There are three artists in the history of pop and rock who can truly claim to have changed not just what music sounds like, but the very sense of what it means for something to be a song—The Beatles (taken as one), Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.
The Beatles in general provided a prototype for the ideal rock band, one in which each member and his or her personality contributes something irreplaceable to the band. People make fun of Ringo, but every time you point out a cool drum part in a song you like, you are doing something that might not have been historically possible without him.
Bob Dylan’s contribution goes without saying (though his musical achievements tend to be quite underrated)—he brought a kind of visionary, poetic sensibility to popular music that can still be felt and heard to this day. He also gave us a model for the enigmatic, elusive songwriter, one hiding in plain sight, one whose art is supposed to speak in his stead.
What of Joni Mitchell, then? I would say that, more than anyone, she gave us a sense for what it might look like for a songwriter to be an artist. Her influence is immense, and the legacy of her music can be heard well beyond the genres in which she worked, from Bjork to Kanye West (seriously, some of the songs on The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter sound like they should be sampled on The Life of Pablo).
When I was younger, Ladies of the Canyon was by far one of the most played albums around the house. Weirdly, though it is by all accounts overshadowed by its follow-up, the landmark Blue, I still don’t feel like I have gotten “inside” the latteras much as its predecessor. Blue has the portent of a Leonard Cohen album; Ladies of the Canyon feels somehow less serious but just as personal—it isn't enough of a masterpiece to have become everyone's property.
Though certain songs on Ladies are fodder for Mitchell’s detractors (“Morning Morgantown,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “The Circle Game” are all a bit trite, even to me), it otherwise contains some of her best songs, as far as I’m concerned, especially the piano-driven ones—“For Free,” “Willy,” “Rainy Night House,” and “Blue Boy” are all songs most songwriters would kill to have written.
So I grew up on Joni Mitchell, in a way, and had heard most of her classic late 60s, early-to-mid-70s material by the time I came of age. I liked most of it, even developing a penchant for Court and Spark (one of Prince’s favorite albums), whose arrangements I had first found irritating, though I could listen to the one-two punch of “People’s Parties" and "Same Situation” all day long.
It wasn’t until I saw The Last Waltz that I really fell for her music. I remember how, amidst all the machismo of that movie, suddenly, a demure, bucktoothed figure emerges and, without any fanfare, starts playing.
My first thought was this—what chords is she playing? The placement of her fingers seemed to have no correlation to what I was hearing (needless to say, I didn’t know of CGDFCE tuning), a shuffling alternation of chords conjuring an expanse far beyond my ken.
And the first line! “No regrets, coyote—we just come from such different sets of circumstance…”
This was just about the most badass thing I had seen or heard outside of rap music. Who starts a song like that? But there was no time to think, because more and more words were tumbling out, faster than I could hear them—“brood mare’s tail,” “reel-to-reel,” “stations in some relay,” “hit-and-run driver”—what!? More chords followed, chords I tried to replicate, to somewhat pathetic results.
Finally, what seemed like a little break, a little suspension, and the line—“you just picked up a hitcher/a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway,” and the opening chords return, which you now realize were an anticipation of the chorus. But I digress.
What struck me most about that performance was that, when she was onstage, the members of The Band, for whom the performance and film was supposed to be a kind of apotheosis, looked like children. Even when Van Morrison is onstage (which I think is the best performance of the film), there is no such disparity. Joni Mitchell, in short, seemed to me a kind of giant.
Hejira is the spiritual travelogue of that giant. On the cover of the album, a cloaked, smoking Mitchell literally contains the highway within her black figure, the clouds seeming to waft from her cigarette. The title, quoth Wikipedia, “is a transliteration of the Arabic word ‘hijra’, which means ‘journey’”—for a long time, I resisted learning what it actually meant, as though to do so would break some of its incantatory power.
The backstory is well-known—at a time of personal turmoil, Mitchell took various trips, first with Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue, then an aborted tour, then road trips from Los Angeles to Maine (in company) and down to Florida and back to California (by herself), writing these songs wherever she could. All the songs have certain biographical elements that are easy enough to find out online; they are interesting gossip, but do not add much to one’s listening experience.
“Coyote” is the opener, which is what led me to the album. I was relieved to find that it sounded even better on record, and was exhilarated (as I’m sure all first-time listeners are) by the bass sound, courtesy of none other than Jaco Pastorius, who plays on half of the album. That song and others feature his inimitable harmonics, exploding delicately in the background like miniature fireworks.
The whole album has that wide-open feeling I was describing, aided by Mitchell’s open-tunings and the clean, restrained playing of the band, which featured jazz musicians and some of the best session players around like guitarist Larry Carlton, bass player Max Bennett, and drummer John Guerin, among others.
One of the many strengths of Hejira is that it shows off Mitchell's gift for opening lines.
The start of "Amelia," perhaps the most striking song of the album, is a wonder--
"I was driving across the burning desert when I spotted six jet planes leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain.
It was the hexagram of the heavens it was the strings of my guitar. Amelia, it was just a false alarm."
"A strange boy is weaving a course of grace of havoc on a yellow skateboard through midday sidewalk traffic."
"I went to Staten Island to buy myself a mandolin and I saw the long white dress of love on a storefront mannequin."
One could go on and on. Mitchell's lyrics are, as with the best writing, vulnerable, daring, and self-obsessed. It is the mark of a great artist that the opportunity to spend time in their mind is something to which you gleefully surrender.
Hejira has the distinction of being, in a sense, a chorus-less album. Every song has a chorus, technically, a phrase repeated from time to time to punctuate the spaces between the verses, echoed by the repetition of a musical part, as with "Coyote." You have the sense that if you mentioned one of its songs and someone asked, "how does that one go?" you'd have to sing the whole thing to answer the question.
The only weak spot, to my ears, is "Black Crow," not so much for the song, but for the performance, which has a jarring urgency that doesn't sit well with the rest of the album, and with the melody, which has a willful dissonance that seems digressive compared to what surrounds it. The song that follows, "Blue Motel Room," also strikes me as relatively weaker than other songs—I've never enjoyed the songs where Joni Mitchell goes out of her way to show off her jazz-vocal chops.
Nonetheless, the album stands alone in her discography. The title itself is a kind of calling-card among Mitchell fans—you're either in the Hejira club or you're not, the way that the so-called "Berlin trilogy" serves as a dividing line amongst Bowie enthusiasts.
To conclude, it is a little sad to write about how great Joni Mitchell is because, though she's still alive, her musical career is clearly over and has been for quite some time (her last "real" album was Taming the Tiger from 1998). Nonetheless, it seems worth writing about her because, among the Olympians, she is one of the most underrated.
I don't know how else to end, in this case, except with a clip of a performance from 1983, my favorite of hers I've found. I don't know what you hear, but I hear lots of genres at once—folk, rock, pop, jazz, and punk rolled into one.
I doubt there will be much fanfare when Ms. Mitchell passes, but if any music has a chance of surviving well into future centuries, it's hers—until proven wrong, my money's on Joni.