Syracuse Professor Studies Joni Mitchell

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

David Yaffe of Syracuse University headlined a sparsely-attended (eight people) panel discussion on “The Seventies in Black and White: A Soundtrack.“ Yaffe said that he and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell “smoked a joint together” when he was interviewing her.

Yaffe claimed that Mitchell sacrificed her career to collaborate with Jazz firebrand Charles Mingus before he passed away. Mitchell, in one of her interviews with Yaffe, said she was “like a moth to a flame; how could she turn down this opportunity” to work with Mingus. Mitchell, who Yaffe referred to as “Joni” because of his extensive interviews and conversations with her, ended her eight-year boycott of The Rolling Stone magazine to promote Mingus’ last album. After the collaboration, when her career suffered she said, “she’d do it in a heartbeat” if she were asked to collaborate with Mingus again.  Yaffe felt that “everyone seemed to get credit for things [Mingus] did first.”

In one of her album covers, she was dressed as if she was a black man and that was something Yaffe appreciated. He said it was “too realistic to be black face” and he had grown up wondering “who the dude on the cover was.” He “liked how she portrayed a black hustler” on the album cover after all these years.

Yaffe went on to vividly describe Mingus’ last year in which the musician and Mitchell worked in his apartment overlooking the Hudson River. Yaffe believed that during this process, “a great man was dying and a woman [Mitchell] was creating” great music. “He [Mingus] believed in God but must have felt like Job,” said Yaffe, and “he felt like a hostage…the adventure was winding down and he would be checking out soon.” Regarding Mingus, Yaffe wondered if “he still remembers how his soul was on fire… as the sun reminded him of the current reality” of his debilitating illness. He asked, “How could this man of strength and vision be reduced to an essence of dust?” Before he passed away, Mingus went on “a wild goose chase” after a healer in Mexico, a meeting which never took place. Mingus’ wishes were granted, that someone “scattered his ashes in the Ganges [River]” after he had died.

Yaffe pulled no punches and in the question and answer session, immediately called out psychologist Steven Pinker as “that douchebag at Harvard” saying, “Sorry for any Steven Pinker fans out there…but he’s not the only douchebag at Harvard.” Yaffe did not appreciate how Pinker “put on two hats, the scholar hat and the public hat” in analyzing issues and events.

In describing his experiences with Joni Mitchell, Yaffe said that she “runs hot and cold” as far as attention goes in interviews and repeating herself. Her own personal life is spotty, with a “gorgeous, blonde f..k-up as a daughter” and mocked her for saying that she would stop producing music now that her life was fulfilled by finding her daughter after thirty-three years. He wondered about the surrogate mother that took care of her daughter and asked if the surrogate mother deserves more of the credit. One of the better parts of getting to know Joni was that she was “instantly intimate” with him and he had stretches of long conversation (one last up to eight hours and another up to twelve) about her life.

But, Yaffe admitted that Joni often “repeats herself, cannibalizes herself” by repeating verbatim “over and over and over again.” “The first time she said it was better” and her repetitiveness could be “because she’s more and more distant” as time moves on.