We met the school library a little while back; there was another library which played a much more significant part in my life during the seventies, and introduced me to all sorts of music I might not otherwise ever have heard, including – and perhaps especially – Joni Mitchell.
I was brought up with the idea that going to the library on Saturday morning was part of the natural order of things – I remember going when we lived in Essex at the end of the sixties, and I know that joining the library was one of the first orders of business when we moved back to Aberdeen in 1970. At first, I concentrated on working my way steadily through the age-appropriate book section, and gradually moved on into the sections which contained books I probably didn’t entirely understand, but which fired my imagination – I met lots of classic science fiction in that library, but I also developed an enduring love for a great many authors – the first time I read Tin Drum, for example, was a copy from the Airyhall library, and I date my love of John Barth to a copy of Sabbatical I thought I would try one day.
All of which went out of focus a little the day I discovered that you could also borrow albums from the library. If I’m remembering correctly, records could only be borrowed for a week at a time, making the whole exercise somewhat more complicated than it otherwise should have been, but at that point I was perfectly happy to bike or even walk over and swap whatever I’d borrowed last week for something even more obscure and intriguing -looking. The selection must have been refreshed reasonably frequently – perhaps there was a central stock for all the city libraries which got rotated – I do know that new releases didn’t appear immediately; there was definitely a delay before you could get your hands on the very latest thing, but there was enough of a back catalogue that there was always something new to try.
As I recall, the record section was divided roughly into one third classical, one third jazz, and one third ‘popular’, which covered a wide range, naturally – there was a fair bit of “easy listening” among the ‘popular’ – and the selection wasn’t exactly aimed at the spotty teenager looking to hear the latest and most obscure music before it became famous. It did, however, contain enough music which, if it wasn’t already classic, was well on its way. I know I ran through various artists like John Lennon and Jackson Browne; Eric Clapton and Elton John, some of which I taped, and some of which I didn’t. Airyhall library is where I discovered that I preferred Frank Zappa to Captain Beefheart, and where I borrowed a copy of Weather Report’s Heavy Weather for the same reason I would eventually pick up a Joni Mitchell album.
I know my timings are off here, because I remember my first exposure to Joni being at the same time as I first heard Birdland from that Weather Report album, but since it came out in 1977, there may have been some separation between them. Either way, I know I first heard both of those in Mr. Dunbar’s drama classes, where we were occasionally expected to do movement exercises to pieces of music.
There’s a whole section here about my life in drama as a child, but I suspect it’ll have to wait for something which ties more closely to it.
Whatever my memory of it may be, I know for sure that we were required to do something to the accompaniment of Joni Mitchell singing Big Yellow Taxi, and being told that we perhaps weren’t quite ready for Joni Mitchell yet. Maybe some of my classmates weren’t (although I like to think we were a pretty sophisticated bunch), but on being told that I wasn’t ready for her, I had to hear more. The library had a copy of Ladies of the Canyon, and – I think – For the Roses, and I devoured those, but heard nothing else for a long time (as we’ll see, I was trying to cram in a lot of music in those years). It wasn’t until 1980 that I finally came across the album which turned me into a lifelong Joni devotee – the remarkable live album Shadows and Light.
There were songs on Shadows and Light which dumbfounded me in their simple complexity – raw emotions expressed in a line of poetry, and music which shimmered and weaved all over the melodies, so you often couldn’t be entirely sure what you had just heard, and had to go back for more. The fact that the jaw-dropping bass playing on it was by the same Jaco Pastorius who had startled me on Heavy Weather seemed somehow appropriate – it all tied together to a particular time and place in my life.
Further digging revealed that pretty much all of the songs I loved most from Shadows and Light (apart from The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, which can still render me speechless in its live incarnation) were from the same album, so I went out and bought it, and I’ve never been without a copy since.
Hejira is, on the surface, just another album by a singer-songwriter who has decided to augment her sound by bringing in some jazz musicians to play the music she could hear in her head. It’s just an album about being adrift and restless while travelling across the vast expanses of North America; it’s just an album about the fragility of relationships and what it means to be a woman in what was still very much a man’s world; it’s about how the present ties to the past in music in unexpected and inexplicable ways; it’s about old friendships and how they evolve; it’s about driving past a farmhouse, burning down in the middle of the night and being unable to change anything; about the remorselessness of the journey, the need to travel and keep moving; it’s…
It’s all of those things, and a thousand others, and it’s as much an experience as it is a physical object, and I love it to the point where putting that into words becomes almost impossible, and it’s an album which is part of me in a way which few others are.
It starts with the unmistakable sound of Pastorius’ “Bass of Doom”, turning Coyote from a simple tale of a one-night stand into something altogether more muscular and with an irresistible momentum. The story could be tawdry, but the combination of Mitchell’s irresistible voice and the sheer poetry of the thing turn it into something ineffably romantic and almost wistful – she knows it’s wrong, but it’s a moment suspended in time, and it’s all the fault of the freeway anyway.
Amelia spoke to me the moment I first heard it – I have always been drawn to the stories of those aviation pioneers, and of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson in particular – doing what they did on the same terms as the men who never did quite understand. Joni’s in the same mental space; doing what she does and demanding to be treated as an equal. The song conjures up the desert, and spaces which were entirely alien to me, but planted a longing in me to see them for myself. It’s also partly a meditation on some of her earlier songs – Both Sides Now and This Flight Tonight both make a subtle appearance as an older Joni takes stock.
Furry Sings the Blues is another masterful photograph of a time and place; the old man is clearly visible, propped up on his pillows in the corner of the room while Joni tries to figure out her place in all this musical history, while Neil Young blows his almost but not quite random harmonica over it all. The song is much more of a poem than the others here – it teeters on the edge of not scanning as the words assert themselves; not one of them wasted, or extra – just enough to paint the picture and no more.
Strange Boy has the same feel as Coyote in some ways, but is more personal, more of a rage at the situation; Joni having grown up and tried to move on, the strange boy steadfastly refusing to, with his skateboard and his obsession with his schooldays. He has always seemed to me a Vietnam victim, but I don’t know if he’s entirely fictional or not.
The title track is in many ways the peak and pivot of the album; the return of that bass, this time restrained and fluid, underpinning the song as it reviews all of what has gone before; the travel, the vague longings for some kind of change in her life, and the uncertainty of what that might be. All through the song, the bass grows and pushes out into the far corners of the soundscape, until, just before the fade, there is almost nothing else going on but Jaco’s experimenting. It sums up what’s been going on so far – there’s no chorus, no hummable hook, just a songwriter putting her soul on the page, and creating a soundscape to give the words room to breathe and explore.
For a long time, I had a theory that the first track on the second side of an album was the key to the whole thing. If that’s true in this case, this album is about being adrift in New York, which isn’t quite the case, but if you read New York as a symbol for the whole of the US, it works more. It’s a long meditation on the nature of love and ambition – Sharon, who had wanted to be a singer, ended up with the domestic life which Joni had wanted until she discovered she was a singer. Joni wonders about love and the nature of marriage (“the ceremony of bells and lace”) while wandering around New York; taking us with her on the ferries and showing us the skaters on the rink in Wollman Park. There are no answers, because this album is not about answers.
The Pastorius bass returns to propel Black Crow through all the various modes of transport and out the other side, to a place where we understand that thinking like the crow and being the crow are entirely different things; with a sigh, Joni turns back to the road, looking for a place to stay for the night…
The Blue Motel finally allows her to confess what she’s been skirting around all this time; for all the pain and loss, the inevitable heartbreak of the end of the affair, she’s lonely, and ready to try again just to see if it will numb the pain for a while. It’s a relaxed blues, played by musicians who just feel like hanging out in the groove and seeing where it takes them. Joni tells us she’s ready to give up the travelling, ready to settle down and put an end to all this.
And we don’t believe a word of it. The one song which musically breaks the otherwise fluid, restless feel of the album stands out because it’s not true – it doesn’t have the honesty of the others here; it’s whistling in the dark, and we know that because it’s not the final track.
Hejira ends the only way it possibly can; with a look back at the themes and motifs of the whole thing, and the return of the magical bass, which has underpinned everything important about the album, and acted like a musical highlighter to help us see what’s most important. Hejira is a journey of time, space and mind, and it was always coming to this – after considering all the options, Joni’s going to bow to the inevitable, get back in the car, and seek the Refuge of the Roads.
I’ve had to stop myself here; I could write a book about this album, and how it makes me feel; about how it was the only possible accompaniment to my own road trip across the US a couple of years ago; about how I only really understood it after having heard it on an actual road trip where the highway stretched out ahead of me, and there might well have been a farmhouse burning down, or a highway service station next to a blue motel. It’s at once timeless, and a snapshot of how things were in the mid 1970s; a story we can all relate to, and a story which only Joni Mitchell could have told; a songwriter’s plea to be understood and her desire to be cryptic.
And it couldn’t have been written by anyone else, or played by anyone else. It stands aside from the mass of confessional singer-songwriter albums which came along in the wake of Dylan; it stands aside from the wave of female singer-songwriter albums which followed Carole King and Tapestry; and I think it stands alone in the Mitchell catalogue, because it seems that it’s the one album where she put everything she knew into her work, and it came out exactly how she wanted it to. The fusion of these songs with these specific musicians created something untouchable.
I’m not making a list of my 60 favourite albums here, or the 60 best albums, but if I was, this would be pretty near the top of both those lists.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
That’s a hugely difficult question to answer. If you love this, the albums either side: The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter operate in a similar soundscape, although I think both are flawed in different ways. Blue is an essential album whatever else you may think of Joni, and Court and Spark isn’t far behind. All the early albums are in a similar idiom – Joni, her guitar and her songs – and if you like Blue, you’ll get something from almost all of them. All the later ones have things to recommend them – I love Wild Things Run Fast, for example – but you should be aware that the very Eighties production values haven’t aged as well as you might have hoped.
Compilations to consider?
Both Hits and Misses have much to recommend them as ways in if you don’t know her work at all. She also curated three compilations in 2004; The Beginning of Survival focuses entirely on her later work; Songs of a Prairie Girl is themed around her upbringing and her life, and Dreamland is a much more straightforward collection of her own favourite songs.
Well, yes – Shadows and Light (in its original LP form) is peerless, but so is the earlier Miles of Aisles. Both are highly recommended.
Her long-promised autobiography has never materialised; I hope it does, because hers is an extraordinary story. There are various books of paintings and poetry, all of which are worth your time and money; several more or less official biographies – the ones I’ve read all seem to miss the point somehow; I do think hers is a story only she can tell, but maybe the music has done that already.
Oh, and Shadows and Light is (or was) available on DVD. It’s as remarkable as the audio version, and you can see Jaco Pastorius at work alongside one of the few musicians who really gave him space to do his thing.