John Cameron's Musicology

Episode X: Joni Mitchell (75 - 76)

by John Cameron
Mixcloud.com
May 12, 2018

play Listen to the episode

[The following is John's original working script and may differ slightly from the final recording]

Having developed from the acoustic-driven folk singer, into a multi-faceted arranger and instrumentalist, Joni Mitchell attained significant success on the charts and on the road. This was due, not only to her musical talent, but willingness to surrender her own feelings to those that would listen, articulated into poetry with a musical backing. At a time when stars were still painted like godly figures, almost immune to tragedy; Joni was authentic.

Attaining the LA Express as her backing band in 1974 for her hit-album, "Court and Spark", she drove her sound more in the direction of Jazz-Fusion. The album still contained large elements of folk and rock but melded them together so suitably that it provides the perfect gateway between the albums in her discography. The more drastic change in her sound was on the other end.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Album)

Enter: The Hissing of Summer Lawns. A transitional experiment between what came before and what eventuated after. A risk that had some labeled Joni as a genius and others as pretentious. Its compositional complexity isn't used as an opportunity to show off, it's used as an essential ingredient to the consumption of the album from song to song, from end to end.

Joni writes in the liner notes: "This record is a total work conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally - as a whole. The performances were guided by the given compositional structures and the audibly inspired beauty of every player. The whole unfolded like a mystery."

Well, listeners were mystified.

In France They Kiss On Main Street

The album's opener, serving almost as a modern overture, "In France They Kiss On Main Street" features and ensemble of incredible musicians. John Guerin, one of the most prolific drummers of all time and later... Joni's boyfriend. Max Bennett on bass, who would later recommend another bassist to Joni; assisting her in realizing her musical fantasies. Robben Ford and Steely Dan's Jeff Baxter on electric guitars. Along with long-time collaborators, James Taylor and Crosby and Nash guesting on the vocal hooks. Any other album with a line-up like this would have already peaked.

Like most of the tracks that would appear on "The Hissing of Summer Lawns", this one would begin its inception as an acoustic demo, using four guitar tracks, a stereo pair of background vocals and a lead. The demo sessions highlight that most of what ended up on the album, was there at its inception. While it would later receive its various flourishes and external contributions, even by itself, it sounds like a more reverbed approximation of the natural progression she could have taken from her previous albums, which like this, were mostly Joni overdubbing herself.

Edith and The Kingpin

Let's do the reverse now. One of Joni's most covered songs, "Edith and the Kingpin". Starting out similar to the previous, all focus is on the main vocal, with few embellishments throughout.

Eventually, it transformed with the contributions of her band, perhaps most notably, the bass guitar of Wilton Felder and electric of Larry Carlton.

The character in the song is an ode to Edith Piaf having frequently cited the song "Troisrois Cloches" as one of her favorites.

Shades of Scarlett Conquering

Not all of the songs originated on guitar.

While many of the compositions would be altered from their initial versions, the piano arrangement for "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" remains almost identical.

Then Joni built around it, utilizing the string arrangements of Dale Oehler, after hearing his work on Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man". Joni insisted that he use only violas, emphasizing the mid-range of the typical orchestral frequencies. What we're left with, is an angelic air of delicate stabs that elevate the mix to somewhere else.

The vocals are just as important as everything around them. Joni is a master at illusioning a performance that might seem slightly out of control. This song is the best example, especially when she makes use of the delicate reverb by intensifying specific lines.

The music matches the thematic lyrics - cinema. Accentuating the emotions of a narrative through its soundtrack, like a character looking at someone for the first time as the orchestra swells.

In either form, the song is a testament of Joni's ability to tap in to a universal spectrum of emotions at her command, whether its by music or lyrics, or perhaps more dangerously, both.

Harry's House/ Centerpiece

The song "Harry's House" was another demo, transformed by its rearticulating from and to other instruments. Noticeably different is the introduction of horns by Chuck Findley, replacing where guitar licks once were.

Interestingly, the demo continues while the album version veers off into a slurry of embedded vocals, the demo extends with four lines, arguably crucial to the character of Harry.

Then, a cover of the jazz standard, "Centerpiece", plays out the second half of the song.

Shadows and Light

To close out an album filled to the brim with complex instrumental compositions, the mostly acapella "Shadows and Light" brings Joni's vocal melody to the forefront. While it does feature and Arp-Farfisa backing up the refrain, an analogue synthesizer that had just been released, the song itself still prospers without it.

Additional instrumental work would override the original version in the future, such as when Joni performed it a year later with The Band at "The Last Waltz" concert, transforming it into an almost completely different song.

Surmise

After the commercially successful "Court and Spark the year before, "The Hissing of Summer Laws" was an exceptionally bold move. Looking back at reviews, it's obvious that critics didn't know how to comprehend it. In the more recent decades, it's received the acclaim it deserves, as a complete masterpiece.

Hejira (Album)

Only a year would pass before the delivery of another entirely different album. Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" is a challenge for even the most sophisticated music consumer. Each song is a new story, filled to the brim with the most descriptive observations and multifaceted characters.

As your mind is trying to keep up with what she's singing, it's also trying to decipher what she's playing. Yes, it's Jazz-Fusion. It's embedded with jazz sensibilities, but fused with what exactly? One could argue that whatever this album is, it should be considered genre of its own. As Tim Lott of "Sounds Magazine" wrote in 1976, "Joni's albums take six months, not one weekend, to absorb".

Another point of significance is Max Bennet's recommendation during "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" sessions. This lead Joni to Jaco.

Joni had such a progressive vision for the bass that Jaco independently, was revolutionizing. Not a simple rhythm or melody. Instead, he plays as though he's conducting an orchestra - which could explain why her next project featured no strings or synthesizers.

Coyote

Much like the title track from the previous album, the opening song for "Hijera", "Coyote" was tried and tested on tour before a studio recording was done.

PLAY "COYOTE" CONCERT INTRODUCTION

Joni joined Bob Dylan's "Rolling Thunder Revue" Tour on the 13th of November, 1975 in New Haven, Connecticut as one of the many special guest that Bob would feature on this tour. After such a warm reception, Joni decided to stay on for the remaining dates of that leg.

Dylan had also invited American playwright Sam Sheppard to join him during this period and write songs with him during the off-time. Sheppard took-up the offer, leaving his ranch to his wife and son for duration. During that November, affairs allegedly occurred between occurred between him and Joni.

On the 25th, travelling between Hartford, Connecticut to Augusta, Maine, Joni pens what would become the first and third verses to "Coyote".

It should be noted that the tour did not travel west of Ontario, therefore, the reference to "Baljennie, Saskewatchan" is more likely an added reference, rather than a real one.

By the time the tour reached Toronto for its two nights, on the first, Joni performed the song again, this time with an additional third verse.

Concluding her accompaniment with the Revue, for the final performance at Madison Square Garden, the fourth and final verse were written and aside from slight lyrical changes throughout, the song was complete.

Interestingly, she again mentions another Canadian location, the "Bay of Funday". Like "Baljennie", they didn't near it during their tour travels.

"Coyote" is the first song on the "Hejira" album. It's the perfect introduction that establishes a departure from her previous works and makes no apologies for it. Despite its metaphors, its more revealing lyrically and despite the usual unusual open tunings on her guitar, the CGDFCE setup is even more majestic, while completely removed from convention. And even more remarkable, everything that follows doesn't deviate in quality. Sure, "Coyote" is a pretty direct narrative, but as the listener gets deeper into the album, they have to maintain their focus in order to continue to follow. There's a fine tipping-point between analysis and immersion, but this album makes both so palatable.

Amelia

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. She was a celebrated aviator and a major historical figure, lifting the spirits of depression-era America.

Joni, like many, saw the romanticism in her story and pursuits. The concept of escapism in the most majestic way, while juxtaposing it to the internal turmoil of a jaded relationship gave rise to this timeless, stand-out track.

Like "Coyote" the song documents a journey. Granted, "Coyote" is more of a literal travelogue, but the feelings expressed through "Amelia's" lyrics make it feel like "the Hejira of Hejira". The emotions are easily distinguished from the story, however the combination of expressing both perfectly illustrate the sporadic nature of how the mind works. Yearning to escape internally but fantasizing about doing so physically.

Furry Sings The Blues

Perhaps the most defined visual on the album, "Furry Sings The Blues" documents Joni's observations of downtown Memphis, in February of 1976. A painted visual of what it once was, to where it got to in the mid-70s and concerns about how it would end up in the future.

Beale Street is black history. It's where the blues established and its audience prospered - one of the few places in the South they could during the early twentieth century. Its musical and social history is unparalleled, but all of that came to a significant holt when Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, within just a mile. Sure, the entertainment district still existed after that, but for the audience that once frequented, it was never the same. In the mid-1970s the government embraced the street's influential and dark history, so began redevelopment projects.

None of this information is actually essential to understanding the song - everything you need to know is already there. Within the first half of the first verse, Joni paints the picture for the listeners.

Within just the first four lines, Joni has painted the visual, the emotions and the history. We're greeted with the very-real circumstance of the community saying goodbye to what Joni would later describe as "the carcass" of Beale Street, along with its many varied attractions, which in these lines, are actually fictional.

WC Handy, often regarded and referred to as the "father of the blues", gets his essential mention. Not just for having revolutionized the genre associated with the sounds the made Beale Street what it is, but as mentioned, his statue stands on the corner of it and Handy Circuit.

Now we're at the first chorus, which would be altered throughout as the narrative progresses. Furry Lewis was a frequent entertainer on the strip, usually armed with his old Martin electric guitar. The wooden leg line refers to Furry's childhood train accident, in which he was amputated, but around this time, another affliction would take place, being the deterioration of his eyesight. As a result, "Ginny" or Virginia, his wife, accompanied his side consistently.

Joni meet with Furry during her trip through Memphis. Despite their friendly and informative interactions, Furry became very angry about his lack of payment for his "feature" in the song.

In this verse, we're referenced the "New Daisy Theatre" which opened in 1930's, just across the street from the original "Daisy Theatre". She mentions a "double murder", which is probably more so a reference to The Monarch Club, where the cease and disposal of many men took place.

Joni's imagination was captured by the history and mysticism of Beale Street, rearticulated into one of her most poetic songs. You could take just about any few lines from this track and with a limited amount of knowledge of the area and still you're left with quite a strong, imprinted visual in your mind.

Song For Sharon

With no chorus or bridge, but spanning ten verses running at almost nine minutes, "Song or Sharon" certainty tells a story through its American landscapes.

PLAY "SONG FOR SHARON" MIX

The song begins with at least two lines of identifiable autobiography. In 1975, Joni Mitchell took the ferry from New York City to Staten Island and visited the Mandolin Brothers, a store famous for its guitars. On the trip back, she wrote this song, detailing reflections on love to a friend.

PLAY LINE 1

She goes to buy an instrument, which might be an essential piece of info to her character, but then is confronted by the display of a wedding dress in a storefront. She becomes transfixed and reflective, perhaps due to an ingrained yearning or expectation to one day be wearing it herself.

PLAY LINE 3

Equating the skills of love to poker, then being so desperate to take a gamble on some ridiculous fortune. These lines emphasize the irrationality of love, while still keeping it personal to the story, adding the Bleeker Street reference as a further document to her travelogue.

PLAY LINE 4

Here we have confirmation as to why Joni is making such reflections. Further describing why she came to New York to "face the dream's malfunction". Judging by the previous lines, one could interpret that she made a difficult choice between the instinctive "settling down" and the more adventurous life of an artist.

PLAY LINE 5

Here, she explains the extremities of love, feeling on the line herself, with her friends also expressing similar experiences and concerns. Despite being halfway through, the song seems to paint a mostly negative light on love and marriage, focusing on the perceived conventional woman's role.

PLAY LINE 6

In these lines, we get the establishment of a long build-up to the narrative of expectation. This yearning to get married was apparent as early as childhood, almost conditioning herself to feel this way. One wonders why she chose the life of a musician, rather than something more simple.

PLAY LINE 10

Now we learn whom she's venting, almost appealing to. Sharon is whom Joni yearns to be, the contradictive dream of her diametric fantasies. They realized each other's dreams. All emotions and abstractions.

Refuge of The Roads

Capping the album, "Refuge of The Roads" gives almost a general surmise of the who's, what's, when's and where's that have taken place throughout. The lyrics are less specific than the previous songs, but still provide a narrative that can be followed. At this point of the album, the song provides the perfect wind-down with its non-deconstructive ambiguity.

In terms of its title though, one can't help but wonder where the refuge is exactly? It could be the isolation. It could be the near-mindless activity of driving. It could be the potential adventure at every stop. In any case, you're left alone with your thoughts - so where the refuge is, would depend on the thought patterns of individual. If you're Joni though, those thoughts are "Hejira".

Surmise

Joni would later reflect on "Hejira", stating that "the writing was expanding to the point where it didn't even stay in stanza. It was spilling into kind of organic forms". That is the review the album deserves, with the shear depth of every track - it's almost like scripture, reliant on interpretation and the emotion of the listener in order for them to get the best out of it.

And that's exactly how Joni Mitchell should be experienced. She once described herself as "a painter derailed by circumstance". As chaotic as that might sound, no matter how many times she supposedly derailed, she ended up on a track to somewhere more interesting. While most artists take the road with convenience and safety, Mitchell suspends that, in order to take the scenic route.

That's how you end up with the colour on "The Hissing of Summer Lawns". And that's how you end up with the hue on "Hejira".


Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=4123

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read 'Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement' at JoniMitchell.com/legal.cfm