Singer/Songwriters Midstream and Renewal: Joni Mitchell

Louis Rosen under the aegis of the 92Y

Tonight’s exploration centers on Joni Mitchell’s “midstream” output, not her renewal. 1974’s Court and Spark made her a star, garnering the cover of Time Magazine. She began to live in “rarified air.”A tour followed. To show how remunerative it was, host Louis Rosen tells us her two highest paid musicians earned what today would be $26,000 weekly. “Joni didn’t grow up with money. She sewed her own wedding dress. When Judy Collins’ recorded `Both Sides Now,’ it changed Mitchell’s life.”

The artist was still with Asylum Records. Though David Geffen had sold it, he was still in charge. The company was, of course, hoping for another confessional like Court and Spark. Rolling Stone’s review of that album commented that she wrote personally about  “the alternatives of love and freedom, trust and paranoia, security and rootlessness, concern for herself and for others, compromise and pursuit of perfection, and even sanity and insanity.” Followers expected more of the same.

Instead, Mitchell made The Hissing of Summer Lawns. “Its theme,” Rosen observes, “is the emotional life that hides behind affluence. She was living in Bel Air, the most exclusive area of Los Angeles. ‘See the world like it is,’ she says, ‘or see it like I see it in all its gradations and degradations.’” Boredom, regret and trophy wives are surveyed. Lawns ruffled feathers and lost fans. It’s cold and critical with a lot of third person judgment. One attendee tonight calls it “judgmental and mean spirited.”

We watch a video of the first track, “In France They Kiss on Main Street.” Rosen identifies it as transition, closer to Court and Spark than anything else in the collection. Mitchell has shorter, curlier hair than her iconic image and wears a tailored pants suit. Off stage visuals are an affectionate montage of growing up in the 1950s. “We’d all go looking for a party/Looking to raise Jesus up from the dead/And I’d be kissing in the back seat/Thrilling to the Brando-like things he said…” It’s a wall of rhythmic sound with lyrics tightly woven in.

Bass-driven, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” arrives languid, melodic, first of several songs describing the life of a wealthy, caged wife – her choice. Mark Chappelle of Albumism calls the sound “lustrous, afternoon groove.” “The Boho Dance” is Mitchell’s take on younger artists she encounters. “I was a hopeful in rooms like these/When I was working cheap…” Complex, prose-like lyrics wander, one fading into the next without defined melody or explanation.

Next we hear “Harry’s House”/ “Centerpiece,” which also flows rather than syncs. “Shining hair and shining skin/Shining as she reeled him in/To tell him like she did today/Just what he could do with Harry’s House/And Harry’s take home pay.” The middle of the song features a jazz “Centerpiece” spotlighting Joe Sample’s cool piano, signs of the direction of Mitchell’s future work. We hear horns, cymbals, fretless bass and dissonance.

Critic Stephen Holden wrote: “If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.” In 1977, nonetheless, the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Rosen tells us that Rolling Stone named it “The worst album of the year.” Other reviewers objected to arrangements he thinks are very good, but the host admits that his feelings are retrospective, not those of his 20 year-old self. He goes on to remark that “the well to do are not hard targets, especially housewives. Some of her audience may have moved into that sort of world, but a lot of them didn’t. If this had come out in 1980/1981, it would have put her at the forefront of the Regan era and its focus on money. She’s clearly struggling here.” It’s difficult to hear the struggle.

A postage stamp printed in Canada showing an image of Joni Mitchell, circa 2007. (Shutterstock)

“The reception didn’t surprise her,” Rosen notes. “She knew she was in for a fall.” After recording it and before the album was released, Mitchell went on tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. Cocaine was rampant. The artist indulged. She’s quoted as saying, “It’s tremendous for one’s ego-for awhile.” In a film of the tour she’s asked “Joni, what do you want to get paid?” Her response: “…I ran away to join the circus: Clowns used to get paid in wine — pay me in cocaine…”

She then went on tour with Hissing Lawns. “It took a lot for a woman to be a bandleader in the 1970s,” Rosen says. “She faced not only that challenge, but her ex-boyfriend was the drummer.” Though they agreed to avoid embarrassment, his flaunting new girlfriends was particularly hard on her. One night, the artist just bolted from the stage. $18,000 in tickets were returned, the European leg of the tour cancelled. “She felt her well being was more valuable than anything else,” the host notes.

Mitchell took a road trip to Maine with a couple of male friends. She wrote songs along the way. The new album was to be called Travel, but its title didn’t seem precise enough. Instead, she found the word Hejira, a word the host translates as “escape with honorr” or “leaving the dream-no blame.” On the way east, stopping in Colorado, the artist heard fretless bass virtuoso, Jaco Pastorius – soon to make a great mark in jazz fusion. Rosen tells us, “He had extraordinary melodic facility and sense of interplay while simultaneously holding the groove.” The sound would become pivotal to Hejira.

After Maine, Mitchell took off alone back to Los Angeles – without a driver’s license. There, she was taken to see Buddhist guru, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “He asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes, here’s my god and here is my prayer,” and I took out the cocaine and took a hit in front of him… His nostrils began to flare like bellows, and he began rhythmic breathing. I remember thinking, What’s with his nose? It was almost hypnotic. They have a technique called emanating grace ways… I left his office and for three days I was in awakened state. The technique completely silenced that thing, the loud, little noisy radio station that stands between you and the great mind. (“Joni Mitchell: Heart of a Prairie Girl,” by Mary Aikins)

It’s this journey she tries to capture in Hejira.” Rosen explains. The artist wrote “Refuge in the Road” about her visit to the Guru she called “the bad boy of Zen” and traveled to thank him on his deathbed.

We listen first to “Coyote,” ostensibly about an affair Mitchell had with Sam Shepard who was also traveling with Rolling Thunder. The evidently irresistible actor/playwright was juggling another mistress and a family at home: “No regrets, coyote/We just come from such different sets of circumstance/I’m up all night in the studios/And you’re up early on your ranch…” and “…He picks up my scent on his fingers/While he’s watching the waitress’s legs…”

Louis Rosen

“I remember when the album first came out,” Rosen reflects, “the songs seemed sprawling to me. I found them hard to track. Words seem to drive her with music accommodating.” In my opinion, that’s an accurate description. We listen to the rest of the recording. Only the fretless bass flies in “Amelia” (Amelia Earhart) though, as in “Woodstock” Rosen notes, the writer uses “jet planes” as a metaphor. The Cactus Tree Motel also pops up again.

Albert Camus said, “What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits…” Rosen quotes. “It’s similar to being in a state of transition,” the host adds, “which can be terrifying. You’re on the move somewhere, but you don’t know where, when you’ll arrive or what you’ll do when you get there.”

In March 2019’s Mojo Magazine, Mitchell states, “I feel a lot of people could’ve written Chelsea Morning, but I don’t think anyone else could’ve written the songs in Hejira.” From the title song: “I’m porous with travel fever/But you know I’m so glad to be on my own/Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger/Can set up trembling in my bones.” It’s very long, but not so lengthy as “Song for Sharon,” which drones on unedited, lulling one so effectively some good lyrics are buried. The momentum of “Black Crow” is next, then “Blue Motel Room,” cooool and molasses slow.

This is problematic material. My reaction is much like Rosen’s at 20. One can’t fault musicianship, but… The host, however, came around and now likes those selections played for us from Summer Lawns. He also has high regard for Hejira.whose title song he calls “brilliant and moving, comparing it to Shubert’s “Wintereisse.”

Rosen’s take on Joni’s earlier career.

For other great programs:  

About Alix Cohen (1104 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.