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Both Sides, Later

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

I like that song. It's got more tooth than most of the other [early] songs. But I don't know what to say about it. It's funny how people keep looking between the lines of songs to see what is hidden there. Well, I'm not an evasive writer. You don't have to dig under the words for the meaning. The meaning is all there. It's very plain-speak. When someone asks what a song like "Sex Kills" is about, I want to say, "Well, did you listen to the words?"


That was my first farewell to show business. I was in Canada, where I have a sanctuary where I still go sometimes, and I had decided to quit show business and get away from all the pressures I felt. I put my thoughts into that song. . . : "Remember the days when you used to sit / And make up your tunes for love . . . / And now you're seen / On giant screens /And at parties for the press / And for people who have slices of you / From the company." To me, this was an unfair, crooked business and it has nothing to do with real talent. . . . I was up in Canada about a year and I guess it strengthened my nervous system a little, so I finally came back.


I wrote that in Paris for David Geffen [the entertainment mogul and then-president of her record label], taking a lot of it from the things he said. . . . Another song about show business and the pressures. He didn't like it at the time. He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light.


I don't want to name names or kiss and tell, but basically it is a portrait of a Hollywood bachelor and the parade of women through his life, . . . how he toys with yet another one. So many women have been in this position, . . . being vulnerable at a time when you need affection or are searching for love, and you fall into the company of a Don Juan.

AMELIA (1976)

That's a good choice. To me, the whole "Hejira" album was really inspired. I feel a lot of people could have written "Chelsea Morning," but I don't think anyone else could have written the songs on "Hejira." I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it. . . . The sweet loneliness of solitary travel. What happened was I had driven across the country with a couple of friends, starting in California when they showed up at my door. One was an old boyfriend from Australia who had a 20-day visa and wanted to go to Maine to kidnap his daughter from this grandmother. You could have made a whole movie about that trip. "Refugee of the Roads" grew out of that experience. On the way back, I went down the coast to Florida and then followed the Gulf of Mexico across the country, staying in old '50s motels and eating at health food stores. In this song, I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another, . . . sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.


I had that music back around the time of [1982's] "Wild Things Run Fast," but it took seven years to find the story to fit the music. It's a story of obsession . . . about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby gray rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work. That's a song that shows my songs aren't all self-portraits.


That's a sweet song that was written in Hawaii when [record producer-musician Larry Klein] and I were driving along on the Fourth of July to this house we had rented. There was this big moon and the clouds moving across the island so quickly. Everything looked so magical, . . . even the white line on the highway. It was as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust all around. . . .

It's interesting how people hear your sad songs and think you must be miserable or whatever. They don't think William Shakespeare was miserable just because he wrote about tragedy. I see myself as a singing playwright and an actress and I try to make plays that are pertinent to our times. . . . I fully experience my anxiety and my grief, but that doesn't mean don't also have a lot of fun. . . . I like to think of myself, in fact, as a fun-loving person.


Hear Joni Mitchell

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