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Joni's Journey


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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Joni's journey

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

The Romanesque, stone building still looms over Ferry Street near Detroit's Cultural Center, its zaftig curves and carved friezes a reminder of a long-ago age when wealthy Detroiters chose to live in luxury urban apartments.

This atmospheric pile is the Verona apartments, the "tenement castle" that Joni Mitchell sang of in "I Had a King." Here she lived in a five-room, fifth-floor apartment in 1965-67 with her first husband, the folksinger Chuck Mitchell.

Joni Anderson from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, met Chuck Mitchell from Rochester, Mich., in 1965 at a Toronto folk club, the Penny Farthing. A romance sparked and they married in 1965 on the front lawn of his parents' house just off Tienken Road in Rochester.

That Chuck brought her to the U.S. (he "carried me off to his country for marriage too soon," she sang) was vital because it gave Joni a green card and the launching pad to settle in California and forge her career as one of the defining voices of the West Coast folk-rock scene of the '70s.

A new book by journalist Sheila Weller, "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation" (Atria Books, $27.95), weaves Joni's story in alternating chapters with that of the two other singers.

"I thought the way to tell the story of a generation was through these women," Weller says. "Music was everything then, there was no competition between music and any other medium. I thought about their songs, and also their lives -- I think many of us did. It was like, 'Oh boy, Joni really had a relationship with James Taylor!' Young girls were really envious of her."

Crammed in between all the detail about their clothing, hairstyles and boyfriends, Weller makes some serious points. Her most potent one is that, unlike many of rock's male auteurs, the three women actually lived what they wrote about.

While the well-fed, middle-class Bob Dylan holed up in the New York Public Library reading old Civil War newspapers for inspiration, Joni Anderson was penniless and pregnant, living in a dismal flat in Toronto and occasionally playing a club date. A neighbor in her Toronto building, worried about her skimpy diet of pizza and cigarettes, made the isolated pregnant girl accept a bag of apples "for the baby."

After she moved west from her native New York, Carole King married several rugged (to the point of criminal) Westerners, lived in a remote cabin and canned food for the winter, compared to, as Weller writes, "the Hollywood Hills-dwelling Eagles' photo shoots amid parched coyote skulls."

"Girls Like Us" painstakingly documents the Byzantine twists and turns of each woman's romantic life (and the link to all three is the shaggy '60s heartthrob James Taylor, who got around). It brings to mind the pull-out charts once published by Rolling Stone mapping out the convoluted love connections between musicians, Joni's being particularly complicated.

Several recent books and movies have romanticized Joni's "Ladies of the Canyon" period, but Weller's book shows how the two years she spent living, performing and writing songs in a musically vibrant, mid-'60s Detroit helped shape her in the years of fame ahead.

Haunted by 'Little Green'

One issue that haunted Joni in her years in Detroit was what to do about the baby girl she gave birth to in 1965 in Toronto. She'd become pregnant by an artist boyfriend who then took off, leaving her alone in a one-room Toronto flat. Joni didn't tell her parents about it for years, but her song "Little Green" on the 1971 album "Blue" was an ode to that lost child, who was taken into foster care and then, given up by the singer for adoption.

(Mitchell's daughter Kilauren Gibb found her several years ago, and mother and daughter have forged a somewhat fraught relationship.)

During the early part of her marriage to Chuck, he says she was "maundering" back and forth about whether to claim her baby from foster care or give her up for adoption. But on the surface the couple -- Chuck handsome and clean-cut, Joni willowy and long-haired -- were celebrated by the local press as a happy, artsy couple around town.

The Detroit News profiled the two in 1966, running photographs of the duo in their "tenement castle," decorated with Indian-print curtains and ethnic cushions from Hudson's, a "green-hued fantasyland" straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien.

As Chuck and Joni Mitchell they played often at the Chess Mate folk club on Livernois Avenue at McNichols Road, although Chuck also played solo at the Alcove in Detroit, and Joni had her own solo gigs in distant cities, preshadowing their eventual split.

Traveling musicians, including Gordon Lightfoot, Jesse Colin Young, Tom Rush, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Buffy Sainte-Marie, were among those who used the Mitchells' spacious Detroit apartment as their local crash pad.

Chuck remembers hiring two Motown sidemen to come write lead sheets (with the song's chords, symbols and lyrics mapped out) for some of Joni's songs, although he doesn't recall their names.

"They clambered up the five flights of stairs, and I remember them sitting in the kitchen with Joni going over her songs," Chuck says. "She'd play a chord in one of her (unusual) open guitar tunings, and they'd say, 'What's that again?' "

But after the men watched her hands on the guitar and understood what she was doing musically, according to her ex-husband, the Motown musicians were impressed, and wrote out big, bulky lead sheets for her. Some of Joni's most iconic songs were composed during her time in Detroit, including "The Circle Game" and "Both Sides, Now."

Ironically, Joni has been known for years as ferociously independent, but was described by The Detroit News reporter in 1966 as a "dutiful wife" to her more famous husband. She described how she got into music in Saskatchewan: "I got interested in a ukulele, and from there I turned to the guitar and folk singing. Thirty-six hours after I met Chuck, he asked me to marry him. But we waited two months."

Bohemians on Ferry Street

For her book, Weller tracked down Chuck Mitchell. He's now living in Keokuk, Iowa, and restores historic houses along the Mississippi while offering his music for sale online (mitchell song.com). After years of hearing Joni sing of their time together, and describing him in interviews as the possessive, angry husband who didn't want to raise another man's child, Chuck gets to air his side in Weller's book -- or to an inquiring journalist. In conversation the former Detroiter is alternately amused, irreverent (referring humorously to his ex-wife as Queen Joan), and wistful, but hardly bitter.

"The two of us are in possession of narratives that cross radically in those early years," Chuck said, speaking by phone earlier this week. "The big issue for her seems to be controlling her narrative, which she does extremely adeptly. The issue that seems to keep coming up, is, who is actually to blame for putting the child up for adoption. That was pretty much a fait accompliby the time I arrived. When she would ask me what she should do, I said very calculatedly that it was her choice."

That way, he figured, he couldn't be blamed.

The Mitchells lived a somewhat bohemian life in their hippie-luxe Ferry Street pad, although it seems innocent enough in retrospect.

"We were heavy smokers," Chuck says. "We would smoke and play poker all night, then we'd wake up at noon. We lived that life. Neither one of us was ever seriously into drugs, though. I remember getting stoned and trying to write songs and my God, what garbage poured out. (Good songwriting) comes by working hard, you get connected with something larger than yourself. That happened to me with the song 'Dreams and Stories.' If there ever was a song that expressed how I felt then and still feel, that's it. I have no idea where that song came from."

Author Weller traveled to Iowa to talk to Chuck and listen to his reel-to-reel tapes documenting his club appearances with Joni, complete with her nervous between-songs patter.

"His attitude is a little sarcastic as you can see in the book," Weller says. Chuck describes his relationship with his wife as fun, with a constant flow of banter.

"He would jokingly compare Joni's looks (without makeup) to a rhesus monkey," Weller says with a laugh. "He's jaunty and charming, a great guy. He talks about her being a girl from Canada, not very sophisticated, when he met her. He's more of a tell-it-like-it-is person than someone who had this enormous reverence for her."

Weller had the sense that Joni's story of the surrender of her baby, told repeatedly, wasn't the whole story. So whose account of the situation did Weller believe, Joni's or Chuck's?

"I kind of straddled it," Weller says. "You can't fault someone who says 'I did a very clever thing, I told her it was her choice.' Of course, women reading that will say, 'Damn him, my boyfriend did the same thing to me.' But if you look back, her parents' sense of propriety, how utterly shocked they would be if she'd had a baby out of wedlock, having to tell their neighbors. That was probably the bottom line, it just wasn't the time for her to have a baby."

Still: "She probably didn't forgive Chuck for saying, 'It's your choice,' instead of, 'I think you'd feel better if you went back and got the baby,' " Weller adds.

Interestingly, the singer's ambivalence about a woman's role in the home played out in her later relationships with men. She felt that Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) would have preferred a more domestic, wifely partner, although a baffled Nash tells Weller, "There was no way I was going to ask Joni Mitchell to stop writing and just be a wife!"

A 'classic Irish marriage'

As for her first marriage, with songs like "The Circle Game" and "Urge for Going" increasing in popularity with other singers, Joni was primed for flight. Her solo gigs at clubs like the Second Fret in Philadelphia were going so well that she resolved to no longer be the deferential half of Chuck and Joni Mitchell anymore.

There was an affair, documented in her song "Michael from Mountains," which prompted one last fight with Chuck, of which he says: "She brained me with a candlestick." After an abrupt departure from Chuck and the marriage, Joni returned to Detroit while he was out of town and had a male friend help her move half of their antiques down the five flights of stairs from the apartment and into a van.

Interestingly, one enduring legacy of his time on Ferry Street -- Chuck lived there from 1962-68 -- and their loving restoration of the 1890s apartment, including a painstaking stripping and staining of the wood paneling, Chuck found himself on the path to his current vocation of saving vintage houses.

He'd like to perform more often, when he's able to buy a fuel-efficient vehicle large enough to haul his musical equipment. As a "Detroit boy raised with Walter Reuther" he sighs over what he sees as Detroit's delay in producing such a vehicle.

As for Joni, Chuck hasn't seen his ex-wife in 30 years, although he's occasionally put a feeler out and says he would "dearly love" to have a reunion with her.

He worries that with her heavy smoking, time might be running out.

"She's going to be checking out," he says, with a sigh. "It would be fun to have a rapprochement. She was always good for a laugh. It was the classic Irish marriage, although neither of us was Irish -- we yelled and screamed and shouted, then we made jokes and we were in stitches. If we ever got back together and sang 'The Circle Game' together, it'd be kind of nice."

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com.

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Thanks for posting that article, Bong-Man. It was interesting to read. I am a huge admirer of Joni and her music. Many of her songs used to strike me as so bleak and so sad - I could only take those songs in small doses. Until I read this article, I didn't know that her early life had been like that but I can see now where some of the darkness in certain songs may have come from.

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  • 2 years later...

It doesn't really matter to me which thread is used. I would just like to see if there are any other fans of Joni like myself. For those that won't see the blacked out post I started, here's what I thought would be two good jumping off points for discussion of her different but wonderful styles she progressed through musically.

Here's the video with probably her most famous composition. Early Joni:


Here's a video below from her later seventies period, deeper vocals, more jazzy flavored:

***Those Joni newbies, hang in the below video until the 2:12 mark when Jaco Pastorius comes in and the song really opens wide**.

Only 3 players on "Cotton Avenue", Joni-guitar and vocals, Jaco-bass, and John Guerin-drums.


So.....danelectro59 and BIGDAN what do you think? Early, Later, or Everything Joni (my choice!)............:) missy

Edited by missytootsweet
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I'm a huge Joni fan and think it's very cool that she, along with CSN & Y were such a big influence on Zep back in the day. I've always wanted to see her live but due to stage fright apparently she doesn't like to tour. I would have loved to have seen one of the dates she did with Van Morrison and Dylan back in '98 but the tour never came here. Speaking of Bob & Joni, has anyone ever heard about this?

Is Bob Dylan a 'Fake?' Joni Mitchell Sure Thinks So

By Michael Lopez


Bob Dylan's fake? Them's fightin' words, Joni Mitchell

​In an interview with the LA Times, noted folk singer Joni Mitchell called out Bob Dylan, telling the interviewer she thought the celebrated musician was "not authentic at all."

The two folk artists are no strangers, having spent plenty of time on the road together, playing shows throughout the 70s as the Rolling Thunder Revue and again in 1998 when she co-headlined a tour with Van Morrison and Dylan. While it's unclear whether Mitchell has spoken to Dylan in those 12 years since they last played together, it's pretty evident that she's some unfinished business with him.

To read the remainder of the article, click here.

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Maybe something happened in the year 1998? You may have seen this video, but here she seems to be making gentle fun of Dylan's voice/lyrics??

Is that a fair assessment? Definitely not my fave song, but I like this version because she does a little ad-lib Bob Dylan.

She is 55 years old in this video clip from 1998. Joni still looks and sounds fabulous, can we agree on that?............ :) missy


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She is 55 years old in this video clip from 1998. Joni still looks and sounds fabulous, can we agree on that?............ :) missy

Yes, she does. As for any sort of disagreement with you, I can't say I recall having one.

Edited by Jahfin
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One of the things I believe gets overlooked about Joni is how prolific she is as a song lyricist.

She has written thus far over 255 songs over the course of her career. Many have been covered, but here she does a sort of "pre-cover" of this Neil Young classic* song in 1967.

It's quite charming at the begininning where she muses "I wonder if this will ever be recorded"? Also, I found her comment "I never tune in standard" interesting.

If nothing else, this is worth watching for the slide show. It's easy to see why JP and RP would admire her so. :) IMO of course....missy,


*From songfacts...."Young wrote this in 1964 on his 19th birthday, just after leaving his band The Squires. The song is about losing the idealism of youth."

That's all from me. Any other Joni fans out there in the Zeppelin universe? ....missy

Edited by missytootsweet
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"Sensibles" don't have disagreements, they just cause them dry.gif

PS yes you can see why Zep loved hr :)

leddy, two words,--selective memory. :)

On Topic. This is the BEST Joni line-up. This is from her Shadows and Light dvd.

The musicians are Pat Metheney-guitar, Michael Brecker-sax, Jaco Pastorius-bass , Lyle Mays-Keys and Don Alias on Drums.

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well, i'm sure glad we got this cleared up as I was beginning to lose sleep over it. :rolleyes:

The thing I like about Joni Mitchell is that she is pne of the first female artists that didn't use her sexuality to sell her music. At least that's my opinion. It doesn't mean that she's not attractive, but she's pretty plain jane compared to others. Secondly, her speech at the Isle of Wight, condemning the behavior of the crowd, is timeless. "You're acting like a bunch of tourists, man!"

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  • 5 weeks later...

If no one minds, I'd like to periodically post current news and fun facts about Joni Mitchell on this thread. I'm not sure how many fans there are of sweet joni on a Led Zeppelin site, but we all know the boys in the band thought highly of her. :) So...there's our connection, right?......missy

Today from her official website I discovered some good news for those audiophiles out there. Her back catalog is being remastered in mini-LP sleeves, SHM-CD on April 6th, 2011. I know that means it will sound good.

If anyone wants to explain to me how much better and why this is something I might want to spend $$$$ for, please let me know. Thanks! missy

To celebrate why don't we give a listen to this off her live set? I hope this is included in the SHM-CD set coming out!

Jericho (partial lyrics)

I'll try to keep myself open up to you

And approve your self expression

I need that too

I need your confidence baby

And the gift of your extra time

In turn I'll give you mine

Sweet darling it's a rich exchange

It seems to me

It's a warm arrangement

Anyone will tell you

Just how hard it is to make and keep a friend

Maybe they'll short sell you

Or maybe it's you

Judas in the end

When you just can no longer pretend

That you're getting what you need

Or you're giving out anything for them to grow and feed on**

**Lyrics: Joni Mitchell

Copyright 1974 Crazy Crow Music

Edited by missytootsweet
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I'm not sure how many fans there are of sweet joni on a Led Zeppelin site, but we all know the boys in the band thought highly of her. :) So...there's our connection, right?......missy

You can post about any artist you want to here, there doesn't need to be a connection to Zeppelin. And please, don't interpret my advice as a sign that I don't like you. I'm just letting you know you don't have to apologize for posting about Joni Mitchell.

Back on topic, this was like a knife in the heart from Counting Crows. Loved all of their stuff up this point but this cover is up there with Sheryl Crow's versions of "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "D'yer Mak'er" as among the most horrendous of all time:

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Here is a fun fact about sweet joni taken from her official website.

Did you know there have been 47 songs written about Joni Mitchell by other artists? Wow, pretty impressive! :)

Now I can post another song to remind people why. One of my all time favorites.........

I posted both the studio and live versions. I prefer the studio one, but there is something special about seeing her sing this with only her guitar on that stage (@55 years old I might add)! Anyhow, not an official poll, but I'm interested in which people like better.............missy.

Live: Just Like This Train

Studio: Just Like This Train


Just Like This Train

I'm always running behind the time

Just like this train

Shaking into town

With the brakes complaining

I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don't count on nothing

I just let things slide

The station master's shuffling cards

Boxcars are banging in the yards

Jealous lovin'll make you crazy

If you can't find your goodness

'Cause you lost your heart

I went looking for a cause

Or a strong cat without claws

Or any reason to resume

And I found this empty seat

In this crowded waiting room

Everybody waiting

Old man sleeping on his bags

Women with that teased up kind of hair

Kids with the jitters in their legs

And those wide, wide open stares

And the kids got cokes and chocolate bars

There's a thin man smoking a fat cigar

Jealous lovin'll make you crazy

If you can't find your goodness

'Cause you've lost your heart

What are you going to do now

You've got no one

To give your love too

Well I've got this berth and this pull down blind

I've got this fold up sink

And these rocks and these cactus going by

And a bottle of German wine to drink

Settle down into the clickety clack

With the clouds and the stars to read

Dreaming of the pleasure I'm going to have

Watching your hairline recede

My vain darling

Watching your hair and clouds and stars

I'm rocking away in a sleeping car

This jealous lovin's bound to make me crazy

I can't find my goodness

I lost my heart

Oh sour grapes

Because I lost my heart**

**Lyrics: Joni Mitchell

Copyright 1973 Crazy Crow Music

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**Another Joni fun fact**

Did you know that Joni Mitchell uses over 50 different open/alternative tunings for her song catalog?

This required her to switch over to several different guitars during concerts,--just like Jimmy Page! :)

A solution was found to eliminate this need and although it's a little too technical for me, perhaps others (musicians) may be interested.....missy

From wiki: "In 1995, Mitchell's friend Fred Walecki, proprietor of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, developed a solution to alleviate her continuing frustration with using multiple alternate tunings in live settings. Walecki designed a Stratocaster-style guitar to function with the Roland VG-8 (Virtual Guitar), a system capable of configuring her numerous tunings electronically. While the guitar itself remained in standard tuning, the VG-8 encoded the pickup signals into digital signals which were then translated into the altered tunings."

Below, you can see at the end of this song where she is quickly getting ready for a changeover prior to the solution.

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  • 4 months later...

I'm a day late, but last month June 2011 was the 40th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" album.

I started my love of Joni with Court and Spark released in 1974, which had a much different sound than Blue.

I understand from research this was a landmark album for many Joni fans, so thought it was worth posting.

Although I prefer her mid-seventies jazz flavored music best, because of her skill as a poet anything she sings is worth a listen to me.

I'd be interested in what any members who like Joni think of this album. Was it her best? Thanks for your replies! ........:) missy

Edited by missytootsweet
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Sweet Joni, from Saskatoon

Here's a ring for your finger

That looks like the sun

But it feels like the moon

Sweet Joni, from Saskatoon

Don't go, Don't go too soon

Who lives in an old hotel

Near the ancient ruins?

Only time can tell

Time can tell

"Go easy" the doorman said

The floor is slippery

So "watch your head"

This message read

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I don't know if "Blue" is her best album, but it's pretty darn close, Missy. Of course I am a big Joni Mitchell fan...and not just because of the "Going to California" connection. My dad had all the early albums and I remember hearing them all the time in the late-60's thru early-70's.

Besides, I am Californian, and I think there's just something in a Californian's DNA that makes you like certain acts: The Byrds, Beach Boys, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan for instance.

Seen Joni many times in concert, including both nights in 1998 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, where she was sandwiched between Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, who traded headlining slots every other night. And yes, she did her Bob Dylan-voice on one song...but it was more in good fun and jest, than in anger.

Anyway, here's a few of my favourite Joni clips...mainly because it's just Joni with her guitar.

"California" Live on BBC 1970

"Just Like This Train" Live

Joni Mitchell & Johnny Cash "The Long Black Veil"

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