By Emily Gould, thisrecording.com, April 2, 2010
Ladies of the Canyon ushered in a period of unprecedented commercial success for Joni Mitchell. Warner Brothers marketed the album explicitly to young women, betting that they’d aspire to the liberated yet traditional bohemian earth-mother image embodied by Joni and the “canyon ladies” she celebrated.
“Cats and babies ‘round her feet/all are fat and none are thin,” Mitchell sang of a Laurel Canyon neighbor; her voice still has that high, pure almost-yodel that cigarettes would eventually strip from it, leaving a more nuanced, less cloying instrument. “She may bake some brownies today/loo loo loo loo loo loo loo.” A listener could be forgiven for wondering what had melted the brilliant lyricist’s brain.
An exaggeration, sure: after all, Ladies contains some of Mitchell’s most enduring hits “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock“, and the affecting meditation on fame “For Free.” But it also has some resounding, cringe-inducing clunkers: “Sometimes in the evening he would read to her/roll her in his arms and give his seed to her.” Eugh. Was it marijuana? California? Love? All three, probably, but primarily the lattermost.
Before this album, Mitchell had sung hymns to women’s – well, her own — empowerment, coming off as preternaturally worldly-wise (she was still in her early 20s) and in control of romances that, while they might have caused her fleeting pain, left her with valuable impressions and experiences.
She’d painted a sly, catty portrait of a compulsive seducer in The Gallery, quoting a male celebrity’s emosogynistic pickup line – “’Lady, don’t love me now, I am dead/ I am a saint, turn down your bed/ I have no heart,’ that’s what you said/ ‘I can be cruel, but let me gentle with you.’” “She will love them when she sees them,” she had written of another song’s heroine’s various lovers, “and her heart is full and hollow, like a cactus tree/ while she’s so busy being free.”
By the time Ladies Of The Canyon was released, though, Mitchell was busy settling down.
She had met Graham Nash at a radio station’s party for his British Invasion band the Hollies. As Nash told Sheila Weller when she interviewed him for her 2008 opus Girls Like Us, their first night together in an Ottawa hotel was one of not only carnal but artistic communion: after bringing him up to her room, Mitchell got out her guitar. “She played fifteen songs, almost her entire first record…I was gone. I had never heard music like that.” But it wasn’t just her music that smote Nash, he told Weller. “I loved her before she played a note, just from looking at her and talking to her and realizing what her spirit was.”
The domesticity that the pair soon settled into in leafy, redolent Laurel Canyon would be immortalized in a hit that Nash would soon record with ex-Byrd David Crosby and Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills. “Our House” is a portrait of rich-hippie paradise, full of implicit lazy, sunny mornings and sex and good coffee and explicit cats in the yard (two). Who among us has not longed to light the fire while someone else puts the flowers in a newly-bought vase — newly bought at, probably, a charming antique shop or outdoor flea market? Whether you love or hate “Our House”, it’s hard to shake the idea of this effortless shacking-up as a domestic and romantic ideal: “Now everything is easy ‘cause of you.”
Could the life of two cohabitating artists ever really be “easy,” though? Nash describes racing Joni to the piano in the morning: “It was an intense time. Who’s gonna fill up the space with their music first?” And as Crosby, Stills & Nash got more popular and Joni continued to open for them – especially after her song “Woodstock” became their signature hit – criticism that her performance had been “overshadowed” by theirs must have stung. “Willy [her nickname for Graham] is my child, he is my father/I would be his lady all my life,” Mitchell sings on Ladies, then promptly tones down this already-conditional declaration of lifelong fealty: “But you know it’s hard to tell/When you’re in the spell if it’s wrong or if it’s real.”
Early in the spring of 1970, Mitchell left the canyon to wander through the Mediterranean for a bit. On that trip she would meet a bright red devil who’d try to keep her in a tourist town in Crete and go to a party down a red dirt road in Ibiza, then come home – relieved and spent – to California, to see the folks she dug. Nash, by that point, no longer numbered among them: from Crete, she’d sent him a telegram that read, “if you hold sand too tightly in your hand it will run through your fingers.”
He’d told the world that he wanted her to play her love songs “only for me;” this had been too much to ask. She’d go on to write more and better love songs and hate songs, and songs of indifference, singing and playing in a sadder, more thwarted mode. From the memories of her travels and her cumulative heartbreaks, she would create an album that, while it contained no cats, no babies, and no sun-dappled paeans to idealized hippie homemaking, laid the groundwork for the rest of her career.
“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling/ looking for something, what can it be?” Blue began. “Oh I hate you some, I hate you some/I love you some/ Oh I love you when I forget about me.” She would love lots of people besides Nash, of course (indeed, All I Want is, according to Weller, likelier about James Taylor), but she would never again, for better or worse, forget about herself.
Meanwhile, back in California, Nash wrote his first solo album, Songs for Beginners. The song “Simple Man,” like much of the album, is unambiguously, vulnerably directed towards Mitchell: “Never been so much in love/And never hurt so bad at the same time…I wish that I could see you once again/Across the room like the first time. /I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down.”
Emily Gould is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn.
In 1970, Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself with her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie cave community of Matala, Greece.
Here are the words of Joni Mitchell herself regarding Matala in Crete and the song “Carey,” from an interview by Rolling Stone in early 1971.
“Matala was a very small bay with cliffs on two sides. And between the two cliffs, on the beach, there were about four or five small buildings. There were also a few fishermen huts.
“The caves were on high sedimentary cliffs, sandstone, a lot of seashells in it. The caves were carved out by the Minoans hundreds of years ago. Then they were used later on for leper caves. Then after that the Romans came, and they used them for burial crypts. Then some of them were filled in and sealed up for a long time. People began living there, beatniks, in the fifties. Kids gradually dug out more rooms. There were some people there who were wearing human teeth necklaces around their necks,” she said with a slight frown.
“We all put on a lot of weight. We were eating a lot of apple pies, good bacon. We were eating really well, good wholesome food.
“The village pretty well survived from the tourist trade, which was the kids that lived in the caves. I don’t know what their business was before people came. There were a couple of fishing boats that went out, that got enough fish to supply the two restaurants there.
“The bakery lady who had the grocery store there had fresh bread, fresh rice pudding, made nice yogurt every day, did a thriving business; and ended up just before I left, she installed a refrigerator. She had the only cold drinks in town. It was all chrome and glass. It was a symbol of her success.
“Then the cops came and kicked everyone out of the caves, but it was getting a little crazy there. Everybody was getting a little crazy there. Everybody was getting more and more into open nudity. They were really going back to the caveman. They were wearing little loincloths. The Greeks couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Then during a performance at The Troubadour, Joni introduced the song “Carey” with the following story.
“I went to Greece a couple years ago and over there I met a very unforgettable character. I have a hard time remembering people’s names like so I have to remember things by association, even unforgettable characters, I have to remember by association, so his name was “Carrot” Raditz, Carey Raditz, and oh, he’s a great character. He’s got sort of a flaming red personality, and flaming red hair and a flaming red appetite for red wine and he fancied himself to be a gourmet cook, you know, if he could be a gourmet cook in a cave in Matala. And he announced to my girlfriend and I the day that we met him that he was the best cook in the area and he actually was working at the time I met him – he was working at this place called the Delphini restaurant – until it exploded, singed half of the hair off of his beard and his legs, and scorched his turban, melted down his golden earrings.
Anyway, one day he decided he was going to cook up a feast, you know, so we had to go to market because like in the village of Matala there was one woman who kind of had a monopoly – well actually there were three grocery stores but she really had a monopoly and because of her success and her affluence she had the only cold storage in the village, too, so she had all the fresh vegetables and all the cold soft drinks and she could make the yogurt last a longer than anyone else, and we didn’t feel like giving her any business that day. Rather than giving her our business we decided to walk ten miles to the nearest market.
So I had ruined the pair of boots that I’d brought with me from the city because they were really “citified” kind of slick city boots that were meant to walk on flat surfaces. The first night there we drank some Raki and I tried to climb the mountain and that was the end of those shoes. So he lent me these boots of his which were like Li’l Abner boots – like those big lace-up walking boots and a pair of Afghani socks which made my feet all purple at the end of the day and I laced them up around my ankles and I couldn’t touch any – the only place my foot touched was on the bottom, you know, there was nothing rubbing in the back or the sides – they were huge and he wasn’t very tall, either, come to think of it was kind of strange – I guess he had sort of webbed feet or something but we started off on this long trek to the village, I forget the name of it now, between Matala and Iraklion – and started off in the cool of the morning and by the time we got halfway there we were just sweltering me in these thick Afghani socks and heavy woollens and everything, so we went into the ruins of King Phestos’s palace to sit down and have a little bit of a rest and while we were there these two tourist buses pulled up and everybody got off the buses in kind of an unusual symmetry, you know, they all sort of walked alike and talked alike and they all kind of looked alike and they all filed over to a series of rubblely rocks- a wall that was beginning to crumble – lined themselves up in a row and took out their viewing glasses, overgrown opera glasses, and they started looking at the sky and suddenly this little speck appeared on the horizon that came closer and closer, this little black speck.
Cary was standing behind all of this leaning on his cane and as it came into view he suddenly broke the silence of this big crowd and he yells out “it’s ah MAAGPIE” in his best North Carolina drawl. And suddenly all the glasses went down in symmetry and everybody’s heads turned around to reveal that they were all very birdlike looking people. They had long skinny noses – really – they had been watching birds so long that they looked like them, you know – and this one woman turned around and she says to him (in British accent) “it’s NOT a magpie – it’s a crooked crow.” Then she very slowly and distinctly turned her head back, picked up her glasses and so did everybody else and we kept on walking. Bought two kilos of fish which would have rotted in the cave hadn’t it been for the cats.
When we got back from that walk Stelios, who was the guy who ran the Mermaid Cafe, had decided to put an addition on his kitchen which turned out to be really illegal and it was so illegal, as a matter of fact, that the Junta dragged him off to jail and torture was legal over there – they burnt his hands and his feet with cigarette butts mainly because they hated, you know, all of the Canadians and Americans and wandering Germans living in the caves but they couldn’t get them out of there because it was controlled by the same archaeologist that controlled the ruins of King Phestos’s palace and he didn’t mind you living there as long as you didn’t Day-Glo all of the caves and everyone was like putting all of their psychedelia over all this ancient writing. So they carted him off to jail…”