Joni Mitchell was crawling around on the floor with tufts of aluminum foil in her hair. Shell, her personal hair care specialist had closed the front door of his exclusive Sunset Strip hair salon for the afternoon and was focusing on Joni’s roots. The little aluminum bow ties at the base of her blonde hair adorned her head like an extraterrestrial halo plus she was wearing a salon smock so she looked like an alter boy from Alfa Centauri. She was wearing a very nice pant suit as she crawled around examining photos she had spread out all over the linoleum floor. The empty padded salon chairs were her only audience.
“What do you think?” She asked me. “I’m trying to decide which pictures to put on the album. “I’m calling it, ‘Don Juan’s reckless daughter’.”
Shell’s mate was the reason I was there. He was the lead singer/star of a musical I was asked to create for Peter Brown, a producer at Apple records. It was called, “The Last Rock n Roll show”. A puppet production with full size mannequins. The lead singer’s doppleganger was already done and it was unnerving to see both, the androgynous, Bowie type star and his stringed puppet twin standing together at the assembly plant in Pasadena where the Rose Bowl sculptors had been commissioned to build the fantastically weird human sized puppet cast of characters during their time off from building the flowered Rose Bowl floats. Shell was helping the production along as we painstakingly assembled a cast, score and the libretto. I had no idea anyone was going to walk in on our private meeting. Shell’s hair salon was on the Strip just a few blocks from the Continental Hyatt House (Riot House) where every rock star had tossed the mandatory television set off the tenth floor balcony into the swimming pool, splashing chlorinated water onto the Lambourginis and Porsches whizzing along Sunset Boulevard.
Joni, on her knees, studied dozens of photos of a black man, thin, smiling, various poses of coolness, nice snappy togs from the hip wardrobe of that era. I focused on the photos of this grinning gentleman and asked her,
“Who is this guy? Someone you played with on the album?
For a moment, she was Mona Lisa. I sensed I was being had. I looked again and saw that it was her in black face. She started to explain why she decided to do this and that, and her artistic intent. I didn’t really get it, although I could see that she might get flak from what became the P.C. crowd but that sort of thing didn’t deter her. I asked about her tunings. There was a wonderful new person in her life who had given her a long lost gift; hand written transcriptions of all of her early tunings. The tunings that she had never written down. They had been lost to her until Shell met someone who had transcribed all of her early tunings- something that needed to be done but she had never gone back to do it until the tunings faded away in her memory. Shell had delivered the loyal genius to the backstage entrance at Joni’s concert at the Greek Theater, but alas her illnesses caught up with Joni and she cut the concert short and left without ever meeting the eleven year old girl transcriber/detective with the impeccable ears who had created such a historically relevant musical artifact. It meant a lot to Joni to have this lost information. Backstage All Access passes at the Greek are as precious as emeralds and hard to come by.
Joni was now sitting regally in a salon chair and her hair looked great. She was happily holding the pictures that were her final choices for the album cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Talk turned to Coconut Grove and old friends, then conversation degenerated into light harmless gossip. Gregg and Cher were separating at the time and it was all over the grocery store gossip rags.
“That’s a tough way for Gregg to get inspiration for song lyrics. ” I said in what I hoped was my best cryptic imitation of the Coconut Grove bards. She gave me a silent smile that said so much but admitted nothing.
Thirty eight years later I am speaking on the phone with a friend who had purchased a drum from Seasons, our store in Santa Monica. She is totally informed about alternative medicine and works with people and with pet animals for no charge to help them heal. She had been injured in a car accident and was walking with some hesitation but still full of light in her smile. Joni’s health situation was on the news and although Karen had never met Joni she related to me one of her childhood pet projects. She had figured out Joni’s arcane tunings by listening to the songs and isolating in her hearing which notes were being played on an open string. She compiled all the song’s tunings by identifying each open string. She then meticulously wrote it all down and presented it to Shell, her friend who also was Joni’s hair specialist. Shell had then escorted eleven year old Karen to meet Joni at the Greek. She heard her name confirmed by the girl at the Will Call Window, a young girl’s wish come true, only to be informed that her muse had already gone.
excerpt: “History of the Groove” Russell Buddy Helm ©2015