Monday, March 01, 2010

No Regrets, Coyote: 2,717 Words on Joni Mitchell's Hejira

For yours truly, 2010 has been a year of candor. In this very blog, I've admitted to you my one flirtation with chicken gluttony. I owned up to wearing two right shoes and having a third right shoe close by as well. But today I'm dropping a big one. Get ready for this. This is something you didn't know about me. This is something you've never suspected. You'll never look at me in the same way again. Let's put this thing in bold all-caps blood-red: I AM A JONI MITCHELL FAN.

It's not that it's shocking that I'd like Joni Mitchell. She is, after all, a talented well-respected singer-songwriter with a history of writing and performing good songs. It's just that none of you have ever heard me mention her. It's not like I went on some anti-JM crusade, similar to what will befall another beloved Canadian in the next paragraph. No, I just never talked about her. Until now, Joni Mitchell, to me, seemed too daunting - her career too vast and varied, her Canadian-ness too authentic.

Robbie Robertson of The Band once said in a VH1 interview that Joni Mitchell is unchallenged as a songwriter. He then repeated the key word for effect. It went something like this: "Joni Mitchell is unchallenged as a songwriter. UN. CHALLENGED." *(yes - this asterisk refers to a footnote below. I'm bringing the footnotes back!)

Setting aside the debate about whether Robbie Robertson is a pompous blowhard OR a bombastic windbag, let's appreciate his enthusiasm and his good eye toward recognizing greatness.** (yep - another gratuitous footnote, one that allows me to continue my bizarre unrelated crusade against a beloved institution)

Instead of taking on Mitchell's long and impressive career (the daunting one I still kind of fear), I want to focus here on Hejira, her 1976 collection of sweeping epics set against a backdrop of a car trip she took by herself across America. Joni herself says Hejira is about "the sweet loneliness of solitary travel."

The loneliness may be sweet but she's not alone in her songs. She's singing to the important people in her life - the childhood friends from Western Canada who continue to live and love in the prairie. She's singing to the Laurel Canyon hippies who tried to break her heart but never got close. She's singing to her own future self, asking whether she'll die happy and alone in Malibu or Western Canada, blissfully unaware that her career sales will be high enough that she can have a home in both places! (And that's a stone cold miracle since she spent 17 years or so dabbling in something called jazz.)

(Before I continue, many many thanks to Eva for playing this album for me. Yes, it has had its effect on me.)

The Hejira trip must have been a doozy. If her lyrics are to be taken literally (and why wouldn't they?), Joni accomplished the following:

Song 1. COYOTE
1. Had a badass conversation with a coyote:
"No regrets, coyote, we just come from such different sets of circumstance."
YOU try saying that to a coyote.
Note: I get that the coyote is a man, that men are feral instinctual creatures, especially those Saskatchewanian lumber jacks, with their unruly uneven unrepentant sideburns and those Hollywood Hills hippie hangers-on, with their lack of watches and their scent of musk. In much of the song, the coyote is metaphor for "absent man / dead man." Now that I'm not coming back, who is there left to wait for?
Also, you wouldn't expect a real coyote (as in the animal) to be watching the waitress's legs while picking up Joni's scent on his fingers (another scene from the same song). Or maybe that's exactly what you'd expect of a coyote. Anyway, what I think happened is this: on a pine-scented hike through a rough hewn mountain glen in the American middle, Joni turns a corner by a bluff and comes to face to face with a real coyote. Real coyote's reaction reminds Joni of how a man would act - eyes fixed, ready to punce, wary of his rivals... when he should be wary of the blonde and her notebook and her proclivity toward flames.

Song 2. AMELIA
Stayed in a motel with an awesome name:
"I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust."

Holy crap - did she just effortlessly invoke and intertwine imagery of sleep AND movement into one line (the one that ends with wanderlust)? To my knowledge, there has not been a better description of the constant push-pull mental conflict that's the essential component of physical life.


Dressed down an old Memphis bluesman and simultaneously called middle class America for blindly adoring the blues while baldly living outside of it

"Cheap guitars, eye shades, and guns aimed at the hot blood of being no one."

Had sex with a skater boy, plying him with alcohol and jewelry:
"We were newly lovers then.
We were fire in the stiff-blue-haired-house-rules."

Song 5. HEJIRA
Admitted to herself and to us that she wasn't above falling in love or being loved but things just weren't working out, explaining her table for one=

"I'm traveling in some vehicle.
I'm sitting in some cafe.
A defector from the petty wars.
That shell-shock love away."

34 years later, she's still single. Those must have been some wars. That shell shock must be deep and forever echoing.

Went shopping for a mandolin and knew right away that the girls in New York, like the girls in Maidstone (Saskatchewan, Canada), like child Joni herself, had dreams of a wedding day

"I went to Staten Island to buy myself a mandolin.
And I saw the long white dress of love on a storefront mannequin......
Some girl's going to see that dress and crave that day like crazy."

"Long white dress of love" just kills me - in five words, Joni Mitchell captures the trivial commodity of the wedding day (because surely no white dress - no matter how long - can capture love) AND the sometimes-honoured hope for a love-filled life contained by the dress.***

Saw herself in the mirror. Wasn't happy with what she saw. Turned her gaze from mirror to window. And outside that window, she saw a black crow doing what she needed to do:.

"I looked at my haggard face in the bathroom light.
I looked out the window and I saw that ragged soul take flight."

Earlier, she schooled the coyote. Now, she learns from the crow. Fly, Mitchell, Fly! Yes, it's on to the next town, the next album, the next tour for Joni. Also, haggard AND ragged - impressive... not as easy as it looks.

Remembered - while in rainy Savannah - that she eventually will be going back home to Los Angeles:

"Will you still love me when I call you up when I get back to town?
I know that you've got all those pretty girls coming on
Hanging on to your boom-boom-pachyderm."

I don't know what she's talking about here but whatever it is, it's pretty filthy and "boom-boom-pachyderm" is the clearly the best descriptor for it. And Boom-Boom-Pachyderm is totally going to be my next band name (with both hyphens, the way Joni wants it),

Summed her journey up with a light-and-lovely turned dark-and-desolate centerpiece of a song (the centerpiece appearing at the very end of the album ofcourse):
"I fell in with some drifters cast upon a beach town ......
There was spring along the ditches.
There were good times in the cities
A thunderhead of judgment was gathering in my gaze.
And it made most people nervous.
They just didn't want to know."

So she may have had some good times, made some revelations, and written some songs that'll soon sound perfect in the studio with Jaco and Larry and the guys. But it hasn't been easy. This was not a hedonistic romp across America. This was self-discovery, with some corrupting sex along the way.

And in the album's final final words, Joni Mitchell becomes the first person to ever use the carrying-baggage-as-carrying-emotion metaphor and though that particular device is currently on Language Death Row, scheduled to be executed by seven dead poets and a sexy librarian, it must have sounded revelatory and fresh when she, in 1976, worked said metaphor in at the end, right after singing of the earth as it looked from the moon this way:
"And you couldn't see a city on that marbled bowling ball.
Or a forest or a highway or me here least of all.
You couldn't see these cold water restrooms.
Or this baggage overload, westbound and rolling
Taking refuge in the roads."

Let's see: she's taken on a coyote, a ragged crow, an old cranky bluesman, the institution of marriage, drifters, her own regrets, her real longings, her distant past, her near future (b.b. pachyderm).... she's watched a boy on a skateboard and remembered a girl (herself) on roller skates.... she's addressed the moon and New York City.... she's gone walking in Memphis and has her sights on doing the same in L.A. though it's been said no one does this.

She's written 9 songs, each of them with at least one - and, in most cases, several - awe-generating moments... 9 songs - 6 of them brilliant, 2 of them good, and Furry Sings the Blues. I've focused on the stories and the lyrics but don't forget the undulating melodies, curved basslines, and plucky starbursts of guitars. Ms. Mitchell and her band of crackerjack ace session men set a standard here that none of her jaded, faded peers could touch. I've never heard a set of songs that sounded anything like Hejira. Okay I tried to avoid it but in the end I could no longer hold in my desire to use sinewy and sinuous in the same sentence as I described Hejira. Get ready. Joni Mitchell's sinuous melodies wind their way around her personal planets of primal urging men whose muscled thrust gets postponed by the singer's sinewy forces of resistance. Thank you.

And in 1976, while I was getting acclimated to the seventh and last family move of my childhood/adolescence I was not yet ready for Ms. Mitchell. Sure I was a precocious kid who understood what Steely Dan really were singing about and knew that Bruce Springsteen was way more wild than innocent. But I was not yet ready for Hejira, for Joni, for one of the greatest batches of insightful, tough, tender, and honest songs ever recorded.

In fact, given that I had never listened to more than one or two Joni Mitchell songs at a time prior to the autumn of 2009 and never wrote about her until this afternoon, you could say I spent a long time not being ready. Maybe I was afraid. She confronted a coyote!

Someone should write a screenplay about that cross-country trip from the middle-70s. Eleanor Friedberger could dye her hair (again) and play Joni Mitchell. I'll play a composite of the love interests. Call the composite Leonard Pachyderm Crosby Taylor Nash Young Skater.  

Hejira - named for Muhammed's journey (which is ballsy in itself) - would work well as a film. Her original Atlantic to Pacific route - from Maine to Los Angeles via Madison easily works as a framing device, the American west opening its vistas and warming our heroine as she leaves behind the beautiful lakes and strange one-night-lovers of the east and middle. Still, there's conflict as the California looms ever closer and 3/4 of CSNY fights for her love and she just smirks at their foolhardiness. She's way past the rock musicians... she likes the jazz cats.

Okay I'm losing my thesis here. Back to Hejira - such  an ambitious and timeless album, rich with moody songs about traveling on the road - not as a touring musician but as a musical tourist, searching for poetic adventure and studiously avoiding romantic love (and being steeped in both).

In particular, her troika of one-word six-letter songs - Coyote, Amelia, and Hejira - add up to  as 17+ perfect minutes of music, with lyrics and a voice that show a brave honest woman revealing sad/funny/momentous tenderness. The baring of her soul is set to some truly weird melodies unlike those of anyone I've ever heard. It's a rare document of a particular time and place (the American road and its motels and busted cities... the mid-70s) and a particularly ambitious personal mission (to look love right in its coyote eyes, to receive the consequences, and to emerge on the other side scarred, stronger, truer). These are great heights to reach and Hejira reached them. And I can't think of anything else from that era that comes close. Could it be that Joni was unchallenged? UN  CHALLENGED?
Indented Aside to Jason:
Hey Jason - I don't know if you know this but the lake that Joni is standing in front of on the album cover,**** that's Lake Mendota in Madison! Which of course is the last place I saw you and the rest of the Butlers. And the second song is called Amelia. Wait a second... are you and M closet Mitchell fans? I knew you guyes were hippies!
Indented Aside to everyone other than Jason:
Jason is being rewarded with a personal aside because Jason regularly leaves COMMENTS at this very blog.
Oh so you want to listen to the album? For free? No, you'll just get a taste here. Go to lala for one free listen to each song

Song 6: Song for Sharon (2 more songs can be found way down below):

*Technically, Robbie is wrong. Joni has been challenged; it's just that her challenders can't come close to what she's putting out there. This includes YOU, Robertson. I bought your solo album in '87 and over-listened to it, hoping it would inspire me. It inspired me inspired me to perform excited impressions of Sammy Llanas, the BoDean you employed as background singer on the Crazy River song. God, I love making fun of that song. "Somewhere down tha crazy riv-ah." Damn, Sammy could (can) sing. Wait, where was I? Do I have a fishing rod around here? Found one. (I'm reeeeling it in...)

**I'm also setting aside the fact that The Band is an absurdly overrated "band" oddly worshiped by critics mostly because of the house one of them lived in, once.

***Honoured is spelled the Canadian way. Both for Joni and for Canada winning the gold medal hockey game yesterday. You guys earned it. Just don't get too cocky. You've had a good run - Cohen, Mitchell, Young, Gretzky, S. Crosby, Crash Test Dummies, M.J. Fox. But that doesn't mean I'll ever listen to more than 10 seconds of As It Happens. And, in my description, the dress contains the hope, not the life.

****You know - the album cover with its photo of Joni and the vagina highway and the cloud-boobs:

And for making it this far, here are great live versions of Coyote (from The Last Waltz, with The Band featuring Robbie Rob... okay they're a pretty badass band) and Amelia. The Coyote video is from 1978. The Amelia is from late 1998 in Los Angeles. Joni is older here but still has a presence - a jarringly different yet lovely presence.)

The latter video - Amelia - is ostensibly about Amelia Earhart but really the disappeared pilot acts as J.M.'s invisible travel companion for now... before Joni gets used to - and relishes - the idea of traveling alone. Note: Mitchell is stunning in the photos of her between shown between the 4:55 and 5:00 mark of Amelia.

And If you've ever wondered if you can tell the difference between a youtube video of a film made by a genius of the visual arts and a youtube video made by a "regular person," here's the perfect opportunity for a systematic comparison: Coyote (directed by Martin
Scorsese) vs.

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