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EXCERPT: The Wichita Lineman Meets Joni Mitchell

Jimmy Webb

 

1971

On the surface, Joni Mitchell was a friendly, almost deliberately ordinary Canadian girl with a bright smile and a quick wit. But when it came to music and lyrics she had been blessed with a divine gift. I knew with no envy or jealousy that she was a better writer than I was. I envied her easy conversational phrasing that turned everyday banter into a new kind of song lyric. Her sensual guitar tunings delivered deep, dissonant yet compelling chords that, to use an expression by Linda Ronstadt, “rubbed.” Play that warm chord. I would sit with her and watch her hands and listen to her songs in the making, determined to follow, at least for a while, as closely in her shadow as I could. I was especially entranced by her surprising and unheard of habit of opening the titanium housing around her most inner being and letting the whole world gawk at the intricate workings of her complicated, gifted, tormented, soul.

I saw her frequently at my manager Sandy Gallin’s soirées in Trousdale, where the objective seemed to be to invite as many famous people as practicable and then, if possible, persuade them to perform for one another. One night Joni excised me from the center of the party. She wanted to talk to me privately. She told me quite a tale.

Back in 1968 when she had first opened at Doug Weston’s Troubadour she had not been aware I was in attendance, nor even aware of my existence. Years passed. She came to know me and actually liked some of my songs. She found me to be an affable guy and had been fascinated by my nude concert on the grounds of Campo de Encino. It was wonderful that we had become friends, she said.

Recently she had moved house. Her new place in the world called for a proper residence and the old house in the Hollywood Hills where she had lived was a time capsule. The original pre-stardom furniture was there with the cats and the photos and mystery boxes. She set out to clean the place up, discard what she could bear to part with, and carry the remaining treasures to her new digs in Bel Air. Halfway through she and her helpers had decided to move a large, heavy couch in the living room as it was destined for the Salvation Army. As they moved the stubborn couch from its groove, an old piece of paper was liberated and fluttered to the floor. Puzzled, she picked it up and perused: It was a letter from me, from 1968.

June 12, 1968, I was in the Troubadour for no particular reason. I had wanted to meet Doug Weston for a long time and talk about doing some kind of appearance there. When Joni started playing I happened to be leaning on the balcony upstairs and watched her come on stage.

There was a center spot on her, displaying her long blonde tresses to great advantage, but she was highlighted with that damn train light in her eyes for the whole evening. Nobody moved or even breathed loudly while she was singing. The atmosphere was electromagnetic. Yes, her playing and singing charmed me, especially the repertoire of grainy, almost jazz-based chords on her Martin.

My affections turned on a dime at that stage of my life, but this was different. I was fascinated, entranced by her ability to communicate on the deepest level from the outset. After the show and the encores and the immense roar of approval that shook the old house to its foundations and dislodged decades of dust languishing in the beam work high above, I could think of nothing but her.

Years later I would watch Jackson Browne fall in love with her. I remember him coming to me, very nervous, and saying, “So, how should I talk to her?” And I smiled, moved yet deeply amused at the same time.

“You just talk to her like you would talk to . . . a really nice person,” I said.He tried to absorb her through the music and the words and when that failed he inevitably moved toward something more immediate. In more or less the same delicate state I went home that night in 1968 and poured out my bleeding soul on a piece of stationery. It was one of those moments that – twice considered – would never evolve beyond the first crumpled missile aimed in the general direction of the wastebasket. I sent her the letter backstage, hand delivered to her Troubadour dressing room, with twenty-four long- stemmed roses of the most rare and fragrant variety. Years passed without a reply.

Joni smiled at me. “I just wanted you to know I got your letter.”

I blushed deeply trying to remember exactly what I had written in the way one always dreads what one has written.

She laughed.

“It was a very nice letter, and yes, of course I would like to see you for tea or dinner!”

Her blue eyes danced with barely restrained mirth.

“If I’m not too late,” she remonstrated.

Joni and I became friends. We liked flea markets and stuffy old antique shops. Before Morton’s on Robinson became the power res- taurant of the Hollywood cognoscenti it had been a fashionable old barn full of antiques run by Jules Bucheri. We went in one day together and bought the most gorgeous art deco chandelier. She insisted I take custody of it. One time in a not-so-subtle hint about my wardrobe she fitted me for a herringbone jacket in a flea market off Melrose. It must have looked a little strange; a man with more hair and beard than John Lennon and Jesus put together posing in an English gentleman’s country costume. She insisted it was perfect.

Joni consented to come in and sing “just a little” with my sister Susan on my latest LP Letters. A woman of her word she ended up singing just two notes. Two glorious notes. My world was on the surface chaotic and yet beneath the storm, a very well-kept secret: I had things exactly the way I wanted them. [From A Cake In The Rain: A Memoir by Jimmy Webb]

 

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