[Originally published here]
In 1976, after completing a North American tour with the LA Express in support of her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell traveled with friends across the country to Maine. Returning back to the west coast she decided to take a road trip on her own, an ideal opportunity to reflect and meditate as she drove through highways and farm lands. During that trip she composed several songs that would be released later that year on her next album Hejira. The album title is a transliteration of the Arabic word hijra, which means "journey", usually referring to the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622. She stated that "This album was written mostly while I was traveling in the car." No piano or keyboards were featured on that album, and many songs from it stayed in her live repertoire late into her career. In 2006 she said, "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."
Hejira is a special album. For me, it is the ultimate road trip album. Its rhythm and atmosphere feels like an instrumental record. If you tune out the words that Mitchell is singing and listen to her voice as another instrument, the record flows along like a dreamy tone-poem. But don't tune out the words too long, because Mitchell has a lot to say on this album, and the narratives she delivers are beautiful verses about blues singers, hero female pilots, love affairs, teachers of Budhism, and of course - road trips.
Coyote, the first song on the album, describes her brief relationship with Sam Shepard, whom she met at the Rolling Thunder Revue, the concert tour that Bob Dylan assembled with a travelling caravan of musicians. Shepard was hired by Dylan to write a script for a movie based on the events in the Rolling Thunder Revue. That did not materialize, but Shepard did write a tour log that was later released as a book. Joni Mitchell joined the tour for a number of shows in late 1975 and it remained with her as a lingering memory of ego clashes infused by pharmaceuticals and cocaine. Not only as a spectator, mind you, because she started a cocaine habit during that tour.
The road trip that gave birth to the songs on Hejira also led to an acquaintance with Chögyam Trungpa, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. He snapped her out of her cocaine habit and she wrote the song Refugee of the Roads about him. In Coyote she references her memory of the sex, drugs and folk n' roll experience that was the Rolling Thunder Revue:
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
As for Sam Shepard, like many other relationships she had in the 60s and 70s, that one did not last. Luckily she ended up writing great songs about those affairs. Sam Shepard dedicated a page in his log book to Joni Mitchell, in which he quotes the lyrics from Don't Interrupt the Sorrow: "Here's someone who just appears, just walks out with a plain guitar, a beret, and a history of word collage. Every single time the place goes up in smoke like a brush fire. She stands there in the midst of it, making believe she's tuning an already well-adjusted guitar until the place calms down. No doubt the element of surprise, of the audience not knowing she's on the bill, is partly responsible for the explosions, but there's something more important in it - the fact that people listen to her every word. Her music's nothing outrageous, but her word maneuverings tend to verge on uncanny. 'I got a head full of quandary and mighty, mighty' thirst.' She seems to have merged into a unique jazz structure with lyric and rhythmic construction and even managed to bite the masses in the ear with it."
Hejira is the first Joni Mitchell album that features Jaco Pastorius. The musical relationship between the two started when Mitchell was about to begin recording the album. Robben Ford, LA Express's guitar player, played her Jaco's first solo record in 1976 and introduced Joni to the album. Joni loved the bass playing and asked Jaco to come to the studio to play on some of the songs later to appear in Hejira.
Jaco never heard any of her songs prior to meeting her. Joni later said about bass players and Jaco: "I was trying to find a certain sound on the bottom end, going against the vogue at the time. Bass players were playing with dead strings; you couldn't get them to change to get a round, full-bodied tone. I liked that old analog, jukebox, Fifties sound-up-right bass, boomier. In the Sixties and early Seventies you had this dead, distant bass sound. I had started to think, "Why couldn't the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?" Why did it have to always play the root? When Jaco came in, John Guerin said to me, "God, you must love this guy; he almost never plays the root!". Jaco ended up playing on four songs in Hejira: Coyote, Hejira, Black Crow, and Refuge of the Roads. All these songs have his distinctive sound and style all over them.
Hejira was released in November 1976 and climbed up to no. 13 in the Billboard LP chart in January 1977, the week that saw a number of 70s iconic albums in the top three positions: Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, The Eagles Hotel California and Boston's debut album. The album's cover features a photograph of Joni Mitchell by Norman Seeff who took many fantastic photos of her in the 70s.
In 1976 Mitchell played Coyote at The Band's farewell concert The Last Waltz. There was very limited rehearsal time due to the cast of thousands that participated in that concert. John Simon, who served as the musical director for The Last Waltz, remembers: "the chords she played on the guitar were not standard. The guys would look at her left hand and go, 'what?' I remember this one quote from her: I said 'What's that chord?' and she said 'I don't know the name of it. I tune my guitar this way, to make myself stupid', in other words to not fall into predetermined patterns. I had to figure out what the chords were, then figure out some way for the guys to play something that meshed with her".
Chords aside, the obvious casualty was Rick Danko, The Band's bass player and an amazing talent who wrote and sang some of the group's best songs. However he could not handle the bass lines that Pastorius dished off effortlessly throughout the song. If you watch the Last Waltz footage of Coyote, you can see Joni and the band starting off hesitantly until Robbie Robertson starts strumming a steady rhythm and the band joins in a simplified but effective accompaniment. Robertson remembers that performance: "When Joni came out and the lights hit her, she seemed to glow in the dark. She was wearing a beautiful Native American necklace, and I was slightly surprised when she walked over and kissed me. She looked thoroughly enchanting and she sang her song Coyote, and it sounded sexier than ever. Joni's songs might have been the most challenging of the night, with her syncopation and chord structures that kept you on your toes."
As an aside, Joni Mitchell also sang background vocals that night to Neil Young's Helpless. Robbie Robertson tells a rehearsal story: "When Neil Young sang Helpless, Joni did a high background vocals that sent shivers through the hall. In the show Joni wasn't going to perform until after Neil, and I did not want to give away her appearance before that. I asked Marty [Martin Scorsese] if we could film Joni from behind the curtain while she sang her part on Helpless. 'Definitely, he said, we'll have a handheld camera back there'." He continues with the actual performance of Helpless: "As son as Neil Young took the stage, I could tell no one at Winterland was feeling better than he was. He made a profoundly touching statement about how proud he was to be onstage with us that night, before we steamed into Helpless. Right away, his harmonica set the mood and was magnificent. Neil's vocal was so moving on this beautiful Canadian song of remembrance. When Joni Mitchell's high falsetto came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from." You can hear that falsetto voice starting at 2:30 in the Helpless segment of the Last Waltz. Overall, a good night for the Canadians.
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