By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Aaron: Let’s look at another one of the albums that spun out of the Rolling Thunder Revue. This time it is Hejira by Joni Mitchell. According to Mitchell, the album was written during or after three journeys she took in late 1975 and the first half of 1976. The first was a stint as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in late 1975 and it is easily my favorite Joni Mitchell album.
“Coyote” was inspired by Sam Shepard, with whom Mitchell was briefly linked during Bob Dylan’s 1975–76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Martin Scorsese’s 2019 documentary film about the tour includes footage of Mitchell performing the song at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, with Dylan and Roger McGuinn accompanying her on acoustic guitar. Prior to the performance, McGuinn states “Joni wrote this song about this tour and on this tour and for this tour.”
Tony: Joni Mitchell evolves melodies as readily as Dylan evolves lyrics. It is an extraordinary talent, which exists alongside her exquisite voice. And her lyrics are often so very different from other writers – it is a real case of the snapshots of life that make up the story that makes no sense in the broader context, but is what happened. I really do love this music – although I do have a caveat that I’ll come to in a moment.
We saw a farmhouse burning downIn the middle of nowhere In the middle of the night And we rolled right past that tragedy 'Til we turned down to some road house lights Where a local band was playing Locals were up kicking and shaking on the floor And the next thing I know That coyote's at my door He pins me in a corner and he won't take no He drags me out on the dance floor And we're dancing close and slow Now he's got a woman at home He's got another woman down the hall He seems to want me anyway Why'd you have to get so drunk And lead me on that way You just picked up a hitcher A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Aaron: Here is the complete version from the album.
For the complete story on that song you should read this piece on the evolution of Coyote.
Several of the songs were debuted live on stage during the Rolling Thunder Revue, these can be found on youtube. Here are just a handful of my favorites from the album.
Tony: For me, as I suspect for most people if not everyone, one only has to hear the opening chords or the first line of melody to know who wrote the song. Plus (and of course this is, throughout, just my view) these songs are the description of a complete approach to life and living – something I don’t share but I can completely appreciate.
Somedays I would love to be there, somedays I am glad I am somewhere more solid and known. But on this track, and indeed throughout all of these songs, there is one part of the arrangement that I could do without – the fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius. But then I wasn’t that taken with Weather Report either.
Of course I know that Pastorius was widely acclaimed and indeed still is, and I know of the horribly difficult life he had, but if I set aside that knowledge and just listen to the music, I keep having the same feeling that although this is one approach to these songs, it is not the right one. I am very reluctant to speak ill of those no longer with us, and indeed of those who had such difficult lives, and I am not meaning to criticise his extraordinary ability, but here I think his insights into music took him to a different place from that which Joni Mitchell was reaching on her travels. For me the melodies and the lyrics have everything, and don’t need such a dominant force as Pastorius’ bass became. Thus I guess I wanted Joni Mitchell to have more faith in the totality of what she wrote, rather than thinking it needed more.
Equally of course, it was Joni’s album, and from what I have learned of her over the years, she wouldn’t have accepted the final mix had she not been happy.
Aaron: Furry Sings the Blues with Neil Young on harmonica
Tony: The truth is I have never been able to play this album straight through and this track is one example why. I just feel there is so much in the lyrics, the melody and the chords we don’t need the rambling accompaniment extra sounds when Joni is not singing, and yet here we get it again. This time it sounds like an electrified harmonica. Yes it is played by someone who knows exactly how to get everything out of the instrument, but, as I say, I just don’t need it. I have too much in the meaning of the music as it is.
The extra part of the reality of this album is that I have to be in exactly the right mood to listen to it: I think it normally comes very late at night, in the house on my own, lying on the sofa, eyes closed. But even then, I still think there is too much in the accompaniment.
Refuge of the Roads
Tony: So I guess that last point is the main one: I am writing this at the wrong time of day – it is 0730 and at 0800 I set out on the 85 mile journey down the motorway to my friend’s house in north London, from whence we will walk, take the train and walk again, to go and watch the football team we both support. I’m not feeling rushed – if I don’t complete this review I can do it tomorrow, so that is not the problem. It is that I think this is music for certain moments, not for all times.
And I mention that because how one is, and what one is planning to do, can affect how one hears the music. But the truth is, even when I have listened to this album at home alone, without plans of what happens next, I have felt unhappy about the electronically modified accompaniment. Here I just crave for versions of these magnificent compositions without all those improvised musical extras.
Just look at these lyrics….
In a highway service station Over the month of June Was 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 or a highway Or me here, least of all You couldn't see these cold water restrooms Or this baggage overload Westbound and rolling, taking refuge in the roads
Previously in this series