Joni Mitchell Dug Deep to Make Her Dark Masterpiece ‘Blue’
She was already one of the most talented singer/songwriters on the scene, but when she created ‘Blue,’ Mitchell proved herself one of the premier artists of her generation.
As 1970 drew to a close, Joni did one more major benefit concert, Amchitka, supporting the launch of a fledgling environmental organization, Greenpeace, which was protesting nuclear weapons tests in Amchitka, Alaska. Joining her there, as a surprise guest, was a young James Taylor, who, for a brief but crucial time, would be Joni’s old man (though not “My Old Man” of her song, a keepsake from her romance with Graham Nash). The two were both regulars at the Troubadour, a West Hollywood club on La Cienega that became famous as a launching pad for a generation of singer-songwriters. Taylor was twenty-two. Joni was twenty-six. She later said, “He wasn’t very well known when I first met him, but the things I did hear were a bit conflicting. But I fell for him right away because he was very easygoing and free-spirited. We shared a lot of similar interests and common ground.” Taylor fell hard for Joni, too, writing poems and love letters to her. He said, “She’s so sensual and free with her body. She’s like a goddess: a goddess of love.”
At the Amchitka concert, they played together on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and he jumped in when she forgot a verse. Later that month, they performed together again, this time at the Paris Theatre in London. Onstage, they harmonized—mellifluously—on “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which he was said to have written for her. On the live recording, broadcast on the BBC, Joni can be heard giggling before their voices blend, as if they were meant to be together, as if closing their eyes meant entering a dream. “I don’t know no love songs / And I can’t sing the blues anymore / But I can sing this song, and you can sing this song when I’m gone.” That was James Taylor’s song, but it was about what both of them were experiencing and creating, something that’s not quite a love song and not quite the blues. They can each sing this song—along with all the others, by both of them—when they’re gone. When they sang together—on his album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, or onstage—they each seemed to be in ecstasy, in harmony in more ways than one. But offstage, it was clear that they were each seriously disturbed. This euphony would not last for long. In one telling photo, Taylor is looking down, stoically enduring something that will turn dark very soon. Joni, one braid over her shoulder, has a look of distress in her eyes: her own Blue Horizon is coming soon. Given Taylor’s history, it would be fair to say that he was self-medicating, and while it gave her material for a few songs, she knew that as his career was taking off, he was going down, and she wasn’t going to go all the way down with him.
Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” one of his best-loved songs, was a stark account of a friend’s suicide and his own shock therapy; it is a beautiful distillation of end-of-the-rope mourning and melancholia, and if he had written more songs like it, he would have been closer to Blue’s level of astonishing vulnerability. The clinical depression he sang about so nakedly on that song had landed him in the famous McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, which also treated Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ray Charles, and, later, David Foster Wallace. That depression led to a heroin addiction, and as he fell deeper into the pit, Joni stayed with him, long enough and deep enough that she emerged with a batch of new songs, some of them darker and more disturbing than ever. There is really no consolation for such misery, but if anything can come out of it, it can be not only surviving to tell the tale, but writing something greater than you have written before. Or composing songs as deep, honest, and achingly gorgeous, in their way, as anything anyone has ever done, which is what Joni would eventually do on Blue. All that suffering and turbulence was not in vain.
In 1962, Herb Alpert (then famous for Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass band) and his business partner, Jerry Moss, formed a label they called Carnival Records in what was then Alpert’s garage. When they discovered the name “Carnival” was taken, they used their initials and formed A&M Records, which would become one of the most important independent labels in the history of American music. They then purchased a complex of properties at 1416 North La Brea in Hollywood, the old Charlie Chaplin studios, which they transformed into a cutting-edge recording studio and a suite of executive offices. Through the ’60s and ’70s, artists flocked to the Hollywood location to work with the finest mixers and sound engineers in the business. Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, Quincy Jones, Paul Williams, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Liza Minnelli, Cat Stevens, Joan Armatrading, and Peter Frampton all made music and magic in the buildings’ four recording studios: A, B, C, and D.
Joni recorded Blue in Studio C. The Carpenters were recording in Studio A. Carole King was recording Tapestry in Studio B. King would write in her memoir, A Natural Woman: “A constant stream of singers, musicians, friends, and family flowed in and out of the recording studios along Sunset Boulevard. At A&M we commuted down the hall. Sometimes we commuted between A&M and Sunset Sound … When I wasn’t working on my own album I drove to Sunset Sound to play as a sideman and sing background on James [Taylor’s] songs … Periodically James came over to A&M to play acoustic guitar and sing background on my record. Physical proximity to me and romantic proximity to James brought Joni’s beautiful voice to both James’ and my albums. Sometimes it seemed as if James and I were recording one massive album in two different studios.”
Joni’s instinctual sense added to the lore that would surround Studio C. As Carole King recalled, “Studio C had a reddish wood Steinway piano that everyone said was really special. One morning I was able to slip in and try that piano out. I couldn’t help but agree; there really was something extraordinary about it. It felt good to play, and its exceptional sound resonated with Lou [Adler] and [engineer] Hank [Cicalo], as well. Unfortunately, the red Steinway also resonated with Joni and Henry Lewy, which led to Joni and me vying for time in Studio C to record basic tracks. Unknown to me, Hank made several attempts to move the red Steinway into B, but Joni and Henry wouldn’t allow it.” One evening, King learned that Studio C was available—for three hours—before Joni was coming in. She rushed in with her team and in three takes recorded “I Feel the Earth Move.”
In a departure from the covers of her first three albums, all featuring Joni’s playful artwork, the cover of Blue was stark, graphic. The photographer Tim Considine shot her singing, possibly in ecstasy, possibly in sorrow, probably in both, and she is sinking into the color blue. In his 1976 study of black music, Stomping the Blues, Albert Murray wrote that the blues was like the catharsis of Greek tragedy, and that while one was singing or playing the blues, one was stomping the blues away. This kind of blue didn’t seem like that.
“I like a look of agony,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Joni liked the sound of it, even if it came out—with stacked chords, multi-octave vocal runs, and clanging open chords—euphoniously, but with an edge. But Blue is as much about an escape from blue feelings as it is about going deep inside and all that you discover as you make your way out. Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist known as the father of tragedy, wrote πάθει μάθος (pathei-mathos): Wisdom arises through suffering. So does one suffer, learn, mope, create, or, eventually, all of the above?
The final line of “All I Want” is “I want to make you feel free,” repeated with vocal leaps that stretched the limits of what freedom could be. In a 1974 interview, one of the few she gave in the early ’70s, Joni defined freedom as “the luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart,” which is a long way from Kris Kristofferson’s “ just another word for nothing left to lose.” In Joni’s definition, in all its vulnerability, there is plenty to lose. It is a luxury, even when it lands on hate as often as it lands on love. With its polar extremes bouncing back and forth, “All I Want” is emotionally exhausting. It is the first of many demands. And the album is just getting started.
Joni recalled that the process of getting to the truth, the deeper wisdom, was very much a part of that time and place. “I took an overdose of acid. I only took one trip and I took way too much. I took one tab and it didn’t work and then I took a second one. And I saw that it was all about electricity. I had hallucinations at the beginning of the trip. But then after that, it was definitely mind-expanding, and you’re seeing things in a different way. I saw cutting-edge physics, things that mystics have talked about, natives have talked about. The luminous fibers that connect everything. My social conduct was disrupted, because I would weep at our society. And I’d weep at people. I could see right through them. If I passed a thief, I’d know he was a thief. In level-four Buddhism, your sixth sense comes in. The sixth sense is why the animals ran through the hills in the tsunami. All of your senses are incredibly sharpened. If you’re an animal and you see that birds are not moving in their normal pattern and sound different, you can probably hear the wave coming in the wrong direction. It’s a coordination of all your senses. I think that’s what was happening that time. I wasn’t reading anything at the time, but that was not a mental breakdown but the arrival of the sixth sense. But with no guide and nobody to recognize that there was a shamanic element, for lack of a better term. I know that sounds very witch-doctor-y. It is an increase in intelligence, but you have to learn how to handle it.”
And yet Joni makes room for being the Good Time Charlie her friends from the Great White North so often said she was. The more she traveled, the more character studies she accumulated—colorful civilians who could not be subject to the kind of celebrity guessing game that she compares with People magazine. One of those specimens was Cary Raditz, a cook in Matala on the island of Crete, where she slept in a cave and tried to get back to the garden, but didn’t stay too long because she missed her clean white linen and fancy French cologne.
Decades later, Joni recalled “Carey” as one of the many “freaks and soldiers” she met along the way who found their way into her songs. “He blew out of a restaurant in Matala,” she recalled. “That’s how I met him. I was staring out towards Africa and the sun was setting and I heard this ka-boom and I saw this redhead, turbaned all in white, blowing out the door of a restaurant and I thought: Great person, I have to meet him. He just blew into my life. He was a character.” They became lovers in a deliberately unserious way; even though she brought him to LA, she also knew that the circus could not last for long.
“By the time of my fourth album,” Joni later told Cameron Crowe, in a cover story for Rolling Stone, “I came to another turning point— that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives. The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes [solemn moment, then a gale of laughter]. And you have to work on from there. And decide what your values are. Which parts of you are no longer really necessary. They belong to childhood’s end. Blue really was a turning point in a lot of ways.”
Joni was having strange dreams and even stranger waking hours. Years of bottled-up melancholy was pouring out—great for songwriting, unsustainable for living. “I lost my daughter,” Joni later elaborated. “I made a bad marriage. I made a couple of bad relationships after that. And then I got this illness—crying all the time. My mother thought I was being a wimp, and she was giving me buck-up advice. Later in life, she was walking through the supermarket and started crying for no reason. She also had it, milder than this. She called me up and apologized. It also simultaneously appeared when my insights became keener, so I could see painfully—things about people I didn’t want to know. I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried. I dreamed I was a plastic bag sitting on an auditorium chair watching a big fat women’s tuba band. Women with big horns and rolled-down nylons in house dresses playing tuba and big horn music, and I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair at that time. That’s how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside. I wrote Blue in that condition.”
That was a fleshy dream for such a thin girl. You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the symbolism. This was an exposed woman’s body. It was a form of emotional nudity. She was exposing herself in ways that made the men around her uncomfortable. Maybe they were genuinely concerned, but maybe it was such uncharted territory that they just couldn’t hear it. Ingmar Bergman could reveal his emotions as a filmmaker, and Marlon Brando could do the same as an actor. Yet there was no Method for the singer-songwriter. Joni was on her own, and she was feeling it. In 2015, she wondered if the vocabulary of Western psychology even applied, or if she had been making a shamanistic breakthrough. “Was it a nervous breakdown?” Joni asked me. “People became transparent to me. People thought I had the evil eye. That’s why we locked off the Blue sessions. Nobody could come in. If anybody came in, I’d burst into tears.”
And on those locked-up Blue sessions, Joni was translating those emotions no one would want to have into music that everyone would want to hear—right in Studio C. The opening track, “All I Want,” was among the final two songs to be written, and it plays high to the low of the closer, “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Joni had begun playing the dulcimer when she discovered one at the Big Sur festival in 1969. When she was in Greece the next year, she wrote most of the Blue songs on it. She could really slap it around and beat it like a conga. She realized at that point that her style had changed. She’d picked something up from watching Stephen Stills’ aggressive style, but then she turned it into something that was inimitably hers. She found a sound to match her rawness of the moment, her new awakening. It felt and sounded like life and love itself.
The dulcimer is the first sound one hears on Blue. It’s like the starting of an engine, an opening move. First the chords jangle and a riff begins and repeats. Then a fragment of the melody plays. This lasts for twelve bars and paves a way for that voice. It is a voice that has already changed from her first three albums. It is now freed from the Crosby, Stills & Nash influence—it feels darker and richer, even as it still has all its range and supple velocity. It is a voice that will tell stories of groovy Carey with his cane, and brooding Richard in some dark café, the romantic who meets the same fate as all the others. This album brings those recovering romantics together, but it’s all her vision, her emotional reportage.
The sounds are acoustic and spare. Drums are brushed and muted. Guitars and other string instruments—including that coveted Studio C grand piano—are acoustic. The emotions are out on the surface, beating and exposed like Russ Kunkel’s conga. With these songs, a cycle on the perils and pleasures of love and its discontents, Joni offers her own battered heart for anyone else who has dared to be vulnerable and survived the wreckage. Joni, on the edge of stardom, asks: Are you sure you want to know me? And so, with “All I Want,” the story of Blue begins:
I am a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?
Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me
The album’s indeterminacy is announced with the first suspended chord. And its jangling introduces a song with mixed messages. No one wants a lover who says, “Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some”—although many will put up with it—but Joni has said that her greatest curse is sincerity. Two hates and one love is not usually a promising starting point for the other person in a relationship, but then the song makes us wonder what yoked these emotions together. The title is deceptive. This is a woman who could never have what she wants, and this adds to the intrigue. We keep listening to wonder what this woman will seek out, and how she will still be unsatisfied, which keeps us listening some more. Like eros itself, “All I Want” sings of being perpetually incomplete, but searching for completion anyway. (Joni is two albums away from proposing, “You could complete me / I’d complete you” on the title track of Court and Spark.) After announcing that she wants a love to bring out the best of both of them, and she rhymes “talk to you” with “shampoo you,” the playfulness dies down again when all of this lovin’ and talkin’ becomes obliterated in the saddest of colors:
Do you see—do you see—do you see how you hurt me, baby
So I hurt you too
Then we both get so blue
The final verse restates the first one, except now she is traveling only once. The song is ending. And it is giving way to the opening chords of “My Old Man,” a reminder of an earlier time, a sweetness of the past. Her listeners are feeling this with her. Their hearts have already capsized.
More than forty years after the recording of Blue, the drummer Russ Kunkel emphasized how important it was in the studio to be both emotional and unshakable at the same time. “Keeping time is like a heartbeat,” Kunkel said, with an emphasis on heart and beat. “You have to be steady, but be able to fluctuate without being abrupt. There was always a rhythmic template to Joni’s music, and she set it. She set it with what she played, or with the cadence of what she sang, or a combination of subdividing the tempo with what she was singing and the tempo of what she was playing, and they were always well matched. So, for me, what I had to do was find something that accentuated that template without being obtrusive. And that’s all I ever tried to do—just support that without getting in the way.”
“Joni’s guitar playing and her dulcimer playing is incredibly rhythmic,” he recalled. “It has a wonderful ebb and flow and a sway to it. All I tried to do was accompany that with a different sound. I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to enhance.”
Here’s how Russ Kunkel came to meet Joni Mitchell. Cass Elliot (Mama Cass to everyone who knew her) was, as Graham Nash put it, the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon. Cass' house was a meeting place for many of the neighborhood’s famous musicians, and her younger sister, Leah, was married to Russ Kunkel. Russ met Crosby and Nash through Cass, and they introduced him to Joni. “Joni was there afternoons, on weekends at Cass’ house, along with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix,” recalled Kunkel. He also recalled that, before the Blue sessions, Joni came to him at his loft and played the songs directly to him, and he responded, enthralled, playing quietly along on a conga. “Looking back on it, I was probably being auditioned,” he said. He said that he played the uncredited conga part on “All I Want.” “If you detune congas, they get really flat. I detuned them to the point where they were kind of human, like playing your chest.”
He did, however, receive drum credits on three tracks—“California,” “A Case of You,” and “Carey.”
In a studio with few people, Joni needed all the support she could get. Kunkel recalled that whatever instability Joni was experiencing went into writing the songs and not the performance of them. Joni recalled it differently. She later said, “My individual psychological descent coincided, ironically, with my ascent into the public eye. They were putting me on a pedestal and I was wobbling. I took it upon myself that since I was a public voice and was subject to this kind of weird worship that they should know who they were worshipping. I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in my work.”
“River” was one of Joni’s solo performances, and it was as intimate as it could get. Thematically, it builds on the bicoastal theme of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—the biggest blockbuster in American song. A Christmas song, as Philip Roth put it, by a Jewish songwriter, who took the Christ out of Christmas and made it a holiday about snow. In Joni’s version, she is nostalgic for ice and, when she wishes that she could just skate away after making her baby cry, she sounds ever so slightly like an ice queen. But she’s not.
The song may sample “Jingle Bells” in the beginning, but this is not the kind of song of joy and peace that she refers to in the beginning. “River” is powerful because it encapsulates Joni’s journey in a single song, much the same way “Woodstock” encapsulated an entire movement. It is Christmas and the girl from the Canadian prairies finds herself in a place without snow or ice, wishing for a river to skate away on. She’s lost her lover, someone who loved her mightily and tried to help her—it sounds a lot like Graham Nash, but Joni has never said. What rings true is the sense of loss: loss, and self-awareness. “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby / That I ever had,” she sings, rewriting the genre of love songs forever. She’s not saying, “You broke my heart.” She’s not saying, “Baby come back.” She’s rejecting the image of the pining good girl wholesale. She’s got issues and she knows it. Joni told NPR in 2014, “It’s taking personal responsibility for the failure of a relationship.” It was a big step, she added, for those who came of age in the Me Generation. But what makes the song rise above it all is that she’s also got enough sense to know she’s human and her heart needs a place and a way to ache before it can heal. There’s hardly a person alive who hasn’t, at some point, longed for such a river, a river to skate away on.
As a teenager, Janet Jackson recorded in the same studios where Joni had done some of her finest work. Twenty-five years later, Jackson wrote and recorded a song called “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” in which she would heavily, charmingly, and surprisingly sample “Big Yellow Taxi.” And even more surprising was what the rapper Q-Tip intoned over and over in the background: “Joni Mitchell never lies . . . lies . . . lies . . .” Joni was clearly delighted, and more than that, honored by the respect paid, because to Joni, truth-telling has been her life’s calling. And in “River,” Joni’s truth-telling soared from what some might have called a ’70s confessional to a universally beloved banner of truth. Joni has joked that she should write a song called “Have Yourself a Morbid Little Christmas.” And as the song proliferates on holiday playlists every year, it is a song for those whose hearts don’t swell when the holidays roll around, a song for those who find themselves far away from everything that feels like home, for those who find themselves mourning when others are decking the halls and making merry.
More than five hundred musicians have covered “River,” and hundreds more have performed it. The British musician Beth Orton told The Wall Street Journal, “It is a song I’ve grieved to, cried along with, sung at the top of my voice to, because it feels so good to do so … I would dedicate this song to those who are grieving the loss of a sense of place, loved ones, family.” James Taylor, who also recorded the song for his 2006 album, James Taylor at Christmas, told The Washington Post, “It’s such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas becomes and just breathe in some pine needles. It’s a really blue song.”
When Blue was released in June 1971, its emotional intimacy shocked some of her peer group. Johnny Cash said, “You’ve got the weight of the world on you.”
In the October 1971 issue of Stereo Review, Peter Reilly praised the “near perfection of her arrangements and accompaniment” and noted that Joni’s “balanced dispassion makes her work truly womanly rather than merely girlish.” He goes on to say that “the finest thing about Blue, however, is its message of survival.” Then he quoted some of the title track’s most hopeful lyrics: “Well, there’s so many sinking now / You’ve got to keep thinking / You can make it through these waves.” And while the early ’70s had a particularly grim lens on loss, a consistent theme of broken promises and heartbreaking despair, it would turn out that the era of Blue had no monopoly on the theme of youthful angst. In every decade, in every age, there would be those who were sinking, those who needed to be reminded by her “Joni Mitchell never lies” truth-telling that “you can make it through these waves.”
Over time Blue has become Joni’s biggest seller, eclipsing the commercial powerhouse Court and Spark (1974), and selling more than ten million copies in the United States alone. In its 500 Greatest Albums ranking on May 31, 2012, Rolling Stone placed Blue at number thirty. But no one could have predicted this success initially. Don Heckman in The New York Times acknowledged its artistic success, but predicted commercial exile: “I suspect this will be the most disliked of Miss Mitchell’s recordings,” he wrote on August 8, 1971, “despite the fact that it attempts more and makes greater demands on her talent than any of the others. The audience for art songs is far smaller than that for folk ballads, and Joni Mitchell is on the verge of having to make a decision between the two.” Joni Mitchell never had that decision to make. She was indeed moving toward art songs, and was, in fact, already making them, but her music would never be calculated. There was only one question, and it was a question, posed on “California,” for all of us: “Will you take me as I am?”
Excerpted from RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe, published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by David Yaffe. All rights reserved.