MY MITCHELL MOMENTS - JULY 1, 2021
by Peter Grainger
In 1988, Joni Mitchell hadn’t visited Saskatoon in more than six years, making it the longest time away from her old hometown, ever. When pressed by Geffen Records to do a promotional tour for her then current release “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”, in
lieu of an actual concert tour, Mitchell agreed to meet with the media in cities across North America, providing a three-day break in Saskatoon could be arranged. And that’s how it was that I met Joni.
I lived and worked in Saskatoon—which I dubbed the ‘little jewel of the prairie’— in the early to mid-80s. I was employed first as a dee-jay and interviewer for FM-103—Canada’s last truly independent commercial rock station (where I happily played
mucho Mitchell music) and then as a reporter for both CBC Radio and TV News. I had long been a fan since hearing “Both Sides Now” on a Judy Collins record at our old family home in Ottawa twenty years before. Soon enough, I had heard Joni’s first
few albums. She had so many incredible songs. We heard she was befriended by David Crosby, Stephen Stills Graham Nash and Neil Young—and because we were already fans of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies— not to mention the soon-to-be-superstars
CSNY-- Joni just fit right in with me and my siblings from then on. Joni immortalized “Woodstock” for those of us who were too young to go— although it became the most talked-about cultural event of our generation then and for many years since. Then came “Blue”.
Now celebrating its 50th birthday, “Blue” has been remastered by Rhino Records and adorned with five extra tracks from the sessions. It is a precursor to a five-CD retrospective of rarities Rhino is releasing in the fall of 2021, called “Archives Vol. 2: The
Reprise Years (1968-1971). It is still considered by many to be Mitchell’s crowning glory (although personally I feel she perfected her song-craft even further five years later with “Hejira”). When it comes to intimate, confessional, singer-songwriting,
“Blue” beats the pants off of “Sweet Baby James”, “Late for the Sky” and “Harvest”.
My romance with Joni began with “Blue”; after all, these were all love songs, written in her “dark café days”. Several seemed joyous, most were sad. Her language was plain but powerfully poetic. She helped give me—and many other men-- a female perspective
on love. It was a real eye-opener. It was honest and direct. For every slap in the face, there was a blow below the belt. Followed by biffs on the back of the head for good measure. After hearing “Little Green” a hundred times, it was hard to escape the
thought that Joni may have given a child up for adoption (which later transpired was indeed the case), as she sang, “You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed… have a happy ending…”. There was her paean to Graham Nash in “My Old Man”, who was
“the warmest chord I ever heard”, even though it didn’t last. It would become an all-too-familiar refrain. And was there ever a more perfect song of regret than “River”? Mistakes and the odd cracking of voice were left for all to hear. Backing was minimal,
although crucial contributions by friends like Stephen Stills and James Taylor on guitars, drummer Russ Kunkel and Sneaky Pete Kleinow playing pedal steel, helped the songs along. For any of us who’d been hurt in love (and frankly who hasn’t), “Blue” was
a litmus test, a shared soundtrack shimmering with sympathetic vibrations.
Thereafter, I bought every Joni Mitchell album, including compilations, live albums, even a few bootlegs. I saw her and the L.A. Express in Montreal in late summer of ’74 (a few weeks before seeing CSNY at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium). I applauded her
musical growth with every new, eagerly-awaited album. I was excited by the ballooning list of stellar musicians working alongside her, including jazz players like Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and especially bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius.
There was a deepening sophistication on the records, culminating with such accomplishments as the stacks of seemingly atonal choral jabs on “Song For Sharon”, with its gently flanged guitars, the orchestral piano tone poem that is “Paprika Plains” and
all of “Mingus”, her tribute album to the late jazz great Charlie Mingus. By the time Joni returned to Saskatoon in ’88, the spotlight had faded somewhat; many of the songs on the early 80’s albums, “Wild Things Run Fast” and “Dog Eat Dog”, seemed
frivolous one moment, bitterly angry the next. Her new one, “Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm”, with duets with the likes of Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel and even Willie Nelson smacked of a certain desperate opportunism or possibly extreme
experimentation, which she referred to as “almost like a rock opera”.
Mitchell made it clear at the Saskatoon news conference in ’88 that taking out all the musicians on the road, needed to replicate “Chalk Mark”, could’ve bankrupted her, so a promo tour was the next best thing. She remarked to the dozen or so reporters,
pundits and even some students from her old high school gathering in the Bessborough ballroom that day, that, “I think people are ready to like me again.” She appeared happy and confident, admitting to the large media group before her, that “I’m more
confident with myself. I couldn’t have done this ten years ago. I would’ve been a basket case.”
I had arrived early with my camera operator du-jour, wanting to be front and centre. As she ambled into the room, I was the first to welcome her home, immediately securing eye contact. I asked the first question and many more besides. So many of
my media compatriots seemed star-struck or something, so I just kept asking Joni more questions. I wanted to know what it felt like to be home after being away for so long, “It’s a nostalgic experience as soon as you hit town. I have great memories
from here.” No wonder. Mitchell called the place home for most of her early life; she nearly died here too, after contracting polio in 1952, aged nine, in the same epidemic that afflicted Neil Young. “I was in Saskatoon from Grade 6 to the end of
High School. I spent my formative years here during the birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” She chatted about high school dances, sock hops, bowling championships, working in a dress shop, and her first modelling jobs at The Bay. She showed herself to be a good
sport, by posing for pictures with students from her alma mater, Aden Bowman Collegiate, even agreeing to wear a school beanie and wave a felt banner they had brought to her as gifts.
I had seen banners and a beanie just like these a few years before, hanging on the wall of Joni’s bedroom in her parent’s home in Saskatoon (which is depicted along with other homes Mitchell has lived in, on the LP cover of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”).
You may wonder how I came to be in Joni’s old home in the first place? My employer, CBC News Saskatoon, was putting together a series on the province’s pioneers over the past hundred years. Besides stories about real settlers, key politicians, sports
figures and medical innovators, I suggested artistic pioneers like sculptor Joe Fafard. And how could we ignore Joni Mitchell? My boss agreed. So it was that I found myself invited into the Mitchell home. Joni’s parents Bill and Myrtle Anderson, couldn’t
have been more different. Bill was unassuming, warm, welcoming, firing off one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks like a gunslinger; Myrtle was much more guarded, cautious, very careful in her delivery, the epitome of prim & proper. The rooms were covered
with Mitchell’s original paintings. I asked to see Joni’s old bedroom; it was while I was sitting on her bed, that I saw those school banners pinned on the wall, some of her sketches and even a few teen idol pics too, realizing it was little changed from
what it must’ve looked like in the 1950s. In the living room, I sat in front of the same piano Joni had. After the interviews, I was invited to shoot video of several large photo albums, so we could better tell the story of Joni’s upbringing and her
burgeoning interest in the arts. There was one photo that has stayed with me—of Joni— little more than a toddler—shot from behind as she reached up, barely able to touch the keys of that piano. Her folks remarked that in every tiny prairie town they had
lived in, Joni always spent time watching the trains, wondering where everyone was coming from and going to, vowing she would jump on-board someday too, just to find out.
The Andersons told me about their daughter’s prolonged love of anything and everything to do with art, dance, poetry and nature; they mentioned her first foray into public performance, at the Louis Riel Cafe on her first instrument—a ukulele; I
discovered later that this is where Joni first met Neil Young; hearing him play his early song “Sugar Mountain” prompted her to write her great-sing-a-long “The Circle Game”; this is also the venue where she was taught her first guitar chords from
an equally diverse musician, Shawn Phillips, who co-wrote “Season of the Witch” with Donovan, before heading off on a solo career of his own. (Mitchell has done very few cover tunes in her career; she used to play Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” often,
Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” comes to mind too, the odd doo-wop tune and “Twisted” by her beloved Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, but I think she could’ve done a dynamite version of “Season of the Witch”!)
While working on this pioneering profile for CBC, I met several of Joni’s old school chums, who told me tales of her shenanigans, how she flouted her school’s strict dress code against girls wearing slacks, by altering a pair of Bermuda shorts instead.
She would often make her own clothes based on her own designs; they also showed me photos of the singer with a teased bun hair-do, horn-rimmed glasses and long evening gloves. I even talked to her first serious boyfriend, who ended up as a prison guard
at the Prince Albert Penitentiary. Everyone talked about Joni always going her own way, never following the crowd, even if it caused her to be outcast. She befriended several aboriginals and Ukrainians, which was considered a strange thing for a WASP
to do. Some felt Joni was too talented for their tiny town, so she would often be remembered as arrogant. These characterizations would follow her in life.
Had she stayed in Saskatoon, I asked what she might have ended up doing? Still working in that dress shop? Or perhaps designing dresses? Or more? “I’d be painting. I don’t know about the music. Perhaps I would’ve discovered it here. I don’t know. It’s
hard to get started. Especially at that time… and in this country in particular. You almost have to go away to be appreciated I think, hahaha. That opens up a can of worms, doesn’t it?”
I asked Joni if she believed in the power of ‘culture of place’—how an artist’s environment can inform and shape their artistic expression. I told her I could hear the wide Canadian landscape in much of her music. She perked up at this, especially when I
suggested that the expansive sound of the “Hejira” album was aided by her complete reliance on treated electric guitar for the first time, helping the listener to feel the open space, the big skies of her beloved prairies. “I think there’s a lot of
space in my loping grooves. I can hear the prairie. It’s a walking pace. I hear it in Jamaican music too. It’s a country walk. It’s different from the music that jumps out of the streets of New York City, that’s for sure! I hear it in Neil’s music too.
We both have a lope in common that you can associate with the space, and the time to have that kind of gait. And definitely your love of nature. If you look around, even in this hotel room here—the pictures on the wall, they’re all prairie landscapes.
No abstractions. Everything makes natural references. You notice that as soon as you cross the border. Even in our most cosmopolitan areas, the painters make reference to nature. I think Canadians are still closer to nature than most urban Americans.”
Mitchell hinted that she had been hankering for home so much lately, that she had begun writing songs of her upbringing on Canada’s flatlands. Of course, the prairies had popped up before; in 1967 she copyrighted “Urge for Going”, one of her greatest
songs, about the yearning to escape the coming winter by flying south, just as the wild geese do. On 1973’s “For The Roses”, she wrote ”Let the Wind Carry Me” about wanting to bust out and be free, leaving ‘Saskabush’ behind in a trail of her dust. The
following year’s “Raised On Robbery” paints a colourful portrait of a drunken hooker, calling the shots from atop her barstool in Regina’s Empire Hotel (and it is no accident Joni asked The Band’s Robbie Robertson to add his slap-dash stabs of rock guitar
to the rollicking track; and even more of a hoot is the recent release of another version of the song on Neil Young’s “Archives II”, with Joni wailing away with him and the Santa Monica Flyers). Other prairie-inspired songs followed, like “In France,
They Kiss On Main Street”, “Paprika Plains”, many of songs written in the cross-country trek chronicled on “Hejira”, especially “Song For Sharon” and 1982’s “Chinese Café”, which has Saskatoon written all over it.
Mitchell admitted a Saskatchewan song-writing sabbatical beckoned, asking me afterwards if there were any decent recording studios in town. I told her about the place just outside of town, where the Northern Pikes had recorded their first independent
release. She imagined making a whole record inspired by the prairies, what she called her “W.O. Mitchell trip”, referring to the local novelist, Canada’s own Mark Twain, renowned for “Who Has Seen the Wind?” She agreed Saskatoon would never leave her,
even though she had left it, “Everything that you’ve ever felt, been, admired, figures in the music. You’re pulling your life behind you and pushing it out through the music. Some things go off later than others; some things go immediately into the work.
I always thought—if I had the luxury of time—I’d come back here and stay and do a whole album about the prairie.”
After the news conference ended, I sidled up to say hello and ask her to autograph a copy of the new album for me. She was happy to do so, adding, “Hey, thanks for keeping the ball rolling… these news conferences can sometimes be very awkward”. We spoke
for a few more minutes, while my camera op packed up his gear. Joni mentioned she was in town for a few days and wondered if there was any music happening in town that night and asked if I was free to join her. “Of course! Let me phone around and see if
I can find us something.” Her co-manager Gloria Boyce would join us—and I knew my CBC buddy Paul Hunter would love to come. She scribbled down a number and told me to call after 7:00. I was ecstatic. As soon as I finished filing my story for the 6:00pm
news, I made a table reservation at Saskatoon’s only blues club, Buds On Broadway.
Disappointment struck later, when I called Joni to confirm. “I can’t get away. My mother has invited over all my aunties, cousins and family friends. I am so sorry…” I figured it was too good to be true. At least I would have a good story to tell
about the night I was stood up by Joni Mitchell. Instead she suggested we meet the next day for coffee and perhaps a drive around town. She also wanted to hit the outskirts, so she could see the wide prairie again, smell the air, and stretch her legs.
This really was an innocent request. I knew Joni had re-married. And I was involved too. I said, “So many of your songs are about the spaces between people, about relationships. Are you any closer to knowing how a successful relationship works?” Her
response was quick and emphatic, “Oh yeah. I think, first, through experience, you have to figure out what doesn’t work. So a lot of my music for years and years, voiced the longing for what I was looking for. And then, the anatomy of the crime: what
went wrong? So eventually you’re gonna know something. Luckily I waited until my late 30s to marry for the second time. I really like my husband. We’re the best of friends. We work well together. We play well together.”
Joni was referring to husband Larry Klein, who also happened to be her record producer, music programmer, bassist and keyboardist. Mitchell had serious relationships with many of her musical partners, like first husband, folk singer Chuck Mitchell.
Leonard Cohen figures briefly but brightly. David Crosby usually gets the accolades for discovering Joni and introducing her to the world; the ex-Byrd produced her debut album, but was in and out of her bed very quickly. Next came Graham Nash, who stayed
a little longer; Nash immortalized their relationship in “Our House” (on which she duets on a version that has appeared on the 50th anniversary edition of CSNY’s “Déjà vu”). James Taylor followed, replaced in short order by Jackson Browne, then L.A. Express
drummer John Guerin and another of her percussionists, Don Alias and so on, until she finally ended up with Klein.
“It’s an art form to keep a relationship strong,” she continued, “You have to be reasonable and patient and be able to argue things out. Fight fair, so you can clean the slate, you know. So you’re not building up any unwanted business. I believe now
that it can be done. Because seven years into this relationship, there’s no unfinished business. Everything has cleared quite nicely. We were on the road for nine months—working together, sleeping together, travelling together. That’s a lot of time
spent together, that can make or break a relationship. You have to really like somebody to do that.”
“Good friends first”, I pondered. “Good friends first, yeah…” she smiled.
Mitchell and Klein remained good friends, but the marriage did not last. As she put it in her 1998 song “Stay In Touch”, partly about her and Klein, “Part of this is permanent, part of this is passing…” Her love for Saskatoon though, has pretty much
sustained itself, although back in 2013, she began recalling it for its racism and small-mindedness. Still her music is riddled with the place and the countryside around it still enriches her paintings. She told me, “I feel a pull back here. Picasso,
even though he lived in France, every time he went back to Spain and then returned to Paris, his work changed completely. Whatever it was, the stimulus of return opened up something in him, which created a whole new period. A brand new beginning. I’m
not saying I have this pattern, but I have this optimism, you know.”
Joni never did return to Saskatoon to make her prairie-concept record, but I’d like to think her visit home in 1988 did inspire her creatively. She has done a whole series of prairie paintings over the intervening years. As for songs, a few more about
home, hit home. “Cherokee Louise” is narrated by an anxious young teenage girl, most likely Joni herself, whose aboriginal friend is being molested by her foster father and have taken to hiding under the city’s Broadway Bridge. “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”
is set firmly in Saskatoon circa 1955. And you shiver listening to “Come in from the Cold”, because anyone who has spent a winter in Saskatchewan will tell you, “There’s cold and then there’s Saskatchewan in January.” And especially in the repressive
1950s, when Joni was a teenager.
The closest Joni came to making that prairie-concept record came in 2005, when she put out “Songs of a Prairie Girl”. Mitchell had been asked to put something together for Saskatoon’s centennial. So she selected a baker’s dozen of songs about growing
on the prairie and utilized a wintery black & white outtake from the original photo shoot for “Hejira” as the cover. She had pretty much quit music by this time, so compilations were coming fast & furious; although this back-catalogue collection was
saved somewhat by including an updated version of the 17-minute “Paprika Plains”. Even though it may come across as a cash-grab by some or little more than an i-Pod-like shuffle of old songs for others, for me, this CD resonates strongly. That’s because
I was fortunate to spent some precious moments with Joni Mitchell, discussing the place, in the place, that shaped her and her art.
July 1, 2021