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“joni mitchell: in her own words”
Happy birthday, Joni Mitchell!
Like many women of my generation, I can pretty much define an entire period of my life through Joni Mitchell songs.
I remember spending hours lying on my twin bed listening to Blue and Court and Spark over and over again, wondering how she could possibly have seen my diary and put my thoughts and emotions to music, expressing them so much more articulately – and beautifully.
So I was excited to read Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, which comprises a series of interviews she did over the years with her friend, Malka Marom. And that friendship brings a depth to the interviews that makes you feel like you really get to know Joni Mitchell.
Today, Joni turns 72 — 72! — and in honor of her birthday, I asked Malka, an artist in her own right, about the book and the relationship. Here’s what she had to say:
Okay, I loved your book! I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan and have probably read everything written about her. Your book was different because I felt like I listening to a really authentic, honest, personal conversation between BFFs. I want to hang out with both of you now! Can you share the story of how you met?
Late one night in 1966, I didn’t want to go home. I drove from one dark and deserted street to another and the only light still on was above the entrance to the Riverboat coffeehouse.
On the stage stood a girl who must have picked out her miniskirt at the Salvation Army. With her back turned to the empty seats, she seemed totally engrossed in trying to tune her guitar and failing, which gave me the impression that she was one of the waitresses who had nothing better to do than playact at being the performer.
She turned to face the empty seats and strummed a progression of chords with a surprisingly assertive hand. They were unlike any chords I’d heard before. I found myself hanging on every note.
When she got to “I Had a King,” about a man who leads a woman to his country to marry too soon – this was my story! – I realized there was no more escaping into hope, illusions or denial any longer. My marriage was a bust.
I experienced that once-in-a-lifetime moment of unexpectedly stumbling upon the revelation of your own existence. Surprisingly it occurred at the moment it was supposed to.
What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about Joni in your book?
Her candor, utter honesty, and how she treats the interview as an artistic exploration. I was certainly amazed by her openness and generosity. I asked how she writes a song, and she proceeded to elaborate in minute detail on how she wrote “Barangrill,” and nearly every song on Mingus.
Does she realize how many girls she touched with her words? How does she react to fans coming up to her and gushing over her?
I’ve lost count of the number of fans who have come over to her over the years, while we were having dinner or on our way to a friend, and it’s amazing to witness the kindness she extends to the fans as though they were the first.
I found it fascinating when Joni said, “That’s the only thing that impresses me anymore. Kindness.” I totally agree with her. Can you give an example of a time when she impressed you with that same kindness?
I find Joni’s kindness even more amazing than her candor.
I’ve never seen her refuse a request to take a photo – with complete disregard for how she looked – from total strangers who stop her on the street to whisper “thank you for the songs.”
And her kindness to me — here’s one example. Joni dropped by as I finally completed my novel, Sulha. She asked me if she could read it and, a few days later, when she returned the pages, she offered to write a blurb for me.
You two have been such good friends for more than four decades. We’ve heard her music evolve over the years but how has Joni herself changed over time?
I’m afraid that I’m the last person to ask this question. I think those of us who’ve been fortunate to enjoy a friendship decades long are too close to notice those changes. Besides, a decades long close friendship is such a rare treasure, I’ve kept it close to my heart and strictly private until now.
Why did you decide to make it public now?
I think destiny played a big part. On my 70th birthday, my son sent me a transcript of my ’73 and ’79 radio interviews with Joni. To my amazement they were much better on the page than on the air; you could now reflect on what Joni said, and see how rich and compelling her narrative was.
As fate would have it, while buying groceries, I bumped into the great literary agent Linda McKnight. She suggested I send her a few pages and she emailed me that the publisher of ECW Press, Jack David, was interested in publishing them!
I’m so glad he did because they give us a whole new look at Joni as a woman of heart and mind.
Photos courtesy of Malka Marom