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Running Away With Honor Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s Hejira Remains Her True Masterpiece 45 Years Later

by Vincent Arrieta
Dallas Observer
December 8, 2021

In 1976, Joni Mitchell ran away.

She ran away from everything - her home, her occupation, her partner, her lover, even her identity. Mitchell was experiencing an existential funk not unknown to many young people. Her relationship was crumbling under instability, and she had sought out the company of another. Things got complicated in her life and the music soon followed.

Forty-five years later, as Mitchell makes a rare public appearance accepting her Kennedy Center Award (which will be broadcast on Dec. 22), her album Hejira celebrates its 45th birthday. While Blue remains Mitchell's defining and most popular work, Hejira marks the high point of Mitchell's artistic output, showing her capacity for musical innovation and for expressing herself outside the lines of conventional folk/rock musical styles.

There is no other record that sounds like Hejira, not even in Mitchell's own discography.

“I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs," Mitchell once told Doug Fischer of the Ottawa Citizen. "But I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”

At the time of a commercial zenith, Mitchell found herself infatuated with the liquid freedom of jazz and grew increasingly dissatisfied with the musical limitations of her band, who were mainly session musicians accustomed to playing comparatively “square” rock and folk music. At the same time, Mitchell's romantic relationship with her drummer, Jon Guerin, was in shambles. In 1975, she joined Bob Dylan on his traveling rock 'n' roll circus Rolling Thunder Revue and found herself in a tumultuous affair with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/actor Sam Shepard. Out came a song, "Coyote," which would eventually end up as Hejira's opening track and impetus for her journey, marked with the lyric: "No regrets, coyote/We just come from such different sets of circumstance."

In early 1976, Mitchell's relationship with Guerin reached a breaking point, and her tour supporting her then-most recent record The Hissing of Summer Lawns was abandoned halfway through. This, along with Mitchell's growing musical frustrations and a burgeoning addiction to cocaine, caused her to hit the road.
She wasn't alone, however. Fleeing the concrete-ego-and-smog-jungle of Los Angeles for the foreign comforts of Maine, she brought along with her an ex-lover from Australia and a flight attendant in his 30s, who would inspire the lyrics of "A Strange Boy:" "Just when I think he’s foolish and childish/ And I want him to be manly/ I catch my fool and my child/ Needing love and understanding.../ We got high on travel/ And we got drunk on alcohol/ And on love, the strongest poison and medicine of all."

The trio traveled to Maine together, but Mitchell returned to Los Angeles alone, hugging the Gulf Coast and flirting with mystery in the American South. She donned wigs and went by fake names. In processing her situation, the wordsmith sought out a word that meant "running away with honor." Mitchell settled on hejira, Arabic for "departure" or "pilgrimage." She has said she had an aesthetic attraction to the word, "the hanging j, like 'Aja.'"

Upon her return to Earth, Mitchell cut the basic tracks of what would become Hejira and then embarked on a quest to find the right musicians to bring the songs to life. She immediately found a kindred spirit in Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, whose fretless playing and limitless intuition allowed Mitchell's music to express its road-weariness. On the title track alone, Mitchell overdubbed multiple guitar parts while Pastorius recorded four separate bass tracks for the song. Mitchell's famous use of alternate guitar tunings is on full display throughout Hejira, particularly on the title track, where her own electric guitar churns and mingles with Pastorius' bass, evoking the unpredictable beauty of a thundercloud and Mitchell's own state of mind.

Despite an obvious (and likely metaphorical) lack of drums on the majority of the record, the songs have a paradoxically peaceful yet kinetic energy, like the blurred images of mile markers and signposts zooming by a moving car while the horizon remains fixed.

That being said, there are drums on four of Hejira's nine tracks, all played by Guerin. While their personal and romantic relationship may have been on its deathbed, Mitchell had the prescience to realize that there likely weren't any other drummers who could bring percussive life to Mitchell's cloudy experiences like Guerin - they were simply too close, musically. Ironically, the songs on which Guerin is present are some of the most tranquil and stationary: "Furry Sings the Blues," "Song for Sharon," "Blue Motel Room," and "Refuge of the Roads." They all evoke a sonic sense of mindful presence, not motion.

Lyrically though, Mitchell is constantly in motion.

Despite the plethora of characters that grace Mitchell's travelogues across the album's 51 minutes, Hejira is a bible of loneliness, like Jake Barnes' banal, drunken nightlife in The Sun Also Rises, or Travis Bickle's personal apocalypse in Taxi Driver.

"Wondering" and "wandering" become synonyms. When she's lying in the bedsheets that give "Blue Motel Room" its name, Mitchell’s mind is in Los Angeles, wondering if her lover will in fact still love her when she returns. The album's only moment of grounded presence is her impressionistic depiction of Memphis' Beale Street under a state of imminent gentrification in "Furry Sings The Blues:" "Diamond boys and satin dolls/
Bourbon laughter, ghosts, history falls/ To parking lots and shopping malls/ As they tear down old Beale Street/ Old Furry sings the blues"

The one moment Mitchell is standing still, her environment betrays her in its own state of movement. It's easy to compare Hejira to another titanic singer-songwriter record released in the mid-’70s: Bob Dylan's Blood on The Tracks. But while Dylan attempts (and fails, thankfully) to keep his own emotional attachment to the songs at arms' length. Mitchell envelopes hers in her emotional state of mind, like the fur coat she wears on the album's cover, cigarette in hand, with the image of the road embedded as a part of her rather than serving as her backdrop. She's not on the road, she is the road.

While Blood on The Tracks tackles the end of a relationship with a kaleidoscope's worth of perspective and reasoning, Mitchell's entire point on Hejira is simple: One is responsible for their own feelings and decisions.

Mitchell's disposition is never romanticized in reveling in her sadness, but rather accepting that it is the inevitable result of her situation.

"There's comfort in melancholy," she sings on the title track. "When there's no need to express, it's just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today." Despite being the album's darkest emotional moment, its arguable centerpiece, "Hejira" is not a “sad” song. It's a song that reckons with its own existence, a snapshot of the lucidity that departs most people in the midst of emotional trauma. Every line is a burning ember of wisdom that most songwriters would kill to come up with once in their careers, such as: "I'm porous with travel fever, but you know I'm so glad to be on my own/ Still sometimes the touch of a stranger can set up trembling in my bones."

The song begins and ends with an inversion of the same lyric: "I'm traveling in some vehicle, sitting in some café, a defector from the petty wars that shell-shock love away."

By the time she comes to terms with the feelings she's feeling, Mitchell clarifies (or realizes) her intentions, and alters the song's final line, "Until love sucks me back that way."

She reuses this cyclical lyrical device on "Blue Motel Room," the most relaxed and tranquil of the songs on Hejira, evoking the torch songs that Mitchell would later tackle with orchestral lavishness in the twilight of her career. Amid imagery of her blue room and blue bedspread, Mitchell has the blues "inside and outside my head" and compares her quarrels with her lover to the Cold War: "You and me, we’re like America and Russia/ We’re always keeping score/ We’re always balancing the power/ And that can get to be a cold cold war/ We’re going to have to hold ourselves a peace talk/ In some neutral café/ You lay down your sneaking round the town honey/ And I’ll lay down the highway."

“My songs have always been more autobiographical than most people’s,” she told Fischer. “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]."

"Black Crow" remains the heaviest song in Mitchell's discography, sonically at least. It skirts hard rock with its aggressive rhythm guitar from Mitchell herself while Larry Carlton soars with burning David Gilmour-like leads and Pastorius' bass adds a bottom layer that transforms the song's identity - you know, like a bass player should. The trio is in lockstep, like three flags clinging to a flagpole in a gale. But on the recording, there's no flagpole; there are no drums on the track.

A startling majority of the record's real estate belongs to Side Two's opening and closing tracks. The former, "Song for Sharon," clocks in at over eight minutes and was inspired by a childhood friend of Mitchell's, who aspired to be a singer and ended up marrying a farmer instead. Mitchell, who as a child thought her destiny was to become a farmer's wife, ended up becoming a singer. According to biographer Sheila Weller, the song also makes reference to the dangers of marriage, in the form of an allusion to the suicide of Jackson Browne's wife, Phillis Major: "A woman I knew just drowned herself/ The well was deep and muddy/ She was just shaking off futility/ Or punishing somebody."

The album's closing track is effectively its thesis statement, all summed up in its title: "Refuge of the Roads."

Despite the plethora of characters who grace Mitchell's travelogues across the album's 51 minutes, Hejira is a bible of loneliness, like Jake Barnes' banal, drunken nightlife in The Sun Also Rises, or Travis Bickle's personal apocalypse in Taxi Driver. Mitchell claims that the album's songs could have only come from her, but the stories she tells are universal ones and provide “comfort’ to new icons such as Olivia Rodrigo.

While Mitchell's journey took her on embarkations of physical travel, the true nature of her own hejira was the fact that she was running away from herself. Across Hejira's 51 minutes, Joni Mitchell made peace with the fact that her closest love and only constant companion would be herself.

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Added to Library on December 9, 2021. (1461)

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