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Damariscotta Becomes Joni Mitchell's Mecca Print-ready version

by Brian Kevin
Down East (Maine)
June 12, 2018

A critical darling and one of music's most iconic road albums, Joni Mitchell's eighth studio record, Hejira, takes its title from the prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina. The record finds Mitchell dabbling in jazz - having "all but abandoned melodies anyone can whistle," as Rolling Stone put it - strewing imagery of roadside Americana amid romantic reflections on wanderlust, loneliness, and escape. It was inspired, Mitchell has said, by a quixotic cross-country road trip to and from the midcoast village of Damariscotta.

"The idea was cooked up on the beach at Neil Young's house," writes Mitchell biographer David Yaffe. A pair of Mitchell's acquaintances had stopped by - one was a flight attendant, the other a former boyfriend, an Australian on a temporary visa with a daughter living in coastal Maine. The Australian wanted to leave Los Angeles and drive 3,200 miles to retrieve his child from her mom's family. "We were going to kidnap this guy's daughter from the wicked grandmother," Mitchell told a radio interviewer years later. "We were just companions to his intent, you know? He was like the worried father driving to get - it was one of these custody battles, like you see these kids on milk cartons now." Mitchell and the flight attendant signed on for the trip, and Mitchell volunteered her car. If Neil Young was invited, he seems to have declined - perhaps wisely.

"I was driving without a driver's license," Mitchell told a reporter in 2006. "I had to stay behind truckers because they signal you when cops are ahead." The trio was hampered by breakdowns, and Mitchell - coming off a breakup and a turbulent tour - was trying, with mixed success, to kick a cocaine habit. She and her companions detoured through Ontario, arriving in Maine just after Easter.

What happened when they got to Damariscotta remains a mystery. (As one acquaintance told us, "I've been trying to get this story out of Joni for years.") All the songwriter has said is that she left her passengers in Maine following a fling with the airline steward - it inspired the album's song "Strange Boy," in which Mitchell describes their dalliance playing out in a stuffy New England B&B. She drove alone to Florida, using a wig and a fake name, then hung a right and made a slow trip home through the South and Southwest, writing songs as she went, finding solace in the miles. When it was time to name the album, Mitchell has said, she wanted something that implied an honorable escape from danger. Upon her return to California, she went straight into the studio - Maine and all she was escaping in her rear-view mirror. - B.K.

Editor's note: A reader writes to tell us she remembers staying at Newcastle's historic Newcastle Inn sometime in the mid-'70s and playing a piano in the inn's basement. The innkeeper, she says, mentioned a young musician from California named Joni Mitchell had recently been a guest and played the same piano. The lyrics of Mitchell's "Strange Boy" mention playing an old piano in an inn, "in a cellar full of antique dolls." Julie Bolthuis, the Newcastle Inn's current owner, confirms that a previous owner had and displayed an extensive doll collection.

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