Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week -- Hejira by Joni Mitchell

Kevin Ferguson

Hejira is the first album where Joni Mitchell's talent as a lyricist perfectly matched her talent as a composer. Even long-time fans were taken off guard by its breathless beauty. Loosely, Hejira is a concept album about travel, journey, and escape. There is something of a quest indicated in the lyrics, but one where the search for deeper meaning is constantly dunned with false alarms, heartache, and doubt. Take, for example, this lyric, from "Song for Sharon:"

There's a gypsy down on Bleecker Street

I went in to see her as a kind of joke

And she lit a candle for my love luck

And eighteen bucks went up in smoke.

But with the album's tinge of melancholia there is relentless observation of rich detail, from "clouds of Michelangelo, Muscular with gods and sungold," to "Palm trees in the porchlight like slick black cellophane," to "six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain."

The vinyl has been my travelling companion in times of emotional turmoil and transcendent epiphany. There's something about the way Mitchell brings her collaborators -- vibraphonist Victor Feldman, bassist Jaco Pastorious, and guitarist Larry Carlton, to name a few -- together with her sumptuous rhythm guitar, that evokes an artist's sense of magic space. 

The first time I heard Hejira I was with brother David and fellow college student Dean Johnson. Moved to silent tears, my eyes were shut tight, as Dean patiently stood before me without my knowing, holding a plate of peanut butter toast I had requested. I have no idea how long Dean had been standing there. That's not the first time I've lost all track of time immersed in this material. My favorite is "Amelia," an imagined monologue to celebrated missing aviatrix Amelia Earhart. The song, despite its ambivalent message, never fails to give ground to my highest aspirations.

Joni Mitchell confesses her mistakes and wears her honest confusion comfortably, making us her confederates in her grand tour between being and nothingness. While she dismisses her work as "chicken scratching for immortality," I embrace it as a profound statement on the inestimable value of the Search. 

No regrets, Joni.