IN a previous column, we left Joni Mitchell feeling battered and bruised after being ditched by James Taylor, consoled little by the success of her classic fourth album, Blue. So what happened next in the life of the former Roberta Joan Anderson?
Following Blue’s release on the Reprise label in March, 1971, the 27-year-old Canadian retreated to a stone cottage in the woods overlooking Half Moon Bay in British Columbia, north of Vancouver. She spent several months there alone, battling severe depression, reading books about philosophy and psychology, and writing the songs that would form the album For The Roses. It would go out on Asylum, the new label created by her friend David Geffen.
In early 1972 Joni toured the USA and England, supported by a handsome 23-year-old singer also on Asylum named Jackson Browne. Somewhat inevitably they became an item.
Returning to LA, where she stayed at Geffen’s home (her own house in Laurel Canyon was rented out to another musician), Joni recorded her album and it was released in November 1972. For The Roses continues the confessional tone set by Blue, but is musically much more complex with a jazzier feel thanks largely to the work of Tom Scott on woodwinds and reeds.
The first track is Banquet, a musing on the unfairness of the world. ‘Some get the gravy, and some get the gristle, some get the marrowbone; and some get nothing though there’s plenty to spare.’
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire is the first of five songs about Taylor. It deals unflinchingly with his heroin addiction – ‘Red water in the bathroom sink; fever and the scum brown bowl’.
Barangrill uses the search for somewhere to eat during a road trip as a metaphor for Joni’s journey to ‘find herself’.
Back to Taylor for Lesson in Survival, in which she complains that his friends ‘protect you and scrutinise me’, making her ‘damn timid’ and ‘not at all the spirit that’s inside of me’.
The lovely Let The Wind Carry Me focuses on Joni’s enduring battle with her mother, Myrtle, who was reluctant to give her the freedom to travel. Myrtle’s criticism of Joni and her lifestyle never ended. As a child, Joni quit piano lessons after the teacher slapped her hand. After that, her mother would complain about the money wasted on those lessons – even after watching her daughter play the piano at Carnegie Hall. She was also less than impressed by a rear view photograph of a naked Joni in the centre of the gatefold album sleeve. According to Joni, her father Bill said: ‘Myrtle, people do things like this these days.’
This is followed by the title track, a reflection on Taylor’s burgeoning celebrity –
Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the sound hole and your knee
And now you’re seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press.
The song title comes from the imagery of a horse race. As she said, ‘It’s called For The Roses and it comes from the expression, “to run for the roses”. You know what that’s all about: that’s when you take this horse and, you know, like he comes charging into the finish line and they throw a wreath of flowers around his neck and then one day they take him out and shoot him. It’s kind of a macabre thing to say, isn’t it, I guess?’
In the bitter yet beautiful See You Some Time, Joni reminds Taylor that she was famous before he was and asserts that she’s got over him during her time in the woods – ‘springing from the boulders like a mama lion’. As Joni noted, ‘I wrote a song for James Taylor that mentioned his suspenders (or braces, as we Brits would say). And then on his next album he went and wore his bloody suspenders on the cover! Well, then the cat was completely out of the bag!’
That album, Mudslide Slim, contains several songs about Joni, most notably You Can Close Your Eyes, which refers to her insomnia.
Back to For the Roses, and Electricity is a celebration of the quiet country life she came to enjoy in British Columbia. It is followed by You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio, which Joni wrote in response to Geffen’s plea for her to write a hit record. She describes it as the only ‘blatantly commercial’ song she ever wrote, and sure enough it made the singles Top 30.
The final reference to Sweet Baby James comes in the shape of Blonde in the Bleachers, another snipe at his growing stardom – ‘compete with the fans for your rock ’n’ roll man’.
In Woman of Heart and Mind, she proclaims that she has now found her independence, refers to the daughter she surrendered for adoption when in her early twenties, and describes her mixed feelings for her lover (not sure to which she was referring).
I am a woman of heart and mind
With time on her hands
No child to raise
You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl
When love makes a fool of me.
The final track is Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune), which is ostensibly about Beethoven but is also a celebration of her own creativity.
For The Roses is an astonishing piece of work which once again highlights Joni’s ability to turn personal anguish into high art. The critics loved it. The New York Times said: ‘Each of Mitchell’s songs is a gem glistening with her elegant way with language, her pointed splashes of irony and her perfect shaping of images. Never does Mitchell voice a thought or feeling commonly. She’s a songwriter and singer of genius who can’t help but make us feel we are not alone.’
On a personal note, of all Joni’s albums this is the one I have played the most – mainly because when I got my first car, a decrepit Ford Anglia with a cheap cassette player, For The Roses was the only tape I owned. Thankfully there is not a dud track and I have never tired of it.
Joni’s relationship with Jackson Browne was turbulent and short-lived. As I related in the previous piece about him, she was waiting for him to visit her one evening when he went for a drink at the Troubadour bar in West Hollywood and intervened in an argument between model Phyllis Major and her boyfriend. There was a punch-up, and Phyllis went home with Browne (they later married). When he failed to show up, Joni is said to have attempted suicide by taking pills and cutting herself. She denies this, but Geffen corroborates it.
After a period in residential therapy, Joni moved back into Geffen’s palatial Hollywood home, which he had bought from Julie Andrews. There was no question of a relationship between the pair – he would later come out as gay. He introduced her to the glamorous Hollywood social scene and movie stars such as Warren Beatty, with whom she had a brief fling.
In 1973 she began demo recordings of her next album, Court and Spark. She and co-producer Henry Lewy visited a jazz club where saxophonist Tom Scott, who had played on For The Roses, was appearing with his group LA Express. They seemed to fit with Joni’s increasingly complex musical ideas and were hired to play on her LP. She and the drummer, John Guerin, 33, almost immediately became an item. Although Guerin, a ruggedly attractive divorcee, had dated several singers he felt she was something else.
‘Joan was a different kind of animal,’ he told Sheila Weller in her book Girls Like Us.
While the other women he had squired did no more than interpret material, Joni created, he said. ‘A lot of what I fell in love with had to do with her out-and-out talent. I was amazed at her talent for most of our relationship. She didn’t have patience for repetition or rules. She opened up my ears to words. And I taught her things in exchange. She learned what the rhythm section does – she’d never paid any attention to that.’
Court and Spark, which took almost a year to record, was released in early 1974. The first thing that struck me about it was the development of Joni’s voice – deeper (thanks no doubt to her heavy cigarette habit), warmer and much more controlled. It opens with the title track – ‘Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and a madman’s soul.’ It tells how her feelings grow for this mysterious stranger but in the end she cannot leave her beloved Los Angeles for him. Unlike her previous, brutally honest autobiographical songs, this is mostly fiction. What really happened was that a deranged fan turned up at her cottage and started dancing naked on the rocks outside. She locked the door and went to bed but he was still there the following day so she went outside and told him to put some clothes on, which he did. In a 2008 interview, she admitted: ‘I made a romance of it, which it wasn’t. It was a lopsided romance. I mean, it was a loony fan obsessed with me.’
The next song, Help Me, about falling in love with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, would provide Joni with her first Top 10 single. It is followed by the equally commercial Free Man in Paris, s the story of a visit to France by Geffen, although he was not best pleased at her depiction of him as a man weary of ‘stoking the star-maker machine behind the popular song’. He apparently asked her not to include it on the album but forgave her for defying him when it became another hit single.
People’s Parties chronicles her assimilation into the Hollywood A-list – ‘all the people at this party, they’ve got a lot of style’. The Same Situation occupies similar territory, with a womanising celebrity ‘turning his gaze’ to Joni, and is said by some to be about Warren Beatty. In his book Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns quotes Randy Newman as saying: ‘Joni reached a point where, to my mind, she was writing about rich people and I lost interest.’ To which Joni responded: ‘I can only say you write about that which you have access to. So if you go from the hippie thing to more of a Gatsby community, so what? Life is short and you have an opportunity to explore as much of it as fortune and time allow.’
Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true.
The more upbeat Just Like This Train is a metaphor for Joni’s emotional neediness, while Raised on Robbery is another commercial effort also released as a single. Then we come to Trouble Child, inspired by her time in therapy – ‘up in a sterilised room where they let you be lazy’. The singing on this track is utterly sublime; in my opinion the finest vocal performance of her career so far. On a similar theme yet jokier is a cover version of the 1952 Annie Ross song Twisted – ‘My analyst told me, that I was right out of my head.’
This is not my favourite Joni album, with its often tricksy arrangements, but the introspective tracks People’s Parties, The Same Situation, Down to You and Trouble Child are up there with her best work. Commercially it was the most successful LP she ever released, reaching No 2 in America and going double platinum. And she wasn’t done yet. In a future column I’ll crank up the old steam-powered radiogram and examine the brilliant Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. In the meantime, my thanks again to the rock scholar Michael Sentance for his input and advice.