IT'S ALMOST ALWAYS a bad idea to meet your heroes. No matter what variety of fan you are -- there are two kinds: those who innocently hang posters on the wall and those for whom the idol's life and work has been permanently absorbed into the bloodstream -- meeting an object of devotion comes with a terrible risk. Having elevated them to a level where there's barely any oxygen left, they have no place to go but down.
So as tough a spot as I was in last week, Joni Mitchell was in a tougher one. When it comes to this legendary musician, I'm the kind of fan who bristles at the word "fan." Her music is less an accompaniment to my life than a sort of aesthetic nerve center. So when I found myself en route to dinner with her Tuesday, I did what any rational person would do: I set the bar very low.
In a stroke of extraordinary luck, this turned out to be unnecessary. Under a patio heat lamp at a quiet West Hollywood restaurant, Mitchell and I had a long and animated conversation about art, music, poetry, politics, insecurity, narcissism, boys, dogs, cats and other matters. Then we hugged.
This has made me very happy for the last five days. It also has made it nearly impossible to write this column, which was not supposed to be about my devotion to Joni Mitchell but about a new exhibit of her artwork in L.A. (It's called "Green Flag Song," and it's showing at the Lev Moross Gallery.)
She hadn't wanted to do any publicity, which is why, like many people, I only learned about the show when I noticed the banner hanging outside the gallery on La Brea Avenue. I assumed it would be paintings -- Mitchell has long been a painter and attended art school before she began her professional music career. But what I found when I walked into the gallery were 60 large photographic triptychs.
Moross, the gallery owner, explained the artwork to me: When Mitchell's television set broke a while ago, it began emitting images that looked like photographic negatives with a green tint. She took photos of the screen, which resulted in dark, jarring, semiabstract images that he enlarged and printed on canvas. He also said that they had many arguments in the process, but she always turned out to be right. Then he said he was having dinner with her soon and that I should come (note to self: never, ever complain about being a newspaper columnist again).
Poor Moross was rendered speechless throughout much of the meal as I asked Mitchell totally geeked-out questions about specific lines from "Mingus" (jazz, 1979, generally underappreciated by lesser fans.) Still, we managed to talk quite a bit about the artwork, which Mitchell characterized as "riding the cusp of photography, impressionism and expressionism."
She said she had had little interest in publicly showing her paintings but that the photographs were infused with political undertones that somehow felt urgent. Though the images, if you look close, range from shots from old movies to talk-show hosts to news coverage, the overall effect has the whiff of brutality.
"The theme of this show is 'war, revolution and torture,' " she told me. "I was in such despair about the world's current state of affairs that I didn't even know where to start. I was taking a lot of landscape photos near my home in Canada. Then I got back to L.A. and suddenly I had this magical TV set."
Mitchell talked a lot about the photos -- "my bedroom lamp is reflected in a lot of them" -- and about how she has ideas for more exhibitions. Though she "retired" from music several years ago, she's writing new songs. She said they were hard in coming, that it's easy to doubt yourself.
Anyone who's a fan of anyone can imagine the power of this kind of disclosure. As much as we fear our heroes will disappoint us, it can be even scarier when they don't.
When vulnerability bleeds out over the sharp edges of fame, when our heroes appear to like us even a fraction as much as we like them, we can find ourselves paralyzed by the delusion that we are no longer a fan, but a friend.
That's not at all what Mitchell thought I'd be writing about. But if there's anything I've learned from listening to her over the years, it's that if you don't write from a place of excruciating candor, you've written nothing. So as much as I hope people will go see her art show, I had no choice but to work from my notes. They're a fan's notes, and they're all true.