Great Albums of the 20th Century: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (1976)

Joni Mitchell - Hejira coverIn this occasional series, I’m going to celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and with no discernible frequency. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or, at the very least, piques your curiosity about an album you might’ve overlooked.

On a relaxing stretch of highway during a daylong solo drive in June, I began playing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and my journey was abruptly transformed by this music from forty years ago…how good it was: its sound, its thoughtfulness, its power to be so immediate and wise-weary. The album’s title, based on the Arabic word for journey, is its theme  (reinforced by a stunning cover double-exposure), particularly how a solitary traveler’s senses, freed from the distractions of conversation, are sharpened when confronted by the new. Here’s the lyrical riff that ends the album, all triggered by glimpsing a calendar in a gas station:

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 coldwater restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling
Taking refuge in the roads

—“Refuge Of The Roads” ©1976 Crazy Crow Music (BMI)

I’m awestruck by the narrative zoom in these lines…out to the moon and back (humanity’s ultimate journey, so far)…and how effortlessly she shakes up perspective and her place in the scheme of things. Indeed, the poetry in her lyrics is perhaps the album’s most compelling feature, certainly for the writer in me.

She avoids the cliché of “from the cradle to the grave” by her more succinct and inventive phrase “between the forceps and the stone” (“Hejira”), which is a master class in sensory suggestion (you can’t help but feel both the cold steel of the obstetrician’s forceps and the stony surface of the “granite markers,” a phrase she uses in the next stanza—these references serving as tactile bookends bracketing a life).

With astonishing economy, she reduces a lover to his essence with this clear-eyed observation:

He picks up my scent on his fingers
While watching the waitresses’ legs
—“Coyote” ©1976 Crazy Crow Music (BMI)

Other ways Mitchell creatively translated the mundane:

  • “I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything” (“Amelia”)
  • “In the church they light the candles/And the wax rolls down like tears” (“Hejira”)
  • “While the boarders were snoring/Under crisp white sheets of curfew/We were newly lovers then/We were fire in the stiff-blue-haired-house-rules” (“Strange Boy”)
  • “As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl” (“Hejira”)
  • “I looked at the morning/After being up all night/I looked at my haggard face in the bathroom light/I looked out the window/And I saw that ragged soul take flight/I saw a black crow flying/In a blue sky” (“Black Crow”)

Supporting these lines: Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Larry Carlton (The Crusaders), Tom Scott, Neil Young, Bobbye Hall, John Guerin, and Mitchell herself on guitar and vocals. Pastorius, in particular, with his signature freeform fretless bass, adds a resonant and inventive texture, their first collaboration, added as overdubs after all the tracks were recorded. Carlton’s flawless lead guitar, especially in songs like “Black Crow” and “Strange Boy,” adds energy, urgency, or languor, as needed, every note impeccable. And Mitchell’s voice, which in earlier albums could sometimes veer into the peculiar, is here pitched perfectly, full of nuance and emotion, one of her strongest performances on record.

I bought this album when it first came out, as I did with most of her albums in the 1970s and 80s. In my twenties, I was fascinated by Mitchell’s candor and saw her confessions as a way to better understand a woman’s point of view, something I surely needed. I also noticed how devoted to her were many of the girls I’d known in college, well beyond the boundaries of an ordinary fan. Clearly she was articulating something important, lessons I needed to learn…about love, living, and loneliness. She could be melancholy at times—in “River” (on Blue), she even managed to make melodic lines from “Jingle Bells” as mournful as a funeral dirge. By the time she’d released Hejira, her eighth album, I had come to rely on her as an essential element of my education.

For me, Hejira is like choosing an alternate route on a long trip that won’t necessarily get you there the fastest but is so pleasing during the time it unfolds you can’t resist going that way again and again.

 

A Vision Sequence from my novel-in-progress AS THE OZ-MAN DANCES

Entwined - AlHudginsSuddenly, an eerie saxophone curves its solo line like a serpent around the folds of my brain, emerging out of an icy-sounding tinkle of four notes in an ascending pentatonic minor scale, like playing the black notes on a ghostly keyboard, beginning with E-flat, and the otherworldly atmospherics of this sound sweep a calmness through me, but also a feeling of dread. Every thought in my head is somehow suspended in this drifting, mysterious music, as if we were awaiting the arrival of something ominous and relentless and could not escape the encounter. When we can bear the wait no longer, soft drums begin beating a steady 4/4 and I hear a woman begin to sing in a foreign tongue. I know this music. The saxophonist Jan Garbarek. I have this disc. It’s called Visible World. God will have his little ironies, won’t he? The song is entitled “Evening Land.” It’s a haunting piece, background to a Norwegian music video if I remember the liner notes correctly, co-written by Garbarek and a woman from the Arctic region of Lappland named Mari Boine. This is the woman who is singing, presumably in the language of her people, backed by a moody accompaniment that evokes the stark beauty and arresting near-desolation of her native landscape. It does not matter what she is actually saying, these words somehow exactly express my despair, and Garbarek’s saxophone insinuates itself into my sorrow, the notes trickling down like tears.

Without warning, the drums change their rhythm, and I hear the clack of sticks behind me and this startles me, makes me turn to face the frozen ocean behind me and I imagine myself gliding over its surface, hurtling with the speed of a comet all the way to the Arctic Circle, to the brilliance of a twenty-four-hour day shining down on the blinding, glistening surface of snow-covered tundra. There is no color here, none of the subtle shading of the temperate regions, and the edges of the shadows which fall here are as sharp as a knife. Off in the distance some people bundled in furs and sheepskin are traveling on skis and in sleds pulled by reindeer, the snap of their whips matching the slap of the drumsticks perfectly. Garbarek trills out a cluster of notes that are as alien to my ears as the words the woman has been singing or the keening of a Palestinian widow, but I am filled with a desire to make myself known to these people, and I wave my arms to hail them, but they do not see me; they are miles from where I stand, intent upon their journey across the glacial wasteland.

Now the original musical arrangement reasserts itself as I watch passively the passage of these people along the edge of the arctic horizon. They seem to move in synchrony with the loping drums, the steady strides of the reindeer falling on the beat and this woman’s song weaving in and out of this scene, first here beside me, then out there with her people, the Lapps, the Saami, those strange bundled people of the far north I find myself now so desperately and inexplicably yearning to know. Garbarek’s saxophone descends into its lower register, like the mellow voice of age, commanding my attention and offering me its instruction. These are fathers and sons who pass here, it says to me, and mothers and daughters. The woodwind yields to the woman again, who tutors me in lessons of intuition and respect, insistent as a nun and as confidential as a lover. These are dreams that pass before you, she is telling me, and desires and despairs. Imagine them, for they will not exist if you do not imagine them, she says, her voice rising, and in reply Garbarek cries out at her side. Imagine them, imagine them all, they insist, but my heart cannot contain all these hopes and fears. Now there is a rush of strings, sighing their melodic descent like a kind of gentle snowfall. I don’t feel the cold. I don’t feel anything. I don’t move before the vastness of this monochrome panorama so bright it brings tears to my eyes. It’s as if my feet were already frozen into the ice beneath them. I don’t seem to breathe. I have lost the feeling in my fingers. The drums return, carried on the rushing wind of the strings, and the woman begins to moan and wail, beyond words now, her voice beseeching me, rising high over the sleigh bells and the brute clamor of the beasts pulling the sleds, cutting through the gathering snowfall, its path made clear by the precise blows of Garbarek’s sax. I open my mouth to cry out, but I can’t be heard above the loud, urgent exclamations of voice and reed, though I try to drown them out, but they overwhelm me and finally nothing emerges from within me at all, nothing that can stop the steady progress of the passing nomads, still thundering in the far distance to the rhythm of the soft drums. The four-note ascending pentatonic line has returned, bells or perhaps synthesized chimes, something metallic and treble and struck, playing in the background, slowly climbing upward from the frosty traces across this barren earth, as tiny as snowflakes thrown up by the ceaseless arctic wind, perhaps, or the galloping hooves of the reindeer. These notes accumulate quickly into sonic drifts that have overcome the woman and begin to suffocate the woodwind, settling over everything and everyone, obscuring the wanderers beyond my view, and seeping into my throat with the vacant taste of ice. Garbarek bursts out with a sudden exclamation: Acknowledge your own limitations! The snowflakes swirl around his solo like angry bees, and they speak to me with one voice: Why must you uncover what we have so carefully hidden? Everything begins to fade away, the drums, the wind, the sound of my own breath, and I would raise up a response, but there is no other sound permitted here but Garbarek’s last desperate gasps amidst the brushing of cymbals and the sighing of the diminishing strings and even, if I’m not mistaken, a Pakistani bell tree’s glissade, which seems as woefully out of place here as I am. We are fading into an emptiness together, all of us, and into the void of holiness.

It would seem that the piece is all but over, because nearly all the instruments have stopped, the few that remain just barely audible as they fade out, and before my eyes there is nothing but a bright whiteness, the snow obscuring all signs of life. But now a spooky whisper of a vocal begins, the woman’s words close against my ear, close as a lover’s tongue, but there is wonder in her tone, a sense of awe, and the language she is speaking now sounds different, sounds almost like Hebrew, though I suppose it’s still her own language, the language of her own people. She is singing this dirge as if all the musicians of the world have suddenly died and she alone is left to mourn them. The softness with which she sings these words is exquisite, with a kind of desperation that makes you question if she’ll ever be able to take in another breath. There is certainty in the way she expresses these words. The certainty of faith, perhaps. The certainty of knowledge. And there is resolution there, too. As if she were singing for the resurrection of the dead and knew instinctively that they are better summoned forth by a whisper than a shout. I wish to summon forth no one from the dead. I wish to be away from this limbo of light and formlessness. But the woman keeps whispering these words I know and do not know. These ideas I recognize and do not recognize. I am no priest, and I am no saint, and I do not belong here, I want to tell her. But she whispers her song into my ears as if mine were the only ears that could receive it. And gradually the strings, playing as if from across the sea, quietly drift back into sound. Like the waves of a gently rolling ocean, in shushing chromatic descent, they draw near, and as I catch sight of their ship on the crests of the water, the sea becomes a desert and Garbarek’s muted sax returns, leading them like Moses. They walk across the revealed foundation of the earth with the confidence of true believers, of chosen people, and I marvel at this new landscape, so alike and so different. Bright and blinding still, but what was frozen is now burning, and what was obscured by snowflakes is now exposed to the full light of the sun. The drums return, with the cadence of a caravan, and now the nomads are bedouins, riding upon camels that step faithfully to the slow, steady beat, bringing them over one dune after another, closer, closer to where I stand, buried now in sand instead of snow, and Mari, oh sweet Mary, now she sings the same melody she’d sung at the beginning, and the song’s mystery is renewed. Garbarek blows hard here, wails his sax into the face of a sudden scirocco that sweeps over us, hurling the stinging sand into our eyes, into our mouths and ears and nostrils. Why have you uncovered what we have so carefully hidden, cries the voice at the center of the tempest, the sand swirling around us, gathering in gritty drifts around our legs, around our waists, why have you tried to uncover what we have so carefully hidden? The woman sings, the woodwind wails, the drums pound, the sand and the snow and the water and the fear, they overcome us, overcome us all.

And then there is no sound. No music. There is again the frozen beach and the eerie glow and the feeling of a presence I cannot name and do not wish to face.

This passage was inspired by a track on the ECM album by Jan Garbarek entitled “Visible World” and was composed to be read aloud with the track playing underneath, something I hope to do and then post before too long.  It contains a paraphrase of a line by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita (“Imagine  them…”).

Voices to Heed

Obama ABC Town Hall - 7-14-16

All right, I’m going to try to wade into the polarized online rhetoric after watching ABC’s town hall broadcast this evening with the President. Before I do, I’m going to mention the Golden Rule with which I was raised–treat others as you yourself would want to be treated (I learned it as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). I see the Golden Rule as Jesus placing an emphasis on the importance of seeing things from another’s point of view, something he demonstrated again and again in the Gospels in his encounters with people such as the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus, two particularly compelling exchanges in John’s Gospel.

I felt I needed that prelude because of how instantly virulent online responses can sometimes be when the President speaks. I’m asking you to suspend judgment for a moment and hear me out.

ABC arranged a very thoughtful seating of individuals who have been seen in coverage over the past week, placing individuals from different groups next to each other. The people invited to ask questions of the President were chosen by ABC, not the White House, and represented a variety of points of view. The President answered questions live, without notes, without advance notice. It was clear from how the questions were worded and how they were delivered that they were not scripted. They were heartfelt, distinctive, and worthy not only of the President’s attention but the nation’s as well.

As I write this, ABC has only posted excerpts, but I imagine at some point the complete hour will be available, and I strongly recommend watching it, regardless of your party affiliation, point of view, or ethnicity. As with the Dallas Memorial service, this is part of a new national conversation that is happening across the country.

I ask that you watch it with an open mind, an open heart, and the Golden Rule in focus. There is much to learn…and much to do.

After Dallas

Boston Orb - 10-28-14Hate is toxic.

This morning, the United States woke up to the cumulative effects of bingeing on divisiveness on social media, reality TV, the campaign trail, the Congress…

This is the morning America has finally realized that hate will kill us.

Lives matter.

Souls matter.

Respect matters.

Gratitude matters.

We must purge this poison from our hearts…and we must do it NOW.

Saturday Voices

Final Prairie Home Companion - 2Lxi

I heard the final Prairie Home Companion this morning, thanks to a link from my local Public Radio station, WNYC, because this past Saturday, when the show aired, I was up in Lenox, Massachusetts having dinner. I often missed the show on busy Saturdays, but when a more leisurely weekend came along, I indulged my love not only for Garrison Keillor and his companions but also for the Car Talk guys, Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

These Saturday voices on my radio provided me the three things I love most…laughter, song, and learning. But it was as much about the day of the week as it was about what I was hearing. I was relaxed, puttering around the house, usually multi-tasking chores like tidying up or folding laundry as I listened, and that state of mind permeates my memories of these shows. In fact, I don’t much recall the content of specific broadcasts but rather the simple pleasure of receiving them, free, clear (unless I was driving through poor reception), and full of delight.

I will miss new offerings of Garrison’s wry commentary as I’ve missed the live banter between Tom, who died a year and a half ago, and his younger brother Ray. There will be rebroadcasts of both shows, going forward, and Prairie Home Companion will return with a new host, musician Chris Thile, in October, but I will probably look for new ways to savor Saturdays.  Always though, there will be a poignant reminiscence in the mix…from those Saturdays to which I can never return, like those from my childhood or the early days of my marriage. In his final report from Lake Wobegon, Keillor spoke of seeing ghosts in the familiar places he’s frequented throughout his life. I’ll be hearing their voices.

He Tells Her What It’s Like When She Comes Into a Room

DSC_0123Like a draft of cool, pure water down a throat parched beyond all hope of relief.

Like the magic of a melody that means the world to you, when you hear it again unexpectedly, how it halts your advance and makes you wistful for a return to that time when you first heard it.

Like the earliest hint of returning dawn to the darkest sky, suddenly diminishing the ordeal of night.

Like the first glimpse of a mountain range emerging through the morning’s mist during a journey from the plains, or the gasp that catches in your throat when you behold the sea after a lifetime inland.

Like the indescribable hope that comes from a sure sign of spring: a warm breeze after weeks of icy gales, or a green shoot struggling up through the frozen sod, or the sighting of the season’s first red-breasted robin on the dull gray landscape.

Like the electrical charge that travels up from the bottom of your spine to your brain when you realize a notion so profound it cannot be expressed by words but only by physical sensation.

Like the exquisite delight from the touch of your eyes gazing upon mine, resurrecting me quicker than those dry bones from the Bible brought to life before the startled eyes of the prophet.

Like the abiding comfort that can sweep over a body when it knows it is where it needs to be, in the right place, at the right time, with the right company, and for the right reason.

So, do you understand now, my exquisite torture and my vixen of delight, my personal devil, my endlessly fascinating Marie, do you understand now what I feel inside my poor sorry carcass whenever you walk into a room?

–from the novel in progress The Moon and Michael Ridion (Chapter 6)

(c) 2016 Al Hudgins