Briefly but indelibly, Chuck and Joni Mitchell put their stamp on Detroit’s musical life. He recalls their airy apartment, performing together at gigs, and the city’s once-vibrant folk scene.
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The year is 1966. Imagine a sylph-like woman in her early 20s with high cheekbones and straw-colored hair, a spill of bangs cascading over her forehead, hurriedly emerging from an old apartment building at Ferry and Cass, near Wayne State University. Keeping pace with her is her slim husband, eight years her senior, but still boyish, his longish hair combed forward, in the style popular with young men in the mid-’60s. They’re each schlepping a guitar case, running late on their way to a gig at a coffeehouse called the Chess Mate, at Six Mile and Livernois. After tuning up their guitars, her flute-like soprano dovetails nicely with his clarion voice at the club as they open their set.
Perhaps such a scenario never played out exactly like that, but one can easily envision it, 43 years later, standing across from the 1894 dove-gray Verona apartments, which today still retain a kind of weathered elegance on a block lined with other winsome old apartment buildings. The neighborhood is oddly quiet on this particular morning because Wayne State University is off on winter break. The eerie silence makes it easier to picture a faded era and two people no longer young.
The Verona is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, but its pedigree in the history of Detroit music eclipses any architectural designation. From 1965 to 1967, Joni and Chuck Mitchell lived on the building’s fifth floor. Their marriage was brief — they divorced in 1968 — but their mark on Detroit is indelible. Of course, she was destined to become a household name in pop music, but back then the young woman from the Canadian prairies was known only on the folk circuit. Chuck, born in New York City but brought up in what was then a sparsely populated, bucolic Rochester, Mich., met Joni at Toronto’s Penny Farthing club in April 1965. By June they were married, and she joined him at his aerie in the Verona.
Chuck’s memories of their spacious, three-bedroom apartment are unusually vivid.
“The Verona was a grand residence in its day, built to survive,” he says via e-mail from his home in Iowa. “There were only two apartments on the fifth floor, mirror opposites of one another. They ran the length of the building, a full half block. Mme. Jonille occupied the west (Cass Avenue) apartment. I think she taught French at Wayne State. Joni and I occupied the east (Woodward Avenue) apartment. The stairwell was trimmed in varnished oak. In our apartment, the paneling, doors, windows, and millwork were oak.”
That stairwell was well-trod, for Chuck remembers that the elevator car “was permanently stationed on the first floor.”
“The front door opened into the living room, with a small porch looking south toward downtown and the river, and a small anteroom that might have been a library, which contained the pastel walls I painted brown.”
His painting allusion is to Joni’s song “I Had a King,” which includes the lines I had a king in a tenement castle/Lately he’s taken to painting the pastel walls brown. Famous for her confessional lyrics, Joni wrote the song about Chuck, “Who carried me off to his country for marriage too soon.” When asked how he felt the first time he heard the song, Chuck chose not to elaborate.
Active in historic preservation, Chuck (he now lives in an 1879 house overlooking the Mississippi River) applied a lot of elbow grease around the apartment, which he moved into in 1962. He recalls his monthly rent then was an astonishing $75.
“When I arrived in ’62, the luxury was still there, sort of, but down at the heel,” he says. “The oak wainscoting and floor in the [octagonal] dining room had been painted battleship gray for some unfathomable reason, and it took a hundred hours or more with stripper and lacquer thinner to clean it. My liver will never be the same.”
Chuck’s industry proved fruitful. “I worked on it constantly,” he says, “and by 1965, when Joni arrived, it was in pretty good shape, and she set about decorating, which she did as single-mindedly as she wrote her songs and pursued her career.”
According to Sheila Weller’s 2008 book, Girls Like Us, which chronicles the careers of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon, Joni filled the apartment with “thrift-store antiques” and “Indian quilts from J.L. Hudson’s.”
If they could, the Verona’s walls would sing, rather than talk. Joni wrote many songs in that apartment, and when she did, they were solitary endeavors. “We didn’t collaborate,” Chuck says. “I had virtually nothing to do with her songwriting, except being present on occasion.”
For performers and fans of folk music, Detroit was a thriving place in the mid-’60s.
“It was a great time for coffeehouse folk and bar folk,” Chuck remembers. “There were lots of venues, with excellent local acts as well as traveling acts. … There was the Chess Mate, the Living End, the short-lived Wisdom Tooth on Plum Street [all in Detroit] and, of course, the Raven Gallery [in Southfield].”
Chuck and Joni got their own gig at the Chess Mate, performing as a duo and as soloists.