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The trouble she's seen Print-ready version

by Doug Fischer
Ottawa Citizen
October 8, 2006

Doug Fischer talks to Joni Mitchell about her seminal album, Hejira

Whenever Joni Mitchell had trouble sorting out her life, she took to the road. But in early 1976, with a turbulent love affair on the rocks and too many drugs in her body, she hit the highway almost with a vengeance.

"I was getting away from a romance, I was getting away from the craziness and I was searching for something to make sense of everything," she says. "The road became a metaphor for my life."

And it inspired the album many of her fans and music critics consider her masterpiece.

Released 30 years ago this week, the nine songs on Hejira form the remarkable personal journal of a nomadic, romantic dreamer whose aural notebook is filled with the stories of doomed love, late night roadhouse dance floors, wedding gown fantasies, lost chances and a deep yearning to escape and start over.

Mitchell is not convinced Hejira is the best of the 22 albums that made her among the most influential singer-songwriters, male or female, of the past 40 years. She won't attach that label to any of her albums.

'Hejira could only have come from me'

But she concedes Hejira is probably her one album that could not have been made by anyone else.

"I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me," she said an interview with the Citizen.

The stories they tell are so vivid, their observations so naked and the landscapes so haunting that Kris Kristofferson famously urged her in a letter to be "more self-protective ... to save something of yourself from public view."

But Mitchell says self-confession, no matter how risky and revealing, was essential to her writing during that era.

"My songs have always been more autobiographical than most people's," she says. "It pushes you toward honesty. I was just returning to normal from the extremities of a very abnormal mindset when I wrote most of the songs (on Hejira).

"When life gets interesting I get very alert, and life was very interesting. I think that took the writing to another level."

Mitchell talked about the album by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she revealed she's recording her first collection of new songs in nearly a decade. More wary of public scrutiny these days, the Canadian singer agreed to a Citizen request to discuss Hejira because, she said, the album recalls an "interesting transitional" time in her life and her career.

Musically, Hejira certainly marked a departure from the two jazz-tinged but radio-friendly albums that preceded it. Gone were the hummable melodies, conventional formats and jaunty horn sections she used as Top 40 flirtations on 1974's Court and Spark and '75's The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

In their place, Mitchell offered seductively sparse rhythms, lush swirling guitars and the brilliant spark of Jaco Pastorius's fretless bass to create an unceasing musical motion that is as mesmerizing as the highways she travels in her songs.

The album is also a departure lyrically. Using the music's structural looseness to her advantage, Mitchell gives her words a simple directness and poetic polish seldom seen in her music before and rarely found again.

"To me, the whole Hejira album is really inspired," Mitchell says. "There is a rootlessness to it, for sure, but also discovery along the road."

Despite good reviews, Hejira did not sell as briskly as the more accessible albums Mitchell released during the first half of the 1970s. Although exact numbers are hard to get, there are indications sales of Hejira are stronger today than ever.

Voting on jonimitchell.com, an excellent fan-driven website, ranks Hejira as Mitchell's most popular album. A critics' poll done in the late 1990s placed the album in a first-place tie with the Blue, a moody collection of love songs she recorded in 1971.

Mitchell says Hejira's songs were written during or after three journeys she took in late 1975 and the first half of 1976.

The first was a concert tour cancelled amid turmoil after six weeks in February 1976 when Mitchell and her drummer boyfriend John Guerin ended their on-again, off-again relationship, this time seemingly for good.

Soon after, Mitchell signed on with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review, a ragged, drug-soaked circus that also variously included Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakely, Allan Ginsburg and members of the Band. She soon became a frequent cocaine user.

"I realized you couldn't stay on that thing straight -- you'd be the only one," she explains. "It was just insane." Looking back, she says, the drugs had both "great and disastrous" effects: "I had terrible insomnia but I wrote a lot of epic poems," including Song for Sharon, for many the masterpiece around which Hejira orbits.

In danger of losing her equilibrium, Mitchell fled for home in Los Angeles. She was only back a few days when two friends, one of them a former lover from Australia, showed up at her door proposing they drive across the country to New England.

Mitchell eventually dropped them in Maine before heading alone down the coast to Florida, around the Gulf of Mexico and across the southwest back to California.

"I was driving without a driver's licence," she remembers. "I had to stay behind truckers because they signal you when cops are ahead. I had to drive in daylight hours only to stay out of harm's way."

In the South, where hard rock and country music dominated the airwaves, Mitchell was a virtual unknown. "It was a relief. I was able, like The Prince and the Pauper, to escape my fame under a false name and fall in with people and enjoy ordinary civilian status."

The cross-country sojourn resulted in six of the songs on Hejira, which Mitchell says was originally called Travelling -- "that wouldn't have been very memorable," she jokes.

While looking through a dictionary, Mitchell came across the word "hejira," an Islamic term for exodus or breaking with the past. It became a song title -- and against the will of her record company, which wanted something less cryptic -- the name of the album.

"I'd been struggling with a title for the song," she says. "The idea of departure with honour captured the feeling I was after very well."

Joni Mitchell talks to Doug Fischer about the nine songs on Hejira.

Coyote

An upbeat, playful account of an unrepentant ladies' man {"He's got another woman down the hall, but he seems to want me anyway!"} encountered on a roadhouse dance floor. Eventually the cad shows enough humanity to earn the songwriter's pity--and a one-night stand. "People considered it aggressive for a woman to be talking and acting this way at the time," Mitchell says. "They wouldn't have said it if it had been written by a man."

The song is propelled by the explosive fretless bass of Mitchell newcomer Jaco Pastorius, a flamboyant jazz-rock legend whose life ended tragically with a drug overdose in 1987.

"He was the bass player of my dreams."Mitchell says. "I can't imagine Hejira without him."

Amelia

Penned as she drove through the burning solitude of the Arizona desert, the song is generally considered one of Mitchell's small masterpieces.

One of several pieces on Hejira inspired by her difficult relationship with drummer John Guerin. It takes the form of a conversation with Amelia Earhart--"one solo pilot speaking to another," she says--during which Mitchell questions her ability to love and keep a man:

"Maybe I've never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I've spent my whole life at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything/I crashed into his arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm."

Mitchell says the song is almost an exact account of her experience in the desert.

"I was driving, I did look up and see six jet trails and they did remind me of the strings of my guitar--and they got me to thinking about Amelia Earhart."

Furry Sings the Blues

The mostly true story of Mitchell's late 1975 meeting with Furry Lewis, a cantankerous old bluesman living in a shantytown off Beale Street in Memphis. In exchange for some Jack Daniels and a carton of Pall Malls, Lewis agreed to sing a few songs for Mitchell as he lay, artificial leg in the corner, on the bed in his shabby room.

In the song, Mitchell owns up to the unfairness of her fame and his poverty--"I don't like you," she imitates the old man growling at her--but the piece's true power lies in her chilling imagery of Beale Street's better days:

"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/Furry sings the the blues/Why should I expect the old guy/To give it to me true?"

After the album came out, Lewis complained Mitchell had exploited his situation for her own gain. But if anything, her song brought his earlier work to the attention of a new audience before he died in 1981. In addition, that's Neil Young on harmonica.

A Strange Boy

Mitchell's sometimes cruel, sometimes self-critical account of the affair she had with one of two men with whom she drove from L.A. to New England in the spring of 1976.

One of the men was a former boyfriend from Australia, the other--the "strange boy" of the title--was an airline steward in his 30's still living with his parents.

"He was psychologically astute and severely adolescent at the same time," she remembers. "There was something seductive and charming about his childlike qualities, but I never harboured any illusions about him being my man. He was just a big kid in the end."

The relationship lasted only a short time, but its flaming early days in an uptight bed and breakfast are recounted in one of the album's memorable verses: "While the boarders were snoring/Under crisp white sheets of curfew/We were newly lovers then/We were fire in the stiff-blue-haired-house rules."

Hejira

The album's most melancholy track opens with a brooding electric bass smear from Jaco Pastorius that quotes Stravinsky and winds down with clarinet swirls from Abe Most that amount to a cry of despair.

Mitchell says the song explores her reasons for running away from Guerin--a "defector from the petty wars," she calls herself--and was probably the toughest tune on the album to write.

Given the blood she let to complete it, it's no surprise Hejira exposes some of the rawest emotions on any of her records:

"I'm porous with travel fever/But you know I'm so glad to be on my own/Still somehow the slight touch of a stranger/Can set up trembling in my bones."

Song For Sharon

For many fans, especially women, this is the album's tour de force.

It was mostly written, Mitchell says, while she was high on cocaine at the end of a long day in New York during which she ferried to Staten Island to buy a mandolin and visited a fortune-teller on Bleeker Street to see if there was any hope for her love life.

Both incidents turn up in the song, a wistful eight-and-a-half-minute open letter to childhood friend Sharon Bell that meanders over the Saskatchewan flatlands and through small towns, big cities, lost dreams, and life's choices.

As kids, Mitchell longed for married life on a farm and Bell for success as a singer. When things turned out precisely in reverse, Mitchell says, Bell resented her fame while she envied her old friend's close family life.

The two women haven't been in touch since they were teens, but after the song came out, Mitchell says, Bell went to Saskatoon and made a recording of her own songs.

"She was always a beautiful singer. She made the recording not so much for commercial reasons but just to have a record of her own to distribute among family and friends."

Black Crow

A slightly atonal rocker highlighted by Larry Carlton's squalling guitar and punctuated by Mitchell's swooping voice. Black Crow is the only song on Hejira inspired by the singer's second home on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast.

"The song is another lament about travel but this time about the difficulty of leaving there to get on the road," she says. "It is a quite literal description."

"I took a ferry to the highway/Then I drove to a pontoon plane/I took a plane to a taxi/And a taxi to a train/I've been travelling so long/How'm I ever gonna know my home when I see it again?"

Diana Krall, who lives across Georgia Strait from Mitchell on Vancouver Island--"she's among the twinkling lights over there," she says--recorded Black Crow in 2004 because she could "relate entirely to the travel difficulties and the rugged terrain it describes."

Although some have speculated the black crow of the title reflects Mitchell's interest in aboriginal culture, she says the idea for the song actually came as she watched a crow diving for shiny objects--"a weakness I can understand."

Blue Motel Room

A dreamy torch song written over a couple of nights at the DeSoto Beach Motel in Savannah, Georgia, it offers the hopeful, humourous view that Mitchell's relationship with Guerin can be rekindled.

Mitchell is no longer sure how long she stayed at the DeSoto, which she recalls as "an old, funky light housekeeping place on the beach."

But she remembers stocking her room with health food and vitamins and running on the beach in the mornings to clean the drugs from her body and "recover from the physical and mental abuse of Rolling Thunder."

Refuge of the Roads

The album's closing song was inspired by Mitchell's encounter with Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher she stayed with for three days as she passed through Colorado on her way back to L.A.

"He's the friendly spirit in the song," she says, "I was dragged there against my will and came in looking down on him. But within minutes I realized I was in the presence of a brilliant person."

Trungpa took her to a place of enlightenment where you have no ego and no drive," she says. "It is bliss and it is nothing."

But she concedes with a laugh that Trungpa's advice to stop the self-analysis and work on reducing her ego "wouldn't be much good for an artist like me."

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