Joni Mitchell Biography - 1972 to 1982 (Chapter 14)


Page 404 - Joni Mitchell joins Asylum Records

At the very beginning of 1972, Joni left Canada to embark on a concert tour, making a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall, playing the Midwest, England and returning to L.A. to record For The Roses.  It would be her first album on David Geffen's new label, Asylum.  She and David had had their art-vs.-commerce differences.  She had written what she called her only "blatantly commercial" song , You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio, to placate David's desire for her to have a hit on For The Roses.  (Her instincts, and his implicit goading, proved correct: with it, she reached #25 on Billboard.)

David Geffen and Joni Mitchell

Beneath their differences, she liked David.  She wrote a song, Free Man In Paris, in his honor.  In it, a pressured executive who'd been "stoking the star-maker machinery" goes to Paris to feel - that unlikely first adjective had an elegant flightiness - "unfettered and alive."


Page 405 - Jackson Browne tours with Joni Mitchell

Jackson BrowneOn her early 1972 tour, Joni Mitchell's opening act was someone whose debut album David was about to release: Jackson Browne.  Browne was disconcertingly fair-faced, teen-actor handsome, with chiseled features and a credulous, androgynous prettiness.  But despite his time in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he'd been less a performer than a writer - and a good one.  David Crosby loved his songs.  Jac Holzman had given him a publishing contract, and, of course, Tom Rush had recorded a song of his on his Circle Game.

Jackson had worked hard to craft a body of signature pieces which to launch himself as an artist.  Sending a glossy headshot (along with an almost obsequious letter) to Geffen, who was not "out" but was gay, hadn't hurt.  Jackson Browne was almost too pretty to be a rock star, but now, that prettiness helped rather than hurt.

Jackson was a romantic and had fallen hard for several women to date, including Laura Nyro and most recently Salli Sachse, the San Diego-raised beach movie actress who'd been a close friend of Christine Hinton.  Beautiful, long-haired Salli exuded an air of sorrow; she'd weathered not just Christine's sudden death, but earlier that of her husband, Peter Sachse, who had perished in a stunt-plane crash. As Browne wrote of her, in his song Something Fine, Salli "took good care" of him during their love affair in London before she hit the road.


Page 406 - Joni Mitchell and Jackson become a couple

Jackson Browne was released in early 1972.  The album's cover showed the artist in a faux-antique tinted picture, his name semicircling the photo in Old West typeface.  Like James Taylor on his debut album, Browne evoked an earlier era with his piercing-eyed, Civil War poster-worthy countenance.  "Jackson was a West Coast version of James; James is an East Coast version of Jackson" is how Russ Kunkel characterizes them indeed.  If James's songs exuded Carolina and the snowy turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, it was the car culture anomie of his native Orange County that surged through Browne's songs, which nonetheless attained a stirring eloquence that was hinted at in their beseeching, quasi-bilical titles (Doctor My Eyes, Rock Me On The Water). 

Jackson Browne with Joni Mitchell on stage

His huge, Springsteen-like hit Running on Empty and his coauthorship, with Glenn Frey, of the Eagles' megahit Take It Easy, which emblemized the male mid-1970s, were more literal evocations of Browne'sprovenance.  In early 1972, Bud Scoppa in Rolling Stone called Jackson Browne that "rare album sufficient to place a new performer among the first rank of...artists."

Still, during the very first dates of Joni's tour, the local reviewers, who didn't know of Jackson's album, dismissed him.  By the time they got to England, Doctor My Eyes had become a major U.S. hit.  When they duetted on The Circle Game, fans saw a chemistry between them.  By the end of the tour, Jackson was a full-fledged headliner and "Joni and Jackson were together," Danny Kortchmar recalls.  "Jackson and I are in love" is how Joni put it to her old flame Roy Blumenfield when he visited L.A.


Page 407 - For The Roses gets raves reviews

For The Roses was released in the fall of 1972, and the reviews were ecstatic.  Of the album chord progressions would be called "mind-boggling," The New York Times raved, "Each of Mitchell's a gem glistening with her elegant was with language, her pointed splashes of irony and her perfect shaping of image."  The Times articulated what her fans had come to realize [emphasis added]: "Never does Mitchell voice a thought or feeling commonly.  She's a songwriter of genius who can't help but make us feel we are not alone."

This was the first time a man ever hit Joni.

Jackson BrowneThings were not going well between her and Jackson.  "It was a high-strung relationship," says a confidante.  One night they had a fight at the Sunset Strip club, the Roxy.  Her friend recalls: "Joni said Jackson had dissed her onstage and she was walking upstairs and he was walking down."  A verbal argument, she claimed, led to Jackson hitting her, and she ran out into the street without her shoes. "This was the first time a man ever hit Joni."  (People who know Jackson Browne say he is not a violent man.) 

Nevertheless, Joni remained in love with Jackson.  Newly lionized, handsomer now that time had slightly lined his baby face, well placed in the Troubadour-Canyon elite, six years younger than she: the power was shifting, and all her worshipful reviews wouldn't change that.  When she first came to the Canyon, she'd been the awe-inspiring queen.  Now, the gravity of sexism (or reality) had pulled her down a notch.  He had the advantage.


Page 408 - Joni MItchell's "suicide attempt"

One night at the Troubadour bar, Jackson Browne saw a beautiful young blonde being screamed at by her boyfriend.  Browne interceded in her defense ("I was doing my very best Bogart" is how he put it, in his song Ready or Not), and the boyfriend threw a punch at Browne.  Browne's gallantry was rewarded; he went home with the damsel in distress, a Southern California girl who, had recently been a successful model in Europe.  Her name was Phyllis Major.

Phyllis Major

Jackson's attention to Phyllis Major felt, to Joni, like "a great loss and a great mind-fuck," says her confidante.  One night Joni was at her apartment on that hilly street, expecting Jackson to come over.  He didn't show up.

Jackson's attention to Phyllis Major felt, to Joni, like "a great loss and a great mind-fuck."

What happened next Joni has described to several people as her "suicide attempt."  One confidante says she said she "took pills.  She cut herself up and threw herself against a wall and got completely bloodied - glass broke.  She vomited up the pills."  According to one confidante, David Geffen came to her rescue and got her medical help.  Joni wrote a song, Car On A Hill, about that evening. 

After the incident, "She went to a 'think tank' for therapists"  in a residential setting, the confidante says, "and the head guy said to pick the [therapist] you want to work with."  Joni Mitchell wrote Trouble Child about this experience.


Page 409 - Joni Mitchell's Post Breakdown

Joni MitchellDuring this same postbreakdown moment, Joni wrote People's Parties - complex, its lyrics "through-composed," like many of Blue's songs - to describe the acute self-consciousness she had still not overcome.  Now the parties weren't hang-loose Canyon gatherings but Hollywood bashes that she attended with the likes of Beatty, whom she'd unwittingly shared with Carly. 

Her near-simultaneously written The Same Situation is thought to be Joni's Warren Beatty song, just as You're So Vain was Carly's.  Tucked inside this sensitive song about her unceasing "search for love" lies a Me Decade celebrity-romance chess game.  A bored playboy who's gone through an infinite number of desirable women now fixes his "gaze" on her.  She's blase' as well, having been, "for so many years" now, in that "same situation" of being desired and narcissistically pampered (those ringing phones, those proffered mirrors), and she assumes they're equal.  With Joni, brutal candor is best withheld for her songs, where she keeps all the power.

Meanwhile, as Joni was recovering from her breakdown in the sophisticated, hip Hollywood fishbowl, Jackson Browne was making a life with Phyllis Major.  Phyllis had quickly become pregnant, and their baby boy, Ethan, was born in early November 1973.


Page 411 - Joni Mitchell's anger at Jackson Browne

Joni remained deeply angry at Jackson for years.  The Jackson Browne story had a tragic dimension that kept it smoldering for Joni.  Shortly before or after she married Jackson (in December 1975, two years after their song was born), Phyllis Phyllis MajorMajor attempted suicide. (Though not many people knew it, this was not the emotionally turbulent young woman's first suicide attempt; she had also attempted suicide over Keith Richards some years earlier.)  People in Jackson's and Phyllis's immediate circle  knew about the attempt this time - among other things, she'd discreetly stolen drugs from them for that purpose.  She left notes for everybody saying "I'm sorry" and words to the effect of "I can't stand the pain."  Phyllis was revived in time.  But then, on March 25, 1976, Phyllis succeeded in taking enough drugs to kill herself.  "It was terrible, just terrible," says a friend.  The tragedy was a brushfire through their circle, which Joni memorialized in a coded reference in her 1976 Song For Sharon on Hejira.  Their friend had "drowned" herself - perhaps, Joni noted with an esoteric pointedness, to "punish somebody."

Joni attended Phyllis Major Browne's funeral in Santa Barbara (Jackson was angry that she'd come), and the parallel struck her deeply and bitterly.  She had made a suicide attempt over Jackson; Phyllis had tried and failed.  And now Phyllis had succeeded.

Years after that, in September 1992, Jackson Browne's longtime girlfriend, Daryl Hannah, accused him of beating her up.  The widely reported alleged incident was "grievously misreported" with a flurry of contradictory accounts by after-the-fact witnesses and authorities.**  It was after this scandal that Joni Mitchell went public with her anger at Jackson (though not the secret, personal, original reason for it), by way of Not To Blame, her song about domestic violence on Turbulent Indigo.  Listeners had no idea how personal were the biting lines about the man "driving" the vulnerable woman "to suicide."  Joni wasn't just writing about Phyllis; she was writing about her late-1972 self.

** A November 1992 statement by the Santa Monica Police Department said: "We went to the house where Jackson Browne lives regarding a possible disturbance.  We resolved the situation in about 5 minutes.  There was never any assault.  There are no charges pending and no prosecution sought by or intended by the District Attorney."


Page 414 - Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell began planning her next album, Court And Spark, which would include the three veiled songs about the Jackson-centered breakdown, as well as the baleful The Same Situation.  The album's title song opened with some of the most arresting images she'd ever conceived, describing love as showing up like a scavenger on a porch, "with a sleeping roll and a madman's soul."

John GuerinJoni started doing demo recordings in the summer of 1973.  Russ Kunkel was signed on as drummer, but, with these new songs, something wasn't working.  Russ said, "Joni, I can't play to this music.  I think you should get yourself a jazz drummer."  So Joni went around to jazz clubs and happened upon one of the best young jazz drummers in L.A., John Guerin.  When it was proposed that he work with Joni, Guerin thought: What am I doing backing a folksinger?  But when he listened to her songs, he was awestruck.  "She was the whole orchestra in one guitar!"

 Joni, he realized was no folksinger - or any kind of conventional singer or composer.  You didn't go whistling Joni's tunes.  They were much more complicated; not A-A-B-A form, not Gershwin.  Joni's songs didn't have the usual hook; she would form the music to her lyrical thought and sometimes go across bars and in different time signatures - she didn't care."  For Help Me and Free Man In Paris she marries her signature vocal bends to a jazzy, commercial feel.  Raised on Robbery is a boogie-woogie-bugle-boy-tinged rocker.  Car On A Hill has movie sound effects; "Make it sound like cars and traffic!" Joni had ordered.


Page 415 - Joni and John Guerin romance

John Guerin and Joni Mitchell began a romance during the making of Court And Spark.  Joni was only half out of her depression when they met, and John's down-to-earth (and hell-raising) quality seemed to pull her the rest of the way out.  As she later put it in Refuge Of The Roads (one of her favorite of her own songs), he was the "friend of spirit" who "mirrored me back, simplified." 

It was a turbulent, highly sexually charged relationship; they broke up six or seven times

He, too, saw their fit that way; "Joan's a very complicated person and I'm a pretty straightahead guy.  I think she lightened up a lot with me" - even though, as she put it in the song, their "perfection would always be denied."  Says a close friend, "It was a turbulent, highly sexually charged relationship; they broke up six or seven times" over five years.  John Guerin would be one of the great loves of her life. He was that rare lover "who she never said anything bad about," says another friend.  "She was crazy about John."

One of their first breakups occurred just after Court And Spark was finished.  John was unfaithful, which she would document in Hejira's Blue Motel Room.  She paid him back by having a six-week liaison with session guitarist (and sometime Leon Russell bandmate) Wayne Perkins, a handsome half-Cherokee Alabaman. 


Page 417 - Miles of Aisles

Court And Spark was released in January 1974, and the pleading, scatty Help Me was released in March, becoming Joni's first-and-only Top 10 single.  The critics were even more ecstatic than they'd been with For The Roses.  Robert Hillburn called it "a virtually flawless album that may well contain the most finely honed collection of songs and most fully realized arrangements in the singer-songwriter's distinguished career."

Court and Spark was Joni's first smash hit.  It charted at # 2 and stayed there for four weeks, then went platinum, with over a million copies sold.  It received Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Record of the Year (Help Me), and Joni for Best Pop Female Vocalist.  (When Olivia Newton-John won instead, there was audible dismay from the audience). 

Joni and her boys went on a fifty-city tour, from which was produced a live album, Miles of Aisles, which, in November, also reached # 2.  This rush of mainstream success was new for Joni, and road life had been grinding.  By the end of 1974, she bought an elegant Spanish home built in 1929 atop a private Bel Air road.  Its intricate wrought-iron gates opened into a fountained courtyard, and there was a pool, of course.  John Guerin packed up his drums and jazz records and moved in with her.


Page 419 - Hissing of Summer Lawns

Joni's next album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was released in November 1975.  The awkward title (named for the sound of Bel Air sprinklers in the title song about a trophy wife) shouted "upper middle class."  But like a conceptual artist, Joni played with this fact.  The album's internal photo showed her submerged in her Bel Air pool, and the Joni-painted cover - a mirage-like downtown L.A. in the backdrop of a surreal pea-soup-green mega lawn on which African tribesmen are carrying a long, snakelike communal drum.

Joni Mitchell - Hissing of Summer Lawns internal album photo

Joni was leaving behind the confessionalism that had intensely defined Blue, For The Roses, and Court and Spark.  This new album, as Stephen Holden put it, was Joni doing "social philosophy."  The intellectual substance Holden saw in Hissing (for which Guerin played drums) was small comfort to her bewildered fans, who had come to Joni to feel.

Although Hissing shot to # 4 - Court and Spark's wake was strong - the negative reviews (the Detroit News, for example, called it "sometimes so smug that it is downright irritating") upset her.  "Joni was very self-involved and thin-skinned," John recalls.  "Elliot would keep the bad reviews away from her, which I thought was really dumb - I thought it was abnormal; she should have been way past that.  But Joan remembers everything any critic said about her." 


Page 421 - Joni Mitchell writes Coyote

Sam ShepardAt some point in 1975, Joni Mitchell and John Guerin became quietly engaged.  "We had wedding rings made," he said.  "Joan designed them - gold, with a kind of hieroglyphic that meant 'lasting relationship' in some Eastern language."  In November 1975, Joni flew to the East Coast to join Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, where she met a playwright, sometime musician, film actor, self-styled cowboy named Sam Shepard.  Shepard and Joni were exactly two days apart in age; they both turned thirty-two during their time on the tour.

During the tour, a song started coming to her, and she wrote pieces of it during bus rides.  Called Coyote, it would be one of the wittiest, sexiest, and most un-self-pitying songs, telling the story of a woman in a transient situation who meets a stranger from a beguiling different background: a cowboy.  A brief, humorous but avariciously erotic affair seems to ensue in funky roadhouses and hotels with lots of "keyholes and numbered doors."  For years, fans who loved the casual, devil-may-care abandon of the song have wondered who "Coyote" was.  "Coyote" was Sam Shepard.


Page 422 - Joni renames herself "Charlene Lattimer"

Joni and John and her band embarked on the Hissing tour in mid January 1976.  Joni sang the deliciously suggestive Coyote on the tour and told audiences that it had come to her during Rolling Thunder.  Before the end of the Hissing tour, for reasons that may or may not have had to do with the source of the song, Joni and John had such a big fight that the rest of the tour (including its international leg) was canceled.  They broke up - this time (they thought) for good.

Joni stayed with her friend Neil Young for a while to sort out her life; then, around late spring, she embarked on a cross-country road trip, traversing the northern part of America, west to east, with two male friends.  One of these companions was considerably younger than Joni and she became briefly involved with him, he was the inscrutable near-juvenile that Joni describes in A Strange Boy.

After her road companions remained on the East Coast, Joni rented a white Mercedes, donned a red wig, renamed herself "Charlene Lattimer," and drove herself back across the country, this time taking the southern route.  As she drove and stopped and drove and stopped, she wrote song-postcards from the road, many of them puzzling out the breakup. 


Page 424 - "Art Noveau" - The Only Black Man In The Room

One day in late 1977, when J.D. Souther walked into Peter and Betsy Asher's house on Summit Ridge Drive, he was introduced by the Ashers to a trim black man, his face half-hidden by big shades and a wide, thick mustache.  The dude's name was Claude, and Souther took him to be a pimp.  He was nattily attired in dark creased pants, white vest, light, point-collared shirt, and white jacket.  His fluffy Afro was topped by a slick chapeau.  For ten minutes there was minimal small talk among the group - the Ashers, Souther, Claude, Danny Kortchmar.  Claude didn't say much: yeah, well, pimps, y'know.

Claude took off his hat.  And then he took off his wig.  Claude was Joni, in blackface.  Souther and Joni had been lovers, but he hadn't recognized her under the costume.  The was her new alter ego, a character she would imminently name "Art Noveau," her "inner black person," as her friend and archivist Joel Bernstein wryly puts it.

Joni Mitchell in black face - dressed as a Pimp

Joni has repeatedly said that she has already written the first line of her autobiography, and it is this: "I was the only black man in the room."

Like many young white people of her generation, Joni romanticized being black (without the disadvantages of being black, or course).  She would increasingly insist that her music was "black" and that, as it progressed deeply into jazz, it should be played on black stations (it rarely was).  Joni has repeatedly said that she has already written the first line of her autobiography, and (perhaps referring to the day at the Ashers) it is this: I was the only black man in the room."


Page 430 - Don Juan's Reckless Daughter

After Hejira was released in late November 1976 to good sales (peaking at # 13 in Billboard) and reviews, Joni discarded confessionalism.  She picked up where Hissing had left off, with an album she called Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, the cover of which bore, among others, the image of Joni as the black pimp Art Nouveau.  It was during the making of this Don Aliasalbum that Joni met Don Alias, the jazz musician with whom she would have a serious three-and-a-half-year relationship.  A handsome, very tall, dark-copper-skinned man with a trim Afro and wide mustache, Alias was a percussionist. 

Don remembers, "One night Joni suggested going dancing at Roxy's upstairs private club. And it happened there; it happened as we danced.  I fell in love with her.  I fell in love with openness - what openness!  I fell in love with childlikeness, that wide-eyed childlike quality.  And her independence and intelligence."

Released in December 1977, the double album Don Juan's...was intensely ambitious and contrarian music: jazz-based, experimental.  With this album, people felt Joni deserved either applause for leaving the comfort of her feathered nest (one critic called it a "masterpiece") or dismissal as cold, pretentious, and irrelevant.  The album reached only # 25 in Billboard, but it went gold (as with Carole's Simple Things of that same year, her previous momentum assured as much); still, like Carole's, it would be Joni's last album to do so.


Page 433 - Mingus

Joni Mitchell and Charles MingusIn late 1978, the legendary jazz composer, bassist, and orchestra leader Charles Mingus asked Joni Mitchell to collaborate on an album with him (an honor that made John Guerin a little jealous).  Mingus wrote six melodies (flatteringly, initially, called "Joni I" to "Joni VI" to which Joni would write the lyrics - a new situation, and one she would likely not have consented to from a lesser musician.  Mingus was in the final stages of painful, paralyzing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Joni composed the lyrics for four of the pieces; recording commenced; then, after Mingus's death in early January, Joni fully composed two other songs, God Must Be A Boogie Man and The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey.  In Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Joni-utilizing images from Mingus's biography Beneath The Underdog - makes statements about the dangers to black men of interracial relationships. 

Released in June 1979, the album was obviously a risk - her fan base was already confused by Don Juan's (and, to some extent, Hissing).  But, as she told Cameron Crowe in a long Rolling Stone interview: "You have two options.  You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success.  They're going to crucify you for the staying the same.  If you change, they're going to crucify you for changing.  But staying the same is boring.  And change is interesting.  So of the two options, I'd rather be crucified for changing."


Page 435 - What do you think?

Joni Mitchell was in Canada writing the title song for a movie, Love, by Swedish actress-director Mai Zetterling, in which nine stories written by women were being filmed, anthology style.  There was tension on the set, and Joni was having trouble sitting in her room with the Gideon Bible, struggling to transform I Corinthians 13 into a love anthem.  Anxious, she called Don in New York "and she said, 'Come up! Come up!'" he recalled.  "So I went up to Toronto and immediately got swallowed up in the Mr. Joni Mitchell syndrome.  At four, five in the morning, she's asking me, 'What do you think of this?  What do you think?  I'm like, 'Jesus Christ, give me a break!'"  Don decided to return to New York.  Don's departure really upset her, he says.  "The next day," after he left - "Guerin flew in." 

Not long after that, as Don Alias recalled it, Joni gave him twenty-four hours to get all his belongings out of their New York loft, which he considered his home. "It was like a guy breaking up," he marveled, of her attitude.  "It really hurt the hell out of me!".


Page 437 - Wild Things Run Fast

Joni Mitchell's next album, Wild Things Run Fastwas such a departure not only from her jazz albums but also from the confessional ones, that the critics noted that fact almost before anything else. Stephen Holden called it "the most exhilaratingly high-spirited album Miss Mitchell has ever made," featuring "several vibrant rock-and-roll performances that communicate a rare joy in being alive."

Though no one knew this at the time (including Joni's parents, from whom the secret was still firmly kept), it was in the first song on this album, the wistful Chinese Cafe' / Unchained Melody - which, not accidentally, featured Joni "listening" to Will You Love Me Tomorrowon a jukebox - that Joni explicitly confessed: "My child's a stranger / I bore her, but I could not raise her."  No one picked up on this revelation.

The bass player on  Wild Things was a very tall, lean, darkly handsome twenty-four-year-old with tousled black curls named Larry Klein.  Over the year of the recording of the album, Larry and Joni developed a friendship.  He was besotted, "I had never met a woman remotely like Joan," he remembers thinking.  The reggae-beat Solid Love is a euphoric testament to Joni's feeling for Larry.  He moved into a house in Malibu with her and on November 11, 1982, a couple of weeks after Joni turned thirty-nine, they married.

Joni Mitchell with husband Larry Klein