Sunday, May 10, 2015

Joni Mitchell: The Lone Brave Maverick

Or, Joni Mitchell Rebel With A Clue. 

An over view of the release HEJIRA, 

Joni Mitchell, the cool jazz siren circa 1976 source

                Sex has always been Joni Mitchell’s favorite subject.  That may not be on first inspection obvious because she always coils it so tightly with romantic love. A bond so tight that they cannot be separated.  Like a true romantic, even a disillusioned one, sex seen in isolation is just too barren a field to explore. There has to be more.

                Of all of the singer songwriters in American music, few have dissected their love life so vigorously as Mitchell.  With the eye of a surgeon and the heart of a poet, she relentlessly examines the wins and losses of love as if to make sense of them as much as she expresses them.

 Hers is an art form that is ultimately about expression and communication with as few concessions to anyone’s expectations except her own.   It was clear early in her career that she was at the helm and would tireless work to ensure that her vision was the dominate one.

Even at her most lofty, and Hejira is one of those moments, there is always the faint  feeling that she is trying to learn something from her own past, even if only how to record it.  There is the sense that she is trying to figure out what she is doing and why so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.

The only woman to play at the Band's Last Waltz.  Then again, she was always one of the boys.

                Court and Spark witnessed her at her most romantic and high spirited. She was creating songs that were about anxiety while expressing it all with music that was anything but uncertain. It was a sure footed meeting of jazz, rock and roll and the standard pop song that she reworked in a way that was a hybrid of all forms but losing none of the flavor of any of them.   Even in this release, she was still a romantic even at her most apprehensive about the outcome of love.

It is just that type of merger of the romantic with the sexual explorer that makes Hejira one of her masterpieces, albeit a very dark one.   After the musical explorations and experiments of the Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell scaled back her sound to almost minimalist dimensions so as to turn inward.

Hejira is not a return to her folk past, but it certainly recalls it.  It also shares with Bob Dylan the idea of a song extending far  beyond three minutes with lyrics that are far denser than what most popular songs dare to do.  Even today, few songs attempt the sprawling lyric expansiveness of Hejira.

The back story of the album was that Mitchell was making a cross country drive from Maine back to California.  During the journey, her experiences became the material for Hejira.  It is an album about the road, but it is more than just a collection of road songs.  

When taken as a whole, Hejira tackles the subject of love, romance, wanderlust, creative freedom, choice and the drive to make art.  It is ambitious material.   Like the visual artist she has always been, the song are jam packed with symbolism: of the visual kind.  The highway becomes a metaphor for life, birds are symbols of freedom and coyotes represent appealing, but fleeting lovers.

If there is one song that encompasses the theme of the recording, Amelia is it.   Likening herself to another woman who dared to explore in a world dominated by men,  Mitchell compares her journey to that of the lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart.  She also brings in Ikarus, the Greek who sailed too close to the sun and fell to earth used here as a symbol of love so ambitious and over reaching that it falters under its own mammoth ambitions. 

At one time a model in her native Canada, she still fascinates in her 70's .

The inference is that if you chose a life of adventure and embrace brave new creative terrain openly, the risk can be your own destruction.  Superficially, the song is about love lost.  On a much deeper plain it is so grand and so profoundly sorrowful that she makes  a compelling case that romantic failures are worth the pain if for nothing else the inspiration they provide.  

Mitchell has frequently painted love, even marriage, as things to be desired, but always leery.  Love, even for one’s craft, is a double edged sword that cuts harshly both ways.   For her, a woman who selects marriage and domesticity risks the loss of her muse, new love, adventure and the draw of the road.  

To be connected to a soul mate means the abandonment of the mournful siren who suffers for her craft.  Whatever path chosen, the romantic power of dangerous liaisons with dashing men is just too strong for an artist dependent on them for inspiration to reject.  Even in this portrait of love, sex is the magic fuel that ignites passions and romantic longings.

Mitchell may question her decisions, but she never goes so far as to regret them. When love ends, it ends. 

Detroit's hot folk couple.  In the end, Joni would take her husband's name and build her own career.

Ultimately, she selects the promise of the road.  There is never any question about the path she has chosen.   When she sang, “Its always come for me,” she knew damn well that she was destined to be the singer songwriter that was going to emotionally suffer for the sake of art.  Even if the rewards are great, happiness may very well be the cost.

If many of her follower’s mimic the intimate nature of her music, few manage to make the jump to self-revelation that becomes artistic expression.   Mitchell never simply recounts an experience, she lends them a majesty that make the smallest human moment an epic theatrical event.  It is not an easy task to accomplish without looking foolish.   

For an artist who never seemed particularly worried about what anyone thought, she created her music her own way and managed to surround herself with talented players who “got” what she was saying.  If the session players of L.A. considered her chords, odd hybrids, she found sanctuary with jazz musicians.

The late Jaco Pasotrious brings his fretless bass to the front of the line here and is a strong presence even where he is absent.  It is almost as if Pastorious and Mitchell were a duet on Hejira with both parts intertwined. The interplay between the two create a sound that is unique and sensual.  While  Hejira doesn’t sound like a pure jazz album, it certainly takes a great deal of inspiration from the idiom.  

Hejira could be conceived as an extended poetry reading.  The singing fits the mood of the compositions, and in many ways carry much of the melody.  Sounding partly sung and partly spoken, there is a remote quality here that actually is put to great effect.  There is even a sense of humor found between the lines.

One of the post poignant and simultaneously cynical is the character study that makes up “Furry Sings The Blues.”   Her visit to the aging musician Furry Lewis is granted because of the gifts she brings, cigarettes and liquor.  He is fully aware he is only being sought for what he represents and Mitchell is fully aware of the contrast between a successful musician and one facing obscurity in reduced circumstances.   
A visual artist derailed by circumstance, she managed to bring the lofty world of fine art to music

In a much earlier song, “For Free,” Mitchell explored the contrasts between herself and a street musician.  This time around, she has brought details, a character portrait.  She paints the scene of a once thriving Black community reduced to rumble and commercialization. She also makes a connection between the ill Lewis and the community around him both facing bleak times.   

The song also operates as a not too veiled premonition that Mitchell herself could end up alone with smoke and drink facing the inevitable conclusion of a life of wanderlust.  Mitchell certainly sees aspects of herself in the aging musician with the implicit understanding that they may share a similar fate: aging.

Hejira quietly puts forth the dilemma of women in music.  When success and fame hit, they bring comprise, fears and the potential for self-destruction.   For a woman, the price may be any kind of family life.  While Mitchell is hailed as the great chronicler of female experience, she is not alone.

Aretha Franklin, the titanic talent that can confidently handle nearly anything thrown at her, is often under rated as an articulate sage.   Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll even opera, she is the force of musical power that confidently spells out the real trouble women have.   If Mitchell is the cool lady of sorrows, Franklin is the vocal power of emancipation, fear, need and expression.  Both are doing similar things, but in wildly different ways.

She may have been the quintessential California Blonde, but she felt a kinship with Black men.

If Franklin states her case directly, Mitchell is the very restrained English woman who depends on veiled language to get the point across.  While she is not armed with a voice that can shake the rafters or the anguish of a Roy Orbison, Mitchell uses her cool voice, well-chosen words and idiosyncratic musical approach to become effective and powerful. Hejira will never be a party album, but it packs a powerful punch when heard.

The big contrast with Mitchell is that she is feminine externally but in attitude very much like  a strong willed man marking his path and taking lovers as the situations dictate.  In a song like Coyote, she is not the wounded woman but the sexual conqueror who reflects with no regrets.  She is only pissed off when her current man has a wondering eye in her presence.  

 Mitchell knows the ways of men and eventually laughs it all off as just part of the party.   She maybe stung by lost love, but never so wounded that she can’t keep going.  She is much stronger than she looks and very much an artist who overrides gender entirely.  In no way has she ever been a traditional woman in song.
Far too important and relevant to ever become an oldies act. A fate that many would find.

Hejira unlike the wordiness of some rockers, is the achievement of an artist at a high point.  Mitchell’s ultimate achievement maybe her ability to build music every bit as quirky as her poetic sensibility that come together in a fascinating way.   No matter how you size it up, the genre she has more or less created puts her in a class all her own.  Many have taken from her, but few can match what she does the way she does it.  As tightly woven as she has been in the music world, she has followed her own sound independent of trends or fashion.  

When I hear music from different places in time, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter sound as if taken from another time. They have aged well which is a testament to how well they were crafted. 

Hejira is a unique recording, and it fits in with the developments that drew her to creating her first all out jazz recoding, Mingus, a collaboration with the last bassist Charles Minugs.

The 70’s were a creative time for Mitchell.  Even in later years, she has managed to keep the spirit going for so much longer than her many peers.  Rather than fall into repeating herself or becoming an artist content with her past achievements, she has been able to expand and continue for a long time in a music industry not given to providing platforms for creative mavericks.  

 Her legacy may very well rest on her status as a loner.  It is the ultimate  “cool” and the only path to authenticity.

By Kurt von Behrmann

Mr. von Behrmann is an artist who writes.  Currently living and working in Phoenix, Arizona, he is working an new pieces for an art exhibition about bipolar disorder.  

To learn more, and continue support for projects like this, visit this Link.

Thank you.

No comments: