Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Breaking Like the Waves at Malibu

AM is about the tens of rock; an objective romance that accentuates the music. It is not an attempt to create a charade, a masquerade ("Are we really happy in this lonely game we play?") There is, of course, no dismissing Manson and Altamont or the war; the 60s were only a dream (some of us had), and at times, AM soul searches to find the story behind the music, sometimes buried deep within the garden. In the early 70s, Joni Mitchell was so distraught about breaking off her romance with Jackson Browne that she attempted suicide.

This incident occurred circa '72, while Mitchell was composing her album, For the Roses (an album gaining leverage in its AM rating). The incident is covered fully by journalist Sheila Wellerin in her book, Girls Like Us: The Journey of a Generation (2007). Weller's book chronicles the lives of Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King. She reports that one night, Joni claimed Browne "dissed her" on stage at the Roxy (no explanation). Later, as he was walking downstairs, and she was going up, there was a verbal altercation which Joni reported resulted in his hitting her. Mitchell was so distraught she ran barefoot onto Sunset Boulevard. (The visual graphic there is heartwrenching.)

Browne, as if it were a cue, took up with another woman who would become his wife and mother of his son, Ethan. One night at the Troubadour, Jackson saw a beautiful young blonde being screamed at by her boyfriend. Browne interceded and the boyfriend clocked him. Nonetheless, Browne's gallantry was rewarded: he took her home. A Southern California girl, Phyllis Major, had been a successful model in Europe. Jackson's attention to Major felt, to Joni, like "a great loss and a great mind-fuck." She cut herself, took pills and threw herself against the wall.  The incident is the back story for Mitchell's "Car on the Hill." One night Joni was at her home on that hilly street, expecting Jackson to come over.  He didn't show up.

"Car on the Hill," smack dab in the sweet spot of Joni's jazz masterpiece, Court and Spark, perfectly captures the universal storytelling of the LP. Ostensibly the musings of a woman awaiting her "sugar to show" when he's three hours late. The song is a three minute snapshot of the tensions and dependencies in any relationship. Hope and frustration blend as each car goes by without being his. The music suits the lyrics as Joni's vocals conjure up each image perfectly, particularly, "Climbing, climbing, climbing the hill." Anyone in L.A. can testify.

"It was a high-strung relationship," says a confidante, yet Joni remained in love with Browne.  Newly lionized, handsomer now that time had lined his baby face, and well placed in the Troubadour-Canyon elite, the power was shifting, and all her worshipful reviews couldn't change that.  When she first came to the Canyon, she'd been the awe-inspiring queen.  Now, the gravity of sexism had pulled her down a notch.  Browne had the advantage.

Phyllis Major
After the incident, Joni went into therapy in a residential setting, where she wrote "Trouble Child" about her experience. "Breaking like the waves at Malibu." She remained deeply angry at Jackson for years.  The Browne story had a tragic dimension that kept it smoldering for Joni.  Shortly before Phyllis Major married Jackson (in December 1975, two years after their son was born), she attempted suicide. She left notes for everybody saying, "I'm sorry. I can't stand the pain."  Though she was discovered in time, three months later Phyllis succeeded in taking enough drugs to kill herself. The tragedy was like a Santa Ana fueled brush fire through the Laurel Canyon circle, which Joni memorialized in a coded reference in her 1976 "Song For Sharon" on Hejira.  

Years after, in September 1992, Browne's longtime girlfriend, Daryl Hannah, accused him of beating her up.  The incident was "grievously misreported" with a flurry of contradictory accounts by after-the-fact witnesses and authorities.  It was after this scandal that Joni Mitchell went public with her anger at Jackson by way of "Not To Blame," her song of domestic violence on Turbulent Indigo

We listen to these songs with detachment. We put them into our own frame of thought. We internalize them and often forget that music isn't created in a vacuum; that there are stories within them about the human beings we've elevated to demigods. We see Joni's smile leaning out the window and envision her only as a storyteller, and never as a character within those stories.