“I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it… The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.”
That Greta Garbo owned a copy of Joni’s Mitchell’s confessional solo road trip “Hejira” is so perfect that it seems like I made this up.
I have to admit this was one Joni Mitchell record of which I was fairly unfamiliar. ‘Blue’, ‘Court and Spark’, ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’, these albums live inside my cells. But somehow I missed this of her many masterpieces.
Recorded in 1976, “Hejira” is a collection of songs, indeed a fully realized concept album, of a road trip, a hijira, Mitchell took alone by car from Maine to Los Angeles.
I digress a moment to relate a story Joni told me which I am sure must have happened on this particular road trip. (And forgive me, I am surely getting details wrong, because I was no doubt only half listening to her cause the other half of me was going “Holy Shit – Joni Fucking Mitchell is telling me a personal anecdote!”)
As best I recall, Joan said she was on a journey and somehow happened to stop at a home, or a bed and breakfast, something, and two older sisters ran the place. Joni is in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Rhode Island or New Hampshire comes to mind, as far from Hollywood and the industry as she can get. But there on the piano is a photograph of someone she knows. She can’t quite believe it. She exclaims the pretty woman’s name out loud (I am thinking it must have been —) “Barbara!” To which these two kindly old women are stunned: “You know Our Barbara??” and the other follows with, “She just married Peter Tork, you know, of The Monkees.” Yes, friends of Joni’s. And Barbara their niece. God it is hard to get away! To truly get away from Hollywood!
And that was in 1976. It would be far more difficult to truly get away on a solo hijira today with how plugged in we all are. A hijera without a GPS. A hijera not supported by Instagram to immediately update your Twitter followers, your FB friends, your Tumblr mates of what moment you seized and saw and thought. A hijera of broken pay phones, postcards, wrinkled Triple A maps, and telegrams if you’re desperate.
The entire Lp is not just songs of a woman on a solo journey, but within the woman is this pull between freedom and attachment, of doing what is expected vs. what one desires. There is a song for Amelia Earhart, literally about ‘flying solo’: “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.” This was I believe her third or fourth record for Asylum. It was unlike the jazz albums she’d been dipping into on ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’, primarily because since she wrote the songs for “Hejira’ on the road, they were written on acoustic guitar. No piano this time, unlike how her previous records in the 70s had been composed.
Consequently some of her most complex guitar tunings turned up here. And like ‘Blue’ she was again spilling her guts in a way only she could. “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”
Late great bassist Jaco Pastorious is the heartbeat supporting Mitchell’s deeply personal vision throughout. Legendary Wrecking Crew and jazz drummer John Guerin supports, and fellow Canadian Neil Young contributes too.
(Joan with Jaco and Herbie Hancock in the 70s)
The connection for Garbo must have been stark and immediate when she first heard “Hejira”. This is her only Joni Mitchell record in the collection, and when you listen to it, you’d think the entire record could be dedicated to Miss G.
Interestingly, the LP cover holds the faint signature of “Reisfield”, something my daughter Tiffany clocked when we did our Dublab guest DJ podcast. Garbo fans will know this name well, it was no doubt her beloved niece, Gray Reisfield (hmm are you seeing the niece connection here?).
I like to think that on a visit to her aunt’s apartment, Gray brought her new Joni Mitchell album with her. And upon hearing it, and upon absorbing it, Miss G couldn’t bear to part with it. She’s never taken anything from anyone. But this, she must have.
“You can take my Picasso’s and Renoirs, they will be yours when I die anyway. But Gray, leave me that Joni Mitchell record. I need it. Although why she wrote a song about Amelia Earhart and not me I will never understand.”
I like to think of Miss G opening a bottle of wine, or something rich and warm, to drink on her own, in search of her own private “Blue Motel Room”. Listening to side one. Listening to side 2. Black Crow at her window, pulling her out to the street, “black as the highway leading me”.
Putting on her coat and flat shoes. Maybe she will walk. Maybe she will hitch hike. She could! How brazen, “Garbo Hitch-hikes”. What a lark! The idea tickles her and she smiles to herself as she steps outside. She could put her thumb out. The driver would never guess. What a sweet in-joke with herself. Wait, it’s too late to be out here, ALONE, even for Manhattan, it’s 4am, streets are empty in this precious enclave. She walks east toward the light.
And on this trash littered pre-dawn sidewalk, there he is. And they face off, the scrawniest of coyotes, not quite brown, not quite gray. They could be twins. ‘Right in the face on the road to Baljennie…” What is a coyote doing in Manhattan? What is Greta Garbo doing anywhere, Coyote asks. Their eyes lock, without blinking. A calm comes between them. She could stay like this forever.
Coyote is the first to break their gaze. He turns and heads on down the block alone, going far faster than it appears in his lanky trot. She can follow, or not. Coyote doesn’t care. Coyote just shows what you could…
Miss G knows there’s more on Coyote’s mind than water and garbage, and he heads toward it, until he’s out of sight. They are both defectors of the petty wars.
No regrets, Coyote.
To listen to audio clips of ‘Hejira’ and to get lyrics, credits, and guitar tunings and tablature: