Hejira: the refuge of the musical roads travelled by Joni Mitchell

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If 2016 taught us anything, beyond the fact political pundits may get facts about politicians totally wrong but unlike politicians, have the brass neck to keep appearing on telly and don’t resign like the politicians, it is this.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, so cherish it.

That line from Big Yellow Taxi could apply to the musical foot soldiers we lost in 2016. The Mount Rushmores of that year were, to most minds, Bowie, Prince, Cohen, George Michael.

The four of them were intensely personal singer-songwriters, given to playing around with identity, dipping in and out of fashion, wonderful at collaborating but pretty darned powerful on their own.

And so if 2016 taught us anything, maybe it taught us we have to appreciate similar musical greats while they’re in our midst.

Hejira is not one of the big selling Joni Mitchell albums, it certainly doesn’t have a hit like Big Yello Taxi or Both Sides Now on it,  it is the meat in the Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)/Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1976) sandwich. It is above all a phenomenal piece of work.

Take Song for Sharon, all eight minutes and forty of it. A song that long can take in playing bingo, and poker, falling in love, visiting a fortune teller, skating on an ice rink, the suicide of a friend (possibly frenemy), rhyming “leaving her man at a North Dakota junction” with a “dream malfunction”. And so it decides to do just that.

Hejira is a musicians’ album.

Not in the sense that musicians from Bjork to jazzers like Herbie Hancock to Chaka Khan (who covered the title track) rave about it.

The musicians on this album are something else.

Many of them LA session musicians who would walk through Santa Monica untroubled. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every chance we get to praise them like we should.

Hejira is a musicians’ album featuring musical greats. For instance:-

  • Double bassist Charles Domanico, who played on the themes for M*A*S*H and Cheers, who plays on Blue Motel Room here.
  • The great guitarist Larry Carlton, who added his Gibson riffs  to Becker and Fagen’s vision on many of Steely Dan’s ‘70s records, as well as MJ’s Off The Wall, and the theme for Hill Street Blues. (There are Emmy as well as Grammys in this studio).
  • Bassist Max Bennett, so good on Song for Sharon, who also played session bass for everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Patridge Family. He also appeared on Lalo Schifrin’s Bullitt soundtrack.
  • Neil Young plays harmonica on track three, Furry Sings The Blues.
  • And the small matter of Joni herself. Her songwriting, her singing, her excellent choice in collaborators all serve to camouflage what Chrissie Hyde once told Rolling Stone: “She is an excellent guitar player…I don’t know any guitar player, any of the real greats, who don’t rate Joni Mitchell up there with the best of them.”

Other albums like Blue, Court & Spark  and Clouds  showcase Joni singing a song, often just her and an acoustic guitar.

Hejira highlights what she could do with an acoustic and electric, and when she let herself loose with multi-tracking too.

Only Jaco Pastorius, whose fretless bass also  makes the album so good, is no longer with us, although we just lost Sam Shepard, the widely accepted muse for opening track Coyote.

All the others who played on Hejira not least Joni herself should be wrapped up in cotton wool and garlanded with Lifetime Achievement Awards every chance there is..

 

 

 

The book is called Reckless, the life is anything but

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Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography is called Reckless.

She didn’t strike me that way having read it.

Sure, there’s the lack of a Michael Heseltine-style five-year masterplan. If LinkedIn had been around in the mid-to-late ‘70s, her profile might have required some creative accounting. Missing all her uni classes.  A load of drugs she probably shouldn’t have taken, some shoplifting, fare-dodging and spells in squats and running from Nowheresville, Ohio to Cleveland to sleeping on floors in London to Paris and back to London doesn’t make for a great resume, as they call it over there.

But definitions of reckless include thoughtless, inattentive and devil-may-care.

Chrissie Hynde’s terms of  her ambition is to be in a band and form enough writing material to make interesting songs, then it’s perfect. And almost unrepeatable.

The admittedly just-repeated “unrepeatable” is apt here because the London Chrissie Hynde encounters is a very different beast from the 21st century mass of crane currently with its balls gripped by eastern European and Asian oligarchy and a manifesto set by the corporations who ruined our skyline.

Rent at £4 a week, putting 5p in the meter, waiting to use the callbox in the hall…. Chrissie Hynde’s prose makes the city look as old fashioned in her own way as Dickens or Peter Ackroyd.

The grit she portrays belies a certain glamour….diving into squats, blagging work at the NME and noising up Neil Diamond fans with her reviews (an early form of trolling), turning up to late for work with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and getting fired, nipping over to Mick Jones’ flat in Royal Oak where his gran made her tea, hanging out with The Ramones and The Damned (pictured) in Camden at their Roundhouse gig, modelling in St. Martin’s while rehearsing with The Pretenders in Covent Garden, marathons on speed in a bikers’ clubhouse in Eltham. London, like New York, has always considered itself as the most exciting city in the world. She makes it feel like that in the pages, not writing about her native America with anything like the same affection.

There’s something freeing about how she describes the opportunities of discovering public transport – especially when she perfects jumping over the barriers at Clapham South.

“Public transport! What genius thought that one up?” she writes. Most rock stars are waiting in a corner for their limo. She explores the options of moving around the city while not paying for it.

The book is annoying in some aspects. The story stops just when the band is taking off and ex-boyfriend and band member Pete has died. She’s coy about her relationship with Ray Davies and, as the book ends,  hasn’t married Jim Kerr yet. (If it’s Part 1 of a two or three-part autobiography, have the decency to say so on the front).

But the crucible of Chrissie Hynde as a musician is all in there.

What emerges is of a tough broad who ditched everything else that got in the way of her goal. College, architectural practice, the fashion scene, selling handbags on market stalls, eventually the drugs.

And in the end, you have songs as good as Back on the Chain Gang, Brass in Pocket and Don’t Get Me Wrong.

Chrissie Hynde is not reckless at all. There’s a throughline in her entire story which has continued after the book stops in the early ‘80s. She kept chasing the music.

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