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23 December 2017

Linda Grant on Hejira by Joni Mitchell: “It stamped itself irrevocably on my life”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Linda Grant

“I’m travelling in some vehicle/ I’m sitting in some café/A defector from the petty wars/That shellshock love away.” I first heard these lines on the title track of Hejira in the Autumn of 1976 in an apartment in a university town in Ontario. The previous year I had hitchhiked from Maryland to California, up to Washington State, diverting to Winnipeg to see a former boyfriend; then, leaving my man at a North Dakota junction, hitched to Minneapolis-St Paul and took a train back to New York. This life, on the road – a loose pearl on a taut thread – the sense of the vastness of the continent and love pulling you one way, freedom the other, was the preparation for hearing the album. I never heard in anyone but Joni Mitchell an account of what it was to want the refuge of the roads, as well as “love that sticks around”. It was the great paradox of Seventies feminism.

The album opens with a one-night stand with a rancher (reputedly Sam Shepard), moves on to a solitary drive across the desert remembering the aviator Amelia Earhart, an affair with a younger man, then arrives at the title track. It is an album about longing, possessiveness and authenticity, and it stamped itself irrevocably on my life. It is the most personal album I own, personal about her and personal about me. I never saw her perform live. I don’t want to. I’ve no interest in sharing her with total strangers because none of this is about her, it’s about myself.

Hejira is the culmination of a series of five albums that starts with Blue, released in 1971. By the time it came out she had mastered the art of poetry and the arts of storytelling and philosophy. Of course, none of this is cool or cynical or indifferent, and inevitably she was about to be savaged by a misogynist music industry and dismissed as a folkie by punk. Yet when I wrote about her a year or two ago, I was astonished by the intensity of her male fan base. It turned out that she wasn’t just speaking to young women but to the heart that loves and suffers. She is as great as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Greater.

Linda Grant’s novels include “When I Lived in Modern Times” and “The Dark Circle”

This essay was first published in the New Statesman’s “Long Players” series – read the other contributions here – and later collected in the book“Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them” (Bloomsbury)

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special