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Home News Off the Beaten Tracks: Joni Mitchell’s masterpieces (Part 3)

Off the Beaten Tracks: Joni Mitchell’s masterpieces (Part 3)

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AS I mentioned in a previous column, 1974 saw Joni Mitchell celebrating her assimilation into Hollywood A-list society courtesy of her gay friend and manager David Geffen.

In the early stages of an affair with drummer John Guerin, a somewhat rough-and-ready character, Joni soon became disenchanted with the shallow, super-rich LA party set and she turned her critical eye on them for her next album, 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, named after the sound of sprinklers in the gardens of Bel Air mansions. Her most ambitious effort to date, the LP was initially panned by the critics who felt it was pretentious and too heavily influenced by Guerin, Tom Scott and other members of the jazz rock group LA Express. Over the months and years, however, it came to be recognised as a landmark in her career.

It opens with In France They Kiss On Main Street, a reminiscence about growing up in a small town during the rock and roll era.

Next comes The Jungle Line, an hommage to the painter Henri Rousseau which features vocals, guitar and synthesiser dubbed on top of a field recording of the African Drummers of Burundi. Strange and not altogether successful, in my view. The first great track of the album, Edith and the Kingpin, comes next.

This is a song about a woman who becomes a gangster’s moll and is an example of Joni beginning to turn away from confessional lyrics in favour of musical short stories.

Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow is about women standing up for themselves against domineering men (well it was 45 years ago) while Shades of Scarlett Conquering is about a Southern Belle basing her life on the heroine of Gone With The Wind. The title track concerns a trophy wife who is treated by her husband as just another commodity; the type of bird whom Joni must have met countless times while downing margaritas and snorting coke beside the swimming pool. 

The Boho Dance is a swipe at those who criticise artists for enjoying their success and is beautifully sung – my favourite track on the album. Harry’s House/Centrepiece is about a failing marriage, Sweet Bird is a lament for beauty lost to ageing and we close with Shadows and Light, involving multiple vocal overdubs along the lines of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. The album reached No 4 in the US charts, largely on the back of its predecessor Court and Spark’s huge success, but failed to win hearts in the same way as, for example, Blue. One reviewer, in the Detroit News, said it was ‘sometimes so smug it becomes downright irritating’. This dismayed Joni, whom Guerin described as ‘very self-involved and thin-skinned’. He told author Sheila Weller: ‘Joan remembers everything any critic ever said about her. There were days when she’d lose her self-confidence and days when she didn’t feel like the prettiest girl on the block.’

During 1975 Joni and Guerin became engaged, having wedding rings made. John said: ‘Joan designed them, gold, with some kind of hieroglyphic that meant “lasting relationship” in some kind of Eastern language.’ The partnership was flexible, to say the least. Guerin had an affair soon after Court and Spark was completed and Mitchell, now in her early thirties, responded by having a fling with 22-year-old session guitarist Wayne Perkins. He introduced her to the work of bluesman Furry Lewis, which greatly impressed her. She visited the old fella in Memphis but he gave her short shrift. After six weeks with Perkins, she went back to Guerin.

In November of that year Joni flew off alone to join the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan’s coast-to-coast cavalcade. True to form, she was soon having another affair, this time with handsome playwright Sam Shepard, who joined the tour preparatory to co-writing with Dylan the film about it, Renaldo and Clara. Shepard, who was just two days older than Mitchell, was a self-styled cowboy whom she found irresistible. She had intended to stay on the tour for only three cities but ‘for mystical reasons of my own’ was still there when the 1975 leg ended on December 8 at Madison Square Garden. Here is a clip from Martin Scorsese’s movie about the RTR, with Joni playing an early version of Coyote, a song about her relationship with Shepard, to an awestruck Dylan and Roger McGuinn.

Back to LA, where Joni spent Christmas with Guerin before they embarked on a US tour to promote Hissing. During the concerts she performed Coyote, whose unapologetic account of her affair clearly did not go down well with him indoors. They had such a major bust-up that the international leg of the tour was called off and they broke up again, thinking this time it was for keeps. Guerin told Sheila Weller: ‘I finally left. There was too much water under the bridge. I’m not going to cite a certain thing, an “I did this, she did that”. We had our differences, but it was a build-up.’

After staying for a while with Neil Young, Joni set off in the late spring of 1976 on a cross-country road trip, west to east, with two male companions. One of them was an Australian ex-lover now in the middle of a custody battle, who was picking up his young daughter from her grandmother in Maine. The other was an immature flight attendant who still lived with his parents. You will have gathered by now that Joni was not averse to a bit of slap and tickle, to say the least, and she had a cursory affair with Trolley Boy.

Leaving the two men in New England, Joni rented a white Merc, bought a red wig, renamed herself Charlene Lattimer and set off alone to drive back to LA via the southern states. When she stopped at motels she would write songs about her hejira, an Islamic word for Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina which she used to describe her own flight from heartache.

Back in Hollywood Joni recorded the basic tracks for what would become the Hejira album with the usual suspects including, amazingly, John Guerin on drums. She was dissatisfied with the backing on several songs, which she felt was plodding and unadventurous, but was then introduced to Jaco Pastorius, a hotshot young fretless bassist with the jazz-rock band Weather Report. She became convinced that his fluid, inventive style could transform her work and duly dubbed him on to four tracks.

The first, Coyote, has a spare and simple sound with only Joni on acoustic guitar, Pastorius on bass and Bobbye Hall on drums. It tells of a travelling woman who meets a cowboy (Shepard) and refers to heavy drug abuse on the Rolling Thunder tour (pills and powders to get them through this passion play). In one of her most celebrated lines, she describes him in a coffee shop after spending the night with her and ‘staring a hole in his scrambled eggs’.

So far, so brilliant. And next comes what might be my favourite Joni song of all time, although there is strong competition for that. Amelia was inspired by Joni’s recent drive through the American South West and compares herself to the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937 during a flight across the Pacific Ocean in her little plane, a Lockheed Model 10 E-Electra. The singing on this track, and indeed throughout the album, is sublime. No apologies for giving the lyrics in full; this is as near to poetry as makes no difference:

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons
If it gets through to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture postcard charms
Oh, Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But ’til you get there yourself
You never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh, Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

I wish that he was here tonight
It’s so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away
So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

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
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.

Everyone will have their own interpretation of this marvellous song. Mine, for what it’s worth, is that by comparison with Earhart’s disappearance over the horizon, never to be seen again, Joni sees her own history of failed affairs as small beer, or ‘false alarms’. She has said: ‘I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another . . . sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.’

Furry Sings the Blues is an account of the ill-fated Memphis visit, followed by A Strange Boy, about her young lover on the west-to-east road trip – What a strange, strange boy
He still lives with his family
Even the war and the navy
Couldn’t bring him to maturity.

Pastorius is back for the title track. His playing is outstanding; at times four different interweaving bass parts combining with Joni’s guitar. The song examines her break-up with Guerin and describes the melancholy that penetrates through to her bones.

In the church, they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There is the hope and the hopelessness
I’ve witnessed thirty years.

We’re only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m always bound and tied to someone?

The longest track on the album is the eight-minutes-plus epic Song for Sharon, addressed to a childhood friend who wanted to be a singer but married a farmer instead. It refers to Joni’s break-up with Guerin

Sharon, I left my man
At a North Dakota junction
And I came out to the Big Apple here
To face the dream’s malfunction

and concludes on a note of optimism:

Sharon you’ve got a husband
And a family and a farm
I’ve got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
But you still have your music
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.

Black Crow is a meditation on the difficulty of reaching her second home in the wilds of British Columbia, while Blue Motel Room harks back to her first break-up with Guerin. The album concludes with Refuge of the Roads, which Joni says is one of her favourites of her own songs. It was inspired by a visit, during the long drive home, to a Buddhist retreat in Colorado where she claims she was cured of cocaine addiction. Hejira marks the end of the deeply confessional era of Joni’s songwriting that began with Blue at the beginning of the decade.

The only jarring note on the album, for me, is not a musical one. On the song credits, each musician is given his full monicker while Joni is named only as ‘Mitchell’. Full marks for pomposity.

But that is mere nitpicking. In a piece on Jackson Browne a few weeks ago I said that Late For The Sky is in my top three albums of all time. So is Hejira, a towering achievement and, in my view, the best thing Joni ever did. And that’s saying something.

PS: Last week I wrote about John Prine and his battle against the coronavirus. Sadly, as you will have heard, it turned out to be an obituary. He died last Tuesday aged 73. All sympathies to his family, and here’s another blast of When I Get To Heaven.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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