My road to Joni Mitchell began from an unlikely place - Rick Ocasek of The Cars. Back in the early nineteen-eighties, Rolling Stone magazine would do these little cut outs of what musician were listening to at the moment, which was like an early version of this whole playlist phenomenon. Amidst all the garbage from the likes of Sammy Hagar and Bonnie Tyler, there was this really cool, obscure little list by Ocasek which included the album Blue, by Joni Mitchell. I didn't much like The Cars, but was really impressed by his list.
Up to that point I was only familiar with Joni through songs on the radio and Court and Spark which my buddy The Doctor inherited from his sister and would sometimes play while we were hanging out in his room instead of doing our Chemistry homework.
Unlike most of us who were occupied with the flavor of the day - Queen, Fleetwood Mac and the like, The Doctor, had a PhD. level record collection that was small, but very hip and included jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Chick Corea and Court and Spark. I guess I liked the album, but not enough to explore further due to my very limited resources which went to Friday night beer and other brilliant albums like I'm In You by Peter Frampton.
So I kind of forgot about Joni for several years until I saw Ocasek's list. A little more evolved and a little further along with my resources I picked up Blue and it hit me hard. The intimacy of these revelatory songs featuring Joni's bittersweet voice accompanied by minimal instrumentation - often just a lone guitar or piano, were so visceral and so real and were such a welcome break from hairdos and bombast of the punk/new wave I was listening to at the time.
I also felt a kinship with Blue's aspirations and disappointments while the wide open spaces, not suffocating with sound, were wondrous. Like many before me I not only fell for the music, but Joni as well. Beautifully blond, with an arresting smile she made you think of flowers and sunshine while informing you with an intelligence that was gritty and deep. The empty pinup she was not and my heart didn't stand a chance against such a woman.
After that I started to pick up some of her other albums and by the time I got to Hejira I was in pretty rough shape. I was in rapidly losing my hair; I was failing at everything and filled with enormous self-doubt without a clue as to how to turn any of it around. It was a very depressing hopeless time.
I now realize this period was the natural end of the first part of my life. It came abruptly with a certain amount of inelegance. One day I was a shit-talking kid full of promise and the next day I was balding, unskilled, uneducated and didn't know how to do anything other than finish a 12-pack. I wasn't stupid, but I had neglected school and didn't have any strong interests that would translate into a profession. I also didn't have the drive to build a career or amass money. I had no idea what I wanted, but was pretty sure what I didn't want. I was stuck and unable to adapt to my new circumstance.
As superficial as it may be the thing that depressed me the most was losing my hair. People did their best to be sensitive to my situation, but as much they tried they couldn't help but become somewhat hypnotized by a guy in his mid-twenties punched in the face with the comb over blues. Often I'd be talking to someone and I could see them fighting to keep eye contact, but the allure was just too great and slowly their eyes would drift upward and become transfixed on my massive forehead like it was a magnetic orb. It was humiliating and I hated the useless, but well-intentioned nods and gestures of sympathy. It was especially bad when you saw a girl you hadn't seen for a few years. First, there was the shocked expression, then as you talked it would come around to the unspoken look in their eyes of: 'Damn, what happened to you?...I'm so sorry!' Then, they would move on and some follicle gifted asshole into REO Speedwagon or something. It sucked!
I knew I had to change my situation; I literally had to become someone else. Going back to school I withdrew into music, books and self-medicated with marijuana. Early in this new monastic life, still depressed and very uncertain of the future I came across the album and the song Hejira, which sparked a conversation within myself and was really instructive in teaching me how alone and desolate we are in the world.
Hejira is an Islamic word for flight or exodus and implies a break with the past. Six of the nine songs on the album were written on a solitary car trip Joni made from Maine to California in the mid-seventies and the song Hejira is a deep stock-taking meditation of the self. Unlike The Circle Game, Both Sides Now and Help Me, hits that have a sing along quality, this song and the entire album require concerted rapt attention on the part of the listener. It's not the kind of music you casually tap your foot to or hum along with while folding the laundry - this shit is Shakespearean. I don't believe the entire album contains a signal chorus, a catchy hook or a guitar solo. It is music that comes from deep within one's being and is meant to be scrutinized thoughtfully, its secrets revealed only through careful deliberate consideration.
Aurally, the song features subdued percussion and a brief wispy clarinet. In her unique finger picking style Joni plucks out what have become known as her "weird chords," creating a distinctive feel of restlessness. Jaco Pastorius paints between the lines with his fretless bass adding substantially to the theme of flight. Joni's voice is strong and confident with touches of frustration and a growing sense of indifference. Layered together it is hypnotic piece of art. Like the revelatory nature of Blue, over this restless bed of music Joni details her Hegira. Older, a bit weary and in control of some hard won truths this 337-word poetic recitation is more shadowy and philosophical than Blue's exposed nerves. Here, she is a shell shocked defector fleeing the scene, thinking about love, her place in the world and facing up to some uncomfortable truths.
And, as hard as Blue hit me, dropping the turntable arm down on Hejira was like crossing the tracks and ending up on the bad side of town where five-guys waited to beat the shit out of self-pitying assholes like me. It assaulted all my prior knowledge and I knew from those first listens there was something profoundly important here for me. But it came in fits and starts and I went through a process, a slow evolution, before I acknowledged and accepted its truths. Over the years Hejira has become very personal to me and when it pops up it stops me in my tracks and I can feel it pensively vibrate in my bones like its part of my DNA. Undistracted, it never fails to break me down.
Starting out with the images of a solitary road trip where she stops at cafes along the way and considers her place in the world we quickly come to a revelation that melancholy is comfortable, like a warm cup of soup on a snowy day. It is a human feeling that occurs naturally and doesn't require explanation.
When I had my abrupt, inelegant fall and was so full of self-doubt and self-loathing I would withdraw into my sadness and feel the sorrow of living and grieve for my losses. I wasn't paralyzed like Brian Wilson, but a little herb, some tunes and no people was about the only thing that made me feel good. It was really confusing trying to understand why this sadness felt so good. Of course, as an American, a Catholic and a MAN, I supposed it was another deficiency, another weakness and I should fight these depressing feelings and pull myself up by bootstraps. Ignore the infirmity and buck up. I tried, but as Hejira fell more into my listening rotation and I considered these lines, I fell more and more under its soporific spell and found this melancholy, this sadness not to be just a temporary escape, but a warm loving hand that helped me to feel alive. As the song notes - it was as natural a moody sky.
In eternally bombastic America we are indoctrinated to oppose any feeling of weakness, uncertainty or depression. Most commonly we'll self-medicate (as I was doing) should these un-American feelings arise while leaning on endless clichés - have a little faith in yourself, count your blessings, things could always be worse, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, look on the bright side, blah blah blah... If we can't get by with these words we may seek the encouragement of clergy and they'll fill you up with religious clichés like: "It's all part of God's plan for you" or "When God closes one door he opens another." More pragmatically we might see a therapist who will listen without judgement and maybe provide a pharmacological solution to dull the pain.
But that line about comfort in melancholy...the more I turned it over in my head the more I came to see it as the truest, most liberating statement ever uttered. And I fought it with every bit of my pugilistic American will, every dumb religious cliché floating around in my head and every, pull yourself up by the bootstraps inclination, sense of MANHOOD I had within me. In the end though, embracing the pain, rather than cutting it off or dealing with it by proxy gave me a sense of well-being and made me feel alive.
Pondering those few lines from Hejira over and over whenever I felt the shock of disappointment or thought about some past failure, I learned to embrace these painful situations and to grieve for my losses and eventually these feelings of melancholy that provided comfort became indispensable to my well-being. Sometimes this grief is about past circumstances that can't be changed, like the knowledge my mother is dead and I'll never get to know her beyond our mother-son relationship; sometimes it's about future circumstances that can't be changed, like the day when our kids will leave my wife and I and go on to live their own lives; sometimes its totally about myself, like realizing more of life is behind me than ahead of me.
Often this melancholy is prompted by music. Listening to Goggle Play in shuffle mode the other day I got all twisted up by Nanci Griffith's beautiful song Heart of Indochine. In the song Griffith is in Viet Nam travelling in a boat on the Saigon River, a river that has seen much blood and death through war, but now, many years removed the river is transformed and at peace with the souls of all those French, Vietnamese and American combatants floating free - swimming together. A beautiful piece of music that made me hurt for those lost souls and for how we humans treat each other. Listening, I didn't get angry at Lyndon Johnson or Robert McNamara. I didn't think about the senselessness or injustice of Viet Nam. I just felt really sad for all those kids and their mothers, fathers siblings and wives.. And, I lamented this part of our stinking humanity.
As my invincibility has abandoned me with the passing of time more and more these momentary bits of grief crawl under my skin and penetrate and change the core of who I am. Almost nothing makes me feel alive and human than these losses. But it doesn't feel negative, it's more just a part of living and I've learned to embrace it. I've come to think of it as the warm hand of God touching my soul and grieving with me.
While, through a slow evolutionary process I learned to embrace my pain, the agrarian Wendell Berry takes it a step further. About the time I was becoming familiar with Hejira I read an essay by Berry, which focused on the encroachment of comfort items in farming. He talked about a new line of John Deere tractors which enclosed the tractor operator in a weather-controlled glass space booth fully rigged with sound. So when it was hot you could flick on the ac; cold, you could mix in some heat all while listening to your favorite Molly Hatchet record. Use of such technology Berry argued reduced the experience of working the land down to its lowest common denominator. To get the essence of such work he argued, you had to feel the sun on your skin, the wind in your hair or a nip of cold in your fingertips. People who wanted to remove everything from the experience that was uncomfortable not only weren't interested in farming, they weren't, Berry asserted, interested in being alive. To remove all pain from living and experience only comfort was the same thing as wanting to be dead.
Maybe it's the same for people who shun melancholy? Those of us who walk around trying to keep all pain at bay with dumb clichés', theological rationalizations or drugs aren't really interested in being alive. Maybe, they want to be dead too?
Though this idea of melancholy provided enough grizzle for ten songs, the Hejira didn't end there. After a failed relationship Joni withdraws and evaluates her place in the world. While lamenting a weakness of flesh with cold snowy imagery she talks about our anonymity, self-reliance and the paradox of our humanity, which is intense, yet so disposable. We are so deep yet superficial.
It was shocking to me that when I had my fall and was on such shaky ground how little others could do for me. For some irrational reason I expected something more than nods and gestures of sympathy I received from friends and family. Other, more fringe type of friends didn't bother with nods or gestures - they started to avoid me altogether. My suffering was obvious in a pathetic sad sack sort of way and understandably, they thought it better to steer clear. Almost as bad as having a magnetic orb for a head was the knowledge I was now the exasperating friend who was either tolerated out of a sense of history or out and out ignored, when just a few short years earlier I was handsome, cool and could get the eye of just about any girl.
So, I pondered these next lines and like the revelation that melancholy was comforting I realized nobody could do anything for me and the world could give a shit about my hurts, no matter how deep. And, though I was certainly hurting in the larger context of life my problems were absolutely superficial and on me. I owned them. It was height of immaturity and ego to think it would be otherwise. Once I accepted responsibility for my own troubles and understood how deep and superficial, we all are, I had another revelation - the discomforting notion of my own desolation.
Despite a huge family, friends, co-workers and a larger world I was utterly alone. Up till then I defined myself by what others thought of me, which was mostly positive and provided a positive self-image. Now that I was facing rejection or indifference, along with other problems, I was forced to look in the mirror beyond my physical self, beyond how others defined me and deal with whoever and whatever lived beneath my skin. It was crystal clear and unfolded like one of Aristotle's syllogisms - all of it was on me alone. Nobody or nothing could do for me, like I could do for me. Given how I grew up I don't why I would've ever thought differently.
This was growth. But it was only half-measure intellectual growth. In my head I knew what I had to do, but my heart was petty and resentful and not willing to give up without a fight. It would take some time to quell the desire to pin my situation on my father, teachers who let me slide by, uncaring friends, the larger world. My head was like a blank little acorn ready to become a mighty oak while my heart was determined to remain a dependent seedling.
To that end, I remember this one Sunday afternoon after a long cold Buffalo winter drinking some beers with a buddy and some of his girlfriend's friends at Chestnut Ridge Park. I was back in school and was really excited about all this new knowledge I was being exposed to and had taken to carrying a book with me everywhere I went (which I still do). In the side pocket of my baggy black pants that day it was a copy of Plato's Dialogues. This really good-looking girl noticed the book and asked about it. So, we had a nothing little conversation about Plato. This was surprising, since this girl by any definition was a "gold-digger" and never talked to me even when I had a little something going on. As it turned out she wasn't interested in Plato or me. She was gathering information. Later, I would overhear her imitating what I had said about Plato to her boyfriend, this guy with tiny little piranha teeth, who drove a BMW and was the heir to some insurance company. When she was done mimicking me both of them busted out in laughter like it was the funnist thing they ever heard - little piranha teeth were flying everywhere. Even when they became aware I was on to them they barely could muzzle their amusement.
Rather than delivering a just measure of violence on both of them (which definitely crossed my mind) I stood there frozen for a moment and then turned away - crushed. My mind delt with the situation perfectly - fuck them, dumbasses, gold-digging bitch and her little cliched heir, but the rest of me was so defeated and hurt.
When stuff like this happened I would revert into self-pitying blaming mode like it was someone else's problem that I suffered these insults. But, no matter how much I tried to make others take the fall it always felt false and it always came back to me. And, even if there was someone or something to blame it didn't help my situation one goddamn bit. It was on me alone and I knew it and it was up to me to change it.
Though I just as soon drink toxic waste as put myself in a situation like that cold spring day at Chestnut Ridge all those years ago, there are times when it's unavoidable. For those times I've learned to have simple, good humored, nothing conversations with nothing people and I leave the Plato in the car. I realize now the presence of that book in my side pocket was a way to compensate for the many things I was lacking. It was a false way to elevate myself and gain attention. Slowly I came to understand no matter how some bit of literature or some obscure tune excited or fascinated me, the rest of the world could give a shit. The rest of the world is programmed to be fascinated with BMW's and insurance companies, not Plato and I probably got the beat down I deserved. Being interested in these types of things was mostly solitary business and I would have to accept that if I was going to pursue them.
But, while my heart caught up with my head this idea of desolation didn't necessarily equate to loneliness. All it meant was that I couldn't hide from myself or blame others or let others define who I am. It meant that I assumed responsibility for myself, which was incredibly liberating and lessened the impact when those big uncontrollable forces of life came crashing down. It gave me the power to understand I didn't need to be spending a Sunday afternoon drinking with vapid people or use my attention to obtain somebody else's idea of success. And, it helped me to be less serious and tragic about my own issues. It's not like I was enduring the misery and injustice that denies people the most basic necessities of survival like food and clean potable water. I wasn't handsome anymore - so what. Had I remained pretty I'd probably would now be measuring out life in square-footage and portfolio components.
So, on the way to understanding, whenever I had to confront some hurt or disappointment I found immense comfort thinking about how these blows, no matter how deep, in the grand scheme were pretty superficial and the power of change resided within me.
Dealing with loss, defection, the necessity of melancholy as well as anonymity and superficiality, the Hejira now turned philosophical as it rolled into the home stretch attempting to discover what it all means with a discussion of mortality and Joni's desire to live forever through her art. She arrives at the severe conclusion that we're merely particles of change who orbit the sun for a short bit of time.
Having learned so much from this song already I missed these lines for a long time probably out of some ego influenced sense of invincibility and sheer exhaustion. This is some weighty shit, even by Joni Mitchell standards and by this last part your brain is pretty used up. Once they registered though, they have been a permanent and haunting presence positioned in a way that dares you to prove them wrong. So far, I haven't had much luck. The standard answers to these questions always come with so much side business and tend to be dogmatic and irrational. Maybe we just need to reboot, engage the control-alt-delete button and wipe all this shit clean - good-bye Vatican, so long Milton Friedman, sorry Sting, don't let the door hit you in your milky-white ass.
But, as I roll along on my own Hejira, sometimes I'll be struck by a burning, awe-inspiring feeling beneath my skin that I can't really explain and is so not of the drudgery of this world. It has a will of its own and shows itself randomly. Sometimes it comes through the saxophone of John Coltrane or the voice of Lucinda Williams. Sometimes I'll feel it just sitting on the porch drinking coffee in the silent black solitude of early morning or in the unspoken bond with my children even when I'm telling them shit they don't want to hear. There's never judgement and it's always resplendent, without being ostentatious. Without any real way to explain this I've come to think that this affirming feeling could be nothing less than grace. Fleeting and momentary contact with all that is good and right. It leaves me feeling hopeful, like it's not all for nothing. That maybe, just maybe we are stardust that might be golden and we've got a good reason to give it another day.
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