Reckless Joni Mitchell

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Just taken delivery of the Rock’s Backpages JONI anthology, Reckless Daughter, published by Constable/Little, Brown on November 3rd. Here’s my intro to the collection…

Our Lady of Sorrows

On the afternoon I interviewed Joni Mitchell, in September 1994, she was in the most infectious of moods: giggly, garrulous, bordering on flirtatious. When we were done talking, she hammed it up for the photographer on the street, just around the corner from her manager Peter Asher’s office on West Hollywood’s Doheny Drive.

I’ve always felt privileged to have met this genius of North American music, this Canadian prairie maid turned folk poetess turned canyon confessor turned jazzbo hybridiser turned… well, never mind the many shapes Mitchell’s shifted over half a century. Let’s just agree she’s peerless and untouchable as a singer-songwriter of intricate lyrics and swoopingly beautiful melodies.

Her words and her “weird chords” you can read about at length in the pieces pulled together in this compendium. Included in Reckless Daughter are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality. Here are reviews of (almost) all her albums – the consensus masterworks, the curate’s eggs – and of live appearances she’s made in tiny clubs and glitzy concert halls. Here are the words of writers who’ve fallen, as I did, under the spell of her piercing honesty, her tingling musical intimacy, her coolly nuanced moods: Americans and Brits alike, men and women who know how uniquely brilliant she is.

Some would say Mitchell has been her own worst enemy – has too often bitten the journalistic hands that stroked her. I choose to think she’s struggled to bear the weight of her talent and intelligence in an arena better disposed to the crass and the facile. True, she might have made life easier by not being quite so savage about the “three-chord-wonder” strummers who identify themselves as her disciples – but then why pretend they aren’t mediocrities when so many queue up to crown them the New Jonis? And when an artist has given us ‘The Arrangement’, ‘River’, ‘Car on a Hill’, ‘The Boho Dance’, ‘Amelia’, ‘Dog Eat Dog’, ‘My Secret Place’, ‘The Magdalene Laundries’, ‘Man from Mars’ and ‘If I Had a Heart’ – to offer a random smattering of marvels that span the length and breadth of her work – who are we to judge her character?  Many of Mitchell’s songs are great art. Almost all are emotionally complex, musically gripping. From the earliest virginal days of ‘Chelsea Morning’ to the late, husky despair of Turbulent Indigo‘s ‘Sex Kills’, Joni’s is a voice that belongs to her alone. So we should excuse her occasional impatience with the received idea that she is godmother to those who do nothing more useful than string together stale chords and trite musings and call them songs.

Granted, Mitchell’s own earliest compositions sound somewhat fey today. ‘Urge For Going’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ have a kind of fluting, pellucid innocence about them, while even she acknowledges that the winsome ‘Circle Game’ only has any currency these days as a campfire singalong. The first hint of her defining gravitas came with ‘Woodstock’, a song of starry-eyed hippie faith that, with its shimmery electric piano and curiously yodelled vocals, sounded a simultaneous note of dread. Personally I go a bundle on the grainy maturity of her vocal persona on such ’90s songs as ‘Passion Play’, ‘Come In From The Cold’ and ‘Nothing Can Be Done’, but they’re not to everybody’s tastes.

In these pages you’ll find Paul Williams, acknowledged founder of rock criticism, and Ellen Sander, one of the first women to write about pop. You’ll find Michael Watts and Geoffrey Cannon, subtle British commentators from rock’s first golden age. You’ll find keyboard player Ben Sidran on Joni’s homage to cantankerous jazz maverick Charlie Mingus, as well as considered appreciations – not always raves – of Mitchell’s art by Wesley Strick, Susan Whitall, Sandy Robertson, Joel Selvin and others. You’ll get the fine words of Tom Nolan, Loraine Alterman, Mick Brown, Ben Fong-Torres, Fred Goodman and many more.

Here is most of what you could ever want to know about Joni Mitchell, a towering troubadour and sometimes reckless daughter of America’s folk-rock revolution.

He is Brian Wilson

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I’m back down at the Cheltenham Lit Fest this Sunday Oct 16th (12.30-1.30 pm) to discuss the troubled genius of B.W. with Will Hodgkinson and Lisa Verrico… in the interim, here’s a piece I penned over 20 years on the notion of pop genius and the birth of the Brian cult:

“Brian Wilson is a Genius”: The Birth of a Pop Cult

The Independent, 1 September 1995

One of the key moments in I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, record producer Don Was’s black-and-white film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a sequence of home-movie footage accompanied by a home-recorded demo of a song called ‘Still I Dream Of It’.

As we watch the Brian of 1966 playing with his daughters in his Beverly Hills garden, we hear the Brian of 1976 – at the nadir of his drugged-out retreat from reality – tunelessly croaking ‘Still I Dream Of It’ at the piano. The juxtaposition of the images of Brian in his prime with the sound of the man at his most regressed is painfully poignant. Most pathetic of all is the lyric: “Time for supper now /Day’s been hard and I’m so tired, I feel like eating now / Smell the kitchen now, hear the maid whistle a tune, my thoughts are fleeting now…

Yet this song is precisely about the way Brian is still somehow connected to a redemptive realm of beauty. “Still I dream of it“, he sings with a pang of desperation, “and it haunts me so /Like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above…” It’s as if he is pining for the lost muse that inspired him to write the sixties masterpieces he described as “symphonies to God” – songs like ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘God Only Knows’, and ‘Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder’ … not forgetting ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’.

For Don Was, who has included the ‘Still I Dream Of It’ demo on the soundtrack album released to coincide with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, the song’s pathos is irresistible. As a life member of The Brian Wilson Appreciation Society, he is fully committed to the legend of the man’s genius. He knows, too, that pop is almost as haunted by the achievement of Brian Wilson as Brian is haunted by “it” – by whatever it was precisely that his genius allowed him to apprehend or intuit at the height of his melodic powers.

The phrase “Brian Wilson Is A Genius” was first magicked up one afternoon in the summer of 1966 by Derek Taylor, the former Beatles press officer who’d moved to Los Angeles in 1965. Pet Sounds had just been released, and everyone knew that Brian had crossed some invisible line between pop ephemerality and genuine musical brilliance. Taylor was simply canny enough to make it official, and to validate pop music in the process. Within days, “Brian Wilson is A Genius” was a buzz phrase in Swinging London, where the Beatles received Pet Sounds with something akin to awe.

Hard-core Beach Boys fans will know that Pet Sounds failed to reach the top ten in America, and that Brian never managed to complete Smile, its intended follow-up. (A three-CD box set of Smile tracks and fragments, The Smile Era, is due for release this autumn). Smile was to have been Wilson’s ultimate “symphony to God”, but a heady combination of lysergic acid and inherent mental instability led to his virtual breakdown, and eventually to a total retreat from the music industry. This breakdown – the failed promise of Smile, that Holy Grail of pop – is central to the obsession many people have with his lost greatness.

“Genius” is actually a rare commodity in pop music; it’s not a word bandied about idly. We don’t call Hendrix a genius, or even Dylan. Genius has less to do with rock heroes than with pop solipsists, mavericks who invent their own sonic worlds to live in. Pop geniuses, we feel, are baffling talents who could have lived in any era. It is remarkable how many of them, in our minds, are hunched over keyboards rather than letting rip on electric guitars. The image of the adolescent Brian Wilson, pouring out his feelings alone at the upright in his bedroom, remains a potent one.

Wilson provides the link between pop and the undisputed greatness of Tin Pan Alley songwriters like George Gershwin, whom he idolised. The miracle of Brian’s melodic gifts, like those of Lennon and McCartney, even prompts comparisons with Mozart and Schubert. As Tom Petty puts it in the documentary, “I don’t know if he’s a genius or not, but I know that that music is probably as good a music as you can make … as you can write.” The particular appeal of his genius lies in the fact that the Beach Boys were the very obverse of hip – the unlikeliness of these songs growing out of disposable surf pop – and in the singular naivety and ingenuousness of his personality.

If there was a pop genius before Wilson, it was Phil Spector, another of the Beach Boys’ heroes (though note that Ray Charles had been referred to – on several of his own album titles! – as a genius.) Spector had the necessary megalomania and flamboyance to imprint himself on his productions, and to envision pop as something heroic and Wagnerian. The failure of his mightiest creation, Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’, resulted in a retreat from reality similar to Brian’s. It is ironic, given that he was barely capable of writing a song, that Spector is lauded as a genius more often than even John Lennon or Paul McCartney.

When Julian Cope compiled an album called The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker in 1981, he was investing heavily in the enigma of the teen heart-throb turned existentialist recluse. Pop stars weren’t meant to sing Jacques Brel songs or seek inspiration in Ingmar Bergman films. As with Brian Wilson, there was something kitsch about the doomed introspection that lay behind Walker’s appeal, but his subsequent stretches of silence, broken only by music of impenetrable spookiness, have confirmed his status as pop’s premier cult hero.

The figure of the doomed troubadour is particularly susceptible to having the mantle of Genius laid over his fevered brow. Singers as different as Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Arthur Lee and Alex Chilton – the first two dead, the latter pair all but spent forces – have been hailed as geniuses and become the objects of cult worship. In all four cases, the element of tragedy and failed promise is a crucial factor. Genius must be accompanied by torment, we feel, or the very least by major eccentricity. In the realm of black music, both Stevie Wonder and Prince meet at least two of the requirements of genius: they’re both mad and they’re both multi-instrumentalists. As for female stars, perhaps only Kate Bush qualifies as a genius in rock’s obstacle race. Once again, it is significant that one thinks of her first and foremost as a composer at the keyboard.

Casualties of the criteria sketched above include the many composers (Burt Bacharach, for example) who have worked as part of a team: the essential solitariness of a writer like Jimmy Webb seems more alluring to pop theorists and dreamers. True, Brian Wilson worked with several lyricists: his chief accomplice on the Smile songs was that other cult “genius” Van Dyke Parks, whose playfully cryptic couplets so unsettled the other Beach Boys that they effectively put an end to the partnership. But Wilson was always so lost inside his own musical universe that the word “collaboration” seems inaccurate. “I know that I’m not a genius, and it’s a great embarrassment to me to be thought of as one,” says Parks, whose own new album Orange Crate Art features vocals by Brian Wilson. “I’m not a natural, unlike Brian. He sits down and plays something in the same key in which I played it for him thirty years ago. This guy is absolutely brilliant. There’s not enough I can say about his abilities.”

In Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, musical genius is a pact with mental torment. In the story of Brian Wilson, it is almost as if the man’s supernatural talents were the direct result of the damage he suffered as a child. Let’s leave the last word to Tony Asher, another of Wilson’s lyricists. “Brian Wilson is a genius musician,” Asher pronounced tersely after working on Pet Sounds, “but he is an amateur human being.”

A Judee Sill evening, 25 November

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Spiritland Talks: Judee Sill

Buy tickets / 25/10/2016 19:00 – 21:00

I’ll be discussing the life and work of troubled Californian singer-songwriter Sill with Ruth Barnes, producer of the BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Lost Genius of Judee Sill’. An evening of music and discussion to celebrate the work and legacy of this great artist.

Meanwhile, here’s a short piece I wrote for Uncut 10 years ago…

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The Stars That Fame Forgot: Judee Sill

L.A.’s doomed lady of the canyon who lost her genius to drugs

Presented by David Geffen’s Asylum label as the archetypal singer-songstress of the period, Judee Sill’s background differed markedly from those of her self-absorbed peers. While Joni Mitchell and her willowy sisters worked their way round the folk circuits of Greenwich Village, Judee was being arrested for stickup jobs in the corner stores of LA’s San Fernando Valley, driven to such desperate measures by a $150-a-day heroin habit.

Sill’s intricate, mystical songs started to attract admirers on the LA scene of the late ’60s, by which time she was clean and keenly focused on her career. She briefly joined Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt in the pantheon of West Coast talent established by David Geffen on his Asylum label. The sublime Judee Sill (1972) and Heart Food (1973) have prompted many to ask why Sill was never elevated to the heights her labelmates enjoyed.

“I knew very little about Judee,” says Graham Nash, who produced her most famous song, ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’. “But I do know that she was a very bright, talented, funny lady. I had no idea she was taking drugs on that scale.”

Songs such as ‘The Pearl’ and ‘The Phoenix’ are as exquisite as Nick Drake, but more schooled and complex. Classically trained, Sill combined her love of Bach and other composers with her taste for the mellow, countrified sound of ’70s California, melding them into a unique style she termed “country-cult-baroque”.

“There’s no one more important in my musical life than Judee,” says JD Souther, whose affair with Sill inspired ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’. “Jackson Browne was the furthest along as far as having learned songwriting, and then I met Judee and I thought, ‘Fuck, she’s school for all of us.'”

With amusing pomposity Sill informed NME that her three main influences were Pythagoras, Bach and Ray Charles. Yet there is something mathematically perfect about her best songs, which she invariably arranged — and even conducted — herself. “My music is really magnified four-part choral style,” Sill told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “It gets to people’s emotional centres quickly. That’s why all church music is in four-part choral style.”

Sill’s songs suggest a hippy update of the cosmic epiphanies of William Blake or perhaps the metaphysical ecstasies of Henry Vaughan. Tracks such as ‘The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown’ and ‘When The Bridegroom Comes’ are explicitly religious, though one could hardly describe them as Christian rock. Judee wouldn’t have. For her, Christ was a symbol of the elusive, yearned-for lover — “my vision of my animus”, as she put it.

After being dropped by Geffen in 1974, Sill wrote and recorded a new set of songs, the results appearing 30 years later as Dreams Come True/Hi — I Love You Right Heartily Here.

By 1975, after a bad car accident in Hollywood, she was re-addicted to opiate drugs, of both the legal and illegal variety. On November 23, 1979, she was found dead at her house on Morrison Street in the unglamorous North Hollywood area where she’d spent most of her life. Cause of death was given as “acute cocaine and codeine intoxication”.

“I can barely speak about her without crying,” says JD Souther. “She was certainly as important as Linda or Jackson or the Eagles. But it was too esoteric. Judee’s music just didn’t get out.”

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HOW TO BUY JUDEE SILL

Judee Sill 1972 *****

Sill’s startling debut sits between Bach and The Sons Of Pioneers: a singing cowgirl backed by oboes and cors anglaises. Here is first single ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’, and ‘The Archetypal Man’, her sly dig at the male of the species.

Heart Food 1973 *****

Easily the equal of its predecessor, Sil’s second set gives free range to her uniquely crafted melodies in the same metaphysical vein. ‘The Pearl’ and ‘The Phoenix’ are magically lovely, while ‘Soldier Of The Heart’ pounds superbly along.

Dreams Come True… 2005 ****

Recorded in a single day at Mike Nesmith’s Countryside studio, this is funkier, more gospelly than the Asylum LPs. Songs such as ‘That’s The Spirit’ are also as effortlessly beautiful as anything on Judee Sill or Heart Food.

Abracadabra: The Asylum Years 2006 *****

New 2CD packaging of the two Asylum LPs, together with all the demos/alternate tracks from the 2003 Rhino Handmade releases. This UK-only release has an exclusive eight-minute version of Heart Food‘s ‘The Donor’.


My much longer Observer piece about Sill is available to Rock’s Backpages subscribers, along with several other pieces about her.

West Hollywood Reverie

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THE CUTEST BRUNETTE in mushroom-coloured hot pants sweeps past me to buy her coffee. Minutes later she swings back out of Nemo Street on to Doheny in a black SUV, Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” pumping through her open windows. It’s a perfect LA moment – I want to be with her everywhere, at least for an afternoon.

Bang next door is the chic bungalow that once housed Peter Asher’s management company and where, twenty not very long years ago, I met his client Joni Mitchell – “Queen Joni Approximately”, as a friend once dubbed her, Joni who “couldn’t let go of LA” but did let go of its fallen angels. And what I remember is what fun she was, how golden-blond and flirty between the drags on her many cigarettes. Not the sour empress of confessional art that she’s become.

The bungalow’s now home to a hair salon where ladies of Beverly Hills presumably come to be coiffed. Then it was home to Asher, the charming and clever former British pop invader who’d embedded himself in the early ’70s LA of canyon porches and cheesecloth shirts; who loved this place as I love it, though he had a copy of Mike Davis’ unsparing City of Quartz on his desk.

Some years later I went to Peter’s dreamy beachside spread in the Malibu Colony, one of the spoils of the points he got on multi-platinum albums by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. We talked of canyon porches and cheesecloth shirts, the sweet life before the big money. He was a rich liberal and I liked him. Somewhere in my youth I’d picked up that there was a family connection through my grandfather’s stepmother. I mentioned this to Peter, who didn’t seem especially interested.

This morning, as I walked south down Doheny in the sparkling light and breathed in the faint perfumes of the flowers, I thought: Yes, the odds are stacked against the many; few get to savour such ease and bliss; but I can’t hate the beauty that riches bring. I can’t even hate the Hollywood wannabes in this phoney-French café, with their deals and screenplays and their anxious needs. I can’t hate the light and the colours and the dark Rousseau fronds of the vegetation. The hissing of Joni’s summer lawns.