Joni Mitchell and the comfort of melancholy

I have a slight cold. Nothing compared to a brain haemorrhage I know but enough to give me that pleasant convalescent feeling which minor ailments can carry with them.

As a not very well known cold cure, I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira again and I am convinced that it is working.

No one is cooler, more laid back or more evocative of that spirit of being alone on the road with some issues to deal with, maybe, but deep down having that delightful sense that

“There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain.”

Hejira is a Middle Eastern word for journey and the whole album was written when she was on an epic trip traveling home alone across America after a performing tour.

If you were ever seduced by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, if you fancy yourself as a moody rolling stone – gathering no moss but just few experiences on route – or even if you just want to listen to one of the great singer-songwriters of our times, then you owe it to yourself to indulge in some personal time with this album and to find some comfort in her melancholy whether you have a cold or not.

Needless to say, it is worth it alone just to hear Neil Young’s bluesy harmonica playing on the track Furry Sings The Blues. A song where Mitchell is lamenting a favourite theme, the loss of characterful bohemian streets in favour of malls and parking lots. Neil Young just melts your heart in the way harmonicas do.

On this album Mitchell has moved on from her folk/rock roots to embrace blues and jazz and to collaborate with some great musicians, none more impressive than the great electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius whose adventurously wide ranging bass and amazing bass guitar harmonies make him an equal partner, a fellow jazz improviser to Joni Mitchell’s voice which is now maturer, richer and more risk-taking than it was on her most famous album Blue.

Was Jaco Pastorius the greatest bassist that has ever lived? Of course he was….just listen to him if you don’t believe me. It is one of those great rock ‘n roll tragedies that he not only went down that one way street to drugs and drink overload but he ended his life at the age of 35 with a careless punch from a club bouncer.

This album was newly minted for me again as I slumped on a sofa listening to it yesterday.

If you want the perfect conditions for enjoying it just take my advice:

Catch a minor head cold,

Light a log fire,

Lie on the most comfortable sofa God has yet created,

Dim the lights,

Or light some candles,

Burn some incense,

Do what else you have to do to mellow your senses

And just open your ears.

It will never fail, believe me.

My journey began all over again lying there with Joni yesterday afternoon. Back on the road again…driving on one of those unbelievably straight American freeways through an unending landscape with just your own thoughts for company.

I have been a lucky man. My work has paid me to travel solo to many interesting places and given me enough time to enjoy it, as Joni Mitchell sings, until I am “porous with travel fever.”

That enjoyable melancholy reminds me of a friend’s house at university. He was older than the rest of us, had made a few mistakes and picked up some baggage but he had learnt a bit about life’s pleasures.

He filled that tiny house with books, stacked on shelves of discarded floorboards and bricks, he had all the great albums, piled in alphabetical order of artist, he had found two abandoned sofas and covered them in Indian shawls and the walls he painted white.

To me, it was the perfect house.

It was there, in front of his wood fire, lying on a sofa with a slight cold, that I first heard the magic of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and The Band. All Canadian national treasures and all perennial performers in that great concert in my mind. There will always be that virtual fire, with the gentle crackling of old wood, whenever I listen to these folk.

They speak of days of freedom, ambition and hope but also days that never hurried, never worried too much and most certainly never knew when you’d had enough.

So welcome back Joni, you have been away too long. I hope my cold lingers for just a bit longer because there are plenty more albums where Hejira came from.

11 Comments

  1. “He keeps referring back to school days
    And clinging to his child
    Fidgeting and bullied
    His crazy wisdom holding onto something wild.”

  2. Oh yes!

    You have spotted something there Anatole.

    Wild seems increasingly good to me.

  3. Oddly – or perhaps not – I’ve just been listening to Renee Fleming singing Joni Mitchell. It shouldn’t work – but it does. It was “The River” – wrong time of year, but who cares.

    I loved the description of the room – it sounded like the aspirations of my student days, when a bottle of Bull’s Blood was seen as the height of sophistication.

    I wish I could do ‘wild’ – I think I’m getting stuck in ‘dotty’, although there are worse things to be.

    I’ve just got over a not-too-serious cold – so the whole house smells of Olbas Oil.

  4. Claudio,

    I have heard that Renee Fleming crossing over is much better than you would think so I believe you.

    I am just too committed to Joni Mitchell though to want to hear anyone else singing her stuff.

    I am told that Renee Fleming manages to repress her operatically produced sound really successfully. Certainly when I have heard her being interviewed she seems refreshingly “normal” about these things so good luck to her.

    I think Anatole has seen through me though – I am, I guess, going through a period of digging up memories of earlier days – and pretty selective ones too – ones that seem to be telling me something about my life now.

    Yay!

  5. Claudio, dotty is just a negative spin on wild, so go for it man.

    Have you heard James Taylor’s cover of “River?” I’m a Mitchell purist like Wolf, but it’s quite touching…probably because he’s accepting blame for inspiring the song in the first place.

  6. Ladies and Gentlemen

    Can I introduce Anatole, the World’s expert on Joni Mitchell!

    I don’t know the James Taylor version and now I feel totally humbled about even trying to comment on Hijera.

    I am about to play Joni Mitchell’s album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter for the first time on your recommendation so I think, Anatole, the crown is your’s.

    It would be good to hear more about M/s Mitchell from both of you gentlemen.

    Personally, I cannot get enough of it – if you see what I mean!

    So over to you.

  7. And, by the way, Anatole, what is that quotation? It has been playing with my mind since yesterday.

  8. Somebody hasn’t been listening so very closely to Hejira–shame on you Wolf!

    Go back to your supernaturally comfortable couch, lie back and give another listen to “Strange Boy.”

    And I’m hardly the world’s expert–just a devoted acolyte.

    Enjoy Don Juan, my friend…

  9. Yay! How strange!

    I kept thinking I know that quote but couldn’t place it!

    I was listening to Strange Boy only yesterday too.

    Can I blame the brain damage please?

    I have just listened to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. My virgin hearing.
    Amazing…complex…and inspiring.

    It is so weirdly relevant to my thoughts at present. Now I have so much to take in….I will try to write about it when I have heard it a few more times.

    Thank you, man, for opening my eyes to all that stuff in there.

  10. *crosses fingers.
    I think it was a little inaccurate saying that I was in my teens when I started listening to this music. It more was more likely as I approached 21 and my finals. I seem to remember playing her rather endlessly in my roomy attic in our shared and shabby house.

    I must have about 9 or 10 of her albums but I don’t actually HAVE them at the moment. A few years ago I leant them to my then friend who makes beautiful stained glass and her slightly whacky partner who was trying make audio speakers out of toilets, using faux fur as some sort of softening device.
    He took a liking to the way Joni Mitchell sounded on the radio and for some reason I leant him all my stuff! I can’t believe I did that now – it’s years ago.
    I see my friend from time to time around town and very very occasionally we might mention the records but I’ve never had them back and I feel sort of self conscious about going to collect them since they live so remotely, I couldn’t just be passing.
    We don’t have the means to listen to vinyl at the moment but your talking about Hejira reminded me.. I have that album.
    Since fur lined toilet speakers haven’t become all the rage, my guess is he’s moved on.
    I wonder whether it was after he broke his leg and I was there when he had a bath – maybe that was when the deal was struck.

    I’ll have to try and get them back!

    The music, for me, is for drifting about across the fields feeling a bit mellow,hopeful and unattached. it’s music for ‘in-between’, I think I listened to it the most between my degree and starting my training – so when I was being dreamy in Devon and mixed up in London.

    It’s nice to remember the songs.

  11. Thanks for the comment Bridge,

    I love your description of that attic. Why do any of us move out of those shabby rooms?

    How wonderful too to feel “mellow, hopeful and unattached.”

    Lovely though the world has been since, there was something very special about those days which Joni Mitchell put into a bottle for us.

    I am, in the interests of propriety, not going to comment about you bathing that guy with the broken leg. I can confess to a mild ripple of jealousy though.

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