Thursday, June 26, 2008


Hejira -- 1. the flight of Mohammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 which marked the beginning of the Muslim era. 2. the act of escaping physically from a hostile environment.

No one plumbs the depths of the human condition better than Joni Mitchell. With the possible exception of Jackson Browne, nobody pulled back the veil to reveal a battered, scuffed heart the way Joni did, and nobody spoke with such poetic grace about the pitched battle that goes on within human souls.

I'm going to be talking about Joni and playing her song "Hejira" at next week's Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. I don't know how well a pensive jazz/folk tune will translate to tents set up in the middle of a cornfield, but I'm going to give it the old post-college try. It's one small segment of Part Four of a six-part presentation on the intersection of music and faith. Part Four is called "The Enemy Within," and it attempts to come to grips with the notion that in spite of our best efforts to dislocate evil and blame it on external factors "out there," it frequently shows up most clearly when we look in the mirror.

In this song Joni does her best trick. It's the old, sweet tug of war that she explores again and again in her songs; the desire to connect, to matter, to mean something in a deep way to someone vs. the the desire for independence, for maintaining one's own identity, and the fear of being subsumed under someone or something else. It's one of her greatest songs, augmented in no small part by Jaco Pastorius' wondrously liquid bass. It's about how we can travel the world and never escape from ourselves, and it's the title track to her 1977 album Hejira:

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Listen ... strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know - no ones going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality - to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way
-- Joni Mitchell, "Hejira"

It's a message that echoes from Monty Python all the way back to Adam and Eve: run away, run away! It never works. You end up trusting in the efficacy of a fig leaf, or hiding out in some smoky cafe, thinking that no one sees you. But God sees you, and if you have your eyes open you see yourself. The wonder is that we seem to be hard-wired to play hide and seek, to flee the scene of the crime that is ourselves, to think that we can fool the Creator of the universe and our battered, scuffed hearts one more time.


Matt Nightingale said...

SO good... Joni is my favorite artist, bar none. Her lyrics and music have moved me like no one else has been able to. Hejira is one of my favorites... Thanks for featuring it, writing beautifully about it and exposing new generations of people to its power.

Anonymous said...

If I remember C-stone correctly (it has been over 10 years since I've been), it should go over very well. Along with all the skatepunks, deathmetal, and jesus junk, there is a ton of folks who love to think and be challenged.

My favorite memory of C-stone is of when one Rich Mullins was playing a show late into the night and the tent was nowhere able to hold all that came but you had everyone there (spiked hair and coporate america types) all worshipping together....It was a wonderful 3 hours of my life....

Hope you have a blast...

Anonymous said...

I love this album. Joni's lyrics, Jaco's bass, the whole of "Amelia," esp 'the road leads cursed and charmed.' Chills, I tell ya. The only thing better is the version on Shadows and Light w/ Pat Metheny.

BUT - what I really want to know - when will THIS be available for us in the blogworld to read:

"a six-part presentation on the intersection of music and faith. "

- jbricker [at] mac [dot] com