) I can tell you that the #1 major artist who it used to be difficult for me to find bootlegs of—especially video bootlegs, which is what I mainly look for—is Joni Mitchell. I used to religiously hit collectors fairs, record conventions, and the monthly “record collector” parking lot area at the Pasadena Flea Market (which used to be THE BEST) but I could never find any Joni Mitchell boots. As in nothing. Ever. I can’t help but to think that there was some level of sexism that saw the likes of Dylan, Zappa, Beatles, Dead, Stones, Zeppelin, Tull, etc, etc get bootlegged like crazy, when so little Joni Mitchell was making it into the video trading pipeline? Even on eBay there was next to nothing. What gives?
In any case, this imbalance naturally got redressed on YouTube and now there are many delightful examples of Mitchell singing live for her fans to enjoy. What I find especially noteworthy about clips of Joni Mitchell in her 60s/70s prime is how she could absolutely command an audience with just her voice and an acoustic guitar or piano. For such a seemingly frail young girl, she was an exceptionally powerful performer. Who of the current crop of female entertainers could do that? (Actually one does come to mind: Laura Marling, who killed it at Glastonbury this year, but she had a band, I suppose. Still, she deserves the comparison.).
One hallmark of any live Joni Mitchell live performance was the tuning up between songs. There was a reason for it. Again, I’m sorry to report that rock snobs and guitar aficionados of my gender—some not all—have never fully appreciated what a brilliant, world-beating guitarist Joni Mitchell really is. The reason she was always tuning up for so long between songs is that she was often completely re-tuning the guitar to an alternate tuning. She is known to have created at least 50 harmonically innovative open tuning patterns. Apparently, she required them to be able to physically play the music she heard in her head. Due to a bout of childhood polio, her hand became slightly palsied and she basically had to come up with her own way of playing guitar. Her style is completely original, keep all of this in mind as you watch some of these clips. (In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked Mitchell as the 72nd on their list “greatest guitarist of all time.” She was the was the highest-ranking female and she wuz robbed!). You can read more about her innovative tuning patterns here and here.
Below, a selection of some of the finest Joni Mitchell performances that YouTube has on offer…
A very young and VERY lovely Joni Mitchell sings “Urge for Going,” late 1966. The men seem absolutely stunned here. What man wouldn’t be?
“Big Yellow Taxi” at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970
A heartbreaking “Little Green” (about the pain of giving her infant daughter up for adoption):
Since there is no such thing as a music “mainstream” anymore, and if there is, it’s one that I can easily ignore—I have never heard Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” that I am aware of—so I don’t really feel that out of it. Or care. Where do you find out about new music, though? It used to be you found out about new music because you’d see something in a record store and think “That looks interesting” but that hardly happens anymore. Radio sucks. For me, it’s not going to be Pitchfork, I just don’t relate to most of what I find there. Now it’s often a matter of happy accidents or friends’ recommendations.
Sometimes it’s good to consult with the experts. Of course, I realize that I’m more than a little late to the party on this one, but hey, better late than never. Last week I was reading something on the Guardian’s website and I found, by accident, a year-old blog post by Creation Records founder Alan McGee where he compares British singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s 2010 album, I Speak Because I Can to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. Huh? That’s a rather strong statement to make, I’m sure most of you reading this will agree. Court and Spark? There are precious few albums I revere like Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece. It stayed in my car stereo for about a year and a half, once, I kid you not. And there’s also a comparison to Bob Dylan’s, Blood on the Tracks, probably THE classic break-up album. Again, it’s another record I’ve played so much it’s a part of my DNA. Laura Marling is supposed to be that good? Court and Spark good? Oh, please. Nothing is that good these days…
Still, when it’s coming from the fellow who signed My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain and Oasis, it’s probably worth investigating.
So I did. And holy shit was McGee’s assessment right on the money. Laura Marling is a fucking genius. Marling, born in 1990 and just 21-years-old, is almost a child, but she doesn’t sound like one. Where does her incredible depth come from? I don’t know, but I don’t care, sometimes it’s better if rare and special talent like hers remains a mystery, like Antony Hegarty’s or a young Kate Bush (another particularly apt comparison given both her age and absolutely prodigious talents). She’s got a powerful, exceptional and uncommonly beautiful voice, perfectly suited to her compositions. Here’s what Alan McGee wrote that sent me out to find the album:
I Speak Because I Can could have gone wrong. It could have been a bleakly pale and introverted take on lost love. Yet it runs much like Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks. Marling explores a broken relationship with blind rage and biting power, yet still manages to leave the listener with hope and salvation. In capturing a sense of love won and lost, and independence gained and fought for, Marling has scored an extraordinary songwriting achievement.
The album sees Marling developing a sound that is distinctly non-twee (listen to the Led Zeppelin-like title track or Devil’s Spoke). Her voice is deceptively huge – it gives the impression of unknowable, boundless territory without sounding loud or exerted. The sound can be unnerving and is not easily assimilated into a pop record. Marling is far from the Larkin-loving teen of her debut, Alas I Cannot Swim.
It’s pleasing to see a truly great British artist gaining popularity. I usually despise awards shows, but when Marling’s album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was nominated for the Mercury prize, I was glad that her genuine talent (in a sea of Lily Allen clones) was acknowledged.
It’s tempting to draw parallels between Marling and other figures of the alt-folk resurgence; Will Oldham, say, or Bon Iver. But if we’re honest, I Speak Because I Can plays more like a modern version of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. It has a classic feel. And Marling deserves comparison to the greats.
I Speak Because I Can sounds like an intimate conversation between performer and listener. When it’s finished, you’ll feel as though you’ve just come away from a deeply involving and curious encounter with a stranger. It’s an experience that will stay with you for a long time to come, and one that you’ll want to revisit frequently.
Fans of emotionally intense and “literary” performers like Neil Young, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and yes, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell will find much to like with Laura Marling. I’m only now, with each successive play of I Speak Because I Can, beginning to appreciate the jaw-dropping talent this young woman possesses. If she’s this good at 21, her promise as a maturing artist is practically off the scale. This is the kind of talent that comes along once or twice in a generation and I think she must be aware of it.
Laura Marling is someone I plan to follow throughout her career.
These are just stunning! Stunning! I certainly wouldn’t mind owning one of those fantastic Zappas. From the artist Lisa Brawn:
I have been experimenting with figurative woodcuts for almost twenty years since being introduced to the medium by printmakers at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Recently, I have been wrestling with a new challenge: five truckloads of salvaged century-old rough Douglas fir beams from the restoration of the Alberta Block in Calgary and from the dismantling of grain elevators. This wood is very interesting in its history and also in that it is oddly shaped. Unlike traditional woodcut material such as cherry or walnut, the material is ornery. There are holes and knots and gouges and rusty nails sticking out the sides.
To find suitably rustic and rugged subjects, I have been referencing popular culture personas and archetypes from 1920s silent film cowboys to 1970s tough guys. I have also been through the Glenbow Museum archives for horse rustlers, bootleggers, informants, and loiterers in turn-of-the-century RCMP mug shots for my Quién es más macho series. Cowgirl trick riders and cowboy yodelers in their spectacular ensembles from the 1940s led to my Honky-Tonkin, Honey, Baby series. Inspired by a recent trip to Coney Island, I have been exploring vintage circus culture and am currently working on a series of sideshow portraits including Zip the Pinhead and JoJo the Dog-faced Boy. There is also an ongoing series of iconic gender archetypes, antiheroes and divas, which includes such portraits as Sophia Loren, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Jackie Onassis, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood.
As someone who has spent many years acquiring rare Joni Mitchell bootlegs, I can tell you, there’s not a lot out there. I’m sure that many live recordings exist of Mitchell from all eras of her career, but not a lot of them have slipped out to traders (in comparison to Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead where there are hundreds and hundreds of live concerts floating around the Internet). When music business blogger Bob Lefsetz sent out a missive the other day about Entertainment Weekly having an exclusive on a 1970 Joni Mitchell duet with James Taylor streaming from their website, well, “click” I was there. The duet begins with Mitchell solo, performing Carey then segueing into Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. She playfully forgets the lyrics before calling on Sweet Baby James to help her out. It’s sheer delight.
This sublime moment—one of many—is taken from a new 2 CD set (with book) called Amchitka: the 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace and you can buy it directly from Greenpeace here (I don’t think it’s in stores or Amazon). The show took place on October 16, 1970 in Vancouver, British Columbia and was organized by lawyer/activist Irving Stowe, a man often called the father of Greenpeace. The goal of the evening was to raise enough money to buy a boat to transport activists to Amchitka, Alaska to protest the nuclear testing the US government was doing there at the time. It was to be the very first Greenpeace action
Intense folk singer Phil Ochs starts the set, after some passionate introductory words from Irving Stowe. He is followed by Taylor, who was just hitting the big time and is announced as a special surprise guest. Mitchell, then coming off her million selling third album, Ladies of the Canyon, but still nine months before her masterpiece Blue, was the bill’s topper. In 1970, Joni Mitchell was probably the biggest selling female artist in the world—surely she was the most important—and it has been said of her that she was the midwife to the birth of Greenpeace. 39 years later, both she and James Taylor (and the estate of Phil Ochs) are donating their royalties from sales of the CD directly to Greenpeace.
If you want to sample it first, the entire set is streaming from the Amchitka website—click on Music, then click on the link that says “Play List and Streaming”—but don’t be cheap, the 2 CD set, with 48 page booklet is only $21 from Greenpeace and you’ll be supporting a worthy cause. Makes a great Christmas gift because it gives twice!
I am a complete Joni Mitchell nut. I once went for nearly a solid year listening to nothing but Court and Spark
and Ladies of the Canyon
in the car. I’ve easily played those two albums, 500 times each. My life has been immeasurably enriched by her music. There is nothing better to listen to when you are really, really sad, but her more joyous tunes can have you dancing around the house singing along like a fool.
When the we’re all dead and gone and future musical historians write the history of the 20th century’s greatest music, I have no doubt whatsoever that Joni Mitchell’s artistic contribution to our culture will rank alongside those of Lennon and McCartney, Miles Davis, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.
And if you want to know how I really feel…
Here’s a stunning performance of a very young and very beautiful Joni Mitchell (then going by her maiden name of Joan Anderson) on the “Let’s Sing Out” TV show, hosted by the renowned Canadian folk singer Oscar Brand. Here Mitchell sings her own composition, “Urge for Going” which is better known as Tom Rush’s cover version.
I also found this clip. The audio is less than stellar, so turn it up, but what’s interesting about it, is that you can really see her hands playing the guitar. As a child Mitchell caught polio and it left some residual damage in her hands. So to get around this, she created custom tunings that allowed her to play exactly the sound that was in her head, and what her hands would have otherwise had trouble doing. It’s an extraordinary thing to see.
Dangerous Minds is a compendium of oddities, pop culture treasures, high weirdness, punk rock and politics drawn from the outer reaches of pop culture. Our editorial policy, such that it is, reflects the interests, whimsies and peculiarities of the individual writers. And sometimes it doesn't. Very often the idea is just "Here's what so and so said, take a look and see what you think."
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