Joni's Hejira

Stranded on a desert island, I'd find relief from the blazing sun in the wintry imagery of Joni Mitchell's album Hejira. Just gazing at the black-and-white album cover would start cooling me down: Joni in a fur coat and beret, the Goddess of Wanderlust, floating above an iced-over lake skirted by snow-dusted trees. Hejira would also bring to mind the dead of winter because that's the time of year I first listened to it, on a snowy day in 1976, soon after the album was released. I was 15 and had gotten it as a Christmas present. With four older sisters who adored Joni Mitchell, I'd heard all of her previous eight albums endlessly, and I loved them. But those were records of the past, Joni's hippie-chick past, and, physically, the LPs betrayed their age in pops and scratches and skips. With Hejira, however, I met Joni in present tense. The vinyl was pristine. And when I put needle to record, she didn't even sing at first. Instead, she spoke the opening line of the first song: "No regrets," Joni said.

She sounded unlike anyone I'd heard before. For myself, raised in a strict Catholic household where the six Hayes children were constantly saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," asking forgiveness at every minor slip, it was radical to hear Joni Mitchell, someone I worshipped, be so unapologetic. It was a shocking statement made more so by the insouciant way she said it, as if she'd just ambled up to the mike and announced: "OK, folks, things are going to be different from now on." She wasn't blue anymore. She wasn't writing conventional folk, pop, or rock songs. She could no longer hit the high notes (no doubt due to the "smokes" she sings about), and she didn't give a shit. It was the attitude of a bohemian romantic, someone who'd been places and done things I could only imagine. I wanted to lead a life just like hers.

I loved everything about this album, and I still do -- not only the evocative cover and Joni's smoky vocals but also its sophisticated literary quality. Hejira, named after an obscure word meaning "a journey undertaken to seek refuge," documents a solo cross-country road trip as she leaves behind a failed relationship and, along the way, does the kind of soul-searching that only comes from time spent alone. In her lyrics, at once confessional and unsentimental, Joni addresses mistakes and choices she's made and considers what the future may hold. Listening to the album, you can actually trace her journey, both deeply personal and geographic, as one hypnotic song flows into the next. Throughout the music is driven by a propulsive bass that constantly pushes the narrative -- and her travels -- forward.

Holed up in my bedroom at age 15, I would daydream of joining Joni's hejira, like the subject of the fourth song, "A Strange Boy." The only boy in my family, living in the small town of Spokane, and, as I was coming to realize, gay (though I'd never spoken of this to anyone), I was already stranded on my own personal island. But Hejira represented to me the possibility of triumphant escape. As witnessed in the album cover photo -- in which Joni's coat opens to reveal a two-lane highway -- the way out lies inside of you.

This then is the final reason I would choose Joni Mitchell's masterpiece as my "stranded" album. Just as Hejira helped me bide my time in a place where I felt stuck, it would be my soundtrack as I try to figure out some way off this damn desert island.

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