I was stretching late last night and "California" came on my iPod.
I have a ritual. Every time I cross the California border, I play this song. At least I used to, when I drove a 2002 with a "Blue" cassette riding shotgun in the passenger seat, ready for insertion.
I always saw "California" as an optimistic song, one of hope and relief. But last night I heard a sadness. That’s what great songs do. They evolve as you listen to them, new meanings are revealed and you fall in love with them all over again.
In the middle of "California" last night I was no longer thinking of that park in Paris, France or the redneck on the Grecian isle. For right smack dab in the middle was this truth that resonated.
Oh it gets so lonely
When you’re walking
And the streets are full of strangers
Loneliness is the curse of humanity. Maybe in some foreign culture it’s embraced, but not in America, never has been. Whether back in the sixties or today. Watch MTV, all the shows are about drinking together. But if you’re truly a member of a group, if you truly have a life, you’re not watching these shows, you’re out living it up. But most people are not living it up. Most people are looking to fit in, and wondering what they’re going to do when the connections they have end, don’t relationships always seem to end, at least fade out and not even radiate?
People speak of the romance of travel. But if you’ve ever taken to the sea and sky alone you know the depths of mood you feel during moments of your excursion, they’re depressing, sometimes terrifying. You’re miles from your reference points. You can’t get back to where you belong with a snap of your fingers. You’ve got to endure the pain. And that’s what Joni Mitchell is speaking of here.
Somehow in our fucked up world erudition and vocabulary pass for great writing. Whereas great writing is simple, it goes down like an ice cream cone, all smooth, all sensation. Great writing is not labored, it’s just unadorned truth. Don Henley and Jackson Browne are masters. But they sit below Joni Mitchell. Hearing a Joni Mitchell record is like being in the same room with the woman. Like she knocked on your door and came in and is telling her story. You feel a connection lacking in the records of media stars. You feel no stardom, you just feel you’re in the presence of a person.
"Blue" is the apotheosis. Because of its naked simplicity. And numbers like "A Case Of You" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard". There’s no unnecessary adornment, just naked truth.
Unfortunately, it’s "Court and Spark" that was the breakthrough. And casual listeners are not familiar with the intimacy Joni provided prior to that point. There’s a sheen to "Court and Spark" that didn’t exist earlier.
Joni blew up.
And then she was done. Commercially. But she released one of her greatest albums ever when no one was looking, "Hejira".
I had the same experience listening to "Coyote" doing this podcast last week that I did hearing "California" last night. I heard something I never did before.
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
Ain’t that the truth. We’re supposed to be impressed by the hit and runs of the celebrities, recounted in the tabloids, but how fulfilling do you think those relationships are? Between these people who frequently have nothing more in common than their fame.
There’s the vibration between being connected, yet alone. Hell, there’s one more line after the ones above, "And still feel related". That’s how it is in the best relationships. You’re together, but you still feel so separate.
But "Coyote" is only the introduction, it’s far from the best track on "Hejira". That’s "Song For Sharon".
But you’ve got to listen to "Amelia". With the sound of flying alone embedded. Amelia Earhart was going somewhere, as Joni is in this song, they’re on a mission, but around them is not people, but air. Ultimately life is a solo journey, yet you can’t spend too much time contemplating this, it would freak you out. So, you continue on your path, hoping you get somewhere better, and the journey will deliver its own reward.
It’s the magical sound of "Amelia" that gets under your skin. Like Joni is playing just for you. Same deal with "Furry Sings The Blues".
"Refuge Of The Roads" evidences both wariness and hope. If you go long enough, do you find fulfillment. Or do you just learn how insignificant you are in the universe.
But it’s "Song For Sharon" that makes "Hejira" so special, so great. It’s got the feel of the Staten Island ferry that Joni is riding upon, it seems as if you’re slowly bobbing up and down in the water. But it’s the truth in the lyrics that resonates, that creeps you out.
Joni is telling her story, but it’s your story, our story.
A woman I knew just drowned herself
The well was deep and muddy
She was just shaking off futility
Or punishing somebody
My friends were calling up all day yesterday
All emotions and abstractions
It seems we all live so close to that line
And so far from satisfaction
That’s the truth of suicide. We can understand it. We don’t WANT to understand it, but we’ve been there, when everything doesn’t work. If only they spoke of this in all the anti-suicide discourse. How it’s natural to wonder if it’s worth it, and that in these moments only sheer perseverance will get you through.
And you must get through. Because you have no idea what lies on the other side. You’re truly the star of your own movie. You don’t want to end it prematurely, do you?
I don’t know where the hell I’m going. Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m steering, if it’s even POSSIBLE to steer.
Everybody’s telling me what to do. Yet they don’t seem to know who I am.
And that’s when I sing the final version of "Song For Sharon" to myself.
Sharon you’ve got a husband
And a family and a farm
I’ve got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
But you still have your music
And I’ve still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I’ll walk green pastures by and by
I’m a bit embarrassed by this week’s podcast. I’ve revealed a bit more than I even realized. But the explosions in my head somehow caused these words to come out.
I don’t really give a shit if you listen to me. Like I said, I’m embarrassed. But you should hear these songs. You need to hear these songs. For the human condition is in this record. And you’re human. And if you can just slow down enough to stop trying to avoid the loneliness, "Hejira" will resonate.
You can subscribe to the Rhinocast by searching on "lefsetz" in the iTunes Music Store. Or you can go directly to the Rhino site and listen/take it/download it there, Rhinocast, hold down the "control" key to download on a Mac.
(My part of the Rhinocast begins at 8:26).