Monday, November 6, 2017

Repost: Joni Mitchell's Early Years - 1962 to 1967

Joni Mitchell’s (Joan Anderson's) first club performances came in late October early 1962 at the Louis Real Coffeehouse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She was 19. Although Joni has become, over the years, one of the most iconic and influential artists, certainly the most important artist to emerge out of the Laurel Canyon scene, not much interest, and hardly any real info is available for her early years. What we do know is that Joni contracted Polio at age nine with a prognosis that she would never walk again. It was in the polio ward that Joni first began to sing before others. Defying the odds, but unable to afford a guitar, the young Joni bought a ukulele and a Pete Seeger songbook and taught herself to play. Later, unable to find the money to enter the musicians’ union (needed to play most venues), Joni worked at a local department store.

By March 1965 performing at The Penny Farthing in Toronto, Joni met Chuck Mitchell, a young musician from Detroit. Although critical of his song interpretations, particularly those of Bob Dylan,  they nonetheless struck up a romance and were married in June 1965. It was a union that Joni described as a "marriage of convenience;"Joni was an unwed mother with a baby daughter fathered by a college boyfriend. The child was ultimately put up for adoption; the details would remain private for much of her career.

Chuck and Joni Mitchell moved to Detroit and performed together as a folk duo. Joni’s singing, meanwhile, drew praise as she began to further develop her musical and songwriting skills, sometime performing on her own. In Detroit, she met Eric Anderson, a singer songwriter from Greenwich Village, who taught her some basics about open tuning, a style and sound she would fully embrace. 

One of the clubs where Chuck and Joni performed was the Chess Mate in Detroit. On one occasion, Tom Rush was also on the bill. "She was a slip of a girl: blond, intense," recalled Rush. "The songs blew me away – their poetry, their visual imagery." One of the songs he heard Joni perform was "Urge For Going," which he adopted for his own gigs. In fact, he was eager to have more of Joni’s material. "I remember asking her, 'What else do you have? What else do you have?'" Rush would have Joni come to New England and open for him at a series of engagements, while back in Detroit, Chuck and Joni continued their performances together. The "Chuck & Joni show," as it was called, consisted of an opening song or two together, a closing song together, and solos in between.

Joni, meanwhile, sought more autonomy in performing, and over the objections of her husband, she began making solo bookings. In May 1966, Chuck and Joni appeared at the Gaslight Café in New York to play as part of the Gaslight Hootenanny. It was then that Joni was first seen by other performers, among them, Joan Baez. David Geffen, who would later become Joni Mitchell’s agent, also heard her perform at the Gaslight. Geffen was Buffy Sainte-Marie's agent, whose new album included Mitchell’s "The Circle Game," which Geffen especially liked. It was the first time he had ever heard her name.

In late 1966, Joni had two engagements at The 2nd Fret club in Philadelphia. It was there that she met another folkie from Colorado named Michael playing at the Trauma club. The pair struck up a romance, and spent some time together in Philadelphia. Obviously, this didn't go over well with Chuck. The affair fueled Joni’s song, "Michael From Mountains." New love was a powerful creative force for Joni and her songwriting, as would be shown time and time again throughout her career. Meanwhile on the club/coffeehouse circuit, Chuck and Joni continued to appear together, honoring their commitments through early 1967. But by that time, their marriage was over. Their last joint appearance came in May 1967.

Joni then moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a solo artist. She eventually settled in New York's Chelsea district. While in New York during the summer of 1967 and performing at the Café Au Go Go she met Steve Katz who played with the house band there, The Blues Project. She had a brief romance with Katz who in turn, introduced her to Roy Blumenfeld, the Blues Project’s drummer. Blumenfeld and Joni then spent a part of the summer of 1967 together until Blumenfeld’s French girlfriend came home from Europe. Joni’s song, "Tin Angel," the name of a New York restaurant, is in part about Roy. Blumenfeld would later say that Joni Mitchell’s music "was more original than Dylan's." Another of Joni’s Blues Project band member friendships turned out to be Al Kooper, the group’s keyboardist, lead singer, and chief composer. Kooper was also a friend of Judy Collins, who would invite Joni to the Newport Folk Festival, in Newport, Rhode Island.

The July 1967 program at the Newport Folk Festival included Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Odetta, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton. Joni, after being introduced at the festival by Judy Collins, played a short set that included "Michael From Mountains," "Chelsea Morning" and "The Circle Game" prompting a standing ovation. It was at Newport that Joni met Leonard Cohen, by then a rising poet and singer. Joni was much taken with the 42 year-old Cohen, and the two began a romance. Among the Mitchell's creations credited in whole or part to her time with Cohen, are said to be, "Rainy Night House," "The Gallery" and "A Case of You."

David Crosby was another artist smitten by her sound — and her good looks. Crosby himself was already a successful member of The Byrds. It was sometime in late August 1967 when Crosby had his first encounter with Joni. He had left The Byrds for personal differences and gone to Florida to sort things out. "I went looking for a sailboat to live on. I wanted to do something else. Find another way to be. I was pretty disillusioned." Then he walked into a coffee house in Coconut Grove and heard Joni sing. "I was just completely smitten. I couldn’t believe that there was anybody that good." Crosby would fall for Joni, and would later write at a song alluding to his feelings, "Guinevere." Joni moved in with Crosby for a time when she came to southern California in 1967, but according to her, they were "never an item." Crosby would later say of Joni: "It was very easy to love her, but turbulent. Loving Joni is a little like falling into a cement mixer."

Still, Crosby became her personal promoter and helped her settle into that special little corner of Los Angeles known as Laurel Canyon. Crosby had her play at the homes of his Hollywood friends — Mama Cass Elliot, the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon, among them. Crosby, with his Byrds success and his connections in the music business, was determined to produce a Joni Mitchell album, Songs to a Seagull, which would be released to great fanfare in 1968.