Book Review: Joni Mitchell Talks About Growing Up, Art, Songwriting, Love – And Leonard Cohen

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Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom

ECW Press: September 9, 20141

The Author: Malka Marom

Malka Marom began her professional life as a singer but then became a broadcaster, hosting CBC’s weekly show “Song Of Our People” and City TV’s “Mosaic,” and documentary producer. She is also the author of a novel, Sulha.2 In 1966, she first heard Joni Mitchell perform at a coffee house and was immediately transfixed by Mitchell’s talent. She became an admirer and friend of Mitchell, and these perspectives characterize the book.

In this video, Marom describes her first encounter with Joni Mitchell.

Interview With Malka Marom

Note: Marom had originally planned to author a single book based on her interviews with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Instead, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words has been published first with a parallel volume on Leonard Cohen anticipated next year.

The Book: Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words

The weakness of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words: It’s not a biography; instead, it’s a conversation between Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom, an adoring friend and fellow artist, comprising three interviews, which took place in 1973, 1979, and 2012.

The strength of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words: It’s not a biography; instead, it’s a conversation between Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom, an adoring friend and fellow artist, comprising three interviews, which took place in 1973, 1979, and 2012.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is not intended or designed to be a comprehensive, dispassionate, hierarchically organized survey of Mitchell’s life and work. Other than occasional comments by some of Mitchell’s associates who happen to be present when the interviews tale place, such as Elliot Roberts (manager), Tom Scott (saxophonist and leader of LA Express), and John Guerin (drummer), the only narrators are Mitchell and Marom.  Indeed, the book is literally an edited transcript of the conversation between Mitchell and Marom studded with photographs, Mitchell’s paintings, and the lyrics of a large number of  her songs.

Because the book is built around three extensive interviews held over the span of almost forty years, the content naturally skews toward the topics of interest to the two participants at those points in time. Since, for example,  the first session takes place during the taping of Court And Spark and the second occurs while Mitchell is at work on  Mingus, issues pertinent to these two albums are especially prominent.

Consequently, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is replete with discussions that sound like two old friends retelling familiar stories and sharing impressions about people they both know. For example, early in the third interview, Marom and Mitchell have this exchange which ends with a comparison of Leonard Cohen’s approach to performing with Mitchell’s:

M: Thirty-three years have passed since we last recorded our conversation, and forty-five years since I first saw you sing at the Riverboat, nearly half a century ago, my God. Yet last night I saw you singing and dancing here at your home as if not a day passed since then, as they say, and I thought what a shame that I’m the only one to witness it. How wonderful it would be if you went on tour, like Leonard Cohen is these days. You saw his concert in Toronto, and you liked it.

J: Yeah, I thought it was the best I ever saw of him. I thought it was the best band he ever had, best orchestra, the best arrangements plus the repertoire — across the board, good collection of songs.

M: I thought he was amazing, especially if you consider how frail he feels in your arms when you hug him. J: Yeah, he’s very frail. Very delicate. Like my dad was at the end. M: And yet on the stage. To see him bending and almost dancing. I thought he was really wonderful. He seemed to derive a lot of energy from the audience, from their love for him and his work. Are you tempted to go on the road?

J: No. I just was never addicted to applause or honorariums. The measure for me was the art itself. Leonard’s such a seducer he could probably believe that that many people could be in love with him. [laughs] I can’t. I don’t trust mass adoration. It doesn’t feed me. I see it as a potential dragon. I’m not that addicted to applause that I want to manipulate the monkey to roar for me. I wouldn’t get a thrill out of that, or try for a sense of victory. It wouldn’t work for me. I’d rather that they forget to applaud. That they’re so stunned, they’re tranced in. That would be more exciting to me than the biggest applause of the night. Then I feel that I’ve accomplished something. I’m really not a performing animal. I don’t have that need. I prefer the creation of the song. I like the collaborations, the camaraderie of players, and small clubs.

As one might expect. the colloquy between Mitchell and Marom frequently changes course, veering off on a tangent or simply following a whim to land on such subjects as jazz, loneliness, New York Vs Los Angeles, dance, primitive Vs luxurious lifestyles, Canada,  and medical science.

In addition to anecdotes about other artists (e.g., Dylan, David Crosby, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder), the entertainment business, Mitchell’s current affliction with Morgellons,3 and landmark events in Mitchell’s career (e.g., the ordeal of her appearance at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival), this volume includes a poignant, often heartbreaking account of Mitchell’s early history, from childhood through her marriage to Chuck Mitchell.  She recalls saving the tissues wrapped around oranges to use as toilet paper, being diagnosed with polio and then “shipped … out of town a hundred miles away,” and, beginning her songwriting under anguishing conditions:

The writing of my own songs came out of the trauma of my being an unwed mother and being destitute. I mean destitute in a strange city and pregnant, and living in a fifteen-dollar-a-week room. It was the attic room, and all the railings .,, there was one left out of every four because last winter, the people burnt them to keep the room warm … And in Toronto I had, I think, sixty dollars, maybe, with me in a town where the cheapest room was fifteen dollars a week. And I had six months ahead of me, no work … I lived in this attic in Toronto. I was living on Ingersoll cheese spread and Hovis loaf because that place was full of starving artists and you couldn’t keep anything in the fridge, so my diet was atrocious. And one day Duke Redbird’s brother came from the reservation. This big Indian. I’d never even met him. He came to my door. He knocked on the door and he said, “Here.” And he shoved me a basket of McIntosh apples. They used to come in those bentwood baskets. “Here.” Very rudely. It’s one of the kindest things that ever happened. And he turned on his heels and went away. A total stranger. And I thought, “He must know. Do they know what condition I’m in?”

Mitchell offers thoughtful, insightful commentary – uninhibited by false modesty – about her take on creativity in the fields of art and music.

M: I’d like to clarify something I’d heard you say: “I have a painter’s mentality, rather than a musician’s or a poet’s.” What do you mean by that?

J: Okay. The creative process of a painter is absolute solitude. No one’s gonna come in and say, “Don’t put that blue stroke there. Put an orange stroke there.” It’s just inappropriate. And it doesn’t mean you’re controlling. I had a lot of “Joni, you’re so controlling.” Yes, I am controlling and so it should be. I should be in control of my art. I’m within my rights to control my own art. You should not be trying to direct it. In painting, you have to be very decisive. Once you paint over it, it’s gone, whereas in songwriting, in music, you can usually get back, if you decide, “Oops, it was better the way it was before,” you can get back. I think that’s why I’m able to produce my own records. You have to be able to switch from sensual, sensitive, emotional to [the] adjudicative mind, which is intellectual clarity. You paint … it has to be emotional and sensitive to get the good line, but then when you stand back, you engage intellect and clarity to adjudicate it, so you’re your own producer. You have access to those heads and you can shift quickly from one [to] another. You can be very hard on yourself without bruising yourself. And you can be accurate; you can go right to the heart of the trouble. You don’t have to tippy-toe around somebody’s ego and praise them and stroke them, and then get to the problem and waste an hour like that … the delicate problem of addressing someone’s ego.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words – From Both Sides Now

Readers of this book who are looking for a chronological sequenced account of Joni Mitchell’s life or a balanced, in-depth analysis of her work are doomed to disappointment.  This volume does, however, present the opportunity to contemplate Mitchell reporting on her life with significantly  less vigilance and self-protectiveness of the sort that mark her routine interviews. Her conversations with Marom are ingrained with intimacy, authenticity, and sincerity. The result is an altogether gratifying read.

Adrian Du Plessis, Allison Crowe’s personable manager, wrote me about reading Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words; this excerpt from his message is a splendid description of the experience of reading this book:

With Joni, like Leonard, one gets to know their voices – literally and figuratively – and it’s a delight to hear them just on a roll. Like you’re sitting in the kitchen with the wine flowing and the cigarette butts piling up in the ashtray.

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  1. The official release date of September 9, 2014 notwithstanding, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom is available now on several sites. []
  2. A more complete biography is available on Marom’s website []
  3. Morgellons is a poorly understood and controversial disorder. Those suffering from the disease feel as though they are infested with disease-causing agents described as things like insects, parasites, hairs or fibers. Other neurological symptoms, including severe fatigue and memory problems, are sometimes associated. []

4 Replies to “Book Review: Joni Mitchell Talks About Growing Up, Art, Songwriting, Love – And Leonard Cohen”

  1. Coco Éclair

    “I just was never addicted to applause or honorariums. The measure for me was the art itself…I don’t trust mass adoration. It doesn’t feed me.”

    For me, this authentic humility, humility that transcends the self, is integral to the definition of a true artist.

    I so look forward to reading this; thanks for the great review, Allan.

  2. Michael

    I’m reading it now. It is like eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant between two old friends.

    As for the very apt comment about “false modesty”, this is the woman that David Crosby described as having the modesty of Mussolini.

    Great review.

  3. Coco Éclair

    He he – well, Joni is simultaneously humble and confident, yet not haughty. That description in reverse, haughty and confident, yet not humble we reserve for Niles.

    Frasier Crane: I’m Dr. Frasier Crane. This is my brother Dr. Niles Crane, the eminent psychiatrist.

    Niles Crane: My brother’s too kind. He was already eminent when my eminence was merely imminent.