21 February 2009
Music Snob Journal #2: Joni Mitchell - Hejira
Folk music is a strange genre because I think it's undefinable. And it's because there's an inherent conflict in the politics of folk music. On one hand, folk is the music of community, the common people, everyman and everywoman and everyone in between. Because of every folkie's unshaking belief in humanity, every folk song is a plea to the so-called emotional universality of human experience. And that is reflected in the obsession with acoustic instrumentation, poetic lyrics (but not overly abstract), nostalgia, outmoded genres... which is why when Dylan went electric at Newport, the hippies freaked out.

Many have accused Dylan of killing the scene, dividing what had been assumed as a folk renaissance in the US at the time. This was the 60s, an era of heightened political consciousness and experimentation with alternative lifestyles in the face of growing disillusionment with the superficiality of modern living in the post-WW2 years. But what Dylan really did instead was reveal folk music's internal conflict and gave the scene a much needed injection of reality.

The future of folk music was given a new trajectory: it would embrace that disillusionment. The hippies would have to choose: remain idealists or become more individualistic (or, more bluntly put, selfish, self-obsessed and self-serving)... Goodbye community. Hello me, myself and I...

When the loud blaring slick 70s and 80s came along, folk music and its quaint charms were seen to be anti-modern, old-fashioned, dull as unpolished brass.

On the other hand, one can think of folk music in a broader sense, that it's a genre of music of the people. And no matter what it's incarnation, the music that gets heard, that gets to the heart of the people (in spite of the marketing plan, or maybe because of it) is just folk music in the guise of pop, rock, hip hop... etc.

In that sense, folk never died. It merely found another door, different clothes, new instruments, louder amps, a new attitude, things that reflected the concerns of the society that produce and embrace it.

Still, neither definitions of folk music is really satisfactory. Such is the tyranny of genre labelling. When one tries to pin down something as ephemeral as culture, all one can find is that if you can pin it down, it's already dead.

Which is artists who are contrary, contradictory, seemingly of and outside of the age, culture and society they live in, are important. I regard such artists as embodiments of what's so wrong and so right about our lives. Someone like Britney Spears, for instance. I don't really like much the music she makes but I have to take my hat off to her. Because she channels that tunnel-vision obsessiveness with the narrative of the self that has become such a significant element of contemporary life. There is nothing but the self. And the self is really nothing but layers and layers of useless stories clad in designer clothes and glib pronouncements of "Yes, it took a lot out of me but I overcame my problems and now I feel OK." It's the journey of a fool to sage, with a few hairstyle changes to illustrate the transformation.

There is another journey that a musician can take... it's a bit lonelier. Because the cameras are not turned on 24/7, and the songs are less facile, less instant.

For me, it would be too easy to reduce contemporary society to a "confederacy of dunces", consumer-robots, proles. We are a violent society with violent urges. This is very Freudian, yes. Humans cannot be trusted with their own fates. Civilisation demands the force of state violence in order to keep it in line. We resist civilisation even as we embrace it. (Actually some of the most excitingly uncivilised people I've met in my travels through the social strata turn out to be the really rich, the modern nobility I guess.) Thus the fact that democracy cannot exist in its ideal state--otherwise it would just fall apart. In a way, I think this is the reason for that inherent conflict in folk music. To sing for an audience who instinctively wants to see the singer destroyed is not a career path for an idealist.

But there is that other path. And now I will write about one of its most well-known traveler... and whose journey, while not as prophetic as Dylan's, pioneered the later change in the American folk music scene more presciently. All singer songwriters born after 1969 owe a debt to this woman...

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Joni Mitchell... Princess of Alberta, transplanted to California ... musical drifter... hippie diva... Queen of Woodstock (denied of her throne)... breaker of hearts from Laurel Canyon all the way to Paris and beyond...

Before there was Madonna or Bjork or even Kate Bush, there was Joni Mitchell. She may have held on to her wheat blonde locks and imposing canyon-dweller looks, but here was a female musician who broke barriers of genre before most people knew there were barriers to be broken.

OK. OK. Enough with the platitudes already. You can read all about her various achievements on her Wiki page.

I want to talk about one of her albums in particular. My favourite Joni album, that is: "Hejira".

You can also read the Wiki page on the album.

After all that has been written, what is there left to write? Not to worry... I'm in a verbose mood.

The first time I ever encountered Joni Mitchell's music was way back in 1984 or 85. My eldest brother Abraham was back then and still is a fan of folk and country music. And it was from him that I learnt about the song "Both Sides Now" which is Mitchell's signature song. But the version that I knew was not the original version recorded for Mitchell's second album "Clouds" (1969). But the Judy Collins' version which was a hit. But by the 1980s the song had already become a folk standard. And if you look it up now, you'll probably find that tons of people have covered the song over and over.

But learning to sing that song even via secondary sources, I had the feeling that here was a very special song. It wasn't like most other pop songs, which were usually straightforward and had no inherent wisdom to reveal. Mitchell's songwriting shone through... and though I didn't know at the time that she had written the song, I knew instinctively that it came from someone who saw life through ancient eyes.

Sometime in 1987 I saw a video clip of a song she did with Peter Gabriel, "My Secret Place" from the album "Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm" (1988). She wore Native American clothes... I was intrigued. She looked like some middle-class shaman wannabe... but she wore it well. At the time I was really into pop music... I was 12. So I was kinda scared of listening to more "exotic" stuff... I remember listening to Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album" and thought "What the fuck is this?" (I did eventually like that Barbra album. But you know that's something I'd rather not go into much detail about... maybe for my Music Embarassment Journal.)

In 1992, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought my first Joni Mitchell album. It was her early 90s comeback album "Night Ride Home" (1991). Compared to her earlier albums, "Night Ride Home" sounds more polished, less focused... but at the time, I really loved it. Her voice had already become its present-day tar-burnished croon. But she retained her ingenuity for melody and lyrics and that was enough for me...

So it was rather strange that I sort of sidestepped Mitchell's music the whole time I was abroad when I could've immersed myself in it. Granted during the nineties I was more interested in jungle, trip hop, and alternative rock... I had given up on folk music for a while... but when I moved to KL in 2000 and had a chance to frequent the music stores here, I took another look and found some of Mitchell's earlier albums.

And after listening to her "Hits" to acquaint myself with the Mitchell standards, I decided to pick up "Hejira". Later I listened to "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" which I also love dearly and probably listen to more than "Hejira" but really the latter is a much more solid album. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose "Hejira".

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Joni Mitchell - Hejira (Asylum, 1976)

1. Coyote
2. Amelia
3. Furry Sings the Blues
4. A Strange Boy
5. Hejira
6. Song for Sharon
7. Black Crow
8. Blue Motel Room
9. Refuge of the Roads

I don't know how Joni Mitchell writes her songs... I know she uses alternate tunings and strums strange rhythm patterns... but I just don't know how and where she comes up with the songs on "Hejira". Compared to earlier songs like "Both Sides Now" or "The Circle Game" or "Big Yellow Taxi"... the songs on "Hejira" just sound formless.

Music critics like to call the period during which "Hejira" came out her "experimental" period. Yes, she was experimenting... I don't think anyone has yet to come close to approximating the kind of musical hybrid she concocted here. She blended folk and jazz and rock elements into such a peculiar fusion, and with such strangely mystical and yet personal lyrics that it's hard to imagine how she ever thought that there would be an audience ready to embrace this back in 1976.

Granted she had already done her proto-experiments on previous albums like "Court And Spark" and "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" but even those albums still hewed to a certain pop convention (although the latter had really taken off on its own tangent).

I can imagine "Hejira" putting off the purists of folk and jazz and rock. But rightly so, because "Hejira" is about a journey, the album title itself (which I long thought was a Native American word) actually comes from "hijrah" (as her Wiki page explains), referencing the Prophet Muhammad's escape from Mecca to Medina. Mitchell herself explained that the album was mostly written while travelling solo across the States.

It was an indulgent exploration of the self definitely... what is art if not that? And yet, to be able to produce a work of art that has true resonance for a broader audience... don't you need to be honest with your musical ambitions and remain true to your artistic muses, despite the society's preconditions? Mitchell is nothing if not a musician who is able to see both sides of the page. The complex songs on "Hejira" deal with contradictions, the conflicted soul in transition, wearing masks and casting them off, revealing the restlessness of someone who wants it all and yet is unsure of what she can offer in return except the restlessness itself.

All of it comes out in the song: the freeflowing lyrics, the doubled strums of her guitar, Jaco Pastorius's singing basslines, and Mitchell's vocal melodies that twist and turn like a figure skater across a vast expanse of frozen lake, with only the winter sky as audience.

My favourite song on the album is "Amelia". Of course. It's one of Mitchell's loveliest songs, in which she addresses the celebrated aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose plane went down mysteriously somewhere in the South Pacific in 1937. Obviously Mitchell considers Earhart a kindred soul, imagining the pilotess to be her airborne counterpart...

"I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture postcard charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm

I wish that he was here tonight
It's so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away
So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Maybe I've never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

I pulled into the cactus tree motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms"

The song echoes the bittersweet sentiments of her earlier song about altitude "Both Sides Now" but I think "Amelia" is the more interesting. It's more convincing... less sure... more fragile... more honest...

Other vignettes of lives on the verge of sublimation appear on the album... "Furry Sings The Blues" "A Strange Boy" "Black Crow" "Song For Sharon"... just beautiful... so easy to just disappear into the songs.

For me, the most outstanding quality of the album is its consolidation of its various parts. Listening to it is like listening to a complete suite of songs, thematic, melodic, self-contained and yet with an emotional reach that goes beyond. I've only heard it successfully pulled off on a few other occassions: Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love", Judee Sills's "Heart Food", Joanna Newsom's "Ys", and Bjork's "Vespertine". But Joni Mitchell did it with much less... and much more...

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