You can tell a lot about Joni Mitchell’s humor and spunk from just the titles of her two recent “best of” albums on Reprise Records.
One is “Hits.” It contains 15 of her best-known songs--from the wistful “Both Sides Now,” which she wrote in 1967 when she was just 23, to the declarative “Help Me,” a cornerstone of 1974’s “Court and Spark,” the album that cemented Mitchell’s reputation as one of the most influential and acclaimed writers of the modern pop era.
The other collection is “Misses.” It’s a 14-song package that focuses chiefly on the post-"Court” material--from the social commentary of “Dog Eat Dog” to the ambitious narrative sweep of “Hejira"--that moved away from the accessible, folk-accented textures of the singer’s earlier work.
“I tend to be dismissive of my early songs in favor of championing my underdog children,” Mitchell says, explaining why she insisted that Reprise release “Misses” along with the “Hits” package. “I think the songs after ‘Court and Spark’ show a lot of growth and I worry that much of it is destined for obscurity.”
Mitchell, 53, hopes the “Misses” album and the attention she is receiving in what she calls her “season of honors” help rescue the post-"Court and Spark” material. In September, she was presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in Canada, and she’ll be honored Wednesday at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Songwriters. She’ll also be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on May 15 in Cleveland.
Despite the awards, Mitchell--rivaled perhaps only by Bob Dylan during the rock era in combining strong literary sensibilities with an uncompromising eye for life’s rituals and rites--wonders whether people understand her real musical vision, which has moved freely over the years to incorporate world music, jazz and classical textures. She’s well aware, for instance, that she made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her fourth year of eligibility.
“Well, it’s a boys’ club isn’t it?” she says of the Hall of Fame. “And it’s kind of a joke. . . . There are so many people in it. It’s like a hockey hall of fame where they
let in anyone who has ever scored a goal. But then, I never considered myself a rock artist or a folk artist. People just saw a girl with an acoustic guitar and said, ‘Folk singer.’ But to me, my roots were in classical music.”
The Canadian-born Mitchell, a Los Angeles resident for years, declines an invitation to pick out 10 favorites from her body of work, but she agreed to react to a list of 10 of my favorite Mitchell songs. On the eve of this week’s dinner, she also expressed some of her views about songwriting and tried to clear up what she feels are some misconceptions about her work. The songs are in chronological order.
CHELSEA MORNING (1967)
I wrote that in Philadelphia after some girls who worked in this club where I was playing . . . found all this colored slag glass in an alley. We collected a lot of it and built these glass mobiles with copper wire and coat hangers. I took mine back to New York and put them in my window on West 16th Street in the Chelsea District. The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There’s even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time . . .before I had a record deal. I think it’s a very sweet song, but I don’t think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue.
BOTH SIDES NOW (1967)
I was reading Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King” on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.
BIG YELLOW TAXI (1970)
I wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song. When it first came out, it was a regional hit in Hawaii because people there realized their paradise was being chewed up. It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places in the country. That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.
ALL I WANT (1971)
I like that song. It’s got more tooth than most of the other [early] songs. But I don’t know what to say about it. It’s funny how people keep looking between the lines of songs to see what is hidden there. Well, I’m not an evasive writer. You don’t have to dig under the words for the meaning. The meaning is all there. It’s very plain-speak. When someone asks what a song like “Sex Kills” is about, I want to say, “Well, did you listen to the words?”
FOR THE ROSES (1972)
That was my first farewell to show business. I was in Canada, where I have a sanctuary where I still go sometimes, and I had decided to quit show business and get away from all the pressures I felt. I put my thoughts into that song. . . : “Remember the days when you used to sit / And make up your tunes for love . . . / And now you’re seen / On giant screens /And at parties for the press / And for people who have slices of you / From the company.” To me, this was an unfair, crooked business and it has nothing to do with real talent. . . . I was up in Canada about a year and I guess it strengthened my nervous system a little, so I finally came back.
FREE MAN IN PARIS (1973)
I wrote that in Paris for David Geffen [the entertainment mogul and then-president of her record label], taking a lot of it from the things he said. . . . Another song about show business and the pressures. He didn’t like it at the time. He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light.
THE SAME SITUATION (1973)
I don’t want to name names or kiss and tell, but basically it is a portrait of a Hollywood bachelor and the parade of women through his life, . . . how he toys with yet another one. So many women have been in this position, . . . being vulnerable at a time when you need affection or are searching for love, and you fall into the company of a Don Juan.
That’s a good choice. To me, the whole “Hejira” album was really inspired. I feel a lot of people could have written “Chelsea Morning,” but I don’t think anyone else could have written the songs on “Hejira.” I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it. . . . The sweet loneliness of solitary travel. What happened was I had driven across the country with a couple of friends, starting in California when they showed up at my door. One was an old boyfriend from Australia who had a 20-day visa and wanted to go to Maine to kidnap his daughter from this grandmother. You could have made a whole movie about that trip. “Refugee of the Roads” grew out of that experience. On the way back, I went down the coast to Florida and then followed the Gulf of Mexico across the country, staying in old ‘50s motels and eating at health food stores. In this song, I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another, . . . sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.
TWO GREY ROOMS (1991)
I had that music back around the time of [1982’s] “Wild Things Run Fast,” but it took seven years to find the story to fit the music. It’s a story of obsession . . . about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby gray rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work. That’s a song that shows my songs aren’t all self-portraits.
NIGHT RIDE HOME (1992)
That’s a sweet song that was written in Hawaii when [record producer-musician Larry Klein] and I were driving along on the Fourth of July to this house we had rented. There was this big moon and the clouds moving across the island so quickly. Everything looked so magical, . . . even the white line on the highway. It was as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust all around. . . .
It’s interesting how people hear your sad songs and think you must be miserable or whatever. They don’t think William Shakespeare was miserable just because he wrote about tragedy. I see myself as a singing playwright and an actress and I try to make plays that are pertinent to our times. . . . I fully experience my anxiety and my grief, but that doesn’t mean don’t also have a lot of fun. . . . I like to think of myself, in fact, as a fun-loving person.
Hear Joni Mitchell
* To hear excerpts from the “Hits” and “Misses” albums, call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5720.
In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.