Bob Dylan, Cocaine, and Fretless Bass: how Joni Mitchell made ‘Hejira’

by Tim Coffman
Far Out Magazine
March 28, 2024

Joni Mitchell is the kind of artist who could probably write classics in her sleep. Compared to the other musicians who seem to throw a bunch of chords together and pray to put a decent melody over the top, Mitchell was always known to go further out of her comfort zone whenever she worked on records. Rock and roll didn't suit her anymore, and Hejira was the beginning of her moving into uncharted territory.

Hejira doesn't start with a specific track or lyric but rather a show. When work was due to begin on the follow-up to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell would perform at Bob Dylan's famous Rolling Thunder Revue concerts, where she saw many of the finest songwriters of the time demonstrate their skills.

Since Dylan had just come off of recording albums like Blood on the Tracks, there was greater attention paid to the emotional aspect of many of the songs being played. While it may have served as fine inspiration for Mitchell, it ended up spelling the end of one of her relationships when she broke things off with her drummer, John Guerin, after having an affair with Sam Shepard during the run of gigs.

It's not like the shows were the healthiest environment for Mitchell, either. Outside of the fantastic music being made, there was also a massive amount of cocaine flying around, which Mitchell indulged herself in more than a few times. While the backstory sounded like something that most people would have to get out of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell channelled her troubles once she finally had time to rest.

Across the entire album, many pieces allude to the hardships she had to face losing a lover. When the titles aren't giving it away on songs like 'Refuge of the Roads', tracks like 'Coyote' are almost too autobiographical, as Mitchell sings about the kind of heartache that comes after leaving someone that you thought would be with you forever.

Even when inhabiting characters on the record, Mitchell doesn't let up on the emotional intensity. Performed in her signature open tuning, the song 'Amelia' is a historical piece and a compelling drama at the same time, as Mitchell sings about the untold mysteries surrounding Amelia Earhart's disappearance and applies it to her own life, feeling like a loner out in the wild.

For all of Mitchell's unforgettable moments on the record, one of the biggest parts of it doesn't even come from her. Being an avid fan of jazz, Mitchell worked with a who's who of legends from the world of fusion, including guitarist Larry Carlton and the Jimi Hendrix of bass, Jaco Pastorius.

While the band may have done what was needed, Pastorius had a new toy that he wanted to try out: the fretless bass. Since there are no fret markers on the thing, the smooth texture of Pastorius' playing almost acts as a second voice in half of the songs, providing the right amount of ear candy and crying along with Mitchell when it needs to.

After hearing it, Mitchell thought the album had a more human feel than anything she had worked on. Whereas most producers try to bury many of the imperfections on a record, some of the best moments on Hejira come from its imperfections, acting as a way to emote through one's instrument much better than something that's precisely in tune.

Even today, Hejira is one of the boldest records that Mitchell ever made, serving as a sequel to an album like Blue in terms of how well it portrays broken emotions. While all music doesn't need to be defined by pain, Mitchell's way of using music as a way through heartache is still unmatched by anyone in her field.

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