Joni Mitchell Biography - 1967 to 1970 (Chapter 10)


Page 274 -  Joni Mitchell's first album - Song to a Seagull

Joni recorded her first album, Joni Mitchell, which, in subsequent pressings, came to be known as Song To A Seagull, in the first weeks of 1968.  David Crosby had himself named producer of the album; Joni termed him its "conservationist" because he held the line against those who might complain that as she put it, she'd "had a whole paintbox and used only brown."  In reality Joni was in control of her product, an unusually nervy move for a newbie on her maiden voyage with a major record label.  She kept the album acoustic and intimate: just Joni and her guitar and piano.  The album may have suffered from the spareness, for it had an astringent forlornness and never got past #189 on the Billboard chart.

Joni Mitchell and David Crosby



Page 275 - Veiled Snippets of Joni Mitchell's life

The songs introduced listeners to veiled snippets of this still very unknown singer's life.  In "Part One [A side]: I Came to the City" there unfolded, in this order, her marriage-gone-wrong to Chuck in I Had A King; her affair with Michael Durbin in Michael From Mountains; the joyous Night In The City, her touche' to the small-minded moralists who'd looked on the Yorkville folksingers (including that poor, pregnant one) as degenerate hippies; and, finally, with Marcie and Nathan LaFraneer, her testimony to the trials of a young woman alone in Manhattan.

She named the B side "Part Two: Out of the City and Down to the Seaside," making her meeting of David in Florida into a kind of deliverance - which, in career terms, it was. Cactus Tree is the stem winder on that side. 


Page 277 - Graham Nash is warned

Graham Nash was, as he says, "a poor man's son," from Blackpool, England.  When he was fourteen, he'd wanted nothing more than to use his voice and guitar to make others feel like he felt when he listened to the Everly Brothers.  He and his friend Allan Clarke had formed the Hollies and, with the group, were part of the British Invasion.  Bus Stop and Carrie-Anne were more-than-likable hits - the former, dark; the latter, fetching - in 1966 and 1967, the twilight of formula English pop.

Knowing they'd be in the same city, David Crosby had given Graham (they'd met through Cass Elliot) advance word on Joni.  "He'd said, 'Watch out for this woman' - in a good way, that she was very special and very beautiful," Graham recalls.


Page 278 -  Graham Nash was smitten

Joni wooed the already smitten Graham with her songs.  "She played fifteen songs, almost her entire first record, and a couple of different ones, too," Graham says.  "By the time she got through Michael from Mountains and I Had A King, I was gone.  I had never heard music like that."

Graham returned to England, but on the basis of transatlantic counsel from Mama Cass, he began thinking of quitting the Hollies, moving to L.A., and trying to launch himself as a solo act.  He had already written the bouncy, quite wonderful Marrakesh Express.


Page 279 - Joni Mitchell opens her home

In July, Graham moved to L.A. and moved in with Joni at her new house in the Canyon, a romantic aerie home with wide plank floors, broad-paned leaded windows, and wood-beamed ceilings at 8217 Lookout Mountain.  "We were pretty much terrified of a deep relationship," Graham says, but they slipped into one anyway.

One night, shortly after Graham moved in, David Crosby and Stephen Stills came over to Joni's.  The ex-Byrd and the Springfield member had been spending days writing and singing together.  For all his rock-bad-boy panache, David was a folkie at heart; his bottom tenor was luminous.  As for Stills, it was his scratchy, bluesy voice that had made the Springfield's For What It's Worth a radical political battle cry.

Joni Mitchell looks out the window from her house in Laurel Canyon



Page 280 - Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonize

Stephen had penned a song, You Don't Have to Cry, for Judy Collins, whose high-powered career was pulling his macho nose out of joint.  "In the morning, when you rise," the song asked, "Are you thinkin' of telephones / And managers and where you got to be at noon?" (Stills's Suite: Judy Blue Eyes would be his swan song to her.)

Both Crosby and Stills had heard kudos for Nash's high harmony, but they'd never tried to sing with him.  Sitting around Joni's living room, getting high, Stills and Crosby sang the first bar of the new song: Crosby the tenor, Stills the alto.  Nash asked, "Would you sing that again?"  Stills and Crosby repeated the bar.  Nash listened intently and then chimed in, producing a straining, poignant slightly sour top note that lifted the song to an ecstatic new dimension.  "All four of us - the three of us fellows and Joan - knew!  It was a truly amazing moment," Graham recalls.

David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash


Crosby, Stills and Nash would become a phenomenon - three stars of three different groups, each contributing beautiful songs (Stills's two for Judy Collins; David's rich-hippie dreamscape Wooden Ships and his elegy for Bobby Kennedy's murder, Long Time Gone; Graham's Marrakesh Express and his ode to his domesticity with Joni, Our House) to their eponymous album, sung in their piercing harmony.


Page 281 - Joni Mitchell writes about her old man

Joni and Graham would race each other to the piano after morning breakfasts at Art's Deli in Studio City.  "It was an intense time," Graham has said. "Who's going to fill up the space with their music first? We were two very creative writers living in the same house, and it was an interesting clash: 'I want to get as close to you as possible.' 'Let me alone to create!'"

Joni Mitchell with Graham Nash 1969

Those songs of Joni's that are clearly or presumably about life with Graham reflect that push-pull of intimacy, in lyric styles ranging from the biblical reference ("He would read to her / Roll her in his arms / And give his seed to her," in the achingly lovely Blue Boy"), to Nashville-worthy wit ("But when he's gone, me and them lonesome blues collide / The bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide." in My Old Man").

Joni did not tell Graham about her baby right away.  "When you're wooing a new lover, you don't say, 'By the way, I've got this kid I gave up for adoption.'" But when she did broach the subject, she spoke of the pain of the "shame and guilt" and of the "rejection" she knew she would have faced from her parents had they known about the birth.  Joni began to spot her daughter at music festivals.  "At concerts, she would see a little girl's face, and she would wonder," says a friend.

The first Kelly sighting was at the Big Sur Folk Festival.  "We thought we saw her daughter," says Graham.  "There was a sound check before dinner.  We lined up to get our food.  And I remember this young-eight or nine-year-old blonde girl in line, waiting to go to dinner.  The little girl said, 'Who are you?'  Joni said, 'I'm Joni Mitchell.'  And the little girl said, 'No, you're not; I'mJoni Mitchell.'   And then Joan looked at me - it was one of those strange, Twilight Zone things - and then the little girl disappeared.


Page 285 - Joni Mitchell's Clouds

Joni began work on her second album, Clouds, in early 1969.  The confrontational self-possession was almost groundbreaking, "almost" because, by now, Laura Nyro had raised the bar for female confessional songwriting.  Her Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and imminent New York Tendaberry were tender, frantic operas, full of leaps and hints and dream shards.

Two of Joni's songs on Clouds were for Leonard Cohen - That Song About The Midway and The Gallery. She added her most iconic songs - Chelsea Morning and as last track Both Sides Now.  Her mournful Songs For Aging Children would soon be included in the Arthur Penn-directed antiwar film version of Alice's Restaurant. 


Page 286 - Joni Mitchell meets James Taylor

A Carnegie Hall concert on February 1, 1969, announced Joni as a celebrity.  At her next concert, in Cambridge a month later, a lanky, handsome unknown, with deep-set eyes, long brown hair, and a thin moustache opened for her.  He played a song he'd written, Something In The Way She Moves, and when he got to the words "my troubled mind," his nasal-voiced melancholy hinted at a real troubled mind, though his well-bred manner belied all his brooding and slumping.  His name was James Taylor, and he was back in America, after making his first Apple album.  James came back to Joni's dressing room and said hello.  But she was involved with Graham Nash, and he with Margaret Corey.


Page 290 - Joni Mitchell writes Woodstock

As Joni, Graham, David, Stephen, and Neil were preparing to fly to New York, the Bethel town elders and Yasgur's neighbors were angrily hectoring Yasgur to give back the money and keep the hippies from over-running their orderly town.  But Yasgur held firm to his agreement, even as reports shot through the news that 800,000 people - sixteen times the original maximum estimate - were on their way there.

Joni wanted to perform, but Elliot and David Geffen were fearful for her safety.  Besides, even if she got to the festival safely, would she get back in time for the Cavett show, the next night?  The festival had already started; the round-the-clock performances were a half day or more behind schedule; traffic was blocked for twenty miles; many festival goers had left their cars on the highway or sides of the streets and were walking.  The stars were being airdropped in by army helicopter.

The boys hired a small plane to fly them into the festival; Joni went to Geffen's apartment and watched it on TV.  "The deprivation of not being able to go," she has said, "provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock."  That longing showed up in the song she wrote.


Page 293 - Someone's Old Lady

Back in L.A., Joni opened for her boys at the Greek Theatre.  The Los Angeles Times critic called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's performance "a triumph of the first order" and said that Joni Mitchell's performance had been "overwhelmed" by theirs.  She may have been beginning to wonder: What was the price of being someone's old lady?

Many young women (especially, it seemed, in Laurel Canyon) personified a glamorous new femininity - a kind of arty - sensual, esoterically spiritual chick for whom the coolest men had lust and awe for.  There was Annie Burden, Trina Robbins and Estrella Berosini who Joni turned into her Ladies of the Canyon, according a verse to each. 

On the other hand, medieval courtliness had its blowback: When you were someone's old lady, a piece of you belonged to your old man - and he was always coming out ahead, because he wasa man.  David Crosby was madly in love with Christine Hinton again; he elegized her as Guinnevere (though one chorus of the song had been written for Joni), but still, he dominated her.  Before long, Joni would muse aloud to a confidant: was she an artist - or a Crosby, Stills and Nash groupie?

Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash 1969



Page 295 - Tragedy strikes Joni Mitchell's circle

September 30, 1969, the day that Crosby, Stills and Nash went gold - tragedy struck their circle.  Christine Hinton got behind the wheel of David's VW bus to take her two cats to the veterinarian.  As she maneuvered onto the highway, one of the cats escaped the arms of her friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat.  The cat pounced on Christine, sending her into a collision with a school bus; Christine was killed. 

"Want to go sailing?" David asked Graham.  Christine had been cremated, and David wanted to toss her ashes into the ocean from the deck of the Mayan. "I had never been sailing in my life," says Graham, "but I knew David was fragile and decided to stick close by him."  They flew to his boat in Fort Lauderdale and planned on sailing it back to L.A.

Joni boarded the Mayan in Jamaica.  Also aboard was folksinger Bobby Ingram and his wife Ronee Blakley.  Ronee was a girl from Idaho who, on the strength of hearing Joan Baez's Barbara Allen, had bolted for a creative life in California.   The trip was like the group's song Wooden Ships come to life - hippie superstars huddled together, alone of the vast sea with their dreams and their body heat.


Page 297 - Ladies Of The Canyon is released

Ladies of the Canyon was released in March 1970, and it was shot through with idealism and idealization.  Henry Lewy again engineered the spare album (with Joni actually in charge), which contained the title cut, and her two odes to Graham - Willy (but with the roles reversed: in the song, the woman is the needier partner) and the haunting Blue BoyConversation and The Arrangement - as literate as Sondheim, as so many of her songs seemed to be - both describe a sensitive girl's affair with a prosperous man who has a superficial wife.  For Free, puts a halo on the shabby "one-man band by the quick lunch stand" while Joni guiltily notes musical fame.

Joni's big hit from this album (only one of four Top 40 hits in her career), Big Yellow Taxi, was written during her and Graham's trip to Hawaii.  "They paved paradise, put up a parking lot" was Joni Mitchell at her Tin Pan Alley best.  Woodstock, her lovely Rainy Night House for Leonard, and her tuneful Morning Morgantown - quaint Canada Joni - round out the album.  The last cut is The Circle Game, finally recorded in her own voice.


Page 301 -  Nash gets a telegram from Joni Mitchell

A few days later, Graham Nash was laying a new kitchen floor in the Lookout Mountain house when the doorbell rang.  It was Western Union.  Joni's old man took the telegram from Greece, tore it open, unfolded the piece of paper with its pasted strips of jagged type, and beheld a single sentence: "If you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers."  Graham's heart sank. "I knew right away - it was over."

That night, Graham sat down at Joni's piano and wrote Simple Man, with straightforward lyrics: "I have never been so much in love and never hurt so bad at the same time."  In answer to the worry (and accusation) that Joni had voiced, he said "I just want to hold you, I don't want to hold you down."  But perhaps at this time in her life Joni Mitchell was simply unholdable.  And that was a new thing for a young woman to be.


Page 302 - Joni Mitchell escapes fame in a cave

Joni moved into Cary Raditz's cave in Matala and stayed for five weeks, feeling the addictive infactuation with the primitive hippie expat life.  "To me it was a lovely life, far better than being middle-class in America," she would later tell an interviewer.  Of her enthrallment with him, Cary says, "You'll have to ask her why she was attracted to outlaws."  She cheerfully acknowledged (in Carey and California) that he was "a mean old daddy," and a "red red rogue," and "the bright red devil who kept her in that tourist town."


Page 304 - Joni Mitchell and James Taylor begin a romance

In late July, Joni returned to Mariposa.  The festival's steely director Estelle Klein had also managed to lure James Taylor to the event.  James was now a star, on the basis of his second album, Sweet Baby James, and its hit single, Fire and Rain

Joni had met James briefly the year before, in Cambridge, but now at Mariposa they began a romance.  Peter Asher, who was there with James, thought the pairing inevitable, and so did others.  "I think they saw a lot of themselves in each other" is how drummer Russ Kunkel puts it.  "Both singer-songwriters, tall, handsome/beautiful, soulful, and talented."