I’ve noticed that many people who write songs are often asked by interviewers to identify songs they wish they had written. Chuck Berry wished he’d written “Yesterday,” John Lennon’s choice was “Waterloo Sunset” and his erstwhile partner Sir Paul placed “God Only Knows” at the top of his wish list (god only knows why).
I want to play, too! Since I doubt I’m going to be interviewed by Rolling Stone any time in the near or distant future, I’ll just get right to it.
The songs I wish I’d written are all on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira: “Coyote,” “Amelia” and “Refuge of the Roads.” I guess it’s one of those girl things.
Hejira is my favorite Joni Mitchell album, a collection of songs about life’s travels with remarkable lyrical, musical and emotional unity. After traveling with friends cross-country to Maine, Joni decided to drive back to L. A. alone, writing the songs for Hejira along the way. When listening to Hejira, I am filled with envy, because I have always wanted to drive across the ribbon roads of the United States with the top down and the radio blasting, stopping in whatever podunk town or grand metropolis caught my fancy. I don’t even like Kerouac and I still find the idea of the open road journey terribly appealing. Unlike Europe, where you can’t drive for five minutes without running into some evidence of civilization, there are still plenty of wide open spaces on the American continent where a girl can let her hair fly free in the breeze generated by a fast car. Of course, desires are one thing and reality is another, and I never made that trip because I never felt safe enough in the United States to make such a trip on my own, and I couldn’t afford an advance man to ensure a safe arrival in a safe place (it’s highly unlikely Joni just dropped into Memphis and stumbled onto Furry Lewis without some assistance). I still want the experience of the solitary road journey, but I’ll have to take a different path (especially now that I don’t own a car, reside in France and changed my hairstyle to short and sweet).
The more powerful source of envy lies in the songs themselves, for each piece combines to create a rich tapestry depicting vivid experiences and characters that spring to life. Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s most original work, in part because of the soundscape but primarily because the experience she describes is intensely personal and refreshingly honest; there are fewer elaborate artistic prisms or aesthetic models to interfere with the connection between the storyteller and the story. As she said herself, “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could have only come from me.”
Hejira is an album that also sounds like no other. In part, this has to do with Joni’s system of open tuning, which she adopted as a way to work around a left hand limited by childhood polio. Open tuning makes certain non-standard harmonic possibilities more accessible on the guitar. An even greater contributor to this particular soundscape was her decision to use a doubling effect on the guitar. Today’s lazy musicians can use the chorus effect found on a multitude of pedals or in software packages to emulate the sound, but the reason the guitars sound so sweet on Hejira is that they’re played on real instruments by a real musician:
“On Hejira I doubled the guitar and I doubled it a way that Wayne Shorter and Miles double up on Nefertiti. It’s like silkscreening—it’s not tight doubling. I’m playing the part twice but there’s some variations on it so they’re not perfectly tight—they’re shadowing each other in some places.” The sonic effect—a heterophonic, slightly out-of-phase texture—suggests a sense of echoing space and a haunting, reflective state of mind.
—The Music of Joni Mitchell by Lloyd Whitsell
It also provides a perfect backdrop for an album full of rich, personal reflections on the wonder of life on the road.
That guitar sound, when combined with Jaco Pastorius’ fluid and exciting approach to the fretless bass, creates instant magic, as you hear in the brief introduction to the opening song, “Coyote.” While the music has a jazz feel with Joni’s cleverly syncopated strum masking the straight 4/4 time, the structure of the song, like all the songs on Hejira, is classic long-story folk, allowing Joni plenty of space to spin her absorbing road stories. “Coyote” is a man she encounters in her travels, a man who is her polar opposite. Joni plays this tension of opposites brilliantly in the opening verse, contrasting the brief, intimate closeness they would experience together with the distances created by life choices and personality type:
No regrets, Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
Coyote himself is pure male energy, a man who hunts in the fields during the day and for women at night. He is also a man of few words who lives by instinct. His sexuality is free of guilt and contemplation; he is pure libido in action (“He pins me in a corner and he won’t take no/He drags me out on the dance floor/And we’re dancing close and slow/Now he’s got a woman at home/He’s got another woman down the hall/He seems to want me anyway”). His animal instincts are sensory and sensual (“Coyote’s in the coffee shop/He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs/He picks up my scent on his fingers/While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs”). Joni contrasts his spontaneous, honest approach to mating with the deceptive, neurotic rituals she has experienced in modern urban society:
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play
Joni’s brief splashes of spoken word in the verses adds to both the relaxed feel of the arrangement and the immediacy of the narrative. “Coyote” is a masterpiece on so many levels that I could have devoted an entire post to it. Alas, it’s time to move on . . . but first we can enjoy her performance of the song in The Last Waltz.
Lucky for the listener—especially the female listener—“Amelia” is equally brilliant. In thinking of Amelia Earhart, Joni found herself “sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.” I believe that the cost Joni is referring to is the difficulty many women have balancing the need for achievement with the need for love. Many women of Joni’s generation interpreted feminism as requiring the sacrifice of our emotional intelligence and empathy in order to develop the toughness necessary to succeed as equals in a man’s world. In “Amelia,” Joni uses the metaphor of falling to describe the experience. Ani DiFranco would empower the metaphor of falling beyond the traditional “falling in love” to incorporate the feeling of “falling out of sync with sexual expectations” and experiencing freedom; Joni’s falling has a hint of failure or guilt attached to the act of allowing herself to love . . . or of refusing to allow herself to fall in love . . . probably a bit of both:
Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
“Amelia” is also stunning on a musical level, as Joni slips in a measure of ¾ time to open the intro and a measure of ¾ time to split the coda. The time shifting adds excitement and echoes the uneven oscillation in the soul of a restless woman.
“Furry Sings the Blues” curiously highlights Joni’s remarkable talents as well as one of her weaknesses as an artist. Her depiction of Memphis’s Beale Street as a museum piece, a place where the magic of the past is but a memory, is perfect, reminding me of the same disappointment I felt when I visited 18th and Vine in Kansas City. What’s missing from both places is “the click of high-heeled shoes” and the sheer excitement of late night carousing in a place where musicians are reinventing music:
Ghosts of the darktown society
Come right out of the bricks at me
Like it’s a Saturday night
They’re in their finery
Dancing it up and making deals
The Beale Street Joni visited is deep decline: “There’s a double bill murder at the New Daisy/The old girl’s silent across the street/She’s silent waiting for the wrecker’s beat.” That aspect of the song rings true; what weakens the song is Joni’s self-admitted ignorance of the blues: “W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey/And I’m not familiar with what you played.” I can understand why Furry Lewis was pissed off about the song; the fact that she hadn’t bothered to familiarize herself with the music seriously damages her credibility. This inability to grasp the essence of the blues also weakens the track “Blue Motel Room,” where Joni sings about feeling the blues in a song that isn’t blues but campy jazz cabaret.
She returns to her strengths in the next song, “Strange Boy,” a story of another romantic encounter—this time with a man-child who refuses to grow up. This song is more about Joni than the boy, as it is the ultimate expression of her inherent ambivalence about love:
We got high on travel
And we got drunk on alcohol
And on love the strongest poison and medicine of all
See how that feeling comes and goes
Like the pull of moon on tides
Now I am surf rising
Now parched ribs of sand at his side
I learned early in my sexual development that musicians and other artists aren’t worth a damn as serious partners. They don’t know whether to shit or get off the pot; they’re terrified that commitment will somehow interfere with their creative space. The challenge is that they tend to be intensely eager and very seductive when they’re in the mood, so you have to learn through experience that they’re not worth the headaches that inevitably follow the few moments of bliss. I appreciate Joni for honestly expressing her ambivalence, and I think the song is a fine piece of work, but I’d have to pass on the opportunity to take her on as a permanent squeeze.
The title track is most remarkable for its musical landscape, as close to the sound of an out-of-body experience as I can remember, with doubled guitar, bass and clarinet sounding almost detached from the distant rhythms. It’s the perfect arrangement for a reflective song about life’s passage “between the forceps and the stone.” There is no chorus and no resolution; the song is a free-form meditation on past, present and future, all of which are viewed with ambivalence. “Hejira” is a truly beautiful expression of the uncertainty we all feel about mortality and meaning as we try to grasp what life is all about.
Joni’s push-pull dynamic regarding love is explored further in “Song for Sharon,” a song that relates half of a conversation with a friend from her childhood in Maidstone, Saskatchewan. Joni’s story deals with experiences in The Big Apple, but her thoughts keep drifting back to youthful images of wedding dresses and the dream of marital bliss:
When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown
And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything
And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans
While today many women still deal with the conflict between the expectation of marriage and the freedom of personal achievement, that conflict was relatively rare in the 1970’s: a woman of that era usually did not feel “complete” until they took the trip to the altar. Those women often felt trapped by the heavy cultural expectations; in one verse, Joni opens with the story of “A woman I knew just drowned herself/The well was deep and muddy/She was just shaking off futility/Or punishing somebody.” Even with the possibility of liberation in the air, the white dress remained a powerful symbol of the ideal of love, and Joni, while aware that the ideal is an illusion, cannot break her attraction to the ideal. She relates conversations she’s had with other women, and women being women, they’re always ready with advice to the confused and lovelorn. Joni’s response is focused more on her immediate needs:
Dora says “Have children”
Mama and Betsy say “Find yourself a charity
Help the needy and the crippled or put some time into Ecology”
Well there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want to do right now
Is find another lover
Sharon has taken the family path; Joni isn’t ready for the “green pastures” quite yet. There is no judgment or condemnation of Sharon, but the sweet acceptance of differences between two old friends. The longest song on Hejira, clocking in at over eight minutes, the combination of a compelling tale and an irresistible vamp guarantee that you’ll never lose interest. The bass on this song is absolutely stunning, and no, it’s not the “legendary” Jaco Pistorius (not another fucking legend!), but Max Bennett, a long-time jazz bassist and session musician who appeared on just about everyone’s records, from The Monkees to Frank Zappa.
“Black Crow” begins with a riff that is too similar to “Whole Lotta Love” for my tastes, and Joni’s vocal begins with a high note similar to how Robert Plant opened that song. Hmm. The dissonant music effectively reflects the inner anxiety of the traveler when approaching burnout, but what’s interesting here are the lyrics and Joni’s admission that she has made some choices regarding her career that she wishes she could have back . . . or not . . . her ambivalence is nothing if not consistent:
In search of love and music
My whole life has been
And diving diving diving diving
Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing
Just like that black crow flying
In a blue sky
Joni said about Hejira, “there is this restless feeling throughout it,” and “Black Crow” is the strongest expression of that restlessness.
The aforementioned “Blue Motel Room” comes next, the next-to-last stop in our travels before the crowning jewel of Hejira, “Refuge of the Road.” The opening guitar passage is one of the loveliest bits of music I’ve ever heard, and when Jaco Pastorius fills the bottom space, the effect is marvelously satisfying. The song opens with her story of a visit to her spiritual guide, a “friend of spirit/who drank and womanized.” I like him already! The contrast between the clarity of the Zen master and the endless complications and contradictions of Joni Mitchell are described in the first verse, and of course, she ends the visit by singing, “I left him then for the refuge of the roads.” She then gives us a series of travel flashbacks, contrasting those experiences with the eternal churning of her soul:
There was spring along the ditches
There were good times in the cities
Oh radiant happiness
It was all so light and easy
Till I started analyzing
And I brought on my old ways
A thunderhead of judgment was
Gathering in my gaze
And it made most people nervous
They just didn’t want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads
To me, the roads represent the ultimate expression of the ambivalence that runs through Hejira. Is the purpose of the journey to move towards something or to escape from something or both? Will we find ourselves on the journey or lose ourselves through a detour? The passion in Joni’s voice as she sings the final line of each verse is unmistakeable; to me it sounds like on an emotional-spiritual level, she has found that the answer lies in what she already knows: it is the fate of the artist to engage on an endless journey with no definite end in sight; the journey itself is the destination.
While “the journey is the destination” can sound like a cop-out response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” it means everything if life’s purpose is to reach our fullest potential. For the artist on the journey, the purpose of life is realized in those blissful moments of clarity where the artist manages to express the inexpressible thing gnawing at the soul. On Hejira, Joni Mitchell experienced several of those moments, expressing them through intensely beautiful music and moving, multi-layered poetry that capture the essence of the journey and its tantalizing meanings.