Joni Mitchell recently left hospital, having been incapacitated by a mysterious illness. A good friend is taking care of her affairs, as Joni seems no longer able. It seems only appropriate at this time to celebrate the talents of one of the greatest songwriters of the past fifty years.

Her last performing experience happened a couple of years ago when she even treated her fans in Toronto to some new poems and a spirited and wholly successful stab at singing: she hasn’t sung much in recent years in public due to illness. She suffered from polio when she was a child, and though she recovered entirely, she like many other polio survivors was stricken again as an adult. Both her stamina and her will to tour and practise and sing (having lost her pure soprano voice to age and her indefatigable smoking habit) diminished her concert schedule to near nothing for the past several years.

Her first album (self-titled) for Reprise Records in 1967 was notable for several reasons: she wrote all the songs, did the cover art herself, and recruited some very talented people to work with her. David Crosby produced. Stephen Stills played bass. Not bad for a young girl from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada who had just arrived in Los Angeles a short time before. So all that is notable, but I think there was something even more important and more defining as to what this new performer was all about. It was in a note from Joni that appeared on the inside foldout cover. The note said: “This album is dedicated to Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words.” Well Joni, you’ve done the same for millions of fans the world over; you have taught us to love words just as Mr. Kratzman taught you.

“Back then, I didn’t have a big organization around me. I was just a kid with a guitar, traveling around. My responsibility basically was to the art, and I had extra time on my hands.” Joni Mitchell

Your first couple of albums were pretty precious: overwrought and overwritten, but the swooping soaring range of your sparkling soprano enthralled us and your talent on both guitar and piano kept us listening. I have six of your vinyl albums and they all have foldout covers and the words to every song are printed out there on every one of those records, because you treated words as though they were something important. You made them important and by that I don’t mean you wrote poems and set them to music. Not at all. You have a keen sense of the vernacular, as evidenced by “This Flight Tonight” and “ For Free”, and “Be Cool” and especially “Raised on Robbery”, which was recorded for the album Court and Spark in 1974. By that time you were very cool yourself, with the reputation and the substance to attract such stellar players as Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Jose Feliciano, Larry Carlton, and Robbie Robertson, to name a few.

What’s interesting to me about “Raised on Robbery” is that you demonstrated conclusively that you had mastered the art of songwriting; this tune is poetry in motion in the guise of rock and roll. First off, there’s very little use of rhyme in the lyrics, but you’d never know it. I think it was Shelley who said “Rhyme is the refuge of mediocrity” and God knows that judgment stung me (yes, a published and very minor poet I must admit) to the quick, but I think you learned that in the making of your first few albums and never forgot it. Someone else, I think it was Blake, said “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and you knew this too. You got to the middle of your career very quickly – in three or four years – and you stayed there at peak level for another thirty years or so. What you did with “Robbery” was nothing short of brilliant.

Here’s the scene: a guy is sitting in the lounge of Regina’s Empire Hotel and watching the hockey game – a Leafs fan – when a lady of the night comes along and offers to keep him company. She solicits his favours with one of the best come on lines a pro ever devised:

“I’m a pretty good cook
I’m sitting on my groceries
Come up to my kitchen
I’ll show you my best recipe”

Only a Canadian could have written this song, someone who has spent some time in a prairie hotel, where not so long ago there were separate entrances for Men and Ladies with Escorts. I’m thinking Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Ian Tyson, or David Wiffen; any one of them might have written this song. Not Joni, the beautiful art student from the Paris of the Prairies.

Somehow Joni had moved on in style and substance from her album Blue and her haunting “I wish I had a river I could skate away on”, which was yet another song that could have been written only by a Canadian. Skating outdoors in the winter is in our blood “like holy wine”, the same way hockey is. What she achieved here was new for her: most of her other work seemed to be taken directly from her own romantic experiences; in “Robbery” she adopts the persona of a lowlife scheming whore who has been used and abused by men but who still keeps coming back for more: her shtick with the guy trying to watch the hockey game is that she is so honest she tells him she was “raised on robbery”. A truthful fraud artist and crook. It is delicious to hear her sing it.

In the mid-seventies the Los Angeles based session musicians such as John Guerin on drums, Tom Scott on saxophone, and Larry Carlton on guitar had amassed stellar reputations for their musicianship, their jazzy sound, and their infectious melodies. Tom Scott played on hundreds of albums and brought something special to every session. Larry Carlton was the tastiest guitarist going. Joe Sample on piano was marvelous. Together on the Court and Spark album they made music of a high order that was both commercial and memorable.

Joni’s other big radio hit was “Free Man in Paris”, in which she puts forth the story of a record company executive “stoking the machinery of the popular song”. She puts in another great performance with “Twisted” , the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross number sung from the point of view of a humorous schizophrenic. It is a terrific number and it makes me wish she had taken this approach of creating characters outside of herself more often. Her confessional songs are often too introspective for most people.

Close to 50 years on from her first recording Joni’s music is still attracting attention. In 2008 Herbie Hancock, the noted jazz pianist, devised a tribute album based on her album Blue, the highlight of which was the song “River”. I saw Herbie being interviewed recently and he spoke of the delight of working for the first time with a project that focused on the beauty of words. He said there were no better words available than Joni’s. And Joni’s songs have become cultural touchpoints in so many ways. Consider this one:

“Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel”.” – Emma Thompson as Karen in the movie Love, Actually

Joni is the acknowledged female singer-songwriter extraordinaire though countless others have tried to match her: Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joan Armatrading to name a few, and most notably of the current crop, the talented English songwriter Laura Marling. Joni is well aware of her place in music history and has no false modesty. She said recently she thought she had no peers in the art of songwriting.

In an interview with CBC Radio she pronounced Bob Dylan “a plagiarist” and said her own musical peers were people like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Stravinsky. She also believes she is a painter first and foremost, but her prodigious song catalogue and her reputation put the lie to that wish. Even so, her first love was painting and she became a folksinger to support herself. Back in the late ’60s it was easier for her to earn a few dollars singing in a cafe in Toronto’s Yorkville than it was to sell an original painting. I think she made the right decision, though she has never strayed far from her art; in fact she has proclaimed as much in one of her songs: “I am a painter, I live in a box of paints”.

Joni, your songs are brilliant, whereas your paintings are interesting, even occasionally compelling, but they won’t be remembered a hundred years from now. Your songs will be. And ‘Raised on Robbery’ is the epitome of high art illuminating an unforgettable subject.

“Let me sit down, you know drinkin’ alone is a shame
Look at those jokers glued to that damn hockey game”

Watch: Joni Mitchell live with Tom Scott and The L.A. Express from 1974

Essentials: Joni Mitchell 'Raised on Robbery'
5.0Overall Score

11 Responses

  1. Ryan

    Not Winnipeg. The Empire Hotel she sings about is in Regina, just been Albert Street and MacIntyre Street between Saskatchewan Drive and 11th Avenue. Still has a lounge.

    Reply
    • Brian Miller

      Thanks, Ryan, for this comment. I’ve lived in both Winnipeg and Saskatoon, and traveled to Regina occasionally, but I’m more familiar with the Empire Hotel in Winnipeg. I’ll make that change you suggest, as no doubt Joni’s history of growing up in Saskatchewan makes that location the logical choice.

      Reply
      • Robert Loblaw

        Leafs, Empire Hotel, highway cash, tarts…. Huntsville, Ontario folks assume it was set in their Empire Hotel (now burnt down), nearer to Maple Leaf Gardens, but the highway twinning project there in the 70s seems too late as Joni would have been “too big for Huntsville” by then and not been exposed to that (and less likely that land appropriation cash would be thrown around as that ON highway went through crown land mostly). If anywhere, more likely Regina or Saskatoon Empire Hotels, as SK #11 between those cities saw ongoing major twinning projects from 1968 (a big deal as sections were still gravel through the mid-60s) and every inch on cash-appropriated farm land. Also Regina’s downscale Empire in particular has always been widely known as a sleezy home for prostitution. Probably couldn’t be said of the premium Empire Hotel in resort town Huntsville. With no NHL teams in the Canada west of Winnipeg in the 1960s/70s Sask lounges would have been uniformly tuned in to Leafs games. Cities big enough for lots of prostitutes but small enough for no NHL team. Winnipeg already had the Jets by ’72. What you think?

      • Robert Loblaw

        Also note the reference in the song to buying a ’57 Biscayne. Lets say the song is set in 1970 plus or minus. The guy lucks into a huge windfall of cash ($3K in late sixties would have been nuts), and yet he splurges only on an older model vehicle – around 13 years old. My point – Sask has always had an oddly skewed vehicle market – if you go there you’ll note even today that older models make up a much larger proportion of the cars on the road. Salt was never used on roads in winter (at least until recently?) and the cities are very small so mileage is often mostly highway miles – cars last much longer and so retain more value for longer. So the TV-Leafs fan gets only an older car with his big wad of highway land appropriation cash. Would that be as likely the case in salty road Huntsville or big time urban Winnipeg? Are you more likely to put the Biscayne “in the ditch” in sprawling big city Winnipeg (or Edmonton, Calgary or Vancouver or Victoria), or out in the open prairie, which looms up just blocks from the Empire hotel in Regina or Saskatoon? Of course Empire Hotels are (were) so common Joni may have used it as a universal setting, the same way the Simpsons are set in “Springfield” – theres one (or a dozen) in every state. There is are/were “Empire Hotel”s in hundreds of small towns across the west.

      • Brian Miller

        Interesting that you should bring up the ’57 Biscayne, Robert. You present a compelling argument for the Sask venue. By chance, I was doing some Chevrolet research recently and noticed in Wikipedia that the Biscayne was actually introduced in 1958. However, poetic license on Joni’s part to change the model year delivers a more memorable line. “Seven” sings, while “eight” doesn’t.

      • Robert Loblaw

        Good article, BTW Brian. Also good catch on the Biscayne model year introduction.

        She doesn’t strike me as a “car person” necessarily, so it may have also just been an oversight, or liking the sound of “Biscayne” more than “Chevy” or “Bel Air” or “Caprice Classic” or whatever in the same way 7 has better bite than 8. The 57 Chev is the iconic model year however. A stretch, but the selection (subconscious?) of “Biscayne” might also have been because she developed a knowledge of, or an affinity for, the Biscayne Bay area, playing there and being “discovered” by Crosby in south Miami…

      • Brian Miller

        Thanks for your appreciation of the article, Robert. As a wordsmith myself, I think Joni’s choice of phrasing in “bought a ’57 Biscayne”, with the repetition of the B sound, really works. And I think she does know cars. We all did back then – by the headlights, the taillights, the fenders. Car design was really something special in the ’50s and ’60s. She has always shown in her writing that she possesses a fantastic flair for detail. She would know exactly what a Biscayne was – the very bottom of the Chevrolet line, and Chev of course was regarded as step or two below Buick and Olds. So she’s saying with the guy’s choice of a Biscayne (and putting it the ditch) that he had neither style nor regard for his possessions. I read somewhere that with her first real money she bought a Mercedes convertible which she has kept for decades – something a car person would do. Joni’s writing is always more than it seems – no one, except for Leonard Cohen, has such an exquisite sense for the meaning and implications of every word she used.

      • Robert Loblaw

        Interesting info/perspective regarding the car model/trim hierarchy of the time. Certainly makes more sense in the context her regard for “that son of a bitch”. B – bitch. There it is again… I think you have something there. Bloods Bad. Robbery. Robbie Robertson?

  2. Bill Knoof

    Thursday, April 6, 1972. I was sitting in the lounge at the Empire hotel in North Bay, Ontario. The tables in front of the stage were being decorated for a reception the following day. I was watching the Leafs game on tv. There were two other guys and the bartender in the lounge when Joni walked in. She was wearing a black lacy top and either a skirt or pantsuit bottom. She went up on the stage to tune her guitar and check the sound system. It was my last night in North Bay before moving to a new job in Orillia. I was flush with cash having just been paid and also withdrawing all the money from my bank account for the move to Orillia. I had indulged in half a dozen beer and the empties were still on the table as the bartender was busy arranging the tables and chairs in front of the stage – putting on tablecloths and draping cloths and big bows over the chairs. Once she was satisfied that her guitar was tuned and the sound system was O.K. she came over to my table and ordered a drink. Some kind of gin. She introduced herself as Joni Mitchell and said that I must have heard of her and her music. I din’t have a clue as to who she was. At that time I was listening to rock and roll like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. We engaged in conversation, but I was more interested in the hockey game – Leafs versus Bruins in the playoffs. I had bet on the Leafs with the two guys in the bar who bet on the Bruins. Jay Harrison scored the winner in overtime. The whole time Joni sat with me she was smoking one cigarette after the other and blowing the smoke directly in my face. I bought her a couple of drinks while she sat with me, but when she invited me up to her room I declined. I was a non-smoker and wasn’t impressed with her manners having blown smoke in my face for half an hour or more. I got up to leave and left her with two parting shots: First I advised her not to quit her day job as she didn’t sing very well. Second, that lips that touch cigarettes would never touch mine. I never thought about that incident again until I bought her Greatest Hits album in the mid nineties. The memory came rushing back when I firs heard “Raised on Robbery”. Had she not blown smoke directly in my face that evening that song might never have been written or could have been very different.

    Reply
    • Robert Loblaw

      So Joni, after show in Los Angeles in March 1972, the last show on her North American tour of major venues, makes a stop into the North Bay Empire Hotel lounge to play for 3 drunks, before jetting off to continue her tour in Europe.. You are one lucky dude. How many kinds of gin does the North Bay empire hotel lounge actually have? They probably made sure they had Joni’s brand.

      Reply

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