This is the first of two extracts from Both Sides Now: Conversations with Joni Mitchell, published by Omnibus Press last month, which distils 40 years of original interviews with the legendary singer/songwriter by broadcast journalist Malka Marom. The two first met in a Toronto coffee bar in 1966 before Mitchell found mainstream success, and their first interview took place in 1973. Over the years more interviews followed with Marom enjoying privileged access as their friendship developed and endured.
M: Was there anything in particular that brought you to music?
J: I had, as a child, I don’t remember what age, a hurdy-gurdy that had a rope around the neck. It had circus images and it was made of heavy cardboard and it had a rubber thing that when you wound it, it hit some prongs, which played the melody ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’.
I used to always play it backwards because backwards it rocked. It had a different rhythm. The melodic intervals were quite surprising. It was really entirely a different piece of music – almost African in its rhythm. Once I played it backwards, playing it forward was kind of corny. Played backwards, it was a much more interesting piece of music, the first piece of music that inspired me.
The second one was when I was in the fourth grade. I had one friend who was a classically trained grade eight piano student, Frankie McKitrick. He let me dream big without any kind of contest. He was the only kid I could kind of play with, and I was exposed to a lot of music and ballet and things like that because of his interests. He was a real musician. I never thought of myself as a musician. He and I went to some pretty far-out movies together. My mother was horrified that the principal, his father, let us play hooky to go and see them. And among them was a movie called The Story of Three Loves, which had Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as a theme song. And that piece of music thrilled me to no end. It was the most beautiful
piece of music that I ever heard. I had to hear the record of it. I asked my parents to buy it for me, but it wasn’t in the budget. It would be seventy-five cents or something. So I would go down to Grobman’s department store, take it out of its brown sleeve, and go in the playback and play it maybe two or three times a week and just swoon. I saw [the movie] recently. It was really corny, but the piece of music is still stupendous.
There isn’t another piece of music on the planet that has touched me like that. When I heard it as a child, that music was like pleading to my mother. “Don’t interpret the situation that way. You’re breaking my heart. And I’m trying to explain to you... I’m not trying to wiggle out of anything. I’m just trying to explain. And you won’t let me. You insist on creating this barrier by getting it wrong.” There isn’t a piece of music that affected me emotionally like that. Then I started to dream that I could play the piano beautifully.
M: To dream or to wish?
J: To dream. In my dreams, my hands would be on the keyboards and I’d be composing these fantastic pieces of music, like Story of Three Loves, that I could play and make emotions come out like that. And I also dreamed I could drive a car [laughs].
So I told my mother that I wanted a piano, but it wasn’t in the budget. I begged, I wheedled, I pleaded, and finally, one winter night, because there was no piano store in North Battleford, this van pulled up with a lot of spinets on the back. Mine was not a good instrument at all.
I began piano lessons from a teacher named Jill Evan, who wore her hair in a bun like a Spanish dancer, and a lot of red lipstick and long, red fingernails. And like all piano teachers at that time, she hit you with a ruler for all kinds of things. But I didn’t know that, that corporal punishment was the methodology. I took it personally. I thought she didn’t like me and my mother because she had a crush on my dad. Because she and my father used to do these duets, and she also played tennis and so did my dad.
But it was just the way they taught piano in those days.
It took us a year of right-handed, da da da da da da da da scales, and left-hand scales before you got your first two-handed piece, which was written by a nun. It was called ‘The Little Regret’ and it went from major to minor. It was quite a nice little piece of music.
Once I got my first two-handed piece, I wrote my first piece of music, ‘Robin Walk’. I wrote it out in notes. So I’m proud. And I bring in this ‘Robin Walk’ to play it for this teacher — “Look what I’ve done. I wrote my own song here.” And I play it for her. When I’m finished, she says to me, “Why would you want to play [this song] when you could have the masters under your fingers,” and she whacked me across the knuckles with a ruler.
I went home and I said, “That’s it. I’m not going back there. She hit me.” And my mother called me a quitter.
When my mother was in her eighties, one day she said to me, “All that money we spent on your piano lessons and you quit!”
M: By that time you were already...
J: Yeah. I had 15 albums out. It was ridiculous. I played Carnegie Hall! So I laughed... She went, “All that money we spent and you quit!” I said to her, “Look, I think you got some bang for your buck.”
M: Was she joking?
J: No! She just had a trap mind. I don’t know what it is. I lied to her once in my teens. I told her I was going someplace and I went to a public dance, where I wasn’t supposed to go. So I was always a liar after that, a liar, a quitter and a lesbian. She’s wrong on all three counts and would not stand corrected. She just got these things fixed and they wouldn’t erase.
M: Did you continue to play the piano after you quit those lessons?
J: No. It killed it. Later I played a little bit of ‘Moon River’, like Henry Mancini. Other than that, my fingers found their own patterns. I think the fact that I did not have the masters, that I don’t have any musical heroes... my music is pretty original. Nearly anyone you talk to in my generation had a hero that they studied and analyzed and strove to be like. They did air guitar in front of the mirror. So it was less “muse” than “ick”. [laughs] Music comes from the muse, not from other musicians.
M: And poetry? What sparked the songs, the poetry?
J: The spark for the poetry came and died. I moved from North Battleford to Saskatoon in the sixth grade. Towards the end of the year, we were having a parent-teacher day and I was hanging some drawings of mine for this thing when the new grade seven teacher, Kratsman, came up to me. He said, “You like to paint?” I said, “Yes.” He said to me, “If you could paint with a brush, you could paint with words.” And I went, “I can?” I took his word for it.
M: You mean the poems came just like that: because he said that you could paint with words?
J: Yeah, the first time we were given an assignment to write a poem, he smothered the board in really interesting topics. I chose to write about a stallion, because I was into horses, because of Roy Rogers and cowboys. I used to play cowboys with the boys. And I used to spend my allowance riding [the pony] at the stockyard on the weekend. So I wrote a poem about a stallion and how he leads the horse hunters along a precipice and the horse hunters fall off the cliff. It was in sympathy with the horse. There were two words in it that I really stretched for. “Equine” I got from Reader’s
Digest: “it pays to improve your word power.” And one I got from my mother, which was a synonym for yellow. She gave me “saffron.” Anyway, I believed the teacher – if I could paint, I could paint with words. So I wrote this very ambitious poem. I thought it was good. And he gave me an A minus, but he passed out A plusses, including an A plus to the “toad stabber” – the kid who
sat across from me who kept drawing bleeding toads with daggers through them all over his notebooks.
I stayed after school, and I said, “You told me I could do this. Did you not like my poem.” He said, “I thought it was alright.” And I said, “Did you think his, the toad stabber’s, was better? You gave him an A plus.” I don’t think I called him the “toad stabber”, but whatever his name was, I forget. The teacher said, “No, but that’s the best poem he’s ever gonna write. This is not the best poem you’re ever gonna write.”
I took that as an explanation.
He wrote things in the margin, like, I repeated an adjective... It was poetic, part of it, but it had a story.
“Softly now, the saffron colours of the day
“Fade and are replaced by silver grey
“As God prepares his will for night
“And high upon a silver shadowed hill
“A stallion, white as newly fallen snow”
He circled [it and wrote] cliché white as
newly fallen snow.
“Stands deathly still” — deathly — better adjective?
“An equine statue bathed in silver light” — silver is circled.
“For on the wind was strong the scent of man
“He worried for the safety of his clan
“And whinnied, hoping they would hear and heed.”
M: You remember the poem. My goodness, Joni...
J: Well, first stanza. I remember that much. I remember the criticism, which was valid criticism, good adjudication for a seventh grader. His take was “How many times have you’ve seen Black Beauty? The things you were telling me about what you did over the weekend are more interesting than this.” And in a way, that was the encouragement to write more autobiographically. It’s the only thing I learned in the school system. It’s the only thing I remember from 13 years in school really.
M: You dedicated your first album to him.
J: Yes, but in talking to him in later years, he unfortunately resented my success because he taught special kids at special schools and they were supposed to be the most likely to succeed – I was probably the least likely to succeed. I don’t think he ever could quite come to grips with that. He didn’t really mean what he said. He told me I could paint with words and then he told me I wasn’t very good at it. Even though his criticism was valid, his support was not there, as it was initially. So the spark went out, because I felt he lied to me. He let me down. And I never had any support from my family or anything. And at that stage, you need somebody to believe in you.