When clearing out my parents’ house, I found a tatty box of records. Cast iron and frail Joni stared out at me from Hejira. I remembered walking into a friend’s kitchen and hearing, “Like Icarus ascending,” and being hit by a lightning bolt. God knows, I loved you thirty years ago but I’ve not listened to you in many years. The volume switch of the record player grazed rusty as I turned it up high. The needle graced the vinyl, bbb-ttoom.
‘Coyote’ picked me up and I was away again. Gone were the fine melodies of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, replaced with restless chugging, a prisoner of the freeway. Her voice played in and out of the bars, syncopating the bone and the skin and the eyes and the scrambled eggs and yet still related to the whole. Hard to imagine the song without Jaco’s bass erupting up into the melody.
‘Amelia’s’ opening shifting from 3/4 to 4/4 does it to me still. Potentially jarring and yet through her hands natural. Only to be followed by a key change, which keeps it all unsettled and at icy altitudes. The delicate vibraphone, up in the sonic clouds, the lead guitar soaring and falling on eddies. As she returned to melody, her voice had a maturity, playing like a silly sea-bird with the lead guitar. How perfect is her bluesy note behind “his sad request of me to kindly stay away”. And at the end, Joni pulls into the full and hollow Cactus Tree Motel and questions if she’s still up in the clouds of ‘Both Sides, Now’. I still hung to hear her guitar playing fall apart in the fade, a hall mark to the authenticity. This is no manicured recording, just an artist performing.
Old Furry swam around me, Neil Young’s meandering harmonica, the unresolved verse form, bravely cut free from a repeated tag line like ‘Coyote’ and ‘Amelia’. Whilst I liked the lyric of Strange Boy, musically it never did much for me, not really brought to maturity.
I held my breath. That first note of ‘Hejira’ and the travelling arpeggio stands out against the other songs, that turning and turning of the road, the sweeps of the overdubbed bass. Only Joni could play the same note on two different strings and make them sound different, hope and hopelessness. How would this song be without the bass lines? They set to travelling so perfectly, picked up years later by Vince Mendoza into the brass lines on the Travelogue version. The for-free clarinet. Her guitar overdub accentuates the song’s “truce against the moon” climax, so, so subtle and yet almost over powering.
‘Song for Sharon’ was always emotion and abstraction for me, brought to life by the Di-da-di-da backing vocals, almost as emblematic at the do-wap-wap-wap of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. I wonder if Jaco ever played bass on this and wouldn’t behave himself so she didn’t use it? It would be hard to imagine him here.
‘Black Crow’ back to rhythm flapping again and not a percussive instrument in sight. And the pure blues of ‘Blue Motel Room’, leaving me west bound and rolling into the reflective précis, ‘Refuge of the Road’. Does any one else hear Jaco quote the opening melody of ‘Hejira’ in the closing bars?
What did I hear, 30 years on?
I realised these notes, struck out so long ago, form the soundtrack of life. In a car, ‘Hejira’s’ arpeggios tumble through my mind, in a plane ‘Amelia’ floats about the clouds. And how the lyrics, with all their resonating metaphors weaved through the work but out also into the greater body of her work, inspired me to write.
You’re still a masterpiece. A friend of spirit. Non, je ne regrette rien. I still love you.
After all these years, Hejira sucked me back that way.