Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell's Biographer Tells His Stories

American author and Syracuse University professor David Yaffe, author of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, was in Toronto earlier this month to promote his new HarperCollins book on the one-of-a-kind Canadian songstress.

I had met Yaffe in the summer of 2013. We both plonked ourselves in the front row for Luminato’s Times Talk with Mitchell, an onstage interview with New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles to coincide with Joni: A Portrait in Song; A Birthday Happening, a two-night celebration of her 70th at Massey Hall, which she attended.

I was covering the Times Talk for Rolling Stone, and Yaffe was on assignment for the same outlet (which wanted a feature interview), as well for research for his book. At the time Mitchell was not speaking with Yaffe, upset over his 2007 New York Times piece in which he called her home “middle class.”

Yaffe made another trip to Toronto in late 2014. Journalist and author Nicholas Jennings took us on a walking tour of Yorkville and filled his ear with stories of the bygone folk club district where the unknown Mitchell had performed in the mid-60s, most notably the Purple Onion.

Four years later and Yaffe was back again, book in hand, doing a ton of press and an onstage “talk” of his own (kindly asking me to do the honours) and book signing.

Yaffe’s parents, Martin and Connie, to whom Reckless Daughter is dedicated, came in for the launch at Hugh’s Room. They had met at the University of Toronto, and his father played the banjo with Ian & Sylvia.  

Below is the interview with Yaffe that took place for the packed house, presented by Marc Glassman’s Pages Unbound.

You were working on the book, and she was not speaking to you at the time. She didn’t see you in the front row and get you tossed out.  You were trying to get an interview at that time. What lengths were you going to?

I pulled the Pareles card.

Which is?

I had met Jon before so I thought maybe he could help grease the wheels.

How far did you get? You were working on this book regardless of whether or not you got another interview with Joni.

That’s right. It’s sort of like the use of space in a Miles Davis solo where the not talking can be just as useful as the talking. So, at that time, we were in a sublime space.

Were you confident you would get her to talk to you?

No.

Because you had just pissed her off so much by using the words “middle class”?

No, that’s not what did it.  I stayed in there after that.

What did it? What’s the real story?

Listen, I knew this thing wasn’t going to last, but I was going through a bipolar episode, which probably didn’t turn on the charm in the right way, I guess.

How does it make you feel that this woman you have loved, you admired her work since you were 15, you finally get to interview for the New York Times, and she is disappointed in you?

It made me go the distance.  I just thought, ‘Well, she’s Joni Mitchell.’ You know what I thought? She gave up her daughter.  Why is she going to give anything to me? She gave up her daughter. That’s what I thought.

So you want to write a book about this woman who is very open in her words, in her lyrics, but isn’t as forthcoming in her interviews and public life. Apparently she can cut you out of her life very quickly. You interviewed about 60 people for the book [between 2007 and 2017] — among them Leonard Cohen, Garth Hudson, Graham Nash, David Crosby, on and on — incredible people with incredible stories. What was the response when you said, ‘I’m doing a book on Joni’?

I tried to engage them in a conversation that they want to have.  Anthony DeCurtis — a longtime writer for Rolling Stone — I grew up reading his interviews. He interviewed Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bono, Woody Allen. He said to me, ‘Treat regular people like rock stars and treat rock stars like regular people.’ So, I’ve just tried to have a conversation that they would want to have and then I would have something to offer so that it wouldn’t just be one-sided. I’d do the same thing.

I don’t get people too often to talk about their lovers, their coke addictions, being in abusive relationships. You got some juicy details, some fantastic stories, many of which I’m sure have never been told.  What are some that stick out in your mind that you thought, ‘Yes, that is a coup”?

Part of it was I talked around Joni for those years that she wasn’t talking to me.  I got so much material from people who knew her, musicians who worked with her, people who knew her personally, sometimes overlapping in those two categories. I remember, for example, when I was talking to jazz musicians, I had heard that Don Alias beat Joni up. That was a really painful thing to write — of course, it was especially painful for Joni but even me hearing about it, it was painful.  I remember talking to Wallace Roney who played with Joni on an orchestral tour in 2000, this jazz trumpet player. And these conversations would always be the same, ‘Oh, Don what a sweet guy. What a great guy.’  ‘Yeah. I heard that he was the sweetest guy.’ ‘Oh yeah, he was. He was the sweetest guy.’ ‘Yeah, but I also heard that he beat Joni up.’  ‘Oh, yeah, I heard that too. ‘

So that was the scuttlebutt with every jazz musician I spoke to.  Word on the street was Don Alias smacked her up. So, I got this from Roney, and I got this from Brian Blade, various guys. Finally, I’m talking to Joni. I’m sitting there at the kitchen table, and we started talking about Don and the intimacy between them and how you can hear it in the performances, and I just said, ‘Yeah, I heard that Don was the sweetest guy.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but he did beat me up.’

Let’s talk about Leonard [Cohen]. It’s wonderful you got to interview him. They had such a deep respect for each other and influenced each other. You got some good stuff about him.

Oh my god, that was remarkable. I had the lyrics to ‘Rainy Night House’ on my phone, ‘Rainy Night House,’ which you might know if you’re Joni fans, [is] on Ladies of the Canyon, then she has a cool arrangement of it on her live album called of Miles of Aisles. It’s widely known that that song is about Leonard Cohen. I sat there with the lyrics in front of me, and I read them to Leonard, and I had him comment on every single line, and he just said, ‘Yes, those are accurate. That’s my life. That’s my biography.’  And there’s a line she sings, ‘You sat up all the night and watched me to see who in the world I might be,’ and then she turns it around and says, ‘I sat up all night to watch thee to see who in the world you might be.” I said, ‘Is that true? Did you stay up all night to watch Joni sleep?’ He said, ‘Sure. Of course. Why wouldn’t I? Of course, I did. She was a great looking girl.’

Joni said at one point that she has a ‘perverse need for originality.’ Did she talk at all about her influence on others and how she felt that people might look to her music to inspire their originality?

She liked to quote the title of this Charles Mingus composition, ‘If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.’  So, she had this in common with Mingus, that she didn’t like the copycats so much. So those people that sounded like her, she thought they were weakness readings. People, some of them I like. I shouldn’t name names, but I think that the people she appreciates that she did influence were the ones that didn’t actually sound like her but were influenced. To her, the best was that if someone was influenced, they then sounded like themselves, and she played a role.

For example, the first time I interviewed her, this Nonesuch compilation came out called A Tribute to Joni Mitchell. It was all these new recordings of Joni Mitchell covers. There are a lot of cool things on it. Like there’s a jazz pianist I love, Brad Mehldau, who does a version of ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,’ which I just absolutely loved, but she didn’t. There were only two tracks on that collection that she liked and one of them was Bjork’s cover of the “Boho Dance,” and the other was something you probably heard, Prince’s cover of “A Case of You,” which is probably my favourite Joni Mitchell cover.

He was a huge fan.

He loved Joni Mitchell, and that is so beautiful what he does, and the rhythms are so original that he brings to it.  Everything about it is just perfection, or better than perfection.  She thought Prince was formidable and she liked Bjork a lot.  But the people who sounded like her she didn’t like, like Sarah McLachlan. I hope I’m not upsetting anybody here. I’m just the messenger.

Do you have enough for a book two from your interviews with her — about nasty stuff she says about people?

That’s like the DVD extras.

It’s an interesting book the way you put it together. It’s not a straight narrative. It’s threaded with her lyrics and your interpretation of them, as if they’re all autobiographical. That’s the assumption, right?

Everything about her work is so personal, even if she’s just writing about something else. I’ll give you an example.  She was on her property in Vancouver when she was about 50 and picked up a tabloid at a local supermarket, which she said she’d never done in her life, but she picked it up, and it happened that the cover story was about The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. About how these pregnancies were repressed, and these women would get around up and taken to these laundries, if they were considered to be a Jezebel, even if men looked at them a certain way.

So, she writes this very deep song on Turbulent Indigo, "The Magdalene Laundries," but, of course, Jodi gave up her daughter, and she had to keep it all a secret because of the shame that went with that in 1964, 1965. She gave birth right here in Toronto, a secret. That’s just one example, but this tabloid story was about this thing that actually happened in Ireland but, of course, it becomes a personal thing.

Here’s another example:  She’s got this amazing song on Dog Eat Dog called “Ethiopia,” and this was 1985, the year Live Aid, you know and “We Are the World,” this feel-good song — we can make a difference; we are the world; we are the children, and she didn’t want to write a song like that. So, she wrote a song about how awful it was, and even Wayne Shorter who usually understood everything she did said to her, ‘What kind of chords are these? These aren’t piano or guitar chords? She said, ‘This is about mothers who can’t afford to feed their babies. Should it sound like “Wake Up Little Susie?”

If you think about it, it’s about Ethiopia. But again? Why did she give up her daughter? Partly because she couldn’t afford to raise her;  so, these things tend to have a way of reverberating back to her life. 

You, fortunately, had the opportunity to interview her again and having interviewed all these people [for the book], you can go through all these stories that they’ve told you, and get her viewpoint. Which ones did she confirm? And what were some of the things which you have believed to be true all these years and she set you straight?

I feel like instead of setting me straight, she just completed the story or filled in the whole story. One example was after The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released, Joni went on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue for a month and that month was a big thing for her and she thought a lot about it. In fact, if she hadn’t had an aneurysm, she might very well have written a memoir just about that year. The ink was about to sign on her to do a book just on 1975. So, after that Rolling Thunder Tour, she went on a tour to support The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and it lasted two months. It was supposed to last eight months, so something happened that cut the tour off.  Then she went and drove across the country and wrote the Hejira songs.

I talked to various people that were on the tour, and one of them said to me, ‘Oh, yeah, we had to cut the tour off, but we can’t tell you why.’  I think Robben Ford, the guitar player, told me that.  And then I thought ‘Hmm, gee, this is gonna be delicious. What is this?’  So, I talked to this bass player, Max Bennett, who was a member of the L.A. Express and played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. He played with Peggy Lee, and he suggested that she sing a song called “Fever.” He’s the one that plays that very distinctive bass line on the record; that’s him.  At this point, Robben Ford said, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ and I thought, ‘Mmm, Max Bennett; he’s 82 years old. I’m gonna get it out of him’ — and I did.

Did she want to know who you’d been talking to and what they had been saying? If she gets pissed off at you just for using the words ‘middle class’ and calling her too much, I could imagine if she read this…

By the way, that ‘middle-class thing’ cracked me up, I have to say, because she said, ‘I don’t know what you think middle-class is…’ I said, “Did you know that I grew up in a three-bedroom house with an automatic garage door. When I was 16, I drove a ‘75 Buick LeSabre that was a hand-me-down from my brother?’ Anyway, the fabulous life. Joni was impressed that I had talked to these musicians. She liked that, because she was sick of the whole celebrity thing.

You still have the Warren Beatty stuff, the Jack Nicholson. Any man that was around her wanted her or she had a fling or relationship with.

That came from her. That came right from her, and I didn’t have to dig for that. She wanted to tell me that.

That she turned down Warren Beatty when all these other women who wanted him?

Before she eventually didn’t turn him down of course.

As I understand it as well — and I think she said this at the Luminato talk — that there was a biopic in the works and she said to the director, ‘You don’t have enough details.’

That’s right. ‘You don’t know about the railing that disintegrated because they burned it for heat in Toronto.’

You said too that she'd had a deal to write her memoirs.

Okay, so in 1995 she got a contract from Crown [Books] to write a memoir, and the editor was a woman named Karen Rinaldi, and so Joni turned in some pages, and Karen Rinaldi told her that she didn’t know how to write prose.  So, then she brought in a scribe, this woman named Amy Scholder, who I talked with. Amy talked to her for a long time and then showed her three chapters, and Joni didn’t like the chapters, and that was that, and it was dead. At one point, when Joni had me against the wall, really giving me a hard time, she demanded to know my advance.

She didn’t want to read any?

No, she wanted to know the advance, and I said, ‘You mean like what I got up front or the whole thing?’

Well, you talk in the book about her financial problems, with taxes and record companies.

Yes, rich people’s problems. That’s what she called them. But anyway, so I was up against the wall, and I had to tell her.  I had to tell her; it was horrible. She said, ‘Your advance is bigger than mine’ and then she said, ‘Men always get paid more.’ And then I offered to give her a cut.

I think you owe your whole career to this woman.

I offered to give her a cut, and she said, ‘I don’t want your money.’

There are interesting parts in her school years where she wasn’t a very good student, and she had a very influential teacher who told her to replace clichés with something else, and that seemed to have stuck with her.

Mr. Kratzmann.

I like that whole part, being a journalist myself and you, you’re obviously a lover of language. Reading this book there are definitely words I had to look up. It’s an intense read.

Don’t be put off though. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a hot under the covers read even if you have to look up some words.

And then there are entire passages, for the musician, about triads and other notes.

But it’s so much fun.

A lot of people don’t approach biographies like that.

It’s sexy. It’s sexy. ‘What does that mean? Ooaa.  Triads!  It’s so sexy.’

So, this is the definitive Joni Mitchell book.

I guess I would say that’s one-thousand-percent true.  I’m the only biographer that she talked to at length, and I’m the only biographer that she talked to about these things at all.

There are like eight books about Joni Mitchell, and there’s another one where the writer didn’t get to talk to Joni Mitchell. That was Michelle Mercer’s book about the Blue album, called Will You Take Me As I Am; but Michelle’s contact with Joni was really at her property in Sechelt and an evening while Joni was entertaining other people, so she’d buttonhole her in the corner to get a few things, but got about as much time with her as one would get for a magazine profile. It wasn’t anything more than you’d get from going to Jonimitchell,com.

What is your perspective now of this woman you have loved since you were 15? You’ve demystified her. You know everything there is. What is your view of her now?

Honestly, that music is so alive to me still and the woman who made it is still so alive to me. What’s astonishing about it is I remember being 15 and listening to Blue and Court and Spark and Hejira, and just being excited like, ‘Oh my god. I can’t wait to have my heart broken like that. It’s so sophisticated and adult and deep. Wow. I can’t wait to have a real-life experience.’ And, of course, now I’m 44 years old, and I see she’s doing this great work when she’s 27, 28. She makes Blue at 27, Court and Spark at 30, but what I still hear in that is this anticipation for the excitement and ebullience of life. It’s the whole idea of the circle game, that there’s still something ahead. We can’t return. We can only look behind from where we came.

That’s how you end the book — that revelation doesn’t ruin it for anyone — but you do end it by quoting that song, “The Circle Game.”

It’s amazing one gets more tender as one ages. I’m more vulnerable to that song now than when I was the age of the kid in the song or even younger than that.

Joni did sing at one point, ‘I really don’t know life at all’ [on ‘Both Sides Now’]. Do you think she does?

Well, I think that part of her courage was that she knew it too well and she was impatient with people that were slower on the uptake, which was most everybody else.

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