I had been working pretty hard for a couple of days in Toronto and was happy to be boarding a plane for the four-hour flight home to Saskatoon. So I was tired, cranky and very much deep into my own head as I boarded. The one silver lining was that a few minutes earlier, the desk informed me that I won the upgrade lotto and I was going home in the front of a packed plane.
In spite of the full plane I was even more delighted to see that the seat beside me was empty. It stayed empty until the very last minute when a little old lady (that is to say someone of my age) shuffles in beside me. She settled in and it soon became clear that neither of us was really up for another uncomfortable high altitude conversation. I bury my face in a book and we head out for lift off.
After a few minutes I look over and notice that she is having a fine moment with some photos of young kids. I am hooked. As a new grandfather at the time I recognize the situation and I can’t help myself …
“Your grandkids?” I inquire.
She replies in the affirmative and looks me straight in the eye for the first time.
Oh my … I realize that I am looking into the eyes of Joni Mitchell. This is the person who will be my seat mate for the next four hours unless I do something to piss her off and get thrown into the back of the plane for the rest of the trip. This is going to be epic or tragic, I feel, depending on my next move.
I look straight back at her and ask a question … ”Hey, do you remember Carol Keller?”
“That little bitch,’ she retorts, fire in her eyes.
“Hey wait a minute, I reply, I had such a crush on that sweet little lead drum majorette in the Kinsmen Band. Why so nasty?”
“It was one of my first performances, says Joni, and from the front row she gives me a shot. She may have been my first heckler.”
And we were off …
You see that particular little story would have been from around 1952/53 and little Joan Anderson would have been maybe ten years old and I would have been a spunky six year old at most. And I was probably not anywhere near that concert.
We were both just a couple of kids in the hardscrabble prairie burg of North Battleford, a little Saskatchewan city with no real claim to fame then or now.
We did share some things in common from that time …
We lived maybe three blocks apart.
We both had a connection with Reverend Logie’s girls. Joan was a best friend with Anne Logie (Bayin) who still maintains her friendship with Joni and has become a well-respected writer and photographer in Toronto. I was a friend with Aileen Logie, Anne’s little sister whom I was a little sweet on.
We both suffered under the cranky authority of Mrs. Bready, the vicious grade school teacher who once advised Joan’s mom to stop her from focusing so much on art.
We both started smoking in North Battleford around the age of nine
And so on …
The floodgates opened and we just started talking and never really stopped till we got off the plane four hours later in her other hometown … Saskatoon.
It was a crazy four hours.
Of course, these days I remember more the feeling of those conversations rather than the details, but somehow that seems more appropriate. I would now recollect the whole thing as more of an artistic encounter than a journalistic one.
We dove straight into grandkids and I became more aware of the hard edges of her story. It was moving to hear her story of the daughter she lost so long ago and then the difficulties and joys of finding her and the grandkids you never knew you had.
Away we went on other stories of familiar territory … running wild in small town back alleys, corner store larceny and the hilarious and nasty culture of the school playground.
We spoke of polio and her struggles and fears around that time and as we talked I reached down and rubbed my leg with the atrophied calf muscle. I wondered aloud if I as well, might have been dealt a touch of that dreaded childhood polio, the nasty disease of those times.
I remember her getting wound up about teen years as she started describing the uphill path to the bootleggers and the bush parties and I realize that she has now taken me along to high school and Saskatoon even though we parted company at age eleven! I know, I know, we never really met in North Battleford but this woman had an amazing “down home” way of making you believe you must have hung out in 1953.
And it really did not matter cause I was already deep into the ride.
Probably somewhere over Manitoba, we start getting out of this country and more into California stories. Some were pretty straight ahead like her frustration with the music business and her wanting to pursue more of her love of painting. Some of her stories were more, let’s be polite, and just call them unique. These were the more “spiritual” stories like the time she felt some badass psychic messages emanating from a black SUV ahead of her on the freeway. It got funny as hell when she started telling a Neil Young story and finished it off by imitating him in a high-pitched voice singing one of his songs.
“Oh my god, I am thinking, I am siting here listening to Joni Mitchell imitating Neil Young.”
We had a great visit around Don Freed, my Saskatoon songwriting hero and how Joni fell in love with this Saskatoon boy late in life on the advice of her mom who still lived in Saskatoon.
She was obviously in a fine storytelling mood and to the amazement of the other passengers, who must have wondered who the hell was I to be able to maintain this spirited conversation.
Well, it was not just one way. She is a very kind, generous and curious woman and I was as surprised as anyone that she wanted to hear my stories as well. It was a mutually satisfying, consensual encounter, I suppose, although she never did write or call!
As I reflect back on that plane ride, I fully understand now that I was not having a conversation with Joni Mitchell. I had four hours of storytelling with Joan Anderson and Bobby Chartier. The power of formative youth and memory is truly remarkable. We were not connecting on the celebrity/fan axis; rather we were connecting with another human being with whom we had some shared experience like running down a back alley in the dark and hating a bad teacher.
I have just written this on the occasion of Joni’s seventy fifth birthday. Happy Birthday Joni! Thank you for not being a dick on that plane and allowing me to finally get over to your house and play in the backyard.