Summer 2009: Features
Illustration by Yan Nascimbene
Joni and Me
How Joni Mitchell’s hejira inspired a kindred soul to become a “hitcher on the free, free way”—at least for a little while.
By Susan Carini 04G
When Joni Mitchell decided on a great escape in the mid-1970s, she tacked a fancy name onto it befitting her evolving iconoclast image: hejira. The story is that she drove from the eastern United States to the West with no license, a somewhat tenuous grasp of the rules of the road, and that blonde head in those famous clouds of hers as she contemplated another self-destructing romance.
Enviable art results from nearly everything she does, and no less so with the recording that followed once she had showered off the dust. Mitchell has given us few photographic images of her on the albums—instead, she settled into a pattern of providing painted self-portraits (some with cats, all with tongue in cheek). Which is why the Hejira album is so arresting, especially in an era before Photoshop.
A road runs straight through Mitchell, who is stunning in a black cloak with her windswept hair and the ubiquitous cigarette. The wind machine never worked so hard; bohemianism may have no higher expression; and Mitchell made it so difficult for the rest of us to undertake a great escape on lesser terms.
One can argue that Mitchell’s career has been fueled by these comings and goings, by the allure of being a “hitcher” on the “free, free way,” as she describes herself in the song “Coyote.” It is certainly no accident that, in summing up the work of her career on a two-disc set in 2002, she settled on the title Travelogue. Unlike Hejira, Travelogue did not produce any photographs of the young, lithesome Mitchell in a sundress holding a forearm up against the blazing desert sun. But damned if she didn’t again travel unforgettably, this time a startling number of miles back across a brilliant career.
Knowing that the glamour odds and gods surely would be against me, knowing that I can hardly remember how to hold a cigarette (one wisely gives those up, Joni) and that a wind machine is of little use for hair that is about three inches from root to tip, I nonetheless got out of the office chair that is my prison and took my own version of a hejira. And I decided, my own tongue firmly in cheek, to make Mitchell the heart of my quest.
How she became thus, I am still not sure. Like the rest of you, I curl my lip with contempt at those wayward souls who scramble over the front gates of David Letterman’s residence or try to tackle Sharon Stone coming out of the grocery store. I assured myself that Mitchell was a metaphorical destination, that if she was at the top of a lonely mountain peak strumming her guitar (something that having had polio as a child makes increasingly difficult), I might huff and puff my way to the top, only to head back down the other side without so much as a glance in her direction. The journey is the thing.
Smile all you want, I had this situation under control, despite having grown to love her music in a way that surprises even me. For I have lived most of my life in the world of books and was happy to claim that world, to any doubters, as the sole source of all wisdom. When I died, I long ago decided, a friend or family member would read someone’s funny, profound words to hasten me on my way. Music was something you turned on while bored in a car.
How, then, did Mitchell enter the pantheon of this literary snob? One-word answer: story. Consider the scores of brilliant stories she tells us in such songs as “Furry Sings the Blues,” about the world of W. C. Handy; “Edith and the Kingpin,” about a drug lord and the woman he enslaves; or “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” about—hell, I don’t know what it is about, actually, but the storytelling is magnificent, with its twice-repeated final line, “A woman must have everything.”
A woman must indeed have everything or, at the very least, a big bite of that pie. And so I bit, with my fiftieth birthday looming like a billboard on the highway of my life. As I did so, I was keenly aware of the great escape my father made at roughly this same age.
He began an affair that, after five years of back and forth with my too-gracious mother, ended in divorce. Although the family car never landed with finality on empty (my mother, sister, and I patched ourselves back together), it also would never again register “full.” I was ever so conscious of not wanting to make that kind of journey, of tripping into selfishness and ego.
But do not mistake me: I understand something of what he felt, of wanting to peel back the layers of age and mortgage payments and responsibilities. It was no accident that, as we reached our end with him, he increasingly was holding up the newspaper between us. Any shield, however flimsy, will do for the battle-weary.
Okay, so now the impetus for my travel—what Mitchell described as the “urge for going” in an early song—was coming from two dubious sources: an aging rock star and my adulterer-father. But why couldn’t I, as Mitchell described it in “Amelia,” “sleep on the strange pillows of my wanderlust”?
Ultimately, I decided that I would travel to Banff in Alberta, Canada, to see a ballet—The Fiddle and the Drum—on which Mitchell collaborated. It began with a giddy romp through Canadian Ticketmaster (I did, in fact, get the last ticket) and progressed to my tidy, new black suitcase in the foyer as I awaited the cab that would take me to the airport.
Before I left, I deliberately launched trial balloons of irresponsibility. “I may never come back,” I told family, friends, and coworkers alike. No one budged. Their disbelief was as powerful as an onion sandwich. Did no one get this urge-for-going thing and the fact that it had made a new woman of me?
The temperatures in western Canada were lovely—cool. And I tried to be similarly cool as I counseled myself that Mitchell probably would not be at the performance—that although she had been at early performances, a superstar has better things to do than see the same ballet over and over.
The hired limousine driver got me there early, so I loitered in the lobby, casting a scornful editor’s eye on the typo in Mitchell’s statement in the program (Yeats spelled “Yates”). I tried to act as if it were somehow natural for a workaholic from the southeastern U.S. to be standing alone in the somewhat shabby Eric Harvie theater, her Pakistani driver waiting outside, himself probably nervous about the intentions of the large caribou that we passed a block earlier.
A dancer in street clothes was in the lobby explaining to his parents that “Joni will be here,” that she had been working with the dancers for several weeks. Having proof in that program of the way words are twisted, I thought: “Joni” and “here” could mean a lot of things. It could mean that she is backstage or at a hotel nearby or in my limo, for that matter. Responsibly tamping down my expectations, I took my seat in the auditorium.
But she was there, and there came a moment at the end when my hard-won seat became a goldmine. As we stood applauding the ballet in the dark, three figures glided past us holding hands: the artistic director, the set designer, and Mitchell. As she passed seat B2, my spot in the universe at that exact moment, she smiled at someone who greeted her. The smile was that of a twenty-five-year-old, not the nearly sixty-five-year-old grandmother that she is. As my friend Nancy said when we emailed about the moment later, “I can picture her exactly as you describe, and it is no surprise that she is young-old and wise-weird and altogether fascinating.”
Mitchell participated in a question-and-answer session. Several brilliant questions formed, then stuck in my throat. I could talk about my home in Atlanta, close to the Savannah that she charmingly describes in “Blue Motel Room” (“Here in Savannah/it’s pouring rain/palm trees in the porch light stick like cellophane”).
Or I could reveal that I already have stipulated in my will that songs of hers will be played at my funeral. (“Hejira” and “Refuge of the Roads.” Nobody better read from any boring book.) I could ask her about this crazy rumor that she writes the music first and then all those glorious words second. I could ask about the long-awaited autobiography. I could . . .
Get back in my limousine. Go quietly. I am, after all, not a stalker. Instead, I am—or, better, now have become—“a hitcher, a prisoner of the fine white lines of the free, free way.”
Susan Carini 04G is executive director of Emory Creative Group.