Joni Mitchell

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 9, 2014

Album #8 in Joni Mitchell's discography, Hejira - a title that had both reviewers and fans reach for their dictionaries - was released in November, 1976. Reviews were for the most part quite favourable, though some appeared to display a cautious tone. As it's to be expected in such cases, there were those who remained unconvinced. John Rockwell, a heavyweight from The New York Times, expressed his great joy in a review titled "Joni Mitchell Recaptures Her Gift". On the Pacific side, Robert Hilburn - the Los Angeles Times pop critic - showed what could only be defined as "his qualified enthusiasm" in a review titled "Mitchell Misses Her Own Mark". Ariel Swartley wrote a laudatory review in the most influential music magazine of the time, Rolling Stone, under the title "The Siren And The Symbolist". Joni Mitchell's cultural status at the time is clearly shown by a bizarre put-down which appeared in the New York weekly The Village Voice, where Perry Meisel conducted a hard-to-grasp, kind-of post-modern analysis under the transparent title "An End To Innocence: How Joni Mitchell Fails" (2,500 words!, those being the days). Most critics appeared to find the same faults: "the album is too introspective- and sparse-sounding - and, by the way, what happened to those melodies?". Which in a way can only mean: "Why Joni Mitchell is not the same person she was before?". In fact, the tacit subtext to much critical debate about Hejira can be summed up as: "Well, at least she didn't give us another The Hissing Of Summer Lawns! But if she's not capable of making another Court And Spark, why can't she at least make another Blue?".

Let's not forget that five years earlier Blue had been universally acclaimed as a masterpiece of modern music - at least, in the "singer/songwriter dept.". While two years earlier the joyous, communicative Court And Spark appeared to embody the moment when Joni Mitchell and the American public appeared to share the same wavelength. A critic notoriously hard-to-please, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone declared that the accessibility of Court And Spark did not appear to negate its authorial depth in a review titled "A Delicate Balance". Alas!, the following year Joni Mitchell released The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, an album that proved to be not as user-friendly as Court And Spark, and whose lyrics were remarkably different from her usual topics of choice. The album was not really that difficult- or introverted-sounding - at least, when listened to side-by-side with an album such as Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan; unfortunately, it kept being compared with those recent releases by such singers as Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and... Joni Mitchell. The "singability" of the songs on that album was also called into question, even by a critic usually acute as Stephen Holden, who in his Rolling Stone review wrote: "If The Hissing Of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of."

And so, for a whole series of different reasons, Hejira was regarded as representing a "going back" of sorts to the artistic dimension which was considered to be "the best one" for somebody who, like Joni Mitchell, was "just a self-taught musician": the "girl with guitar". When the following year Joni Mitchell declared her intention to carry on her experimentation in music by releasing an album as boldly unconventional as Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, there was no mercy: check the review written by Janet Maslin which appeared in Rolling Stone under the eloquent title "Joni Mitchell's Reckless And Shapeless 'Daughter'". Two years later, Joni Mitchell's collaboration with Charles Mingus was filed under "Jazz" (and people like Leonard Feather were not really ready to take somebody who was "just a self-taught folk-pop musician" very seriously...).

Hejira is the album that signals the moment when Joni Mitchell's albums stop selling in great quantities. Though widely panned, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns had sold on the strength of Court And Spark's popularity. While, though quite favourably greeted by the press, Hejira appeared at a time when people had stopped trusting the singer unconditionally.

When Joni Mitchell's first album, simply titled Joni Mitchell (1968), was released, she was already a kind of celebrity in the "folk-houses" circuit, even though she had never recorded under her own name. It was thanks to those covers of her songs by such artists as George Hamilton, Tom Rush, and Judy Collins - songs such as Chelsea Morning, The Circle Game, and Both Sides, Now, which became a big hit for Judy Collins - that her name began to circulate. She immediately proved to be an independent spirit by signing a contract that gave her full possession of her songwriting and that made it possible for her to produce her own records without outside interference (it has to be noted that her 70s albums benefited from the contribution of somebody who was much more than a mere "sound engineer": Henry Lewy), her independence in the recording studio starting from the day when David Crosby gave her a great present by producing her debut album, so making it impossible for others to "dress" her songs in the "folk-rock" vein that was all the rage at the time, but which would have sounded quite dated in a very short while.

Joni Mitchell then recorded her acclaimed second album, Clouds (1969). Then, Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), her first fully mature work; among many gems, the album features her classic composition Big Yellow Taxi, whose ecology-themed lyrics can be found in many school texts; and Woodstock, one of the most famous songs of the era, whose electric arrangement became a hit single for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and which is still one of the flagship songs of that time.

While Ladies Of The Canyon saw Mitchell's horizons getting wider, Blue (1971) was her undisputed classic. Let's not forget that "a Joni Mitchell type" was at the time a cultural signifier in the United States. For The Roses (1972) saw her thematic and instrumental palette getting wider, making it apparent that her piano playing had reached a very high point. Featuring the hits Help Me and Free Man In Paris, Court And Spark (1974) was her big commercial success, the album that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, at the time at the top of their fame as front-men in Led Zeppelin, publicly lauded.

At about 52', Hejira must have proved to be a difficult album to master in its original vinyl format, even though listening to an original US pressing mastered by Bernie Grundman proves that the great mastering engineer made great work. Closing track on Side One, Hejira (the song) is bound to suffer from the inevitable "inner groove distortion". While the background noise that's inherent to the vinyl medium will make it difficult for listeners raised in the digital age to enjoy the music without having their attention distracted by hiss and squeaks.

The digital master made by Stephen Innocenzi at the Atlantic Studios which I first found on CD at the end of the 80s - and which I regard as being the same digital master of all editions I've listened to, up to the box set which came out about two years ago - has always appeared to me as a great compromise. The lack of background noise, the fact of the dynamics not being as squashed, the clean sound, are all obvious pluses. Besides, the CD format doesn't suffer from the excessive length of the album, which caused the LP sound level to be quite muted, with obvious consequences.

I've always thought the original vinyl edition to possess a great-sounding tonal colour - all other things being equal, of course, which I know is a hard condition to satisfy! It goes without saying that those who like to investigate the many instrumental nuances that appear on the album will have to look for the CD (though - quite strange, this - to me the ride cymbal played brushes on Song For Sharon has always sounded as having more three-dimensionality when listened to on the original vinyl version). But I'm afraid that those who regard Hejira as a cold, introverted, album will see their suspicions confirmed when listening to the album on CD: compared to the LP, Mitchell's vocals appear more in close-up, while the instrumental background appears to be split on the left-right axis, diminishing the feeling of listening to a "whole" that's proper to the original LP edition. But if one considers Hejira as a  "road album" which inhabits open spaces one has to conclude that the CD version is the "ideal" one when it comes to the album's aesthetics.

Had Hejira been a hit album by a famous group - which in commercial terms is exactly what it is: a gold album, coming after more gold albums, and two hit singles - today there'd be a DVD-V in the Classic Albums series to tell us all about it. Or at least, a long, quite detailed article in a specialized magazine. But there's no such title - and sometimes I even think that maybe it's better this way, since I'm ready to bet that when it comes to Joni Mitchell it would be her love affairs that would take center stage, not the music.

Hejira features many great instrumental moments, all clearly presented. Joni Mitchell's guitars, of course, which act as the album's main propulsion. It's only logic that the tales would suffer from a too "strict" rhythm section, hence the colourist role played by percussionist Bobbye Hall. Max Bennett and John Guerin - Mitchell's usual rhythm section at the time - only appear on two tracks. Sure, there's compression applied, but Bennett's performance on bass - check his attack and release - is a textbook on how to give variety and forward motion to a song like Furry Sings The Blues, that - like others on the album - is quite cyclical (here Neil Young appears on harmonica); listen to the way John Guerin uses the bass drum and the hi-hat accents to stress the line "Dancing it up and making deals". And check the work of the rhythm section in the long - and once upon a time, legendary - track Song For Sharon.

The album features careful orchestration: check the brief featured clarinet part - just a few seconds! - by Abe Most on Hejira; and Chuck Findley and Tom Scott on winds - respectively, on trumpet and saxophone - on Refuge Of The Roads. But the most impressive instrumental work is by Larry Carlton. It's a quite different work from the one he's called to perform on Steely Dan's The Royal Scam, and also from his role on Joni Mitchell's previous albums. Hejira's lean instrumentation puts Carlton in a very risky position: to offer colours, and comment. Here "Mr. 335" (from the name of the Gibson model he favoured at the time)/"Bendo" (for his masterful "bending" the strings) rises up to the challenge. Just two for instances. On Amelia, the "bending" at the line "A ghost of aviation", and the harmonics arpeggio at the end of the song, which create a bridge with Victor Feldman's vibes. On Strange Boy, the "bend" after "We got high on alcohol", and the "steel guitar" (here, as elsewhere on the album, Carlton's use of the volume pedal is simply magisterial) in response to "See how that feeling comes and goes/Like the pull of moon on tides".

But the real innovation when it comes to Hejira's instrumental side is the fretless electric bass played by Jaco Pastorius, about to become a star thanks to his collaboration with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell herself, on record and on stage. Opinions are bound to differ, of course. Those who are inclined to see his contribution as peerless regardless of circumstances, will not consider as "disruptive" those moments where Pastorius behaves like the proverbial "bull in a china shop". I've always considered those moments on Hejira where Pastorius gives propulsion - opening track Coyote, and Black Crow, an almost-"Bo Diddley beat" featuring Larry Carlton on lead guitar - as his best contribution on the album. While I have to confess that - about forty years after the album release - I still find quite weird those moments where his bass adds a melodic and harmonic counterpoint, like a saxophone: Hejira and Refuge Of The  Roads.

Sounding like the fruit of an overdubbing session, Pastorius instrumental contribution to the album is part of that "fog" that surrounds the album's (pre)production stage: Though the end result is quite clear, what happened before is not always so clear (but I can't claim any familiarity with those books written about Pastorius). I've never been able to hear Carlton's "lead guitar" on Coyote, though the album's liner notes tell me he's featured on that track (to me those harmonics sound as coming from the electric bass). While I've always been able to hear his lead guitar on Hejira, after the line "Between the forceps and the stone", and at the end.

What can be said about Joni Mitchell, singer? Check this out: The way on Song For Sharon she sings the word "dreams" in the line "Chasing dreams", elongating the "e" in "dreams" to signify the bigness of dreams and the (ex post) sad knowledge of their nebulousness. But already the following line breathes a different air, with the sense of humor and the funny way those "cowgirl jeans" end the line "Mama's nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans".

It's quite obvious to me that the words "deeply analytical" perfectly represent Joni Mitchell's attitude when it comes to her composing music and lyrics, also the way she relates to reality and the way she deals with the world. It's a strong passion for "objective" knowledge of the kind that has sunk very strong personalities, but Joni Mitchell has always shown a strong appetite for life, something which has acted as a counterbalance. (I hope readers will forgive me for indulging a cheap psychological explanation which makes me trace the origin of this appetite in that serious form of polio that saw the young Joni Mitchell stay in a hospital bed and which for a moment appeared to deny her the promise of a full life.)

But I have to admit that it was precisely that appetite for life that had Joni Mitchell traveling on very uncomfortable roads. Among them, her participation to Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, a mid-70s tour that gave a lot of material to the movie Renaldo and Clara. But - though footage was shot - Joni Mitchell preferred not to appear.

So Mitchell's "travel", her "peregrination" through the United States which is the basis to Hejira - meaning both the themes, and the circumstances - can be seen as her need for clean air, and solitude, a word which here also means "not being recognized", not necessarily "being physically alone".

It goes without saying that facts and one's reflecting on them go hand-in-hand. Coyote is the chance meeting of two different worlds. Amelia a meditation on solitude which looks in the direction of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Furry Sings the Blues a hard confrontation with a dimension of poverty and decay. A Strange Boy the examination of a personality. Hejira a meditation on one's own condition. Song For Sharon the funny, bitter ponderation of two trajectories whose end position is the opposite of what could have been reasonably assumed at the start. Black Crow the bitterness one feels when looking at one's life. Just like a film slice, Blue Motel Room - a song that starting with day one has always sharply divided Mitchell's fans - deals with the same stuff, but with a lighter tone. Last track on the album, Refuge Of The Roads somehow manages to find peace in the Zen-like framework where the individual finds his/her proper place.

Beppe Colli 2014 | Nov. 9, 2014