Sunday October 16, 2005 – The Observer
When Joni Mitchell arrived in Los Angeles from Canada in 1968, she landed in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. In an exclusive extract from his new book, Barney Hoskyns tells how the hipsters who all hung out together in Laurel Canyon fell both for Mitchell and her music – and turned Sixties rock on its head
Joni Mitchell was a stranger in a strange land – twice removed from her native Canada, new to California from America’s East Coast. She was strange-looking, too, willowy but hip, a Scandinavian squaw with flaxen hair and big teeth and Cubist cheekbones. Men instinctively knew Joni as a peer. They also sensed a prickliness and a perfectionism.
In tow with Mitchell was Elliot Roberts, nÈe Rabinowitz, a rock’n’roll Woody Allen with a hooked nose and an endearing devotion to his single cause – Joni Mitchell. ‘Elliot pitched being my manager,’ she recalled of him. ‘I said, “I don’t need a manager, I’m doing quite nicely”. But he was a funny man. I enjoyed his humour.’
This odd couple had come out to Los Angeles from New York, where the Greenwich Village folk scene was petering out before their very eyes. Roberts, an agent for the Chartoff-Winkler management company, had previously worked in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency with the even more ambitious David Geffen. Elliot decided to jack in the world of agenting after Buffy Sainte-Marie, a client, dragged him to see Joni perform in late October 1967.
Joni had already crammed a lot into her short life. She’d been married to a fellow Canadian singer, Chuck Mitchell, and given up a daughter for adoption – an abandonment that ate at her like a wound. Songwriting served as therapy for her pain. ‘It was almost like she wanted to erase herself and just let the songs speak for her,’ reflected her novelist friend Malka Marom. Joni’s unusual open guitar tunings also set her songs apart from the folk balladry of the day. ‘I was really a folk singer up until 1965, but once I crossed the border I began to write,’ Mitchell says. ‘My songs began to be, like, playlets or soliloquies. My voice even changed – I no longer was imitative of the folk style, really. I was just a girl with a guitar that made it look that way.’
‘Elliot became wildly excited about Joni, and he introduced me to her and I became her agent,’ recalled David Geffen. ‘And it was the beginning of her career – it was the beginning of our careers. Everything was very small time.’ Established stars queued up to cover songs from the Mitchell songbook. ‘When she first came out,’ said Roberts, ‘she had a backlog of 20, 25 songs that most people would dream that they would do in their entire career … it was stunning.’
In America and in England, people sat up and noticed the blonde with the piercing prairie soprano, the idiosyncratic guitar tunings, and the wise-beyond-her-years lyrics. When Roberts and Mitchell went to Florida to play the folk circuit, guitarist and singer David Crosby came to see her at the Gaslight South. ‘Right away I thought I’d been hit by a hand grenade,’ he reported later. There was something about the way Mitchell combined naked purity with artful sophistication that shocked Crosby – the sense of a young woman who had seen too much too soon. He set Joni in his sights, bedding her that week. The affair was never likely to last.
‘These were two very wilful people,’ says photographer Joel Bernstein. ‘Neither was going to cave in. I remember being at Joni’s old apartment in Chelsea in New York and I heard this commotion on the street. And it was Crosby and Joni screaming at each other on the corner. It gave me a real sense of the volatility of their relationship.’
The volatility did not obscure David’s deep admiration for Joni’s talent, nor his awareness of the obstacles she and Elliot were encountering. ‘Everything about Joni was unique and original, but we couldn’t get a deal,’ says Roberts, who took tapes to Columbia, RCA and other majors. ‘The folk period had died, so she was totally against the grain. Everyone wanted a copy of the tape for, like, their wives, but no one would sign her.’
Roberts arrived in Los Angeles in late 1967, knowing few people in the city but using Crosby’s endorsement as a calling card. Joni followed close behind. Immediately she was received with open arms. Epitomising the hospitality was B Mitchel Reed, the disc jockey whose KPPC-FM radio show was the pipeline of all cool sounds in LA. Reed put Roberts and Mitchell up in his rented house above the Sunset Strip on Sunset Plaza Drive.
Joni wasn’t sure about Los Angeles. She was used to crowded sidewalks, teeming urban life – the bustle and commotion of Toronto and Manhattan. She didn’t like it that people went everywhere in their big gas-guzzling cars. But once she and Elliot got into Laurel Canyon, up among the cypresses and eucalyptus trees that lined the bumpy, snaking roads, she started to see the City of the Angels as the ‘new golden land’ that had seduced so many outsiders: the land of David Hockney’s painting A Bigger Splash, of exotic palms and dry desert air and the omnipresent vault of blue sky.
‘Driving around up in the canyons there were no sidewalks and no regimented lines like the way I was used to cities being laid out,’ Mitchell recalls. ‘And then, having lived in New York, there was the ruralness of it, with trees in the yard and ducks floating around on my neighbours’ pond. And the friendliness of it: no one locked their doors.’ As for Elliot Roberts, he’d grown up in the Bronx: how bad could this paved paradise be?
‘Elliot would sleep on my couch at 8333 Lookout Mountain,’ says manager Ron Stone, then owner of a boutique in West Hollywood. ‘At the same time, Crosby had been tossed out of the Byrds and was mooching off me. We’d smoke a joint and play chess. He was my entrÈe to all of this.’
When Roberts officially left Chartoff-Winkler he asked Ron Stone to work for him. To Stone it looked more exciting than selling used leather jackets to the socialites of Beverly Hills. ‘Right away it was like Elliot and Ron could take a New York entrepreneurial viewpoint on the whole thing,’ says Joel Bernstein, who would soon be taking photographs of Joni. ‘I think it was really eye-opening to these guys that you could come out here and live up in Laurel Canyon in little wooden houses where you didn’t even need heating or air-conditioning… and you could still do business.’ With Stone as his new aide-de-camp, Roberts trotted off to Reprise Records.
A Mitchell demo session was green-lighted on condition that David Crosby produce it. ‘David was very enthusiastic about the music,’ Joni says. ‘He was twinkly about it. His instincts were correct: he was going to protect the music and pretend to produce me.’
The sessions that eventually became Joni Mitchell could not have been more auspicious. Recording at Sunset Sound, Mitchell and Crosby kept things stripped and simple: in the main just Joni, her guitar, and such well-worked songs as ‘Marcie’ and ‘I Had a King’. The two had now officially split up. ‘They each described to me crying at the other through the glass in the studio,’ says Bernstein. Sitting in on occasional guitar and bass was Stephen Stills, who was across the hall with his group Buffalo Springfield. His bandmate, the dark and brooding Neil Young, was known to Mitchell from her apprenticeship on the Canadian folk circuit. Sharing a uniquely dry Canuck humour, Young and Mitchell had an easy rapport. ‘You gotta meet Neil,’ she told Elliot. ‘He’s the only guy who’s funnier than you are.’
Roberts wandered down the hall to meet Joni’s compatriate. Stories about Young’s moodiness made him wary, but Elliot was pleasantly surprised when the singer turned out to be approachable and affable. Joni and Neil compared notes on their respective musical journeys. If Joni’s tastes didn’t stretch to the febrile rock the Springfield played, she could sense the electricity in the air – the vibrancy of the scene and the exploding of talent on and off the Sunset Strip.
Mitchell divided her debut album into two loosely autobiographical sections – a conceit easier to bring off in the days of vinyl LPs. The first side (‘I Came To the City’) commenced with ‘I Had a King’, a song detailing – with more than a trace of self-protective bitterness – the break-up of Joni’s marriage. Part Two (‘Out of the City and Down To the Seaside’) found our heroine in the country, by the sea, settled in rustic southern California. ‘Song to a Seagull’ summarised the theme of the album, with Joni recapping on her urban adventures and subsequent departure for the sea. The song played perfectly on the image of Mitchell as a kind of a fairy maiden striving to float free of human need. The final song, ‘Cactus Tree’, pointed forward to deeper themes in the singer’s subsequent work: themes of romantic love, of female autonomy, of commitment versus creative freedom. Describing three lovers – the first almost certainly Crosby – Joni ‘thinks she loves them all’ but fears giving herself completely to any of them. These were important issues for young, liberated women in the 1960s, rejecting a society where women had tended to live somewhat vicariously as caretakers to men. A self-proclaimed ‘serial monogamist’, Mitchell would struggle for years with the conflicts between her desire for love and her need for independence.
Although the album now sounds earnest and worthy, the power of Joni’s swooping, pellucid vibrato and idiosyncratic, questioning chords is right there. ‘Joni invented everything about her music, including how to tune the guitar,’ said James Taylor, one of her many later boyfriends. ‘From the beginning of the process of writing she’s building the canvas as well as putting paint on it.’
In March, with the album about to be released, Crosby presented his protÈgÈe to his peers. His favourite gambit was to host impromptu acoustic performances by Joni, usually at the Laurel Canyon homes of his friends. ‘David says, “I want you to meet somebody”,’ recalls screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. ‘And he goes upstairs and comes back down with this ethereal blonde. And this is the first time that everybody heard ‘Michael from Mountains’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’. And then she goes back upstairs, and we all sit around and look at each other and say, “What was that? Did we hallucinate it?”‘
Eric Clapton sat spellbound on the lawn of Laurel Canyon neighbour ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot as Joni cooed ‘Urge For Going’, a song inspired by the death of the folk movement. Crosby was at her side, a joint in his mouth and a Cheshire-cat smile of satisfaction on his face. ‘Cass had organised a little backyard barbecue,’ says photographer Henry Diltz. ‘Because she’d met Cream she invited Clapton, who was very quiet and almost painfully shy. And Joni was there and doing her famous tunings, and Eric sat and stared at her hands to try and figure out what she was doing.’
The following day Joni performed on Reed’s KPPC show in Pasadena and answered questions that whetted LA’s appetite for the new neo-folk star. So much did Reed talk her up that her first live dates in town were all sell-outs at the Troubadour.
‘Like Neil, Joni was quiet,’ says Diltz, who photographed her soon after her move to LA. ‘A lot of these people were quiet, which was why they became songwriters. It was the only way they could express themselves. It was very different from the Tin Pan Alley tradition, where guys would try to write a hit song and turn out these teen-romance songs about other people.’
Joni found a perfect place of retreat in Laurel Canyon. In April 1968, with money from her modest Reprise advance, she made a down-payment on a quaint cottage built into the side of the hill on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Soon she had filled it with antiques and carvings and stained Tiffany windows – not to mention a nine-year-old tomcat named Hunter. Within a year her songs were setting the pace for the new introspection of the singer-songwriter school.
On 5 July, 1968, Robert Shelton wrote a New York Times piece about Mitchell entitled ‘Singer-Songwriters are Making a Comeback’. In it he noted that, while the return of solo acoustic performers had at least something to do with economics, ‘the high-frequency rock’n’roar may have reached its zenith.’ Nine months later, folk singer and Sing Out! editor Happy Traum came to a similar conclusion in Rolling Stone. ‘As if an aural backlash to psychedelic acid rock and to the all-hell-has-broken-loose styles of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin,’ Traum wrote, ‘the music is gentle, sensitive, and graceful. Nowadays it’s the personal and the poetic, rather than a message, that dominates.’
It was time to turn inwards, and Joni Mitchell was leading the way.
Now semi-retired after falling bitterly out of love with the music business.
Manager. Still with Neil Young, and has managed Spiritualized.
Mogul. Launched Asylum in 1971 and became the Croesus of LA rock. In talks to sell his DreamWorks empire.
David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash
Rock’n’roll survivors. All wrote about their relationship with Joni. Crosby survived cocaine abuse, guns, jail and a liver transplant; Stills has just made his best album in years; Nash was named Amateur Photographer of the Year in 2003.
Rock’n’roll enigma. The greatest male singer-songwriter of the Seventies still treads his own wayward path.
Freak-out supremo Once threw Mick Jagger out of his Laurel Canyon home for being drunk. Died from cancer in 1993.
Singer. Joni and James were on each other’s records all the time in the Seventies. Taylor still records and tours.
Singer. Introduced Nash to the Canyon scene at Joni’s house. Died in 1974.
? ‘Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons 1967-1976’ is published by Fourth Estate on 7 November, priced £14.99. To order a copy for the special price of £13.99, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 836 0885