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Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Leading Lady

17 minute read

She don’t like my kick pleat skirt

She don’t like my eyelids painted green

She don’t like me staying up late

In my high-heeled shoes

Living for that Rock ‘n’ Roll dancing scene

When Myrtle Anderson’s daughter Joan lived at home in Saskatoon, Sask., she was a rebel. She danced the wicked twist ignored her math, spent Saturdays sketching Indians and communed only with her celluloid idol James Dean. But Mrs. Anderson’s girl turned out different from most of the teen-agers living for the rock-‘n’-roll scene. She learned to play the guitar and discovered that she had a fluent talent for words. Today, as Joni Mitchell, she is a creative force of unrivaled stature in the mercurial world of rock. Help Me, a single released this year, has already sold 800,000 copies. Sales of her first six albums total 4.6 million copies. The newest, Miles of Aisles, released last month, was a gold record before it arrived in the stores.

The new rock heroes of the ’70s have turned out to be glittery imitations of talent. Most sixties’ superstars survive in repackaged groups with discounted reputations. But Joni’s writing and singing continue to renew themselves. Her roots in rebellion have flourished as stubborn, invincible candor. “The most important thing is to write in your own blood,” she says. “I bare intimate feelings because people should know how other people feel.” Joni’s confidences, delivered in poetic portraits, produce in her huge and varied audience a spirit of communion that separates the poet from the diarist.

“Joni,” says Singer Linda Ronstadt, “is the first woman to match any man on his own terms as a songwriter, guitar player or as an incredibly magnetic human being.” Among other things, Joni is a focal point for elegance in a profession of rumpled informality A Persian carpet and a vase of red roses are de rigueur stage decorations for concerts. Most rock-concert performers, bored with singing their ultimate paean for the umpteenth time, wait for their own turns on the program in backstage trailers. But when Joni goes onstage, so do the other entertainers. Standing between speakers and behind amps, they become almost as enthusiastic as the ones who paid to get in.

Booted and largely bespectacled throngs of long-haired teenagers dressed in the neuter hues of khaki and denim, waltz in the aisles passing fruit and sunflower seeds. Joni’s arrival turns the camp town meeting into a sing-along chautauqua. After the concert, the fans mass around the main stage exit to wait for Joni, and when she appears they voice timid hellos, give her bouquets or simply smile.

Everyone seems to know Joni. She is the rural neophyte waiting in a subway, a free spirit drinking Greek wine in the moonlight, an organic Earth Mother dispensing fresh bread and herb tea, and the reticent feminist who by trial and error has charted the male as well as the female ego.

Youth’s silent rebellion in Let the Wind Carry Me, the juxtaposition of innocence and experience in Both Sides Now, and the suburban frustrations of The Arrangement are messages from a modern Isadora whose life is a litmus for the innocent and imaginative. “Joni exorcises her demons by writing those songs,” says Guitarist Stephen Stills, “and in so doing she reaches way down and grabs the essence of something very private and personal to women.”

He is right, but Joni is no hearthside poet for women only.

Isolation, responsibility and success are recurring subjects in her songs, many of which inductively focus on a part of society. Big Yellow Taxi’s Malthusian look at the environment and Free Man in Paris’ harried-executive portrait lead to larger conclusions about basic motives and drives.

Joni Mitchell’s own strongest creative impulses come to her in a somewhat unusual way. She deeply believes in a male muse named Art, who lends her his key to what she airily calls “the shrine of creativity.” Her relationship with him is easily the most serious and enduring thing in her life. “I feel like I’m married to this guy named Art,” she whispers. “I’m responsible to my Art above all else.” Art rules, and when he calls, Joni will abruptly leave parties or excuse lovers.

Sometimes she retreats to a sparse stone house north of Vancouver to paint, write and roam naked on the surrounding 40 acres with Art. It is not a relationship an earthling can easily crash, and Joni concedes that she will probably never marry. “My family consists of pieces of work that go out in the world,” she smiles. “Instead of hanging around for 19 years they leave the nest early.”

Joni’s own childhood began in the rolling Alberta foothills at the edge of the Canadian prairie. It was a land of mirages hrough which she often moved with her parents—a former schoolteacher and an R.C.A.F. officer turned grocery-store manager. By the time they finally settled in Saskatoon, the rugged beauty of Saskatchewan had given Joan Anderson the inspiration to become an artist. With money earned as a waitress at a coffeehouse named after Folk Hero Louis Kiel, Joan bought pens and ink. She also taught herself the baritone ukulele. But her attentions soon turned to rock ‘n’ roll.

A toddler’s leash had restrained her childhood exuberance, but Myrtle Anderson did not know how to stop Joan’s postcurfew carousing or curb her iron spirit. Says Joni: “It was then and still is a constant war to liberate myself from values not applicable to the period in which I live.” At 19, after a brief try at art school in Calgary, Joan decided to become a professional musician. Too poor to join the musicians’ union, she floated around Toronto until one night she met Chuck Mitchell, a cabaret performer from Detroit who was appearing at the Penny Farthing. She was a prairie-fresh girl who sang a strong yet ethereal soprano and stitched up her own pantsuits. He was a music professional seven years her senior. One month later they married.

They moved into an apartment near Detroit’s Wayne State University campus. During the day Joni read Bertolt Brecht and Saul Bellow. At night, after completing their cabaret act, the Mitchells were hosts for boisterous all-night poker games often attended by Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But after one year the marriage began to crumble. Joni demanded more independence from her husband, who accuses her of deliberate scene stealing.

Six months later, Joni left Chuck. “She always had a strong visceral sense of what to do,” Mitchell remembers. “She knew she was beginning to happen and needed out.”

In I Had a King, a song written soon after her separation, Joni describes the frustration that led her to divorce: lean’tgo back there any more You know my keys won ‘tfit the door You know my thoughts don’t fit the man They never can they never can “She was into her Magic Princess trip,” Mitchell explains.

“Her first hits were for people who were frustrated, unhappy and also living in a fantasy world.”

Fantasy did play an important role during Joni’s first months in New York City. She covered one bedroom wall in tin foil, festooned the doorjambs with crepe paper. She toyed with writing a children’s book about mythical kingdoms and later celebrated her new freedom in Chelsea Morning: … the sun poured in like butterscotch and

Stuck to all my senses

Oh, won’t you stay

We ‘II put on the day

And we ‘II talk in present tenses

Joni’s tune in New York is captured in her first album, Song to a Seagull. It features a complete cast: rude cabby, disillusioned divorcee, lonely transient and demanding lover—all of whom rise above stereotype to complement the leather-and-lace personality of 24-year-old Joni Mitchell. In Cactus Tree, a song Joni describes as a “grocery list of men I’ve liked, or loved, or left behind,” she weighs her freedom against the merit of several suitors before dismissing them all.

Now she rallies her defences For she fears that one will ask her For eternity And she’s so busy being free

To discover more about herself, she began wandering round at night, talking to Automat eccentrics and street-corner sages. She still does it. “In a pure anonymous encounter you find a world alive and full of character,” says Joni.

Not all of the people she encountered remained anonymous.

During one period of $15-a-night performances at Manhattan’s Café Au Go Go, she met David Geffen and Elliott Roberts, two show biz agents, who with unemployed Guitarist David Crosby later became her record-company president, personal manager and music tutor. “She was a jumble of creative clutter with a guitar case full of napkins, road maps and scraps of paper all covered with lyrics,” recalls Roberts. Friendships with performers quickly multiplied. Soon Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Boston Singer-Guitarist Tom Rush were recording songs written by Joni. With Crosby she worked on the intricate system of guitar tunings that now makes her music difficult to duplicate.

Joni’s first experiment with different tunings came when she encountered the F chord, a nemesis of guitar novices. It is normally made by placing the index finger across all six strings while three other fingers spastically contort to positions lower on the neck of the guitar. Joni discovered that by retuning five of the six strings several half steps, she could strum an open F chord that had a deeper, richer sound. New, unique chords were possible, and because they could be formed simply by moving one finger between different frets, intricate eight-note-to-the-bar finger picking seemed easy. Only two of her 45 recorded guitar songs are played in standard concert tuning, and some songs, like I Don’t Know Where I Stand and The Dawntreader, are impossible to play on a normally tuned guitar.

With the decline of the heavy metal San Francisco sound, the creative center of rock shifted to Los Angeles. By 1968 Joni had moved west, settling into a funky Laurel Canyon cottage. It was a time of unrest on campuses and growing resistance to Viet Nam. Musically, the canyon was an exciting place to be. Los Angeles bands like the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield played a softer music crafted for the ear instead of the viscera. A new generation was “getting it together,” and Joni Mitchell wrote its anthem, Woodstock:

Well maybe it is just the time of year

Or maybe it’s the time of man

I don’t know who lam

But life is for learning

We are Stardust

We are golden

And we ‘ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

Woodstock made Joni a celebrity. Her discerning intelligence had special appeal for men bored by the dull polarity of beach bunnies and hard-line feminists. A record industry Who’s Who, including James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby and Jackson Browne, came calling, and most fell hopelessly in love. “When you fall for Joan, you fall all the way,” says Graham Nash, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “She means a lot to a great number of people.”

As in the past, Joni’s experiences produced sensitive songs.

Willy recounts her close relationship with Graham Nash. Free Man in Paris describes the frenetic “starmaker machinery” she and Elektra-Asylum Chairman David Geffen escaped during a European vacation.

Her songs measured the despair of a woman torn between traditional domesticity and unfettered feminism. In Woman of Heart and Mind she wrote:

I’m looking for affection and respect A little passion And you want stimulation—nothing more That’s what I think But you know I’ll try to be there for you When your spirits start to sink But rock-‘n’-roll publications seldom discussed the substance of her songs. Record reviews often became forays into her private life. At first the publicity had little effect on Joni’s writing. She said, “If I express a truthful emotion that is pure and honest, then I consider the poem a success.” But when Rolling Stone published a chart of the rock scene showing her suspected lovers, the spotlight became too bright. Joni fled temporarily to Europe. Even now she calls herself a “media dropout” who seldom reads newspapers and never looks at television.

Pop music has never been an easy profession for women. Recognition and glamour are common enough, but women looking for artistic control and financial leverage are usually thwarted. The Crystals and the Ronettes were high on the pop charts in the early ’60s, but Phil Spector, multifaceted rock tycoon, wrote the lyrics, produced the records and pocketed most of the profits. In the ’60s the men who sold pop music saw women as petulant screamers (Lesley Gore) or filigreed folkies (Judy Collins). Occasionally, women defied the image makers. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick escaped briefly from San Francisco psychedelia. But separated from their back-up bands, neither prospered for very long. Joplin turned to drugs, and Slick lost her creative flair.

Women had musical ability but seldom on the right instruments; parents liked girls to play the piano, not phallic bass guitars. Rock was blues electrified, rough music from back of the barn. English groups who adopted the sound in the late ’60s did little to improve the image with guitar smashing and satanic prancing. When 16-year-old Singer Maria Muldaur proudly brought home her first recording contract, her mother immediately tore it up. Says Maria: “She was afraid it would lead me into white slavery.”

The record business is still controlled by men, but companies are giving women lucrative recording contracts with complete artistic control to produce albums with a distinctly feminine flavor. Songwriters like Carole King and Carly Simon deal with sexual fantasies, spiritual restlessness and conflict between home and outside work.

An entire generation of female rock performers has matured over the past two years. Maria Muldaur, 32, performed in several jug bands before splitting from her husband last year to start a separate career. She now swaggers through a repertory of Dixie soul and gospel like a raunchy roadhouse vamp, while her nine-year-old daughter watches from the wings. Bonnie Raitt, 25, a honey brunette equally at ease with Ionesco’s plays or Muddy Waters’ music, plays tough-mama blues, slapping her guitar strings with an old bottleneck or steel slide to produce a gutsy low-down sound. Isolating herself from rock’s opulence, she cultivates the friendship of elderly black bluesmen and devotes a large proportion of her profits to activist politics. She explains, “I deliberately don’t spend money on cars or land.”

most rock women lead relatively modest lives. Wendy Waldman, 24, who began her career singing Proud Mary in a nude bowling alley, lives in a stone cottage in Los Angeles’ rural Topanga Canyon. The songs she writes deal mostly with wandering and the road, probably because her house is so small that there is barely room for her piano, dulcimer and guitar.

The L.A. canyon where Dory Previn lives is somewhat less rustic, but the sexual gambits and Peyton Place plays enacted in the neighborhood serve as a source for lyrics that have won her a strong cult following. The lyrics produced by Minnie Riperton, 26, are a bit less worldly. Her songs about personal motivation, spiced with a soupçon of I’m O.K.-You’re O.K. philosophy, are deliciously upbeat. Few miss the message, since several years of operatic vocal training have given her a five-octave range.

When Country Rocker Linda Ronstadt, 28, steps before her chicken-fried crowds wearing shorty cutoffs and loose blouse, the love she describes is less ethereal. With their eyes riveted on her erogenous promontories, her fans usually miss the fact that her songs of passion are leavened with feminine pride and anxiety. Women’s music sells. Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel album sold over 150,000 units for Capitol Records in its first month of release. Muldaur’s first solo album on Reprise sold 750,000 copies.

Hot Cakes, Carly Simon’s fourth Elektra album, has sold nearly 1 million units. Carole King’s recently released Wrap Around Joy sold over 1 million copies in 14 weeks.

Caught in the wink of a photographer’s lens, they stand to gether smiling, rock-‘n’-roll women in sequined chiffon and funky jeans. But they pay dearly for success. The rock business is a road business. Once the euphoria of the first room-service sir loin evaporates, they inherit a numbing chronology of concrete tunnels, cold buffets and limousine-driving dopers.

It is a life where one is seldom alone but usually lonely. There are plenty of men, but they are mostly grinning sycophants or lecherous disc jockeys. Yet it is almost impossible to retire; the thrill of recognition quickly becomes an opiate. “I wish I had an alter ego to hide in,” says Bonnie Raitt. “This isn’t the easiest way to spend one’s 20s.” Rock women seldom have successful marriages. The exceptions are Carole King, 33, and Carly Simon, 31, who have normal lives simply because they do not tour, and avoid the whole rock world. Known as Mrs. Charles Larkey to her Trousdale Estate neighbors in Los Angeles, Carole King drives her children to school in a pickup and scrupulously shuns all contact with the press and the record industry. When Carly Simon leaves her New York City home and goes on tour, it is to visit her husband James Taylor and maybe join in singing one song.

As a substitute for family stability, rock’s other women band together for mutual support. They share warnings about lechers along the concert circuit. They also share back-up musicians and songs. Drummer Jim Keltner works for Muldaur, Waldman and Raitt. Raitt and Ronstadt compete for Songwriter Eric Kaz’s tunes. It is a perfect situation for a catfight, but few take place. Says Ronstadt: “Jealousy cripples you faster than anything.” But Muldaur adds, “Don’t think I don’t check out the pipes of every new chick singer.”

Checked and approved by both her fans and rock peers, Joni Mitchell is fairly content. A close family relationship brings twice yearly visits back to Saskatoon. Since no concerts are scheduled for the present, she has plenty of time to finish decorating the 16-room Bel Air hacienda into which she settled last month with her current companion John Guerin, 35, a drummer for

Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. Usually they stay home and play cribbage.

For Joni, life is very civilized —and perhaps a bit boring. “If I were to write the words I’m feeling now, it would probably read something like ‘Zsa Zsa’s got her jewels/ Minnie’s got her chicken to go/ I’ve got my corporations/ I’m a capitalistic so and so.’ ” She refers to two music corporations she owns and some real estate interests.

The young girl with the grocery list of lovers and the rock star torn ‘twixt licentiousness and reflection sometimes join the new landowner to worry about the isolation that comes from first-class travel and hilltop mansions.

Even though that worry is a cliche, she has managed to express it freshly:

“Just like Jericho, “I said “Let these walls come tumbling down,” I said it like I finally found the way To keep the good feelings alive I said it like it was something To strive for.

Striving is easy for Joni Mitchell. Two collections of her sketches and poems are to be published next year. In the past month she has produced a song, two poems and several varied, expressionistic paintings. Because he was creative his entire life, Picasso is her idol now, and if his influence is as strong as James Dean’s, Joni Mitchell will continue to be rock ‘n’ roll’s woman of heart—and mind.

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