My brief encounter with Joni Mitchell

Eric Mink’s 1968 photo of Joni Mitchell. 


Joni Mitchell, the fiercely original, genre-defying  songwriter, singer and guitarist/pianist, has been on my mind lately. 

Mitchell turned 75 on Nov. 7, and an all-star multitude of friends, lovers, collaborators and adoring appreciators celebrated by throwing her a two-night concert party at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of Los Angeles County’s performing arts Music Center. She was in the audience.

“Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration,” a two-hour documentary about that event directed by Martyn Atkins, is built around performances of Mitchell songs by James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Seal, Diana Krall, Graham Nash, Brandi Carlile, Los Lobos, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones and more.

The film is scheduled for screening on one night only, Feb. 7, at theaters across the country, including five here in the St. Louis region. The website has places, times and ticket sales.

I have not seen the film. I have bought my tickets.

And I’ve been thinking about my brief encounter with Mitchell, when we met and spent a little time talking in Washington, D.C., during Thanksgiving week in 1968. There is no conceivable reason that she would or should remember it. I have never forgotten it.

Let me rephrase that: I have never forgotten it, but I’ve recently learned that time has eroded some details of those long-dormant memories.

Mitchell was in Washington that November for six nights at the Cellar Door in Georgetown, an intimate club that sat maybe 200 people if the fire marshal wasn’t counting. Mitchell was barely three weeks past her 25th birthday.

I was in Washington for my senior year at George Washington University, closing in on a degree in English literature and three weeks shy of my 21st birthday.

What no one knew then was that 1968 would mark a turning point in Mitchell’s long professional journey from hard-slogging, individualistic musician to cherished, respected, cultural icon, individualistic musician.

Born and reared in towns on the prairies of western Canada, Mitchell had maintained an exhausting schedule through the early and mid-1960s, traveling to and from scattered jobs at clubs and coffeehouses in Canadian provinces and nearby border areas of the U.S.

The work allowed her to discover and polish an onstage persona, nurture and fortify the artistry of melodies, lyrics and chord progressions she wrote and sang like no one else, and develop a unique approach to guitar tuning and playing.

These factors coalesced over the course of 1968. In the spring, Mitchell recorded and released her first studio album, “Songs to a Seagull,” on Reprise Records. In June, she did two weeks at the famous Troubadour club in West Hollywood, three weeks at the Bitter End in New York’s Greenwich Village, and picked up appearances at folk  festivals in Newport, R.I., Toronto and Big Sur, Calif. Fall found her back at the Bitter End and then at the Cellar Door in November.

My path could hardly have been more different. I spent the early ’60s in high school in University City among supportive contemporaries and adults. I got into science and math at school and soul music at home with a set of drums I bought with my bar mitzvah money.

I arrived at G.W. as a metronomically dependable drummer knowing no one and leaning toward med school. After a miserable start, I had the great luck to bond with some fine people who shared my general state of compassionate confusion about life, my love of music and a restless curiosity.

A few of the guys formed a rock band, all but required of young men of the era, but it soon broke up. We added some new players to the mix and formed a blues band that worked reasonably often at coffee houses and frat parties, but it, too, eventually broke up. 

And then there was, well, the world. The university’s location in Washington, the growing scope and violence of the Vietnam War and the looming threat of the draft made it impossible to ignore public issues and politics.

I responded, early in my senior year, by joining the staff of The Hatchet, G.W.’s twice-weekly student newspaper, as a photographer, reviewer of albums and concerts, and anything else the editors wanted.

What they wanted on 1968’s election day and night was a team of student photographers covering the G.W. campus from just west of the White House through the surrounding Foggy Bottom neighborhood. We found and photographed tense, impassioned demonstrations, unauthorized bonfires in university green spaces, and clashes pitting students against campus cops and D.C. police.

After the election, I took it upon myself to try to arrange a photo shoot of Mitchell during her week at the Cellar Door. My friends and I had devoured “Songs to a Seagull” as her fresh and distinctive writing, singing and playing touched us deeply. 

I called the club, told them I was with The Hatchet at G.W. and wanted to photograph Mitchell during a set early enough in the week to get her picture into the paper in time for people to buy tickets for shows later in the week. I got a callback at the office approving the proposal.

At the appointed time, I arrived early at the club and soon stood face to face with Mitchell. I remember her being relaxed, friendly, open, funny and wholly cooperative. We talked about avoiding flash, being conscious of audience sightlines and not shooting during quiet moments. We chatted about her album, and I told her my little group of friends had found the tunes incredibly poetic and incredibly sad. We talked a little about how popular music was changing. I asked about the strains of her relentless traveling and performing. Then she disappeared to prepare for her set.

I stayed for the show and took my pictures. The next day, I developed the black-and-white film, made a couple of prints of images I liked and decided to show them to Mitchell. To say I had no idea what I was doing would be a gross understatement.

I went back to the club early that evening. The guy at the door remembered me from my first visit, let me in and somebody told Mitchell I was there. She greeted me again and seemed to appreciate seeing the prints. Then, in a glaring breach of journalistic ethics, I asked if she’d sign a photo for me. She picked out a picture of her bowing her head in fading light at the end of a song and signed it without hesitation.

If someone had asked me a couple of weeks ago what happened next, I would have said that The Hatchet published one of my Cellar Door photos, accompanied by my brief review of Mitchell’s performance. And I would have been wrong.

Combing through old Hatchet issues in my haphazard personal archive last week, I found no evidence of any photo or review having been published. A definitive search of true digital and print archives, undertaken on my behalf by university archivist Brigette Kamsler at G.W.’s Gelman Library in Washington, also came up empty.

Over the weekend, in a manila envelope in a box in the basement, I found the pictures I shot of Mitchell at the Cellar Door half a century ago, including the one she signed. This week, at the movies, I’ll watch her 75th birthday party, then come home and listen to some old Joni Mitchell LPs.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected].