listening to joni: #8: hejira

Hejira, 1976

Front Cover
Photo by Norman Seeff; Frozen lake by Wisconsin.
Hejira snuck up on me.

I heard it was "wordy," "cold," and "cerebral" and that the music was "abstract". I didn't know what that meant, but it didn't seem good.

On the radio station I listened to as a teenager, one of the last holdouts of independent rock radio, "Song for Sharon" had heavy rotation. That's no surprise, as it's a thoroughly New York City song. I would hear it in the background, when I was driving or doing homework, and catch bits of lyrics: Staten Island, skyline, Bleecker Street, "eighteen bucks went up in smoke".

Then there was a video. No idea how or where I saw that, as MTV was still several years in the future, but the video of "Amelia" caught my imagination. Amelia Earhart is a lifelong fascination of mine; even at that age, I had a crush on her. Now it seemed that Joni, fascination numero uno, was also drawn to Earhart.

And then there was Joni's appearance in The Last Waltz. Both the movie and the music from The Last Waltz are indelibly important to me. At that "farewell" concert, Joni sang "Coyote". I didn't know the song yet, and I was... well, fascinated. (Before the song, Joni greets Robbie Robertson with a kiss... and a certain bell went off in my head. An a-ha moment in my life.)

Over time -- years and years -- I heard more and more from Hejira, and I grew to love it deeply. I have to be in the mood for it, of course. I liken it to Elvis Costello's album Blood and Chocolate -- very dense lyrically, a certain musical sameness to all the songs, incredible songwriting, and quirky. You have to be in the mood for a lot of words.

Image: Curtis Collects Vinyl
Skater: Toller Cranston
The story of how Joni wrote these songs is legendary among Joni fans, and it's difficult to say what really happened and what was embellished. You can read one version here on Wikipedia; another version is on the Joni Mitchell website from Uncut magazine.

More important to me is the deeply personal nature of these songs. We always hear that Blue is so deeply personal, how Joni bared her soul for that album. But the songs on Blue still tell stories that are also universal, or at least relateable for many people. The songs on Hejira are about a life that most listeners have not experienced -- a life on and of the road. In these songs, the road is both sanctuary and addiction. It's a place to hide and a route to self-discovery. If you think of your life as a journey, then the road can serve as metaphor. But for Joni, the road was both metaphor and reality.

As before, musical themes that were present on a previous record become dominant here. I wrote about the lack of instrument melody on Hissing -- that the melody is conveyed only by voice, and the music is rhythm only. On Hejira, Joni's guitar and the fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius form a kind of sprawling background rhythm, which Joni sings over.

This was the first time Joni worked with the legendary Pastorius. They formed a deep musical connection, and were very close friends until Jaco's terrible death in 1987.

I mentioned that I have to be in the mood to listen to Hejira. That is partly because I find the songs almost too sad to bear, especially "Amelia".
People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh, Amelia it was just a false alarm

I wish that he was here tonight
It's so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away
So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia it was just a false alarm
Where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm is sung with such pathos. You can hear regret, and longing, and tremendous sadness, and also acceptance. Now Joni has found what might be a paradise, but it is so cursed and charmed, that the man must beseech her to leave him alone.

And this cursed and charmed relationship hurts so much, it causes Joni to doubt all her past loves, too.
Maybe I've never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
Joni has "a dream to fly", but can only sleep on the "strange pillows of [her] wanderlust". The best songs on Hejira -- "Amelia," "Coyote," "Refuge of the Roads," and "Song for Sharon" --- are all about the love-vs-freedom conflict. This time out, it's a very sad tale.

"Furry Sings the Blues," about the dead remains of Beale Street, is also very good. The remaining songs are good, but second-tier for this album.

Bad critic comment of the album

Hejira received mixed reviews, and has since been called "an underappreciated masterpiece" by more than one writer. It's not surprising, though, that the big places that mattered most in terms of sales all hated it.

There are quite a few bad critic comments to choose from for this one. My picks for worst are tied: either this from the Village Voice --
Despite Joni Mitchell's reputation as a lyricist, the poetic element in her work has been a growing source of embarrassment to many listeners over the years. Less a measure of ignorance than of optimism, Mitchell's verbal pretensions are a product of her innocence -- an innocence that seems unwarranted by the crushed hopes her songs discern in everything from urban blight and stardom to motherhood and love.
-- or Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone, who dismisses the album in less than 150 words.

The album cover

Apparently some people find the photo of Joni on the front cover of Hejira pretentious. To me it's Joni as we find her: smoking, wearing a beret, looking at us with somber directness. The road is literally running through her.

The photo was taken by the South African-born photographer Norman Seeff. The background is a frozen lake in Wisconsin. On the Joni website, there are two articles from Wisconsin sources about this.

Many Joni fans have seen some of the photos of Joni skating in her black-crow garb, that were ultimately not used for the album cover. The skater on the inside cover is Toller Cranston, a Canadian Olympic figure skater.

The story of the album cover is here.

Cacti or stockings?

In "Amelia," Joni drives across the desert, then "pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust".

In "Song for Sharon," Joni remembers skating, wearing "mama's nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans".

Other musicians on this album

Bass, Max Bennett
Bass, Chuck Domanico
Bass, Jaco Pastorius
Clarinet, Abe Most
Drums, John Guerin
Guitar, Larry Carlton
Harmonica, Neil Young
Horns, Chuck Findley
Horns, Tom Scott
Percussion, Bobbye Hall
Vibes, Victor Feldman

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