FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Younger Than Yesterday: Hejira

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Words: Dave Harding, Illustration: Craig Carry

There is the scene in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s 1978 movie about The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland Arena in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, where the members of The Band are asked to talk about women on the road. Richard Manuel is all too eager to talk about the subject, proclaiming “I love them…I just want to break even”, which brings the room down in laughter. Levon Helm is somewhat more subdued, telling Scorsese “I thought we were supposed to pan away from that sort of stuff” as he literally pans himself out of the picture frame.

Scorsese shows his cinematic genius by juxtaposing this scene with the following one, which is of Joni Mitchell walking onto the stage to perform a song with The Band. In a story-book night which saw The Band back up some of the biggest names from the magical days when Rock Music was at the forefront of youth culture, it is somewhat amazing that Mitchell is the only female to set foot on the stage. *1

Mitchell exchanges a quick kiss with guitarist Robbie Robertson, who had played on her Court and Spark record a few years earlier, then somewhat tentatively launches into ‘Coyote’, a song from her just released album Hejira. It is an extraordinary performance of the song.

Several members of The Band appear initially hesitant and somewhat unsure of where the song is going. On a night where The Band lived up to their legend and added to it with powerful performances of the blues and rock-oriented music with which they excelled, it takes them a little adjusting to get into the groove with this fairly straightforward country-folk song.

But there were a lot of factors at play. Except for their shared Canadian heritage (Mitchell grew up in the western province of Saskatchewan, while 4/5 of The Band hailed from Ontario in eastern Canada), Joni Mitchell and The Band had made names for themselves in vastly different ways.

The Band (then known as The Hawks) had come up playing the rough and tough rockabilly and blues circuit of Canada and the Eastern and Southern U.S., backing up singer and wild man Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins. The Hawks got their big break in 1965 when Bob Dylan called them up to back him on his legendary tours of 1965-66. They would go on to make a name for themselves as The Band, recording a string of classic rock albums on their own, while continuing to record and tour with Dylan on and off throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

Mitchell got her start on the folk circuits of Canada and the Northern U.S., writing folk classics that were made into hits by Judy Collins and others. She then established herself with the Laurel Canyon, California scene centered around Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She recorded a number of classic folk-oriented records in the late 60’s and early 70’s, before slowly moving toward a jazzier, slicker sound. By the 1976 ‘Last Waltz’ concert with The Band, she had decidedly moved away from her folk music past, and had created a jazz-folk genre unto her own.

I have seen Mitchell’s performance in ‘The Last Waltz’ many times, and I am always intrigued by bassist Rick Danko’s playing on the song. On a night where he seems ultra-confident and suave, on this song he seems unsure of himself and super-attentive to the chords that Mitchell is playing on her guitar. This is probably due to the fact that The Band had to learn many new songs by a variety of performers for just this one show, and I am sure that some songs slipped through the cracks. It probably didn’t help that ‘Coyote’ bounces along quite differently from the majority of the songs played that night. And the fact that Mitchell uses open tunings on her guitar probably did not help the situation either. Unlike the majority of rock-based songs that are written in standard guitar tuning, Mitchell is known for her use of a number of different guitar tunings.

I don’t know if Danko had heard the studio recording of ‘Coyote’, which features a stunning performance from legendary jazz-rock bassist Jaco Pastorious, but I somehow doubt it. *2

With all this going against them, the performers manage to pull off a classic rendition of the song. It takes a little while to get cooking, but Robertson plays some stunning atmospheric leads on his guitar, while Garth Hudson adds some beautiful keyboard work. On top of it all, Mitchell drives the song with her distinctive acoustic guitar and passionate reading of her lyrics. As the song takes shape, the viewer can see Mitchell’s composure and bravery grow, until by the end of the song she seems well in charge of this wild bunch of rock and roll hooligans.

The fact that the song seems to tell of an on-the-road, one night stand romance between two renegades only adds to the charisma and tension of the song. It seems to circle back to the earlier comments made by the members of The Band about women on the road. But ‘Coyote’ tells it from the woman’s point of view.

The lyrics and story of ‘Coyote’ are amazing. The first verse is more poetic and evocative than most songwriters can hope to achieve in their entire careers:

No regrets Coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studios

And you’re up early on your ranch

You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail

While the sun is ascending

And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel

There’s no comprehending

Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes

And the lips you can get

And still feel so alone

And still feel related

Like stations in some relay

You’re not a hit and run driver no no

Racing away

You just picked up a hitcher

A prisoner of the while lines of the freeway

Then follows three more verses of the same intensity, as Mitchell chronicles in detail the romantic ramblings of her ‘coyote’. No straight interpretation of the lyrics would do the song justice. It needs to be heard to be believed. The lyrics rise and tumble along in a whitewater rush of exuberance and regret, dancing in Mitchell’s playful delivery and peeking around the corners of the loping, prancing, prairie-jazz music. It’s hard to tell if the words are driving the music or vice versa, but the coyote spirit is everywhere in this song. It has an inward motion which seems alive, and is probably kicking up a cloud of dust somewhere on a backwoods trail at this very moment.

‘Coyote’  is the first song of Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira. The title of the album comes from the Arabic word ‘hijra’, which refers to the migration that Muhammad and his followers took from Mecca to Medina. Hejira definitely has a migratory feel to it, as most of the songs seem to be written from the point of view of someone in motion. Every song details some form of movement, most often chronicling a soul heading away from relationships or commitments, intent to live with the visions inside their head.

Mitchell wrote most of the record while on a long solo road trip across the U.S. There are also shades in some of the lyrics of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan’s legendary tour of 1975-76, in which Mitchell performed at a couple of concerts.

There are many references to travel and migration throughout Hejira. Here are a couple of examples:

In ‘Amelia’, Mitchell compares herself to the legendary aviator and explorer Amelia Earhart: ‘A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly’. The song also includes a couplet that any traveler can relate to: ‘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’.

In ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ Mitchell takes a trip in her shiny limo to the decaying storefronts of Beale Street in Memphis, where she sits at the feet of the old blues singer Furry Lewis. In the song, the wail of W.C. Handy’s trumpet is evoked by the lonely cry of Neil Young’s harmonica. *3

The title track of the record, ‘Hejira’, begins with the lines: ‘I’m traveling in some vehicle/ I’m sitting in some cafe/ A defector from the petty wars/ That shell shock love away/ There’s comfort in melancholy/ When there’s no need to explain’. She then proceeds to tell of leaving a relationship and how she needs to be free and self-contained, before admitting in the final two lines of the song: ‘A defector from the petty wars/ Until love sucks me back that way’.

The Hejira album continues with more songs of travel and heartache, before concluding with ‘Refuge of the Roads’ where Mitchell sits at the feet of Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He tells her that ‘Heart and humor and humility will lighten up your heavy load’, before she continues on her journey.

I assume that Mitchell got a kick out of finding a way for an inventive use of the standard rhyme ‘moon’ and ‘June’ during the last verse of ‘Refuge of the Road’. On an album full of poetic insight from a master at the top of her game, this couplet comes across like a little inside joke: ‘In a highway service station/Over the month of June/Was a photograph of the earth/Taken coming back from the moon’.

Hejira is a beautiful album. The sound and production is amazing; every instrument stands out and makes a statement. The instrumental sound is very sparse, as if Mitchell wanted to pull back from the more layered sound of her previous couple of albums. There are no keyboards on the record, a distinct change from other Joni Mitchell records.

Sonically, the album breathes between the interplay of Mitchell’s hollow body electric guitar strumming and the fretless glissando and harmonic-laden electric bass work of Jaco Pastorious. It often sounds as if the two of them are carrying on a musical conversation, creating little romantic musical asides that seem to remark on what is taking place in the songs. Pastorious’ bass is the main melodic instrument on Hejira. He rarely has to serve as part of a rhythm section, as there is not much straight drumming on the record. It seems fitting that he gets the last word on the album, as he plays a short filigree and then detunes his bass during the fadeout of the final track, ‘Refuge of the Roads’.

Other musical touches on the record include: when Mitchell compares the six white vapor trails of six jet planes to the ‘strings of my guitar’ in ‘Amelia’, there is a strumming ‘whoosh’ of an electric guitar which sounds heavenly. Larry Carlton’s guitar playing on this song has an icy, high-altitude pedal steel-like guitar sound to it.

‘Song For Sharon’ includes what sounds like a Greek Chorus commenting on the story, while ‘Black Crow’ has an angular folk-jazz feel and features Larry Carlton channeling Robert Fripp through his guitar.

The album is also nice to listen to as like an instrumental record. If you tune out the words that Mitchell is saying, and listen to her voice as another instrument, the record flows along like a dreamy, jazzy tone-poem.

Hejira is an album that slowly draws the listener in and then grabs hold of you, filling your dreams and thoughts with it’s music and words. I see it as akin to the landscape portraits that Mitchell is so fond of painting; an expanse of canvas that soothes you in it’s grandness, but over time small details of the painting come to life and become apparent. On the album, new melodic textures jump out at you, a lyric makes sense for the first time. This is impressionistic magic music of the highest order. Listen to it on headphones late at night, or on an early morning trip through fields and plains, and your life just might be changed a little bit.

Joni Mitchell has continued on to follow her art and her muse, releasing records and focusing on her art work. But for me, she was at the peak of her powers at the time she stepped onstage with The Band in 1976, singing the song of her ‘Coyote’.

Footnotes:

1. Several days after the concert, Martin Scorsese filmed The Band in a movie studio performing songs with Emmylou Harris and also The Staple Singers. The intent of this extra filming was to touch upon some musical styles that weren’t performed during the concert: country (‘Evangeline’ performed with Harris) and gospel (‘The Weight’ performed with The Staple Singers). Maybe subconsciously the makers of the film also felt that they needed to add some more performances by women in the movie. Whatever the motives, the performance of ‘The Weight’ with The Staple Singers is one of the highlights of The Last Waltz, if not of all of modern popular music.

2. I am pretty sure that Danko overdubbed some or all of his bass part in post-production. If you look closely at what he plays on his bass and what you hear, they do not always match up.

3. Mitchell performed ‘Furry Sings The Blues’ during The Last Waltz concert as a trio, with Young adding harmonica and Robertson on guitar. This song was not used in the movie, but later appeared on The Last Waltz soundtrack. Two other songs that Mitchell performed on at the concert, ‘Four Strong Winds’ and ‘Acadian Driftwood’ were not used in the movie. Mitchell did appear (as a somewhat ghostly apparition) performing on Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ adding a yearning falsetto harmony part.

All lyrics by Joni Mitchell, © 1976 Crazy Crow Music

Check out http://www.jonimitchell.com for the complete lyrics to all her songs, as well as videos from her performances at ‘The Last Waltz’, and just about anything else Joni-related you would hope to find.

© 2012 Dave Harding

Dave Harding is bass player in Portland, Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine. Their current album, ‘The High Country’ is the band’s tenth studio album and is yet another masterpiece from one of the most essential music acts today. Previous albums include ‘Post to Wire’ (2004), ‘The Fitzgerald’ (2005), and ‘Thirteen Cities’ (2007). Dave Harding has recorded two solo albums, ‘Across The Road’ (2007) and ‘You Came Through’ (2012).

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September 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm

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  1. […] Came Through’ (2012). (To read Dave’s other contributions for us, please see: here, here and […]


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