- The life of legendary folk singer Joni Mitchell, 73 is explored in new biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
- The singer-songwriter has been plagued in recent years with health problems, including brain trauma, post-polio health issues and Morgellons syndrome
- Joni said: ‘Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer – a terrorist disease: it will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year’
- Many victims appear to have a history of drug-taking and Joni admits that she took mounds of coke when on a road tour with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
- Joni lost her virginity while in art school and became pregnant, giving birth to Kelly Dale Anderson in February 1965 and putting her up for adoption
- She was involved in a string of romances, including husbands Chuck Mitchell and Larry Klein, as well as David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor
- Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson also pursued her but she declined their advances. The three went to dinner but Joni took her own car so she could exit
Born on the Canadian prairie in the far reaches of the province of Alberta in 1943, eight-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, 73, had no early dreams about being a singer.
‘Basically I liked to dance and paint and that was about it. I was anti-intellectual to the nth. As far as serious discussions went, at that time, most of them were overtly pseudo-intellectual and boring’, she has mused in the past.
Early on she rejected the world around her and instead created her own, becoming rebellious after surviving a devastating case of polio when she was 10 years old.
More health problems tragically followed the icon into her later years, experiencing brain trauma in 2015, post-polio symptoms and the incurable Morgellons syndrome.
Joni said: ‘I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space.
‘Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer – a terrorist disease: it will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year.’
Now, in his new book Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, music critic and Syracuse University professor David Yaffe explores Joni’s legacy of folk music in the 1960s and a career spanning more than forty years. her experiences with drugs and rock star lovers and her tragic medical issues,
WHAT IS MORGELLONS SYNDROME?
Morgellons disease is an uncommon, unexplained skin disorder characterized by sores, crawling sensations on and under the skin, and fiber-like filaments emerging from the sores.
People who have Morgellons disease report the following signs and symptoms:
- Skin rashes or sores that can cause intense itching
- Crawling sensations on and under the skin, often compared to insects moving, stinging or biting
- Fibers, threads or black stringy material in and on the skin
- Severe fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Short-term memory loss
Morgellons is a rare condition that most frequently affects middle-aged white women.
Most doctors claim that the crawling sensations are symptomatic of a mental rather than physical illness, and that the fibers are skin debris or are substances from the patient’s environment, such as food, dust and clothes and carpet fibers.
Speaking of her Morgellons syndrome, Joni said: ‘Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral’.
At times she couldn’t wear clothing as she continually felt that she was being ‘eaten alive’, and was unable to leave her house for several years. Sometimes, she felt her legs cramping up so much that she could not walk and had to crawl across the floor instead.
While Morgellons is often described politely as a ‘mysterious’ disease, the overwhelming medical opinion is that sufferers have a psychological — rather than a physical — illness.
Many victims appear to have had a history of drug-taking. Predictably, given her counter-culture past, Joni admitted to taking a lot of drugs over the years, including mounds of coke.
Joni opens up about her suffering in the intimate biography written by David Yaffe which richly details the Canadian’s life and is set for release on October 17.
He writes: ‘Joni Mitchell is more than a 1970s icon or pop star. She is our eternal singer-songwriter of sorrows, traveling through our highs and lows, the twentieth century master of the art song tradition.’
Joni, born Roberta Joan Anderson, viewed the biggest gift of her Canadian childhood was nature, a religion in its own right.
But despite the serenity of the outdoors, it was a difficult childhood as Joni’s medical problems began at an early age.
When Joni turned 10 years old in late 1953, she woke up one morning paralyzed. It was quickly diagnosed and she was shipped to a polio colony in Saskatoon – similar to a leper colony designed to halt the spread of the disease.
She said of her isolation: ‘If you got into the iron lung, chances are you’d never get out. And there was the possibility that I would never walk.
‘I was frozen and many of the muscles in my back were lost. As a result my spine was crooked, and arched up like a broken doll’.
Joni’s father, Bill Anderson, never came to visit. Her mother, Myrtle, visited only once – but their lack of visits were not unusual because of the distance and fears of contracting the disease.
Still that was of ‘small consolation to a 10-year-old girl already in the throes of a struggle with loneliness’.
She refused to accept that her destiny was to live in a wheelchair and she prayed, adding: ‘I didn’t know who I was praying to. It wasn’t God or Jesus.
‘I knew that there was a spirit of destiny or something. I said, “Give me back my legs and I’ll make it up to you.” So I fought it like crazy and amazed them by standing up and walking’.
By the time she was 15 years old, Joni went out dancing and hung out with her friend Simon and his bowling buddies, becoming one of the boys as they spent time on a riverbank drinking beer, roasting sausages and singing dirty songs.
Nobody played a musical instrument so Joni decided they needed musical accompaniment and bought a ukulele for $36 because that’s all she could afford.
‘It was no more ambitious that that’, Joni declared. ‘I was planning all the time to go to art school’.
Art school in Calgary lasted one year when Joni turned to studying the guitar, using a Pete Seeger instruction record as her guide.
Starting out as a breathy soprano, she found a raspy low voice, equal parts Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
It opened the door to gigs singing folk songs at a club in Calgary for $15 a week that bought her smokes, a habit she started when she was nine years old and never quit, escalating to four packs a day.
Looking to lose her virginity in art school, she slept with artist Brad MacMath because he was available – a decision that left her pregnant.
MacMath quickly bailed on her and Joni moved to Toronto and started working in scab clubs.
As terrifying as it was, it inspired her to use that emotion to write her first ‘real’ song.
Kelly Dale Anderson was born February 1965 and was left in foster care until Joni signed over adoption papers months later.
‘She was destitute and wasn’t trained for anything. She had nothing but the music and she had no idea where that was going’, writes the biography author.
Chuck Mitchell, a folksinger working the clubs, arrived on the scene and there was love briefly. The couple married and Joni Anderson became Joni Mitchell in 1965.
‘Chuck Mitchell was my first major exploiter, a complete asshole’, she told the author. ‘He was pandering all the time’.
The two’s relationship was rocky but before divorcing in 1967, Chuck did encourage Joni to read more, including Sal Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
The book inspired her to write what became the hit song, Both Sides, Now, which secured her songwriting success when Judy Collins sang the song first and won a Grammy for her performance.
Joni reflected: ‘Every bit of trouble I went through, I’m grateful for. Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny. I became a musician’.
With Bob Dylan as her role model, Joni started working the road, traveling by car across the United States and Canada to play live shows. She even lengthened her ‘a’s,’ copying Dylan.
Joni found herself in a string of relationships, first with singer David Crosby who took her back to Los Angeles and introduced her to the West Coast record scene and produced her first album.
‘Joni would become an iconic singer-songwriter but she would never become a “star” – not for lack of talent. Records were too limited a medium to capture all that Joni brought to her live performances’, writes Yaffe.
But still Joni had become an ‘elegant bohemian princess’ and fit the image of the California girl, ‘the beautiful golden girl with long blond hair parted in the middle’.
Next in her string of romances came British rock star Graham Nash. ‘My relationship with Graham is a great, enduring one. We lived together for some time – we were married, you might say,’ Joni confessed.
‘I had sworn my heart to Graham that I didn’t think was possible for myself and he wanted me to marry him’.
She agreed but then remembered her grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician and decided she didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. ‘It broke my heart’.
Also included in Joni’s short-lived romances were James Taylor, Jackson Browne and John ‘Jaco’ Pastorius.
Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson also pursued her in tandem but she declined their advances. The three went to dinner together but Joni took her own car so she could exit.
She connected with John Guerin, drummer for the jazz-pop ensemble L.A. Express. He expanded her musical eccentricities in jazz that led to her future collaborators in jazz and friends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
Mounds of coke were consumed on the road tour, Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 that included Guerin, Dylan, Joni and Joan Baez, the latter the only one drug-free.
Four years with percussionist Don Alias turned into physical abuse and her polio symptoms returned.
She married 25-year old bass player and engineer Larry Klein in 1982, and that lasted twelve years.
She refused to scale back her lifestyle of smoking, little sleep, lots of coke and cappuccino. According to Klein, she became more angry and feeling financially unmoored.
Her housekeeper accused her of beating her and won a $250,000 payout.
Summer of 1985, a time of bad omens, she was nearly killed by a drunk teenager on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and when she returned to the scene weeks later, she was almost run over by another car.
A very angry Joni became pregnant and lost the baby prematurely.
She refused to give up her four packs of daily smokes, drinking or any other vice and was dealing with her fractured marriage.
‘I was probably deeply disturbed emotionally for those 33 years that I had no child to raise’. All her love affairs ended.
Even connecting with her daughter, who she put up for adoption, and was renamed Kilauren Gibb, wasn’t a success. The girl rebuffed Joni’s parental advice and Joni viewed the girl as a ‘damaged’ person.
Joni developed new jazz chops in the late ’90s. Gone were the days of her singing with an acoustic guitar and a few mics. It was orchestral accompaniment now.
By 2007, she was off the road, painting, and trying to escape post-polio health issues and symptoms of Morgellons syndrome, a condition dismissed as psychosomatic by the medical establishment.
March 2015, the singer was found unconscious after lying for three days on her kitchen floor. She had suffered a serious brain trauma from an aneurysm that required emergency brain surgery and prospects were not good.
But then she started talking and asked for her cigarettes. Her long-term memory was better than short-term memory.
Working with physical therapists, she knew she was a survivor. But she was also captive on the carousel of time.