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Both Sides, Later

POP MUSIC

With the release of two 'best of' albums, Joni Mitchell looks back at her hits--and misses--and the artistry that's earning renewed recognition.

December 08, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

You can tell a lot about Joni Mitchell's humor and spunk from just the titles of her two recent "best of" albums on Reprise Records.

One is "Hits." It contains 15 of her best-known songs--from the wistful "Both Sides Now," which she wrote in 1967 when she was just 23, to the declarative "Help Me," a cornerstone of 1974's "Court and Spark," the album that cemented Mitchell's reputation as one of the most influential and acclaimed writers of the modern pop era.

The other collection is "Misses." It's a 14-song package that focuses chiefly on the post-"Court" material--from the social commentary of "Dog Eat Dog" to the ambitious narrative sweep of "Hejira"--that moved away from the accessible, folk-accented textures of the singer's earlier work.

"I tend to be dismissive of my early songs in favor of championing my underdog children," Mitchell says, explaining why she insisted that Reprise release "Misses" along with the "Hits" package. "I think the songs after 'Court and Spark' show a lot of growth and I worry that much of it is destined for obscurity."

Mitchell, 53, hopes the "Misses" album and the attention she is receiving in what she calls her "season of honors" help rescue the post-"Court and Spark" material. In September, she was presented with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award in Canada, and she'll be honored Wednesday at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Songwriters. She'll also be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on May 15 in Cleveland.

Despite the awards, Mitchell--rivaled perhaps only by Bob Dylan during the rock era in combining strong literary sensibilities with an uncompromising eye for life's rituals and rites--wonders whether people understand her real musical vision, which has moved freely over the years to incorporate world music, jazz and classical textures. She's well aware, for instance, that she made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her fourth year of eligibility.

"Well, it's a boys' club isn't it?" she says of the Hall of Fame. "And it's kind of a joke. . . . There are so many people in it. It's like a hockey hall of fame where they

let in anyone who has ever scored a goal. But then, I never considered myself a rock artist or a folk artist. People just saw a girl with an acoustic guitar and said, 'Folk singer.' But to me, my roots were in classical music."

The Canadian-born Mitchell, a Los Angeles resident for years, declines an invitation to pick out 10 favorites from her body of work, but she agreed to react to a list of 10 of my favorite Mitchell songs. On the eve of this week's dinner, she also expressed some of her views about songwriting and tried to clear up what she feels are some misconceptions about her work. The songs are in chronological order.

CHELSEA MORNING (1967)

I wrote that in Philadelphia after some girls who worked in this club where I was playing . . . found all this colored slag glass in an alley. We collected a lot of it and built these glass mobiles with copper wire and coat hangers. I took mine back to New York and put them in my window on West 16th Street in the Chelsea District. The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There's even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time . . .before I had a record deal. I think it's a very sweet song, but I don't think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue.

BOTH SIDES NOW (1967)

I was reading Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.

BIG YELLOW TAXI (1970)

I wrote "Big Yellow Taxi" on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song. When it first came out, it was a regional hit in Hawaii because people there realized their paradise was being chewed up. It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places in the country. That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.

ALL I WANT (1971)

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