For me, ‘Hejira’ is the pinnacle of Joni Mitchell’s many LPs. Musically it was very different from anything else she had previously attempted whilst lyrically she unexpectedly returned to a first person narrative for the majority of the songs. It is no accident that the front cover shows Mitchell, artistic beret on head, cigarette in hand, standing in a bleak, frozen landscape whilst her body has a picture of a long, deserted road superimposed over it. Without hearing a single note of music, we know the theme of the LP: Joni Mitchell as the restless traveller, unable to settle in one place, unable to commit, forever moving on.
This is immediately confirmed by the opening track ‘Coyote’ where she is taking leave of a lover in the opening lines: “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.” In the course of the song, she refers to herself as”a hitcher / A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway,” an image of wandering that will be repeated over and over. In the next track, ‘Amelia’, the song begins, “I was driving across the burning desert / When I spotted six jet planes,” and from this observation she weaves her own travels and explorations into the flight path of Amelia Earhart linking the single mindedness of the two women who are compelled to act as they do no matter what the cost is to them. In ‘Furry Sings The Blues’ she travels to Memphis to create a stunning vignette of the blues singer Furry Lewis “propped up in his bed / With his dentures and his leg removed.” In ‘A Strange Boy’ Mitchell remembers an old love affair where “We got high on travel / And we got drunk on alcohol / And love the strongest poison and medicine of all.” In the title track, the travelling never stops. It opens with Mitchell “travelling in some vehicle” and her being “porous with travel fever.” But it also acknowledges the consequences of all this travelling, the inherent loneliness and our inability as a species to escape this: “But you know I’m so glad to be on my own ……. We all come and go unknown / Each so deep and superficial / Between the forceps and the stone.”
Most of the tracks on this LP are five minutes plus but at the heart is the eight and a half minute ‘Song For Sharon.’ At the beginning of the song, Mitchell is again travelling this time to Staten Island to buy a mandolin. The journey provokes a slew of memories which Mitchell shares with her childhood friend Sharon. The whole song sets up the opposition between commitment, represented by Sharon (“Sharon you’ve got a husband / And a family and a farm”) and freedom (“And I’ve still got my eyes on the land and the sky / You sing for your friends and your family / I’ll walk green pastures by and by”). In the next song ‘Black Crow’, Mitchell likens herself to the bird forever flying from one place to another: “I took a ferry to the highway / Then I drove to a pontoon plane / I took a plane to a taxi / And a taxi to a train / I been travelling so long / How’m I ever going to know my home?” On ‘Blue Motel Room’ she finally stops travelling to rest for a night only to wonder “Will you still love me / When I get back to town?” The final track on the LP, ‘Refuge Of The Roads’, finds her once more on the move and Mitchell realising “it made most people nervous / They just didn’t want to know / What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads.”
The lonely, nomadic wandering of the lyrics is made concrete by the music. Particularly prominent is the bleak, mournful bass playing of Jaco Pastorius whilst the guitar playing of Mitchell and Larry Carlton is reminiscent of the tempo and sound of moving traffic. The hijira is how we Arabs refer to the journey made by Muhammad and his followers when they had to escape from Mecca to Medina. In ‘Hejira’, Joni Mitchell makes her own escape, an escape from the straitjacket she imposed upon herself with ‘Blue’, to find a new way of exploring her soul, a new method of confessional songwriting.
And it was ‘Hejira’ that led me out of the darkness, into the light of travelling to escape. From Paris, I moved to Amsterdam and then to New York and now London. But also Joni has shown me that, as well as being the strongest poison, love can also be the strongest medicine; it is something that can cure as well as destroy.