This article originally appeared in the first edition of the Ultimate Music Guide published on May 19, 2017.
The women of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns were always trapped in somebody else's frame. Joni Mitchell only used the first person once on her seventh album; instead, she sang of women as seen through men's eyes, assessed according to their suitability for motherhood, sex and deference. Similarly, Mitchell found herself made into an adjunct when she briefly joined the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, opening for male artists who were her equal. She approached the tour as a research trip, "an amazing experience, studying mysticism and ego malformation like you wouldn't believe", as she told journalist Timothy White. "Everybody took all of their vices to the Nth degree and came out of it born again, or into AA."
Where these acts were tilting towards the mainstream, by the mid-'70s, Mitchell was keenly following Marvin Gaye in "moving away from the hit department, to the art department", keen to forge her own rhythms away from rock. In the wake of her split from drummer John Guerin, she was ready to give life the slip for a while.
After the end of the Hissing tour, Mitchell was sojourning at Neil Young's beach house. She she wanted to travel, but didn't know where, or who with. By chance, two friends invited her to drive cross-country. Her answer: '"I've been waiting for you; I'm gone,"' she recounted to Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe. They travelled together for a while before Mitchell went off alone. It was one of three road trips she took between 1975 and 1976, which led her from Los Angeles to Maine, then California via Florida and the Gulf Of Mexico. On the road, Mitchell stayed in lighthouses along the Gulf Coast and wore wigs to disguise herself in New Orleans. "Meanwhile, nobody knew where I was," she told White. "I'd do those disappearing acts. I'd pass through some seedy town with a pinball arcade, fall in with people who worked on the machines, people staying alive shoplifting, whatever. They don't know who you are: 'Why you driving hat white Mercedes? Oh, you're driving it across country for somebody else.' You know, make up some name and hang out. Great experiences, almost like the prince and the pauper."
Mitchell had no license for her flashy car, so she drove behind truckers, who would signal when the police were approaching. She was living out of bounds, but hadn't, as the folk song goes "fallen by the wayside". By the mid-'70s, Walden and On The Road were archetypal male quests, but there were still few cultural precedents for women travelling alone. Eighteenth-century "girl stunt reporter" Nellie Bly circled the world in 72 days to prove that she could. Simone De Beauvoir's America Day By Day (1947) was more journalistic, intended to convey the reality of America's culture and mores to the French. Released in 1976, the same year as Mitchell's travels, Tom Robbins' absurdist novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues followed the giant-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw as she encountered various countercultural avatars, But although just as geographically far-reaching, Mitchell's trip was defiantly insular- the kind of story that hadn't yet been written.
Living between her car and anonymous motels, Mitchell wrote songs on her acoustic guitar since pianos were seldom available. She thought of naming the collection of material "Travelling", but that implied a fixed destination. Instead, she chose a reference to the migration of the prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, which she later summed up as "leaving the dream, no blame".
"'Hejira' was an obscure word, but it said exactly what I wanted," she told Crowe. "Running away, honourably." She continued, referencing her split with Guerin. "It dealt with the leaving of a relationship, but without the sense of failure that accompanied the breakup of my previous relationships. I felt that it was not necessarily anybody's fault. It was a new attitude."
A new attitude required a new musical approach, furthering Mitchell's quicksilver mid-'70s evolution. "For a long time, I've been playing in straight rhythms," she had told friend Malka Marom in 1973. "But now, in order to sophisticate my music to my own taste, I push it into odd places that feel a little unusual to me, so that I feel I'm stretching out." After 1974's richly melodic Court And Spark, the jazzy abstractions of Hissing were perceived as an ornery career-killer. On Hejira, Mitchell pared percussion back to the faintest patter, ditched choruses, and created nine fairly similar tone poems from her guitar (mostly electric on the recordings) and Jaco Pastorius' fretless bass. (Only lounge-jazz pastiche "Blue Motel Room" veers from the form.) Their rippling instruments evoke the uncanny surface of the pools in Hockney's California paintings, and the scant reliance on hooks encourages a sense of forward motion. (The New York Times' reviewer called it a -Los Angeles version of Kraftwerk's autobahn'.") This minimal backing lets Mitchell's voice loose, as she sings in a meditative, instinctual fashion. "The poet took over the singer "' he said in 1998. "It's more like jazz melody, it's conversational improvisation."
This intimate, personal voice is key to Hejira, where Mitchell isolates herself from familiarity in order to confront her true nature. "In our possessive coupling/So much could not be expressed/So now I'm returning to myself /These things that you and I suppressed," she sings on the title track, as if taking her first deep breath in a long while. Hejira contains Mitchell's starkest and most sensitive examinations of the apparent incompatibility of love and work, belonging and freedom. Hejira lets Mitchell's duelling ideologies and impulses coexist at the same scale within each song, avoiding extremes of crisis or revelation, an idea reflected in the artwork. Mitchell used a Camera Lucida to edit together 14 different photos of varying perspectives - including an imposing Norman Seeff portrait - and then hired an air brusher to blend in the edges. "If I had done the cover as a collage, it would've looked much more primitive," she told Rock Photo. "This way it's so polished, as if it's exactly one photograph."
If art and love are in conflict, Mitchell's lucid relationship with that bind is unparalleled. "I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs," she told The Ottawa Citizen in 1996 [ed: actually, 2016], "but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me." Marrying Hissing's observational approach to the personal nature of Mitchell's earlier records, Hejira contains some of her most expansive and idiosyncratic writing, each song filled with unanswered questions about the definition and contradictions of fulfilment. Sometimes, that satisfaction is immediate. To be a solo travelling woman requires a heightened sensitivity to the environment, and Mitchell vibrates at the frequency of her gorgeous, sensory landscapes. There are towering pinewood trees and vivid blue skies streaked with vapour trails that look like "the hexagram of the heavens", or the strings of her guitar. Snow "gathers like bolts of lace waltzing on a ballroom girl" in the spacious "Hejira", where Mitchell sighs with gratitude at her synchronicity with her surroundings. "There's comfort in melancholy/When there's no need to explain/It's just as natural as the weather/In this moody sky today. "Her world is so vivid, it almost feels surreal at time.
As she acclimatises to the road, she clocks on to the behaviour of the characters she encounters. The dewy "Coyote" details a tryst with a philandering rancher (who may be Sam Shepard in disguise)- Mitchell knows that he has "a woman at home and another down the hall", but she enjoys their brief affair, and revels in his palpable consternation about whether to run away the next morning. "Coyote's in the coffee shop/He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs/He picks up my scent on his fingers/While he's watching the waitresses' legs," she sings, high on intimate power. "You're not a hit-and-run driver, no no," she reassures him, having played him at his own game. Sex is purely pleasure on Hejira, Mitchell writing without shame or qualification as she steps outside of society's expectations. "All I really want right now/Is to find another lover," she confesses at one point, and she succeeds. She may have reservations about the "foolish and childish" protagonist of "A Strange Boy", but rationality barely matters out here. "We got high on travel/And we got drunk on alcohol/And on love, the strongest poison and medicine of all," she rhapsodises, sounding barely tethered to the earth. "See how that feeling comes and goes/Like the pull of moon on tide/ Now I am surf rising/Now parched ribs of sand at his side."
Supposedly alone in the world and enjoying "the sweet loneliness of solitary travel", as she would describe it, Mitchell forces herself to reckon with the part her that still craves contact, and comfort. "I'm porous with travel fever/But you know I'm so glad to be on my own/Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger/ Can setup trembling in my bones," she sings on "Hejira". The alternating keys of "Amelia", a tribute to the lost pilot Amelia Earhart, underscore Hejira's most poignant and uneasy interrogation of a woman's ineffable need to wander, and the sacrifices that entails. "Maybe I've never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude/And looking down on everything/I crashed into his arms," she rues.
No matter how far she gets from home, she can't escape her mind. "Oh radiant happiness/It was all so light and easy/'Til I started analysing/And I brought on my old ways/A thunderhead of judgement was gathering in my gaze," Mitchell sings on the melty, hiccuping "Refuge Of The Roads". Hejira offers no resolution between love and independence, both of which lead to a measure of isolation that Mitchell elucidates beautifully. Being tethered to someone means always being seen in reflection: "White flags of winter chimneys/Waving truce against the moon/In the mirrors of a modern bank/From the window of a hotel room," she sings on "Hejira". But a similarly desolate image in "Refuge" suggests that being alone means barely being seen at all. In a service station, she sees "a photograph of the earth/Taken coming back from the moon/And you couldn't see a city/On that marbled bowling ball/Or a forest of a highway/ Or me here least of all."
In The Rolling Stone Book Of Women In Rock, Lisa Kennedy writes that Mitchell's work up until Court And Spark was influenced by the prairie, and that what came after drew from the city. It's true of Hissing, Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, but Hejira is a psychological bridge connecting the two territories and all that they represent. The closest she comes to defining that irreconcilable pull between a woman's duty and desire is on energetic highlight "Song For Sharon". (It's the only song here written on cocaine, which may explain the pace.) "And the power of reason/And the flowers of deep feeling/Seem to serve me/Only to deceive me," she ruminates. It's no wonder, as she sings on "Refuge...", that her journey "made most people nervous/They just didn't want to know/What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads."
To this day in popular culture, most women on the road are doomed figures, fated to die or disappear. In 2013, the cultural critic Vanessa Veselka wrote an essay for The American Reader titled "The Lack Of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters". "We recognize that, in our world, a woman on the road is marked," she writes. "She has been cut from the social fabric, excised at such an elemental level that when she steps onto the road, she steps into an abyss. And whatever leads up to that choice inspires in us a primal fear. A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone."
Hejira remains one of the few counterexamples to this deficit - a restless rejection of what satisfaction and success is meant to look like for women as lovers and artists, and a fearless confrontation of the consequences that stem from rejecting the norm. It's perhaps the great feminist record: "Leaving the dream, no blame," indeed.
-Laura Snapes, Uncut Magazine, May 2017
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