Joni Mitchell Biography - 1965 to 1967 (Chapter 8)


Page 210 -  Joni Anderson meets Chuck Mitchell

Chuck Mitchell & Joni Mitchell 1965



Chuck and Joni met in March 1965 at the Penny Farthing, one of the higher-profile Toronto folk clubs.  Joni Anderson was booked in the upstairs room, as the minor act; Chuck Mitchell had star billing downstairs.  This was his first Canadian appearance; his repertoire consisted of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill songs (they wrote the Bobby Darin hit: Mack the Knife). 

Someone at the club knew that Joni had been fiddling with Mr. Tambourine Man and said, "That song you've been trying to learn?  There's an American downstairs and he's singing it."  Joni took Chuck to task for mangling Dylan's work.  "He'd rewritten some of it, and badly, too," she said, "and so we immediately got kind of into a conflict."  Still, she consented to take a walk with him in a nearby park. Chuck says, "We got together after the stroll, in Joni's narrow, cramped room, with it's single bed by the window."



Page 211 -  Joni Anderson and Chuck Mitchell get engaged

Very soon after their meeting Joni Anderson took the train across the Canada - U.S. border; Chuck met her at the station and drove her to his home.  He proposed within thirty-six hours.  They fixed on a a June wedding date, setting out for club engagements and to meet each other's parents in the interim.  Chuck wanted them to sing as a duo; Joni assented.

She called him Charlie.  She was Joni - "and with a circle over the i when she wrote it; that was very important," he says.  The practice of intimates calling her Joan came later; "If I called her 'Joan' - or especially 'Roberta Joan.' which I did when I wanted to piss her off - she'd say, 'Cut that shit out!'"  Joni never talked about her polio to Chuck.  "She did what she had to do.  There's a line from a David Blue song: 'So Lucy, so easy she goes by, she moves on earth and sky.....': that was Joni.  She not only looked great, she moved well."

Joni Mitchell & Chuck Mitchell


Joni Mitchell and Chuck Mitchell recording songs 1965Page 214 -

Joni and Chuck Mitchell marry

Joni and Chuck were married on a June afternoon in 1965 in a small ceremony in the tree-dotted front yard of Chuck's parents' home in the countryside north of Detroit, by an Episcopalian preacher standing on an elm stump they'd rolled into place for the occasion.  Joni made her own dress. 

In those early weeks after her marriage, Joni would often go with Chuck to the Chess Mate, the main folk club in Detroit.  Quiet, watchful Joni did not perform - at least that's how Eric Andersen perceived her. "She was just a fan in the audience: hanging out and listening, and impressed by all these people from New York, wanting to meet them," says Andersen, who was a highly regarded young singer songwriter from Greenwich Village.

Eric was a tall, classically handsome man - his chiseled features not unlike Neil Young's and James Taylor's - and Joni listened avidly to his Miss Lonely, Are You Blue, her own songs-in-progress brewing in her mind.



Page 218 - Joni Mitchell performs and Tom Rush takes notice

Joni Mitchell moved from Chess Mate listener to performer.  "Joni came in with her husband and asked Morrie Widenbaum if she could do a set," remembers Tom Rush, who was the featured performer that week.  "Morrie told her she could.  So she stood up and sang her own songs.  She was a slip of a girl: blond, intense.  She was probably nervous. The songs blew me away - their poetry, their visual imagery." 

One of the songs she sang was "Urge For Going" and Tom wanted to put it his repertoire.  He struck up a friendship with Joni and Chuck, who invited him to stay at their apartment when he played the Chess Mate. Almost simultaneously Joni learned open tunings from Eric Anderson, who'd also become a friend of hers and Chuck's.  Apart from liking the resonant sound of the open tunings, Joni found that the technique relieved her polio-affected "clumsy" left hand; with open tunings, fretting the chords is considerably easier on that hand.  Bu the fall of 1965, she had a unique playing style and two handsome young male mentors.


Page 222 - The Circle Game is born

Tom Rush had been singing Urge For Going all over Cambridge, and his fans loved it.  He was eager for some more of Joni's songs.  "I remember asking her, 'What else do you have? What else do you have?'  So she sent me a reel-to-reel tape.  It was a tape of nice songs, and then at the end she says into the mic: 'This is a new song.  I've just finished it.  It's awful.  I don't even know why I'm bothering you with it.'  And it's The Circle Game.'"  Rush phoned her right away. He would not only record the song; he would use the song as the title of his 1968 album.


Page 229 - Joni's lyrics break tradition

During Joni's time with Joy and Larry, a young musician from Colorado named Michael Durbin was playing in a group at the club, the Trauma.  "Michael was a very dear man - charismatic, charming, boyish, and very outdoorsy: a breath of fresh air," Joy recalls.  Joni and Michael started spending time with each other.  They looked "dashing" together.

Joni wrote the bittersweet Michael From Mountains about new lovers ambling through a shut-down city on a rainy Sunday.  The song is traditional - Michael will leave, while she will wait; but it's conservatism is the baseline for an ascending series of songs that will break tradition: Next will be a woman musing about wisdom and freedom (Both Sides Now), then living on her own, risks and all (Chelsea Morning), and, finally, achieving the same romantic power as a man (Cactus Tree).


Page 235 - Joni makes a name for herself as a songwriter

Dave Van Ronk was holding forth at the Angel's bar, waxing proud and protective of the girl he'd met as part of Chuck-and-Joni at the Chess Mate. He would soon record Both Sides Now, renaming it Clouds, retrofitting its feminine mulling of "rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air" to his sandpaper growl.

Joni was suddenly making a name for herself as a songwriter.  In January, country-western star George Hamilton IV had an improbable hit with Urge For Going; a month later Ian and Sylvia recorded The Circle Game, as would Buffy Sainte-Marie, who would also imminently record Joni's newly written Song To A Seagull.


Page 236 - Joni's light and melodic music

Joni and Roy Blumenfeld took a walk and talked about their shared love of music and art.  They wound up in Joni's apartment, and, as was her standard gesture, she played Roy her compositions: Little Green and Both Sides Now, as well as the never-to-be-recorded Go Tell the Drummer Man.  "I was listening to a lot of R&B and Motown at the time - I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Mustang Sally," Roy says, "so I was used to macho music; Joni's music was light and melodic and different, but it straddled so many forms.  Musically, I was enamored - her music was more original than Dylan's."


Page 237 - Tin Angel

Joni and Roy spent most of the summer of 1967 together.  They danced to the Temptations Beauty Is Only Skin Deep and I Want A Love I Can See on the painted floor of Roy's small, $850-a-month East Village loft.  They had dinner at Emilio's, an inexpensive Italian restuarant on Sixth Avenue, where, in it's tree-swept garden, umbrellaed tables teetered on a pebbled ground, and young couples felt sophisticated.

They frequented the Tin Angel (the sad song she wrote about finding love "in a Bleecker Street cafe." which she titled Tin Angel, is likely about Roy).  "I was crazy in love with Joan Mitchell," Roy says today.  "The way I felt about scared me, because I felt I was going to go into this spiral crazy love."  Joni seemed to reciprocate Roy's feelings.

In August, Roy's girlfriend returned from France and Roy told Joni he had to stop seeing her.  Devastated by the news, Joni sat sobbing at the bar at the Tin Angel.  But a very consequential silver lining would emerge that night, by way of one of Roy's best friends: Al Kooper.


Page 238 - A late night call to Judy Collins

Consoling Joni at the bar of the Tin Angel for three hours was Al Kooper, the Blue's Project keyboardist, lead singer, and composer.  Kooper was famous in recording circles; two years earlier, his inspired organ-playing on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone had done much to make the song the marvel it was held to be.

Al was crashing at Judy Collin's apartment; the established folksinger was a kind of big sister to young rockers. After last call, he walked Joni home and she invited him up to hear her songs.  "Her songs were incredible and totally original....She would finish one, and I would say: more, more.  One song especially killed me.  Michael from Mountains.  I thought it would be great for Judy.  Even though it was the middle of the night, he decided to call Judy Collins and tell her about his discovery.


Page 239 - Judy invites Joni to Newport

Jac Holzman had discovered Judy at the Village Gate one night, and, defying the "she's-just-another-Baez-clone" naysayers, signed her to his Elektra Records.  After she recorded her debut Maid Of Constant Sorrow, Judy was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  She rebounded and recorded four more albums for Elektra - the latest, In My Life, featured her deeply felt version of the Beatles hit of that name, as well as the art song Suzanne, by her friend Leonard Cohen, who was about to release his own Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Collins was searching for a few last songs for her album-in-progress, Wildflowers, which would include two Leonard Cohen songs, Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye and Sisters of Mercy.  So, when Al woke her up, she was receptive.  In a few hours Judy would be driving to Newport for the first day of the folk festival, "I asked her to take Joni in her car with her to Newport, listen to Joni sing her songs on the ride, and see if she could find a spot on the bill for her," Kooper says today.  Judy agreed to do so.


Page 240 - Joni at Newport Folk Festival

After Joni had arrived at the Newport festival grounds, Judy - who had by now fallen in love with Both Sides Now, felt deeply committed to getting Joni on stage.  An obstruction materialized in the form of Joan Baez.  Using her considerable influence, the matriarch had Joni barred from the schedule, presumably fearing that she would steal the thunder.

At this point Judy - who was known as one tough lady - stepped in and told Mrs. Baez, "If Joni doesn't perform, then I won't perform and Leonard (Cohen) won't perform."  By dint of Judy's threat, Joni got onstage at Newport.

Joni was riveted by Leonard Cohen.  As she would later describe it ( in That Song About the Midway), in one of her most memorable lines, Cohen "stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear."


Page 241 - Leonard Cohen's influence on Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell and Leonard CohenJoni embarked upon a love affair with Leonard Cohen.  Although their romance was short-lived, its influence was among the most important in her career.  In fact, no brief relationship in Joni's life produced as many songs - and so many of her better songs - as did her few-weeks-long romance with Cohen.

In Rainy Night House: Joni's image of falling "into a dream" on Cohen's mother's "small white bed" with each of them, in turn, awakening to watch the other sleep, describes the awe of two self-transforming people, each seeking anchor in a lover who is tenderly exotic.

In The Gallery: she slyly explains the reason for the brevity of their relationship - Cohen's womanizing - in the consciousness of an impressed innocent who nonetheless know that only a fool would tolerate such behavior.

And it is Leonard Cohen who is reliably believed to be at least half of the inspiration for what may be one of her best songs, A Case Of You: "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet". 


Page 242 - Both Sides, Now

After the Newport festival, Judy Collins would record both Michael from Mountains and Both Sides Now for Wildflowers. (She would also release Chelsea Morning as a single in 1969).

When Both Sides Now was finally released as a single in November 1968, it sold a million copies. [ The record has since been entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame ] Judy's version of Both Sides Now became to women in their twenties in 1968 what My Way would be to males: a kind of personal anthem.

Both Sides Now was ultimately recorded by a list of singers that include Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Willie Nelson.


Page 244 - Joni Mitchell meets David Crosby

While her new manager, Elliot Roberts, was trying to get Joni a record contract - she had flown down to Coconut Grove, Florida, to perform at a club called the Gaslight South.  She knew the regular performers, including a seventeen-year-old blues singer named Estrella Berosini, the daughter of a Czech trapeze artist.  Estrella was belting out Bessie Smith and Lightnin' Hopkins at the Gaslight, alternating sets with Joni, who was trilling "I had a king in a tenement castle..." - it was a contrast.

Bidding his time in the Grove was David Crosby, who'd just been kicked out of the Byrds [by his own design, he told people].  Estrella told Crosby to listen to Joni's songs and by the end of the evening he was not only in love with Joni's singing but with Joni.


Page 247 - Crosby moves Joni to L.A.

One day during the idyll, a love-struck David Crosby approached his new kid-confidante, Estrella, and thrust a piece of paper - a poem that Joni had written him - in her face.  "He was practically in tears.  He said: 'Look at this - it's in perfect iambic pentameter!  My career is winding down and hers is taking off!  I'm so in love! I'm more in love with her than anyone I ever met before.  What am I gonna do?"

What Crosby ended up doing was ditching his plan to sail around the world.  Instead (as Joni would soon put it in the song she wrote about him, The Dawntreader, "Leave your streets behind, he said, come to me."  In other words: He would take her to L.A. and produce her first album.

Joni Mitchell sings her first record contract


Page 248 - The Cactus Tree

With a song, Cactus Tree, that Joni wrote around the time she was leaving New York for Los Angeles, she offered a guideline for the new challenge: women would keep their hearts "full and hollow, like a cactus tree." She invokes sailor David in the first verse of the third-person-narrated song; mountain-climbing Michael Durbin in the second; Chuck in the third; and others throughout [Roy is the "drummer"].  Her narrator is not suffering Marcie-like obsession when these men are absent; rather (emphasis added), "She will love them when she sees them."