It isn’t hard to make the case that Joni Mitchell is one of the finest songwriters who have ever walked the Earth. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also one of the most inventive guitarists, and an able lyricist for another’s work, and she can paint, and she’s intelligent and beautiful. Thank God she’s addicted to cigarettes. Without that, I might not be able to see her as human at all! For me and for many others, Joni was influential not only as an artist, but also as a muse.
Part of the cult of Joni was originally based on her having had romances with some of the biggest names in music, with a dose of actors and writers thrown in for variety. I’m not going to list them. Nobody lists Mick Jagger’s lovers. It’s unfair for her to have been subjected to that double-standard by the press. What was important about this was that it seemed to us readers that it was impossible for any man to collaborate with her or remain in her company for long without falling in love (or lust) with her. Joni was a siren, impossible to resist, and a sylph, impossible to hold onto permanently.
The fact that she did not do a lot of interviews, or give many concerts made her seem more goddess-like too. How could anyone work so hard on the actual artistic product and then not seem to be very interested in plugging for sales? Only someone above it all, we assumed. This may not have been the truth, since people who have known her well say she was very ambitious. However, her ambitions seemed to be channeled into better, more inventive music in an increasing variety of styles, rather than into promotional efforts. We fans believed she cared more about making good music than about being rich and famous, unlike many music stars that seemed to take the two in equal measure. That dedication to art for art’s sake made her seem heroic and special.
No one’s guitar playing was as hard to figure out as Joni Mitchell’s. She only wrote a couple of songs in standard tuning. The rest used simple alternate tunings at first, but the tunings quickly got more and more unusual as her songwriting grew more complex. It didn’t help that the published sheet music just showed standard-tuning guitar chords which, when played, sounded nothing like the recordings. This added to her aura of impenetrable mystery. Only she could play her own guitar parts accurately. I’m glad she wasn’t able to re-tune her piano, or we would have had even more indecipherable secrets to contend with.
There was one young man who managed to enter the temple of occult tunings. His name’s Joel Bernstein. While still a high school student, he took photos of Joni in concert and showed them to her. She liked them and recommended him to other music stars, launching his career in photography. Joel Bernstein became the archivist of her tunings, the only person besides Joni herself who knew them all; even for songs she had not recorded. The rest of us guitar-playing peasants had to break set after set of strings trying to figure them out.
Joni eventually invented so many tunings she had to stop giving concerts for years because it would take too long to re-tune, and you couldn’t have 50 guitars on stage. This problem was solved by the invention of the Roland VG guitar system. With a VG, you can store dozens of different tunings in a computer bank and just dial in the one you need. The Roland-type output on specially adapted guitars allows you to then finger the song without re-tuning. The guitar will output notes in the new scale. She bought a VG-8 in 1995 and has used it in live performance since. Ironically, since she hadn’t been performing the old songs, Joel had to assist her in remembering some of the tunings.
Wally Breese was a super-fan, and a music archivist. He established the early web site that eventually became JoniMitchell.com. Wally was enthusiastic, upbeat and generous, and other super-fans gravitated to him. They shared their love not only of the songs, but of the siren. This group of adherents amassed a huge collection of articles, interviews, photos and memorabilia, and organized them for presentation to the world. Wally died too soon, in 2000, but his web-temple of the goddess is one of the most extensive dedications to any artist in any medium. Among the many treasures there, you can now find the tunings for the songs, contributed by Joel Bernstein.
I had only lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and I had a temp job in the warehouse of a furniture designer where my girlfriend worked. I inventoried surplus leather skins for a sale. One day when I wasn’t working, my girlfriend was in the showroom at closing time. Recognizing the woman who approached as the doors were being locked, my girlfriend allowed her to enter the store and buy some of the skins I had inventoried. She brought home a piece of paper for me that read, “Hello Michael – Joni Mitchell”. Though I had seen her in concert and owned all her records, this small relic fit the feeling I had that Joni Mitchell was a spirit free from the imprisonment of flesh. She was always just out of reach.