Songs Of Leonard Cohen Review: Leonard Cohen’s New Venture (1968) By Juan Rodriguez Now Online

It is clear that Cohen is neither a singer nor a musician, yet that void is not the root cause of the badness of this record [Songs Of Leonard Cohen]

Leonard Cohen’s New Venture
By Juan Rodriguez
The Gazette (Montréal): Apr 27, 1968

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Leonard Cohen, Snakes And Ladders, Sisyphus, & Songwriting – Part 2

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Introduction

This is the final portion of a two-part essay on the use of Snakes & Ladders in Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time:”

So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime

The initial post, Leonard Cohen, Snakes And Ladders, Sisyphus, & Songwriting – Part 1, was an explication of the Snakes & Ladders game metaphor itself.

Today’s entry discusses Cohen’s unique songwriting skills as demonstrated in his specific implementation of the Snakes & Ladder trope in this song.

Snakes & Ladders In Popular Music

Leonard Cohen is not the only artist to have recognized the potential value of including an allusion to Snakes & Ladders in a song. The Lyrics website lists 69 songs that refer either directly to the “snakes and ladders” or a recognizable variant.1  (The same site also offers  6 lyrics matching “chutes and ladders.”)  A representative sampling follows below. Rather than offer a necessarily tedious song by song analysis, I ask that the reader simply review these half-dozen selections as a basis for evaluating the pertinent lines by Cohen when considering my overview at the end of this post.

“Sin City” by AC/DC:

Ladders and snakes
Ladders give, snakes take
Rich man poor man
Beggar man, thief
Ain’t got a hope in hell
That’s my belief

“The Hope And Anchor” by The Mekons:

The snakes and the ladders
The sadder and sadder
Lies between the hope and the anchor

“A Wolf At The Door” by Radiohead:

Drag him out your window
Dragging out the dead
Singing I miss you
Snakes and ladders flip the lid
Out pops the cracker
Smacks you in the head

“Wreck of the Hesperus” by George Harrison:

Met some Oscars and Tonys
I slipped on a pavement oyster
Met a snake climbing ladders
Got out of the line of fire
(But it’s alright)

“This Year’s Model” by Elvis Costello:

Sparks are flying from electrical pylons
Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons
Ready to experiment, you’re ready to be burned
If it wasn’t for some accidents then some would never ever learn

Joni Mitchell even has a song entitled “Snakes And Ladders”2 with Don Henley from the Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album.

 Leonard Cohen Follows, Then Dances, & Finally Stumbles and Staggers

While comparing Cohen’s Snakes & Ladders lines to the Snakes & Ladders lines written by others is useful, it proves even more instructive to compare Cohen’s (final) Snakes & Ladders lines to Cohen’s (early) Snakes & Ladders lines.

The image below is a page from an early draft of “Closing Time” with the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” in red boxes3 (click on image to enlarge):

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For convenience, a printed version of the handwritten words of the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” follows:

and I follow my companion
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and she (holds) calls me & I dance her
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and I hold her & I dancer
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower when the lonely (rescued) hours chime

A few pages later in the same notebook, we find the first two lines in their final form (and the third line approximating the final form):

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Again, the pertinent lines are rendered as text:

And we stumble & we stagger
down the snakes & up the ladders

And we stumble and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladders
to the tower where the acid hours chime

Based on this corpus, I now take it upon myself to point out that …

Leonard Cohen Struggles And Staggers Within A Mythic Perspective

In each of the examples listed in the Snakes & Ladders In Popular Music section, the Snakes & Ladders metaphor is effective enough, but the utilization of the game’s title never rises above a simple, tidy signal that the Snakes & Ladders symbolism is in play.

The lines, “Ladders and snakes/Ladders give, snakes take” from “Sin City” by AC/DC, for example, start and stop with naming the game and summarizing the concept. Likewise, Joni Mitchell’s use of the metaphor, while more elaborate and extended, is nonetheless limited to the same elements, naming the game (“Still playin’ snakes and ladders“) and summarizing the concept (Get to the top and slide back down/Get to the bottom climb back up). Even George Harrison’s clever invocation of a sneaky serpent in the line, “Met a snake climbing ladders,” stays within the parameters of the Snakes & Ladders game.

Similarly, Cohen’s original choice of words in the early draft of “Closing Time,”  “I follow my companion down the snakes & up the ladder” accomplishes no more than simply registering a reference to the game.

His next revision, “I dance her down the snakes & up the ladder” is more interesting, sparking the listener’s curiosity and imagination. It also recalls Cohen’s own comments to an interviewer about “The Future,” another song from the same The Future album.

Leonard Cohen: There will be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road” — a return to suspicion, superstition, return to the tribal paranoia and the white man dancing. It evokes a scene of the end of things but with certain variations.

Interviewer: That’s kind of bleak, isn’t it, even for you?

Leonard Cohen: It would be bleak if it wasn’t set to a hot dance track.4

But “Closing Time” is skewed differently than its album-mate, “The Future.” Consider Cohen’s descriptions of “Closing Time” to interviewers:

 [Closing Time is] that wild, or beautiful, or terrible time when things reach their maximum point of expansion, and then begin to contract. It’s the time we’re in.5

[Interviewer:] “Closing Time” — there’s such a kinetic feel to the song, both musically and verbally. In fact, I just jotted down, in some ways, it reminds me of a Bosch painting where it is, perhaps, the final dance: Blouses are coming off; people are changing partners; it’s the old closing time in a country bar. It’s got that “drinking-doubles-seeing-single” kind of aspect to it; but, the song is just brimming with that kind of kinetic energy.

Leonard Cohen: There’s a lot of activity in that song. I think that’s the way we experience our freedom today. It looks like freedom but it feels like death, it must be something in-between, I guess, it’s closing time. I don’t know about you, but I live a life that is totally consumed with ambiguity and conflict. I can’t get anything straight. Anything I embrace, you know, immediately the polarity manifests and I can embrace it with the same kind of enthusiasm or shame or indifference or whatever the emotion was that caused me to embrace the former. But, it’s this sense of the personal life that I’ve tried to bring to my songs. I think, for instance, when we hear public utterance today, like, the language of the politician or the leader. Whenever I hear a guy speaking, it’s like, hasn’t he heard the bad news? You don’t feel that anybody’s heard the bad news, that they know how people are feeling. I think everybody’s experiencing their daily life now as it looks like freedom but it feels like death. Closing time. The landmarks are down. The lights are out. The catastrophe has taken place. Don’t wait around for it, you know. So, what is the proper behaviour? What is the appropriate behaviour in a catastrophe when you’re holding on to your orange crate and the other guy’s floating by and you’re holding on to this broken flag staff. What do you do? You say, I’m Conservative? I’m Liberal? I’m pro-abortion? I’m against it? It seems to be completely inappropriate to the gravity of the situation; and, I’ve tried to create songs, now, that are appropriate to the gravity of the situation… where there’s no public utterance without the understanding that it looks like freedom but it feels like death and it’s closing time. Something’s gone down. You ignore it at the peril of your self-respect or of your possible rescue.6

One might dance – even dance gratefully – while considering the intellectual notion of a dystopic future. No one fox trots through life in the actual final days.

The imagery evoked by the words Cohen selected for the published version of “Closing Time,” “And we stumble and we stagger down the snakes and up the ladders,” precisely correlates with Cohen’s concept of the song. It is a compact, powerful portrayal of individuals contending together, however transiently, in a desperate effort to claim a bit of happiness within the restraints of their self-imposed intellectual, moral, and characterological restrictions and the explicit and implicit restrictions of social mores. It injects humanity into the metaphor, allowing listeners to empathize with their counterparts in the lyrics and inhabit the scene.

Finally, the line that completes the independent clause, “to the tower where the blessed hours chime,”  loads into the mix the absolute limitations imposed by time.

The final result is Leonard Cohen’s elegant existential exposition:

So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime

 And that’s how Leonard Cohen has fashioned a few words alluding to a Canadian child’s game into a distinctively serviceable contemporary version of the Sisyphus myth.

Just another day in the iconic singer-songwriter biz.

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  1. E.g., these lines from “Melting In The Sun” by INXS:

    Everybody’s got advice
    Take a snake take a ladder
    And this is what they call the life []

  2. Lyrics: Snakes And Ladders by Joni Mitchell

    He
    In a shopping mall
    Finally met the perfect girl
    She is all that matters
    The only one in all the world
    Like a Barbie doll
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    She
    Just to have and hold
    Is the perfect air-brushed angel
    Makes you hot just looking at her
    Stapled into all his braincells
    Like a centerfold
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the townhouse
    Call the preacher
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Set up credit for the lovely creature
    The lovely creature

    He
    On a corporate climb
    Set his sights on power for her
    On a silver platter
    He gave up happy hour for her
    Perrier and lime
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders
    She
    In a handsome world
    Put her mind to social graces
    All the privileged chatter
    Setting pretty table places
    For the girls in pearls
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the carphone,
    Call the broker
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Buy the wife a diamond choker
    A diamond choker

    True love, true love, true love
    He’s so nervous
    New love, new love, new love
    When he’s with her
    Oh, he’s wasting away
    True love, true love, true love
    It’s so curious
    New love, new love, new love
    Just to kiss her
    To kiss her, to kiss her, to kiss her
    To kiss her, to kiss her, to kiss her
    To kiss her he has to shave

    She
    In the gilded mirrors
    In the swing of fancy places
    Where the black ties flatter
    Started seeing other faces
    Young-fogie-financiers
    Oh love is snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    See
    In the crimes of time
    How the seasons steal away
    How the rungs are shattered
    First you’re green then you’re grey
    Still the snakes unwind
    Still playin’ snakes and ladders
    Snakes and ladders

    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Sell the vineyard
    Call the lawyer
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Get to the top and slide back down
    Get to the bottom climb back up
    Gather garbage to destroy her
    To destroy her

    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The perfect girl
    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The paper chase Love is snakes and ladders
    Ladders, ladders, ladders
    The social whirl
    Ladders, ladders
    The rat race
    Barbie doll []

  3. The red boxes were, of course, not part of the original notebook page []
  4. From One on One: The Imprint Interviews by Leanna Crouch (Somerville House Publishing, 1994). Interview date November 19, 1992. The video of this interviews can be viewed at Leonard Cohen On The Songwriter Submitting To The Anvil Of Rhythm And Rhyme. []
  5. Leonard Cohen, in response to the question, “When exactly IS ‘Closing Time?” – Sony Online Chat (Oct 16, 2001) []
  6. Leonard Cohen’s The Future Interview by Bob Mackowitz. Transcript from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald. Retrieved July 16, 2014 from Speaking Cohen. Emphasis mine. []

Now Online: “A Sitting With Leonard Cohen: Ladies’ Man Is Home, Not Dead” (1978) by Juan Rodriguez

A Sitting With Leonard Cohen: Ladies’ Man Is Home, Not Dead
By Juan Rodriguez
The Gazette (Montréal): Jan 7, 1978

This 1978 interview, which took place at Leonard Cohen’s home in Montreal when he was 43, focuses on his collaboration with Phil Spector on the Death Of A Ladies’ Man album.1 Cohen, who was in some interviews caustic about the album, here is generally positive, declaring “There’s no doubt that it’s a little classic.” He is less sanguine about working with Spector, the author noting that “the sessions with Spector seemed to have terrified him [Cohen].” Also included in the article are Cohen’s thoughts on the “inevitable” separation of Quebec from Canada, a bit of name-dropping (it turns out Robert Altman and Michelle Phillips have made social calls on the Canadian singer-songwriter), and his work on his book of poems (here labeled “Death Of A Ladies Man” but published under the title “Death Of A Lady’s Man”).

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_________________________________________

  1. In this interview, Leonard Cohen explains why Death Of A Ladies’ Man was issued by Warner Brothers rather than his own label, Columbia, saying “Columbia thought I was some sensitive poet who can’t be exposed to a wide public, a rare flower that could not bloom in the American pop landscape.” Columbia may have thought that but readers should be aware that the reason for the change in record labels for this album appears to have had more to do with Cohen’s and Spector’s lawyer, Marty Machat, fulfilling an obligation he had to Warner Brothers. See “We Were Drunk And Stupid” – Leonard Cohen On Death of a Ladies’ Man []

Leonard Cohen Shines Inside Popular Problems

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Kezban Özcan’s Photos Capture Singer-Songwriter’s Pre-Concert Shoe Shine Ritual

Kezban Özcan, Leonard Cohen’s personal assistant, was taken by her boss’s habit of shining his shoes prior to a concert and began photographing him at this task. This set of photos, graciously shared with this site and its viewers, also appears on the insert sheet of the soon to be released Popular Problems album.
 
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New & Improved: “Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – Just One Of Those Things” Updated

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Since its posting on March 31, 2007, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – Just One Of Those Things has not only consistently been one of the most popular entries on 1HeckOfAGuy.com but has also become a frequently cited reference for information about the short-lived romance and ongoing relationship between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, And, this essay is the top return on a Google search for “Leonard Cohen Joni Mitchell.”

This post has been continuously updated when new information has become available. Most recently, the publication of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom (See Book Review: Joni Mitchell Talks About Growing Up, Art, Songwriting, Love – And Leonard Cohen) has provided significant pertinent data in the form of direct quotes from Mitchell. While not the most dramatic of the excerpts from this book added to the post, Mitchell’s extended description of her first meeting with Cohen at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival is representative of the revisions just completed:

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Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell at Newport 1967 – Photo By David Gahr

J: This picture [shown above] of us hugging at the Newport Folk Festival … Leonard did “Suzanne.” I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. “Suzanne” was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble, because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.

M: And what were you doing in that same Newport Folk Festival?

J: I was performing also.

M: Yet you looked up to him, rather than seeing him as an equal?

J: Yeah, oh definitely. I thought he was much more sophisticated. It made me feel like, “Oh Jesus, my songs are kind of naïve. Stupid.” My “Both Sides Now” took such ridicule from Chuck, I came out of the marriage with a chip.1

If you’ve never read Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – Just One Of Those Things or if you haven’t read it recently (say, in the past 48 hours), you are missing a treat.

_____________________________

  1. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []

Book Review: Joni Mitchell Talks About Growing Up, Art, Songwriting, Love – And Leonard Cohen

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Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom

ECW Press: September 9, 20141

The Author: Malka Marom

Malka Marom began her professional life as a singer but then became a broadcaster, hosting CBC’s weekly show “Song Of Our People” and City TV’s “Mosaic,” and documentary producer. She is also the author of a novel, Sulha.2 In 1966, she first heard Joni Mitchell perform at a coffee house and was immediately transfixed by Mitchell’s talent. She became an admirer and friend of Mitchell, and these perspectives characterize the book.

In this video, Marom describes her first encounter with Joni Mitchell.

Interview With Malka Marom

Note: Marom had originally planned to author a single book based on her interviews with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Instead, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words has been published first with a parallel volume on Leonard Cohen anticipated next year.

The Book: Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words

The weakness of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words: It’s not a biography; instead, it’s a conversation between Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom, an adoring friend and fellow artist, comprising three interviews, which took place in 1973, 1979, and 2012.

The strength of Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words: It’s not a biography; instead, it’s a conversation between Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom, an adoring friend and fellow artist, comprising three interviews, which took place in 1973, 1979, and 2012.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is not intended or designed to be a comprehensive, dispassionate, hierarchically organized survey of Mitchell’s life and work. Other than occasional comments by some of Mitchell’s associates who happen to be present when the interviews tale place, such as Elliot Roberts (manager), Tom Scott (saxophonist and leader of LA Express), and John Guerin (drummer), the only narrators are Mitchell and Marom.  Indeed, the book is literally an edited transcript of the conversation between Mitchell and Marom studded with photographs, Mitchell’s paintings, and the lyrics of a large number of  her songs.

Because the book is built around three extensive interviews held over the span of almost forty years, the content naturally skews toward the topics of interest to the two participants at those points in time. Since, for example,  the first session takes place during the taping of Court And Spark and the second occurs while Mitchell is at work on  Mingus, issues pertinent to these two albums are especially prominent.

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Joni and Malka, on the way to Neil Young.’s place soon after the ’73 interview was concluded

Consequently, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is replete with discussions that sound like two old friends retelling familiar stories and sharing impressions about people they both know. For example, early in the third interview, Marom and Mitchell have this exchange which ends with a comparison of Leonard Cohen’s approach to performing with Mitchell’s:

M: Thirty-three years have passed since we last recorded our conversation, and forty-five years since I first saw you sing at the Riverboat, nearly half a century ago, my God. Yet last night I saw you singing and dancing here at your home as if not a day passed since then, as they say, and I thought what a shame that I’m the only one to witness it. How wonderful it would be if you went on tour, like Leonard Cohen is these days. You saw his concert in Toronto, and you liked it.

J: Yeah, I thought it was the best I ever saw of him. I thought it was the best band he ever had, best orchestra, the best arrangements plus the repertoire — across the board, good collection of songs.

M: I thought he was amazing, especially if you consider how frail he feels in your arms when you hug him. J: Yeah, he’s very frail. Very delicate. Like my dad was at the end. M: And yet on the stage. To see him bending and almost dancing. I thought he was really wonderful. He seemed to derive a lot of energy from the audience, from their love for him and his work. Are you tempted to go on the road?

J: No. I just was never addicted to applause or honorariums. The measure for me was the art itself. Leonard’s such a seducer he could probably believe that that many people could be in love with him. [laughs] I can’t. I don’t trust mass adoration. It doesn’t feed me. I see it as a potential dragon. I’m not that addicted to applause that I want to manipulate the monkey to roar for me. I wouldn’t get a thrill out of that, or try for a sense of victory. It wouldn’t work for me. I’d rather that they forget to applaud. That they’re so stunned, they’re tranced in. That would be more exciting to me than the biggest applause of the night. Then I feel that I’ve accomplished something. I’m really not a performing animal. I don’t have that need. I prefer the creation of the song. I like the collaborations, the camaraderie of players, and small clubs.

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As one might expect. the colloquy between Mitchell and Marom frequently changes course, veering off on a tangent or simply following a whim to land on such subjects as jazz, loneliness, New York Vs Los Angeles, dance, primitive Vs luxurious lifestyles, Canada,  and medical science.

In addition to anecdotes about other artists (e.g., Dylan, David Crosby, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder), the entertainment business, Mitchell’s current affliction with Morgellons,3 and landmark events in Mitchell’s career (e.g., the ordeal of her appearance at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival), this volume includes a poignant, often heartbreaking account of Mitchell’s early history, from childhood through her marriage to Chuck Mitchell.  She recalls saving the tissues wrapped around oranges to use as toilet paper, being diagnosed with polio and then “shipped … out of town a hundred miles away,” and, beginning her songwriting under anguishing conditions:

The writing of my own songs came out of the trauma of my being an unwed mother and being destitute. I mean destitute in a strange city and pregnant, and living in a fifteen-dollar-a-week room. It was the attic room, and all the railings .,, there was one left out of every four because last winter, the people burnt them to keep the room warm … And in Toronto I had, I think, sixty dollars, maybe, with me in a town where the cheapest room was fifteen dollars a week. And I had six months ahead of me, no work … I lived in this attic in Toronto. I was living on Ingersoll cheese spread and Hovis loaf because that place was full of starving artists and you couldn’t keep anything in the fridge, so my diet was atrocious. And one day Duke Redbird’s brother came from the reservation. This big Indian. I’d never even met him. He came to my door. He knocked on the door and he said, “Here.” And he shoved me a basket of McIntosh apples. They used to come in those bentwood baskets. “Here.” Very rudely. It’s one of the kindest things that ever happened. And he turned on his heels and went away. A total stranger. And I thought, “He must know. Do they know what condition I’m in?”

Mitchell offers thoughtful, insightful commentary – uninhibited by false modesty – about her take on creativity in the fields of art and music.

M: I’d like to clarify something I’d heard you say: “I have a painter’s mentality, rather than a musician’s or a poet’s.” What do you mean by that?

J: Okay. The creative process of a painter is absolute solitude. No one’s gonna come in and say, “Don’t put that blue stroke there. Put an orange stroke there.” It’s just inappropriate. And it doesn’t mean you’re controlling. I had a lot of “Joni, you’re so controlling.” Yes, I am controlling and so it should be. I should be in control of my art. I’m within my rights to control my own art. You should not be trying to direct it. In painting, you have to be very decisive. Once you paint over it, it’s gone, whereas in songwriting, in music, you can usually get back, if you decide, “Oops, it was better the way it was before,” you can get back. I think that’s why I’m able to produce my own records. You have to be able to switch from sensual, sensitive, emotional to [the] adjudicative mind, which is intellectual clarity. You paint … it has to be emotional and sensitive to get the good line, but then when you stand back, you engage intellect and clarity to adjudicate it, so you’re your own producer. You have access to those heads and you can shift quickly from one [to] another. You can be very hard on yourself without bruising yourself. And you can be accurate; you can go right to the heart of the trouble. You don’t have to tippy-toe around somebody’s ego and praise them and stroke them, and then get to the problem and waste an hour like that … the delicate problem of addressing someone’s ego.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words – From Both Sides Now

Readers of this book who are looking for a chronological sequenced account of Joni Mitchell’s life or a balanced, in-depth analysis of her work are doomed to disappointment.  This volume does, however, present the opportunity to contemplate Mitchell reporting on her life with significantly  less vigilance and self-protectiveness of the sort that mark her routine interviews. Her conversations with Marom are ingrained with intimacy, authenticity, and sincerity. The result is an altogether gratifying read.

Adrian Du Plessis, Allison Crowe’s personable manager, wrote me about reading Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words; this excerpt from his message is a splendid description of the experience of reading this book:

With Joni, like Leonard, one gets to know their voices – literally and figuratively – and it’s a delight to hear them just on a roll. Like you’re sitting in the kitchen with the wine flowing and the cigarette butts piling up in the ashtray.

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  1. The official release date of September 9, 2014 notwithstanding, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom is available now on several sites. []
  2. A more complete biography is available on Marom’s website []
  3. Morgellons is a poorly understood and controversial disorder. Those suffering from the disease feel as though they are infested with disease-causing agents described as things like insects, parasites, hairs or fibers. Other neurological symptoms, including severe fatigue and memory problems, are sometimes associated. []