“I think Joni is Jewish,” said Malka Marom, the author of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words. We were speaking mischievously about a story that Joni Mitchell had, on separate occasions, told to both of us. Some years before the death of her parents, she learned that her father had his name changed at Ellis Island. She had already learned that he also had Native American blood. So she asked her mother, “What’s it like to be married to a Jewish Indian?” But Mitchell, who turns 71 today, is not about to have Henry Louis Gates, Jr. find her roots on PBS, and Marom was speaking figuratively. Marom is definitely Jewish—she is Israeli—and because she feels intimately connected to Joni Mitchell, she feels that Joni is of the tribe, at least in spirit. (Joni’s second husband was Jewish, but their wedding was Buddhist.) “In her soul she is Jewish, even if not in her blood,” Malka said with a laugh.
Joni Mitchell does not like to be limited to any religion, musical genre, or any other pop culture archetype that may be applied to lesser figures. She is, when she feels like it, a marathon talker (Full disclosure: I am writing a book about Joni Mitchell. Our first conversation, which lasted 12 hours and could have gone longer if I didn’t have a plane to catch, ranged from her work on a ballet based on her music, to her new album—her first of new material in 10 years, to her on-and-off admiration of Bob Dylan, her former lover Leonard Cohen, alternate guitar tunings, a memorable night with Miles Davis during his silent period, the stupidity of the music business, and the imminent destruction of our planet, which she, like an environmental Cassandra, sees coming.)
What is noteworthy about this collection, though, is that, even as Mitchell is a marathon talker, she has a special intimacy with Marom. The bulk of the book are three transcripts—not raw, but more thorough than anything previously in print. The first was made in 1973, while Mitchell was recording Court and Spark and preparing for her first tour with a band, on the way to her greatest immediate commercial success. A tiny portion of it was published in MacLean’s. The second, from 1979, was conducted while Mitchell was recording her Mingus album, a project that her management warned her would ruin her career and ban her from airwaves forever. (They were right!)
Marom’s final and most poignant interview with Mitchell is from 2012, where she describes, among other things, her battle with Morgellons Syndrome, a skin disorder that has, at its worst moments, put her out of commission. When she was asked to sing for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, near her property where she spends half the year, she had to bow out. This description appears for the first time in print in this book:
I was invited to participate, but I couldn’t—that was at the height of my illness, when I couldn’t even wear clothing. I had to have alkalized soft cotton, and even then it felt like barbed wire. I couldn’t leave my house for several years. Sometimes it got so I’d have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like the polio spasms. It hit all of the places where I had polio. When it’s severe, I can’t walk. I had one attack where I had to crawl to the bathroom. And I had to turn around and back down the stairs. I started laughing. … I’m so glad I don’t have a man to be repulsed by this.
Mitchell lives on in the imaginations of many listeners as the muse of eternal heartbreak, of the seemingly endless cycle of old love, new love, and discarded love on 1970s classics like Blue, Court and Spark, Hejira, and so on. We all fall apart, of course, but not always so dramatically, and it is still upsetting to imagine someone who sang about loving her loving and loving her freedom now having neither.
Before Mitchell was plagued by Morgellons or post-polio syndrome, she was a prisoner of fame. During her peak commercial years in the ’70s, stalkers invaded her property. When it was bad, it gave her the habit of staying up all night, which she does to this day:
Many stalkers. Many, many, many. Some of them very dangerous. Necrophiliac fantasies and one guy was going to cut his left testicle off because he might better know the nature of women. A lot of Manson-type butcherous stalkers. They didn’t get me. … I’m the night watchman. A lot of my insomnia comes from—I can’t sleep until it’s light outside. I am scared of the dark, but I’m so used to being scared of the dark that I don’t notice it.
David Geffen has said that Joni is the only famous person he knows who wanted to be ordinary. At such moments, who wouldn’t? Joni had bared all in public, showing her beauty but also her most human flaws. She made people feel they knew her. Now she had stalkers, deluded and probably stoned, who felt they had the right to camp out on her property. This was the woman who wrote “Woodstock,” after all. They wanted to get back to the garden, too.
During her early folk-singing days, Mitchell played a gig at the Sippin’ Lizard in Michigan that prepared her for the turmoil that followed, forcing her to perform in the eye of a storm:
This particular night was the first time that I was getting a piece of the door instead of a salary and, wouldn’t you know it, there was a tornado going through town. My guitar got smashed on the airline. I had to borrow a guitar I wasn’t familiar with. … Now, I get to this club and the people who congregated there in that bad weather were about fourteen blind children and their teacher who had come from the north, and there was an Anglican minister with his collar, there was a motorcycle gang drinking wine out of a squirt thing, and then there were a few normal people. But it was a very small crowd. And the club had a bay window for a stage with black burlap all over it. Well, as soon as the storm progressed, it came down right on top of us. A lot of thunder, on top of us, in the middle of a song called “Songs to Aging Children Come”—“Some come dark and strange like dying.” And right about that point, the thunder blew the power out. What I didn’t know was that the thunder was eating my sound because there was no mike. I kept playing in the dark, and where the lightning was right on top of us, it was backlighting me. So I was this silhouette. Half the audience is blind, so they’re missing this, but they’re not missing the sound effects. The ones with eyes are getting a whole show and it was really surreal. There was a point where the thunder rolled so much that I added a couple of bars to dig myself from underneath it, and it would go, “Songs to aging children come.” [thunder sound]. It would come in right after that. Well, at the end, I stopped playing and there was no applause. I thought everybody had left. It was dark. I groped my way to the stage, and in the meantime, Charlie Latimer, my Chessmate [friend who] had traveled up to see me, he had lit a candle in the backroom, so when I opened the side door there was light in there. I went in. I kicked off my shoe, I was so pissed off, stepped on a cigarette—mine, I guess, that had fallen out of an ashtray onto the ground. “OWWW!” I’m jumping around with this hot foot, and I burst into tears. “You always sleep through your own magic,” Charlie said to me. And he played me back [on his tape recorder] this thing with the thunder and I couldn’t believe it.
The Mitchell in the story sleeps through her own magic, but the Mitchell who tells it appreciates the magic and, in intimate company, revels in sharing it, safe from the roaring tornado, with quite a tale to tell. The turbulence, she would come to realize, is where the magic happens. She is a believer in what she calls “magic mind,” and she can’t believe that flying into tornado country was just an accident. Singing against howling winds to a room of blind people had to be a parable for something. Believing life, even at its cruelest, is part of a grand design—a belief that we don’t have to share to admire her music—is what keeps the artist at work, figuring it out verse by verse. Music, without the muse, is “ick,” she has said. Mitchell is all about the muse, and these stories are what is behind the inspiration, what seems to her to be the grand design of her life.
In the 1971-72 period that produced Blue and For the Roses, two of her stone cold masterpieces, Joni felt, as she once put it, as vulnerable as cellophane on a pack of cigarettes. She was coming to terms with the secret she would keep for more than two decades about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a penniless folk singer:
I lost my daughter. I made a bad marriage. I made a couple of bad relationships after that. And then I got this illness—crying all the time. My mother thought I was being a wimp, and she was giving me buck-up advice. Later in life, she was walking through the supermarket and started crying for no reason. She also had it, milder than this. She called me up and apologized. It also simultaneously appeared when my insights became keener, so I could see painfully—things about people I didn’t want to know. I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried. I dreamed I was a plastic bag sitting on an auditorium chair watching a big fat woman’s tuba band. Women with big horns and rolled down nylons in house dresses playing tuba and big horn music, and I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair at that time. That’s how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside. I wrote Blue in that condition.
That dream Joni had: An analyst would have a field day. She feels exposed and conflicted in the presence of fat woman with big horns. Her secret about her daughter will be exposed. All this from one of the great artists of the past 50 years, who is vocal in her disdain for confessional poetry. So, what is it about Marom that has given her not only the skills as an interlocutor but also Mitchell’s blessing to publish them as a book?
The intimacy between the two female singers can be traced back to a rainy night in the Yorkville section of Toronto in November 1966 when Marom, a dark Jewish beauty, was in the midst of watching a marriage end and wondering how she would support her young children. When we discussed this conversionary moment over lunch in Toronto, the restaurant was playing one of her records with her former singing partner Joso until she insisted they turn it off. “You know what brought me to Joni,” she said. “I had a fight with Joso. He was of the mind that we had to compromise and sing in English. We were the first show in Canada that acknowledged that there was something ethnic in this country that was kosher. We were the first ones to bring world music to prime time. We were on right after the hockey game, which was very big in Canada. We sang in 18 languages. I could sing in languages that I couldn’t speak. Then they tried to make us very WASP-ish. So we had an argument. He called me stubborn, but it was just who I was.”
The disintegration of her marriage didn’t help much. “I had two little children, and I was literally beside myself. And so after we taped Saturday night’s show, I was driving around and around. I had children at home waiting for me. I had to get up early to give them breakfast and send them to school. And usually, I was so responsible. So it was getting later and later, and the streets were getting emptier and emptier. And I came to the riverboat and I remember that good girls weren’t supposed to go out alone, so I ran out of the car to the riverboat. That’s how I met Joni. It changed my life. I divorced my husband after hearing Joni sing ‘I Had a King.’ ‘I can’t go back anymore/ You know my key won’t fit the door.’ I was crying! In my case, how can I not think of myself. From where I was sitting, Joni was covering her face with her hair, as if to say, ‘It’s not me. It’s my song.’ It changed my life. I had never heard anything like that! A young girl with such wisdom.”
Marom was at a crossroads that moment, but she had been living in another kind of crossroads since she was born. “I was born in Poland or Hungary, nobody really knows,” she says. “My mother gave me to her brother because they didn’t have any children and because my parents were immigrating to Israel to be pioneers. At the last minute, they threw me into the window and that is how I survived. That was 1939. That is the story my parents tell. They took the last train that Jews were able to take and it took them to a port and they took a boat to Israel. The next day or the next week, the Nazis invaded and you couldn’t escape. My aunt went and brought a lot of stuff with her, but her ship sank. I believe that if it is beshert, if it is meant to be, it can happen. So I am a window girl. I like to open up new things.”
Marom’s beshert is kin to Mitchell’s “magic mind,” so it was beshert that they would meet. When she was growing up, Marom was a pioneer, witnessing the birth of Modern Hebrew, arriving at a country that was still called Palestine. “I’m a North Tel Aviv girl. I went to a wonderful school there run by the people who formed Modern Hebrew. I remember as a child, my teacher would say, ‘What do you think we should call a vacuum cleaner?’ ” she said. “They didn’t have Hebrew words for that, or an ironing board or a fridge. My teachers made up the words for it. I remember in math class, my teacher would say, IQ tests don’t matter. What matters is: How can you adapt to new circumstances to survive?” It was around this point that Marom asked me if I was proud to be Jewish. “Yes,” I said. I don’t think I had been asked that question since I was at Camp Chai.
And so the Window Girl has now, through these remarkable interviews, given us a window to Joni Mitchell. In the 2012 interview, Mitchell talks about cutting various people out of her life:
There were a couple of years with this illness where I was very isolated. I kicked a lot of people out of my life. Suddenly I thought that there was a lot of deadwood in my life. I didn’t have a sense of wasting my time with these people, but I thought I need to make different kinds of friends.
Indeed, many people have ended up on her scrap heap. But Marom survives, not only because she was pushing for Joni when she was still an obscure folkie, just a few months before she would write “Both Sides, Now” and Judy Collins would turn it into a top-10 hit and a Grammy. Beyond the fervid advocacy, Marom has endured with Joni because she is a superb listener who is fascinated by other people. She admitted to me that she preferred to be in the interviewer’s role than the subject. She asked me many questions: Where did I grow up? What is my wife like? And my son?
Eventually, we started talking about our shared love for Mitchell’s 1976 “Song for Sharon,” from her 1976 masterpiece, Hejira. It seemed to sum up a journey that Mitchell has been on and that Marom understood deeply. “I love ‘Song for Sharon.’ It’s my favorite song,” she told me. “I think it’s like a novel. It has characters in it. To me, it is a song about what it is like to be a woman artist. You look at the wedding dress as she describes, and our generation was raised to believe that the ultimate thing is to get married. This is an artist looking at it from a distance. At the last stanza , she says to Sharon, ‘You will have this. You will have that. And what will I have?’ The next gig. It is the life of a woman artist and the choices that the woman artist made at that time.” Filtered through Marom’s accent, a blend of Sephardic Jewry and Eastern European refugee, this sounds like a Talmudic parable, which is just a variation on Mitchell’s “magic mind,” which is brought to life so convincingly in these interviews.
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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. He is currently at work on a musical memoir titled Seemed Like the Real Thing.