Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell

An extract from the new biography...
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In August 1970, Joni Mitchell was forced to figure out just what she was willing to reveal in a very public moment. The third and final edition of the Isle of Wight Festival took place on East Afton Farm in Freshwater, England, and its bucolic setting put attendees in mind of Woodstock. But the crowd grew unruly as promoters tried to keep out people who hadn’t paid by putting up corrugated iron fences and hiring police to patrol with trained guard dogs. When things got ugly during Mitchell’s set, she confronted the audience.

The mood of Mitchell’s performance at Isle of Wight was a preview of the 'Blue' album, which she was then writing and would record a few months later. On the festival stage, she came off as kind of angry, kind of vulnerable, kind of sad, but with a cold blue steel will to tell the crowd exactly how she felt. One night at dinner, I asked her how she managed to gather up her courage at Isle of Wight. Almost forty years later, it’s still one of her favorite stories:

“The first time I stood my ground was there, in front of half a million people. It was a hostile audience. Some French rowdies stirred people up, based on the fact that we had sold out because we arrived in fancy cars. Neil Young and I rented a red Rolls. It was decadent backstage. So there was an ‘us versus them’ mentality from the audience, we performers were seen as privileged and elite, putting on royal airs.

“Some acts canceled and there was a gaping space in the program. For about an hour, no one would go on. So it created a dead space. I was scared witless, but wanted to be cooperative. I said I’d go out. Onstage I had a broad perspective on the crowd and its energy that you couldn’t see from inside it. Soon after I started—maybe in the second song—a guy near the front started flipping out on acid. He let out a banshee yell, like he had the devil at his heels. The whole crowd started undulating with waves of his energy. It was not good. There was brewing unrest.

“I moved over to the piano to play ‘Woodstock,’ which was kind of funny—this event was more like a war zone than Woodstock. A guy from the caves, Yogi Joe, who taught me my first yoga lesson, he suddenly appears on the stage. He gave me the victory sign and says, ‘Spirit of Matala, Joni!’ And then he starts playing congas—with terrible time, the time of a disturbed child. I bent over to him and told him it was entirely inappropriate. At the end of the song, Yogi Joe leaps up and grabs the mic: ‘It’s desolation row and we’re all headed to hell!’ or something like that. The guards grab him. The crowd had already been agitated, but this really riles them up: ‘They’ve got one of ours!’ and they’re moving forward.

“I wanted to run, but I’d been running away a lot, canceling shows, you know, to travel and avoid the bigstage. But here’s where I got my strength. With Dennis Wilson and James Taylor, I’d just been at a Hopi ceremony, a snake dance ceremony to bring rain to their corn crops. They dance with live snakes. One stood up on its tail and rocketed into the audience. The people parted like the red sea, but the musicians, who were priests, these drummers, kept playing, kept the groove. They knew they had to bring the rain.”

Videos of Mitchell’s Isle of Wight set tell the rest of the story. Unsure what to do about the crowd, she bought time by vamping on a piano intro to “My Old Man.” She was the very image of feminine vulnerability in a long yellow dress and a turquoise belt and bracelet she’d just bought at the Hopi reservation. After a couple minutes of holding back tears, her chin quivering with the strain of it, her confusion hardened into righteous indignation. She stopped playing and addressed the crowd.

“Listen a minute, will ya? Will ya listen a minute? Now listen . . . A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it’s fun, ya know, it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen . . . You got your life wrapped up in it and it’s very difficult to come up here and lay something down when people . . . It’s like last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists . . . and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and there were Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect.”

“And the beast lay down,” Mitchell said, finishing the story. “The beast lay down. Depending on who you asked, I either saved the festival or was the victim of it.” Concertgoers have mentioned that Mitchell couldn’t see or hear the noisy helicopter that flew overhead during her set—the real object of the crowd’s jeering hostility. Regardless, it was good practice for her: even while keyed up in the face of a large, restive crowd, she could stand her ground by speaking with intimacy and honesty. She finished out the show with several more songs, including 'A Case of You' and 'California', which would appear on 'Blue'.

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From 'Will You Take Me as I Am' © 2009, 2012 by Michelle Mercer, reprinted by permission of Backbeat Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation.

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