Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Joni Mitchell’s jazzy ‘Hejira’ captured the pitfalls of life untethered 45 years ago Print-ready version

by Rob Moura
November 22, 2021

On her last truly great album Hejira, Joni Mitchell designed a travelogue, awash with lush textures, and explored the implications of her lifelong itineracy.

In the summer of 1976, Joni Mitchell parked by the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, and stepped out of the car. In a crimson wig and sunglasses, she walked through the front hall, approached the desk, and requested to be checked in. When the hotel barman asked for a name, she replied, "Joan Black".

He wasn't fooled. "Sure, Ms. Mitchell, whatever you say," he said and prepared her key as the woman who once declared fame "a grand misunderstanding" stood sheepish. Tonight, it seemed, she could not escape herself.

It had worked before; earlier in Florida, she had started to hide behind sunglasses, wigs, and pseudonyms like "Charlene Latimer" in spirited attempts to keep others off her trail. It wasn't a watertight plan - some, like the barman, would recognize features that couldn't be easily hidden, like the familiar contours of her mouth or those widely-spaced eyes wizened by a host of compressed lifetimes - but it worked nonetheless. For brief moments, she could free herself from the myth her audience had conspiratorially constructed for her.

By then, to many, Mitchell was almost all myth. Her technical skill and unique approach to music were well-documented, but they lay beside the point. Just being a woman at the head of the burgeoning folk-rock movement meant having to bear the weight of the muse, not only for her listeners but for the fleet of influential voices standing beside her. She simply could not cavort the way her peers could without letting those pursuits define her.

Even outside the gossipy bounds of sordid affairs, she found herself a canvas for ideas people felt necessary to paint. She was a lady of the canyon; she was the fair-haired goddess who played guitar and cried and sung; she was the songstress futilely circulating idyllic energy to a dispassionate crowd a hundred thousand strong. In response, Mitchell sought agency, the ability to define herself on her artistic terms regardless of the definitions people would routinely blithely hoist upon her. Stay in one place too long, she may have reasoned, and people will draw you an outline you'll have to fit into for the rest of your life.

Almost as much as a hopeless romantic, or a patron saint of hippie culture, Mitchell's image as an itinerant pervades her mythos. It's all over her discography, from her lamentations on Blue's "This Flight Tonight" to her acceptance on For the Roses' "Let the Wind Carry Me" to the whimsical modesty on Court and Spark's "Just Like This Train". Even her discography moves between genres, from placid folk to ornate pop to exploratory jazz and string-laced schmaltz. Factor in her role as a North American rock star, an occupation in which livelihood is built on the road, and such itineracy becomes almost inescapable. "They take their temporary lovers and their pills and powders to get them through this passioned play," she sings on Hejira's "Coyote", spilling one of the record's chief motivations.

Whether or not it required anonymity, Mitchell's respite had become necessary. She had reached the end of her tether having spent the previous year engaging in rock culture debauchery. A stint with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue left her exhausted and struggling with a cocaine addiction it would take years to kick. A subsequent tour promoting her most recent release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, fell prey to post-romantic tension between her and drummer John Guerin. Eventually, the tour had to be abandoned halfway through.

Left to her own devices with her musical obligations and addiction wearing her down, Mitchell began a period of intense itinerancy. She squeezed into a car with an ex-boyfriend and a young flight steward on a cross-country trip to "rescue" a child from custody. Mitchell stocked up on health supplements at a stop in Florida and jogged by the Atlantic to sweat the drugs out. Afterward, she traveled the roads alone and incognito, finding solace in another identity while plagued by addiction and heartbreak.

During this period, she would compose Hejira, an album about being in transit fittingly written in transit. The word "hejira" is a malaprop of an Arabic word referencing the prophet Mohammad's exodus from Mecca. Interpreted, it means "migration" or "departure". To Joni, it meant "running away with honor". It's an apt description of the traveling she had been doing not only in recency but throughout her whirlwind career. On her last truly great album she dives deep into what exactly she'd been running away from.

Sometimes it's the pull of love's gravity, as on Mitchell's alleged words to Sam Shepard on "Coyote" or to Guerin (who also plays drums here) on the melancholy, lush title track. Other times, like on "Song for Sharon", it's the entrenched gender roles she previously explored on Summer Lawns. Just as many illustrate others caught in the act of leaving, whether it's that aforementioned flight steward shirking maturity on "A Strange Boy" or the town of Beale Street breathing its last gasp of relevance on "Furry Sings the Blues". The vectors of freedom, both lyrically and compositionally, link these songs together to a degree Mitchell would never achieve again.

Mitchell made a career off of idiosyncratic fret fingerings, but there's perhaps no better home for them than on a record directly about transience. "I used a lot of 'sus' chords," she explains during a documentary detailing her fraught 1970 Isle of Wight performance. "I called them 'chords of inquiry.' They had question marks in them. They were unresolved chords, and my life was full at any time of five or six unresolved problems, so I would go from one unresolved chord to another...not on the top, but tucked in, the way it was tucked in on me."

Nearly all of Hejira's songs are built from the same river-like, chorus-free structures already central to Mitchell's approach, but the looseness of her delivery and the subtext of her lyrics make them an even more ideal match. "Song for Sharon" is all verses uttered over the same five or six chordal phrases. Its repetition and length punctuate the irony of Mitchell's situation, having fled the pressures of domesticity only to be trapped in a life sustained by cheap wanderlust. Similarly, "Furry Sings the Blues" pulls off the same trick in "Amelia" by refusing to land on resolving chords, except in this case it highlights how little the titular character can do against his circumstances as he lays in bed, decrepit and bitter.

Around this time, Mitchell clamored for accompaniment that could match her intention to play with dynamics. She found it in Jaco Pastorius, a "kindred spirit" whose fretless bass playing would become a common element in her music as the 1970s rolled on. It may have become a contested novelty later on, but it slots as beautifully into Hejira as her trademark song structures. Rather than ground Mitchell's chords with root notes, Pastorius travels up and down the neck of his instrument as restlessly as the album's characters. Where it appears, his bass perfectly personifies the wandering soul, an archetype Mitchell embodies completely here.

Mitchell's work has long been misinterpreted as "confessional" by writers who ought to have known better, and yet if there's a record of hers that befits that description, it might just be this one. Hejira is essentially a travelogue documenting Mitchell's inner struggles; she's on every one of these songs, comparing her own journey to those of her travelers. The comparisons come fast on "Coyote's" very first stanza. "You'll be brushing up a broodmare's tail while the sun is ascending, and I'll just be getting home with my reel-to-reel," she sings early, signaling that this account is hers and not another's.

The charming nonchalance embedded in "Blue Motel Room", on which she again writes to ex-lover Guerin, belies the futility of both musicians to hang up their libertine ways. On "Furry Sings the Blues", she laughs at the old geezer with the fake leg but quietly contemplates when she'll find herself facing the same obsolescence. Note a line where she sings of W.C. Handy statue and the Ozymandias figure he represents, looking upon a desolate street of parasitic pawn shops and dark ghosts, and then compare it to how much time has passed between Hejira's release and now.

Here and elsewhere, she strips away the allegorical aegises and classic folk tropes that lent her some distance. Finally, we are on her level, listening to a woman in her early 30s openly questioning her decision to chase fame and fortune in lieu of stability and security. More so than the open nerve endings of Blue or the glistening Vantablack of Court and Spark's hedonistic palace, Hejira hits a peculiar existentialist dread that comes not from being alone but from being left alone, the party having been vacated long ago. In a body of work revered for documenting the mechanics of introspection, the album stands out for being as close to a meta-commentary as anything.

Take "Amelia", one of the record's more well-known cuts and a frequent live staple. Lyrically it's an outlier compared to other, more plainspoken narratives. Mitchell's extended metaphor between herself and the aviatrix isn't expressed outright, and instead, she circles around the point through a cryptic refrain and imagery pulled from the I Ching. Masterfully, she turns the jet trails she spots driving through the Arizona desert into a triple entendre that connects Earhart's doomed fate with her quest to stave off loneliness. The song is all unresolved chords, which is what makes the song slide off the ears on first listen (a critical problem in Mitchell's later records) but also what punctuates the image of Earhart suspended in air, unable to land safely.

Nowhere is this restlessness more evident than the gorgeous title track, which moves from one phrase to another as if each were granite road markers fading in the rearview mirror. Throughout, she bounces between one declaration and another, kicking up epiphanic dust trails even as she's unable to acquire it for herself. It's also one of her finest vocal performances, perhaps not from a technical standpoint but from a visceral one. Listen to how her voice closes in and retreats upon the ears, crying out in response to her penchant for flings and softening as her carnal preoccupations transition into landscapes and weather. There's an idiomatic line - "We're only particles of change, I know, I know," - that she reads with such striking poignancy, such inherent fatalism, it may stop you in your tracks. Even as the song fades out, it repeats two chords sourly as if the record were skipping, Pastorius' bass diving to hit the gut.

"Hejira" is yet another song in her oeuvre, like Blue's "The Last Time I Saw Richard" or Court and Spark's "Down to You", about Mitchell's relationship with romance itself. Unlike its predecessors, however, she tackles that relationship in a more spiritual context, examining the greater picture with wisdom and soft eyes rather than through the distorted lens of someone or something specific. It's a particularly strong example of Mitchell's concurrent journey to achieve something nourishing beyond the earthly success her career had afforded her. In Michelle Mercer's 2009 book Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, the songwriter described a meeting she held with Chögyam Trungpa, a famed Buddhist instructor, during her cross-country trip. The meeting imbued her with a rapturous, albeit cursory, sense of enlightenment that partly inspired Hejira's mindful explorations of her psyche.

Indeed, one of the album's most striking aspects is how Mitchell seems both ensconced in clarity and hopelessly directionless simultaneously. The stance she takes in "Coyote" is one of passing amusement at her lover's predicament. She confidently asserts no regrets for their affair and accepts her own tendency to chase easy fixes, declaring herself - in one of the record's best, densest lines - "a prisoner of the white lines of the freeway". Though she acknowledges the terms of her captivity, she comes across as someone at least comfortable with that fate. But as the record progresses, she leads us to question that self-assurance continually. The uneasiness of the record's floating chord patterns builds, while her rumination on past behaviors ("Amelia," "Black Crow") and future worries ("Furry Sings the Blues", "Song for Sharon") help deepen the shades of her portrait. "Black Crow" spells it out almost too obviously, for as the bird chases something shiny, Mitchell anxiously decries a musical life caught in "illumination/corruption and/diving, diving, diving, diving".

The final track, Hejira's most explicitly diaristic song, details the meeting that would result in her momentary state of enlightenment. Like everything before, "Refuge of the Roads" moves between chords like roadside scenery and ripples with Pastorius' roaming bass lines. Yet instead of passive amusement, we find Mitchell in a moment of vulnerability, holding back tears as she regards the difference between Trungpa's inner calm and her own turbulence. Some semblance of peace arrives, but the critical eye of the artist shoos it away. Soon Mitchell is back in motion, "running to lose the blues" as she passes by forests and beaches, unable (or unwilling) to achieve stillness. As she quietly regards a picture of the earth in a gas station (perhaps in that same red wig and sunglasses) on the song's final stanza, a question mark hangs over the acceptance she asserted so confidently on "Coyote." Is it truly acceptance, or just knowledge without power? By record's end, as a lone bass figure fades, we've borne witness to the cracks in Mitchell's facade and ultimately to someone far more human than myth.

"The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it," Mitchell told Mercer, echoing her own words from "Hejira". She's right, but her words have teeth in context. In that quote, she summoned the millions of individuals who lived vicariously through the tales of romance and heartbreak - the ones that defined her widely-accepted masterpiece - and the fact that the same people (and critics, especially) had turned away in droves from the series of knottier, jazzier records she released afterward. Mitchell seems to have internalized that reversal so heavily that she continues to vocalize her frustration at their misunderstandings well into the twenty-first century.

The tide may be turning. A typical Western adult in 1976, the kind entranced by "Song for Sharon's" window shop wedding dress, could fall upon the post-WWII template of success that Mitchell tried hard to circumvent. Everything that decorated the American Dream - the lucrative career, the spouse, the kids, the pet, the picket fence, the automobile - were attainable to at least a realistic degree.

In 2021, a new legion of young adults has had to redefine success now that late-stage capitalism has eroded that foundation. Instead of houses, we rent. Instead of careers, we gig. In place of old fallbacks like retirement savings and stable careers, we chase moments, friendships, social media followers, and pictures of us on vacation in exotic places.

Suddenly, Mitchell's circumstances have become many of ours by virtue of necessity. The peculiar sadness running underneath Hejira like a current, grounded in dissatisfaction and the addictive highs of applause, may hit more of us harder than it did back then. In an era when anyone can be famous - when anyone can hide behind the screen-name equivalent of a red wig and sunglasses and seek the cheap thrills of notoriety - melancholy loses such sublime comfort.

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.

Added to Library on November 25, 2021. (3019)


Log in to make a comment