For Joni Mitchell, it’s a man’s world. At least in terms of her songwriting repertoire. The now 77-year-old has written countless songs – many of them about the men in her life, be they lovers or friends. Kids these days may look at Taylor Swift as the queen of immortalizing her exes in song, but if anyone deserves the crown for singing about men, it’s our dear Joni.
The singer-songwriter has always been an open book when it comes to her music, so lucky for us, we can get a glimpse into her love life and sing along at the same time. This is an ode to Joni Mitchell, who used her confessional songwriting as an ode to the men in her life.
“He said he’d be over three hours ago
I’ve been waiting for his car on the hill.”
The 1974 song from her Court and Spark album is about musician Jackson Browne, who actually played a big role in Mitchell’s life during the writing of this album. He was one of the few men who really got to her in a painful way. She fell in love with the younger man, who was only starting to become famous at the time.
He then cheated on her with Phyllis Majors, the model he eventually married and had kids with, who then sadly committed suicide. The song describes the night she waited for him, in a “car on a hill,” but he never showed up. Why? Because he was with Majors. According to author Sheila Wellers, Mitchell was so distraught that she staged a “suicide attempt” (something that proved to be a little too close to home in his future).
“No regrets, coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance.”
The opening track of her 1976 album, Hejira, is Coyote, a song that chronicles Mitchell’s brief love affair with the playwright Sam Shepard, which took place in 1975. The pair made an appearance on Bob Dylan’s all-star Rolling Thunder tour that year. (Dylan hired Shepard to write the script for the movie based on his tour).
In essence, Shepard is the womanizer to Mitchell’s one-man band (so to speak). Their affair was short-lived yet long enough to inspire her to write a song about the guy. The song mourns their “different sets of circumstances” and how hard it was for her to maintain a fruitful relationship.
“Shut me up and talk to me
I’m always talking
Please talk to me.”
The 1977 track from her album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Talk to Me is a shot at Bob Dylan and his lack of wordiness in conversation. The wordy Mitchell and the stingy talker Dylan had a relationship of their own, but it was by no means a perfect one.
Their fling deteriorated quickly and, naturally, she wrote a song about the “miserly” figure that was Dylan. “Are you really exclusive or just miserly?” she asked him in song. The lyrics of the song make it clear just how frustrating it was for her spending a year on the road with the silent man of both mystery and intrigue.
“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star.”
A Case of You, from her 1971 Blue album, is about her fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen, with whom she was in a relationship and who told her he was “as constant as the Northern Star.”
While this song is believed to be inspired by Cohen, many say it was actually about her relationship with Graham Nash and their split. Many consider this to be her most beautiful love song, considering how candid and intimate she is in her lyrics. She turned her love into an almost alcoholism – as if she’s love drunk.
“I had a king dressed in drip-dry and paisley
Lately he’s taken to saying I’m crazy and blind.”
The lead song on her 1966 debut album, I Had a King was written about the end of her brief first marriage to Chuck Mitchell. The couple didn’t enjoy a happy marriage and Mitchell basically chose to use this song as her expression of remorse over their relationship.
In 1965, Mitchell left Canada for the first time with Chuck, and the two began playing music together. At the time, she was only 21 years old. “I made my dress and bridesmaids’ dresses. We had no money… I walked down the aisle brandishing my daisies,” she said.
“Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey
But it’s really not my home.”
Carey, written in 1971, is about a man named Cary Raditz, a free spirit type she met in the Greek Islands. In 1969, Raditz quit his job and headed to Matala, on the island of Crete, where he found a bunch of hippies living in caves.
Raditz didn’t know Mitchell, but “there was buzz” between them and they found themselves watching the sunset together. The two shared a cave for a few months, travelled Greece together, and then parted ways. Raditz ended up working as an investment strategist.
“Pack your suspenders
I’ll come meet your plane
No need to surrender
I just want to see you again.”
The 1972 song from For the Roses is about her former lover, James Taylor. “I wrote a song for James Taylor that mentioned his suspenders,” Mitchell said when reminiscing about their semi-secret relationship.
She then explained how his album, Mud Slide Slim, showed him and his “bloody suspenders” on the cover: “Well, then the cat was completely out of the bag!” Mitchell truly loved Taylor, but he broke things off with her once his fame exploded in the early ‘70s.
“Come with me
I know the way, she says
It’s down, down, down the dark ladder.”
Another song from her For the Roses album, also about James Taylor, is Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire. The song depicts the “dark ladder” of heroin addiction, inspired by Taylor’s abuse of the drug at the time.
The track is Mitchell’s take on the bittersweet seduction of heroin addiction. As author Sheila Weller pointed out (in her book Girls Like Us), Mitchell wrote this song as she was trying to get over her relationship with Taylor, which involved coming to terms with his drug use.
“I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one’s future to decide.”
Free Man appears on her 1974 album Court and Spark, which is all about the hectic life of David Geffen – the head of Geffen Records, her record label at the time. The duo were close friends – nothing more. She didn’t only write love songs, after all.
In the song, Mitchell describes a trip to Paris that she shared with Geffen, Robbie Robertson and his wife Dominique and their refreshing respite from their hectic lives. It became one of her most popular songs.
“He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill.”
Her 1975 song, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, is a satire about the materialistic life of singer José Feliciano. The somewhat underrated folk singer of his age found fame when he did a cover of the Beatles’ Help!
Feliciano was known for his involvement in the counterculture movement, and this song was a direct attack on him and his materialistic lifestyle, especially his hypocrisy. On stage, he would sing folk tales but at home, he enjoyed his big TVs and fancy things like everyone else.
“Furry sings the blues
Fallin’ to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street.”
The 1976 track from Hejira is about blues legend Furry Lewis and the end of Memphis’ Beale Street in the mid-’70s. Mitchell sings about Furry “down and out in Memphis, Tennessee” – something she saw when she visited the aging musician.
Furry wasn’t very pleased with the fact that she used his name: “She shouldn’t have used my name in no way, shape, form or faction without consultin’ me ’bout it first,” he said in an interview. Mitchell didn’t publicly respond to Furry’s comments.
“Blue, here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me.”
Another song from Hejira was Blue Motel Room, written about her lover at the time, John Guerin, and her jealousy about all the women surrounding the drummer.
Guerin is lesser known but was one of the most influential drummers of his time. As a drummer for both The Byrds and Mitchell’s touring band, he was surrounded by groupies every single night. It’s what made her pen the song.
“I believe him when he tells of loving me
Something truthful in the sea your lies will find you
Leave behind your streets he said and come to me.”
When Crosby left Crosby, Stills & Nash, he went to Miami for a sailing adventure. Instead, he saw Mitchell perform in a Coconut Grove club and was taken aback by her.
He introduced her to the L.A. music scene – Laurel Canyon – and even produced her first album. According to Crosby, The Dawntreader referenced the beginning and end of their brief romance.
“And I thought I saw you cheatin’ once or twice
Once or twice, I heard your bid once or twice.”
The couple’s relationship ended as their paths began to diverge. Before they officially split, Crosby started living with an old girlfriend and rekindled their past romance. When Mitchell found out, she confronted Crosby at a party at Peter Tork’s house.
“I’ve got a new song,” she told him. Mitchell then played That Song About the Midway, which references him cheating on her more than once. If there’s any song that speaks to Taylor Swift fans, it’s this one.
“I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying”
The closing track of Hejira, Refuge of the Roads refers to her encounter with the controversial Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Mitchell describes him as “a friend of spirit” who “drank and womanized.”
The song isn’t one of Mitchell’s most popular tracks, but it gives us a deeper insight into how she looked at life – with unwavering honesty, even when she was talking (or singing) about religion. It also shows that lovers and friends weren’t her only muses.
“You say, ‘You’re unscrupulous!’
You say, ‘You’re naive!’
Synchronized like magic
Good friends, you and me.”
This 1985 duet with Michael McDonald (on her album Dog Eat Dog) is about an Israeli sculptor named Nathan Slate Joseph. This track (and album) had a different sound, seeing Mitchell moved away from her folk roots, but lyrically she still had it.
Joseph rented out his New York City studio to Joni Mitchell. She was also his former roommate in his massive loft. The two became “good friends” as Joseph happened to be living with actress Ellen Barkin at the time. If you ask him, he influenced Joni Mitchell’s art. “Before she met me, she never worked abstractly,” he said.
“Willy is my joy, he is my sorrow
Now he wants to run away and hide.”
The 1969 song was written about her then-boyfriend Graham Nash. “Willy” was the nickname she gave him, and she wrote the song during a trip they made together for a photo shoot for the inside gatefold photograph for Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s debut album.
This song laid their relationship out bare for everyone to see. Nash responded with a song of his own, entitled Our House, which he had written about when they were living together in Laurel Canyon. The couple broke up after Ladies of The Canyon was released.
“You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be.”
Mitchell’s Rainy Night House was written in 1970 about none other than Leonard Cohen – her fellow singer-songwriter to whom she was constantly compared to in those days. That is, until she solidified her own style.
When the pair first met, Mitchell spent a month living with him at her Laurel Canyon home. She wrote this track as a farewell to their short but sweet time together. “I went one time to his home, and I fell asleep in his old room, and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all night and he watched me see who in the world I could be,” Mitchell confirmed.
“The story hit the news
From coast to coast
They said you beat the girl
You loved the most.”
The 1994 track from her album Turbulent Indigo, Not to Blame is yet another song influenced by her past lover, Jackson Browne. Browne had been blamed for his wife’s suicide as well as for avoiding responsibility in a domestic abuse involving his then-girlfriend, actress Daryl Hannah.
In September 1992, it was rumored that Joni Mitchell’s ex-boyfriend, Jackson Browne, beat up Hollywood star Daryl Hannah, his girlfriend at the time. According to a police investigation, however, no abuse occurred.
“So, the years spin by and now the boy is 20
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.”
This 1966 track was partly written in response to Neil Young’s song Sugar Mountain, in which he sings, “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain.” The two Canadians met back in the early ‘60s in Toronto. She wrote about many of her friends back then, including her 21-year-old pal Neil.
When she introduced the song in 1968, Mitchell said it’s a song about “people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”
When it comes to wearing her heart on her sleeve, no album showed it more than her Blue album from 1971. Mitchell took some time off to travel to the island of Formentera, off Spain, where she wrote most of her album Blue. The album as a whole is listed as one of the best ever, and Mitchell herself touched upon it during a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979.
“There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” she said, referring to the entire album. “At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Mitchell explained that she had no secrets and didn’t want to pretend to be strong – or happy.
“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.”
If there’s any song that deserves a deep dive, it’s Case of You, which was only briefly mentioned earlier. It’s the centerpiece of Blue, and it took a team effort with James Taylor on acoustic guitar, Russ Kunkel on the drums, and our dear Joni on Appalachian dulcimer.
It’s kind of ironic that A Case of You is considered one of the most beloved love songs of its era, because it starts out saying that the relationship has run its course.
“On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice.”
As Mitchell is sitting at the bar, alone, she starts doodling on a coaster and soon finds herself reminiscing over a deep but unsatisfactory love.
Sitting there in the dark bar with the “blue TV screen light,” she draws a map of her home country of Canada – most likely out of homesickness. If this song is indeed about Leonard Cohen, then Canada is an unbreakable bond between them, unlike their relationship.
“Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet.”
In this verse, she describes the power he has over her, comparing him to communion (“holy”) wine and, making their love seem deeper than any other fling.
She also acknowledges the push and pull of their “bitter and sweet” relationship. It also alludes to her mixed impression of him. Bitter and sweet are used in Old Testament’s imagery – the sweetness of honey and bitter herbs.
“Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh, I would still be on my feet.”
In this part of the verse, Mitchell compares her lover to wine and drinking a case of him. Most believe that she just can’t get enough of the man (whether she’s truly talking about Graham Nash or Leonard Cohen).
But others prefer to think that she’s alluding to drinking him in – savoring him and still being sober enough to see him clearly. Even with all the passion in the relationship, she still would be able to stand on her feet.
“Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.”
Joni is an actual painter, but these lines are more about the people around her and the color they bring to her life. She’s lonely (as artists’ lives tend to be) and scared as this lover pushes her away, but his other traits pull her right back in. While she’s “frightened by the devil,” she’s also “drawn to those who ain’t afraid.”
Incredibly, A Case of You has been covered by more than 200 artists, including Graham Nash, KD Lang, James Blake, and Prince, who was so moved by the song he sang his own version in 2007 and went so far as to send her passionate letters of adoration.
Mitchell told New York Magazine in 2015 that Prince would write her “fan mail” with all of the “U’s and hearts.” She admitted that her office took it as “mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!” Mitchell also gave some insight into the reason she wrote the song…
Mitchell told Mojo Magazine about how (she thinks) men write “very dishonestly about breakups.” In her case, she wanted to be responsible for her own errors. “If there was friction between me and another person, I wanted to be able to see my participation in it so I could see what could be changed and what could not.”
The way she sees it, it’s part of the “pursuit of happiness.” She used the metaphor of pulling weeds in your soul when you’re young – when they sprout, they can choke you.
According to Far Out magazine, A Case of You is centered around Mitchell’s break-up with Graham Nash. But when she recorded the song in 1971, the track included James Taylor, who was her boyfriend at the time. Then, in April 1974, in London, Mitchell performed it alone.
Rolling Stone called it a “beautiful version” in which she “never sounded sweeter, or lonelier.” The host of SiriusXM’s Feedback, Lori Majewski, commented on how groundbreaking it was that Mitchell went “this confessional,” likening it to Bob Dylan going electric. Majewski also noted how male singer-songwriters grew nervous “that they were going to have to lay it all out on the table the way Joni had.”
So, how did Graham Nash feel about the song that millions think was written about him? Well, for one, he did his own cover version of it. He also said that when he heard Blue for the first time, he “realized that our love affair had come to an end, and that’s a very sad feeling for anyone who’s in love with anybody, but particularly ’cause it’s Joni and me,” he told The Post.
When recalling his time with Mitchell, he said that people said the two of them “literally lit up the room” when they walked in together. “Our love was very warm, very tender and very deep,” he declared.
After all these years, listening to Blue still “tugs at [his] heartstrings.” While the two of them lived together for a few years in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon, he got to see first-hand her genius at work. Nash said he distinctly pictures her in his head, writing at her piano.
Other tracks from Blue that are specifically about Nash are My Old Man and River. My Old Man is about their domestic bliss that doesn’t “need no piece of paper,” but River is about losing “the best baby that [she] ever had.”
Nash, however, wasn’t insulted by any means. Quite the opposite – he feels “flattered.” He insisted that he never felt that she bared too much about their relationship or him, specifically. He simply admired her ability to do it, calling her “tremendously courageous” for revealing so much of herself.
Nash remains flattered that Mitchell once wrote about him making her “weak in the knees” on “River.” And the two remain close: “I’ve sent flowers for her birthday every year for the last 50 years.” All these years later, he said a part of his heart “still loves Joni Mitchell.”
Drummer Russ Kunkel, who played in a number of Mitchell’s songs, including Carey, California, and A Case of You, connected with her through the Laurel Canyon music scene. He became friends with Crosby and Nash, and his wife at that time was Cass Elliot’s sister, Leah.
He and Leah were living in a studio suite above Elliot’s garage in Laurel Canyon. Kunkel heard some of Mitchell’s Blue songs at Mama Cass’s house before he ever played on the record. He said he’ll never forget hearing one line from A Case of You for the very first time…
As soon as he heard the lyric, “I could drink a case of you… And I would still be on my feet,” Kunkel said it was one of those moments where he thought, “The person that wrote this is, like, of the highest degree.”
But when it came to Carey or California, Kunkel didn’t initially dig deep into the lyrics (about her trip to Europe in 1970). All he knew at the time was that he was going to be playing something very simple – “just supporting what she was doing.”
Kunkel then joined the other supporting players, including Mitchell’s current lover James Taylor, and Stills on guitar and bass. “Most of her parts were already laid down when we played those things,” he recalled.
Kunkel made sure not to mess with the magic that was happening; his focus in the studio was to concentrate on doing no harm – playing the right part for the song, “because I was listening to greatness.” I think it’s safe to say that Kunkel felt privileged to just be part of such a masterpiece.
As for the iconic album cover of Blue, Tim Considine was the photographer who shot it. And it all started with another female singer-songwriter: Judy Collins. Collins sang Both Sides Now, and Considine was “really impressed.” She told him, “If you like that song, wait till you hear the young Canadian who wrote it: Joni Mitchell.”
The photographer took film that was typically used for dental purposes to shoot in the dark, and photographed Mitchell during a 1968 concert at the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles. He then went home and developed the photos.
The next night, he went up the stairs to Mitchell’s dressing room, knocked on her door and introduced himself. He had made 11×14 prints the night before and showed them to her, which she seemed to like. “And I felt 9 feet tall that this brilliant singer-songwriter, poet and painter liked my images,” he proudly recalled.
Then Crosby came in, and she showed him the photos. He took one look at them and said, “Needs more contrast.” Considine immediately refined the image, which eventually become the Blue album cover.
By 1971, art director Gary Burden asked Considine if they could use his shot. Before Blue, all Mitchell’s album covers were painted, so this was the first one with a photograph. Of course, Considine approved.
The thing is, though, his original image wasn’t blue – it was originally a black-and-white shot. “I hated it when I saw it,” he said about seeing it tinted with blue for the first time. “It makes her look hard. It took all of the softness out of the image. It was awful.”
If you ask me, it’s perfect.