Coyote, by Joni Mitchell

In 1976, after completing a North American tour with the LA Express in support of her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell traveled with friends across the country to Maine. Returning back to the west coast she decided to take a road trip on her own, an ideal opportunity to reflect and meditate as she drove through highways and farm lands. During that trip she composed several songs that would be released later that year on her next album Hejira. The album title is a transliteration of the Arabic word hijra, which means “journey”, usually referring to the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622. She stated that “This album was written mostly while I was traveling in the car.”  No piano or keyboards were featured on that album, and many songs from it stayed in her live repertoire late into her career. In 2006 she said, “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”

Hejira front
Hejira front

Hejira is a special album. For me, it is the ultimate road trip album. Its rhythm and atmosphere feel like an instrumental record. If you tune out the words that Mitchell is singing and listen to her voice as one of the instruments in the mix, the record flows along like a dreamy tone-poem. But don’t tune out the words too long, because Mitchell has a lot to say on this album, and the narratives she delivers are beautiful verses about blues singers, hero female pilots, love affairs, teachers of Budhism, and of course – road trips.

Hejira Gatefold

Coyote, the first song on the album, describes her brief relationship with Sam Shepard, whom she met at the Rolling Thunder Revue, the concert tour that Bob Dylan assembled with a travelling caravan of musicians. Shepard was hired by Dylan to write a script for a movie based on the events in the Rolling Thunder Revue. That did not materialize, but Shepard did write a tour log that was later released as a book. Joni Mitchell joined the tour for a number of shows in late 1975 and it remained with her as a lingering memory of ego clashes infused by pharmaceuticals and cocaine. Not only as a spectator, mind you, for she started a cocaine habit during that tour.

Sam Shepard Bob Dylan
Sam Shepard and Bob Dylan

The road trip that gave birth to the songs on Hejira also led to an acquaintance with Chögyam Trungpa, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. He snapped her out of her cocaine habit and she wrote the song Refugee of the Roads about him. In Coyote she references her memory of the sex, drugs and folk n’ roll experience that was the Rolling Thunder Revue:

Under your dark glasses

Privately probing the public rooms

And peeking thru keyholes in

numbered doors

Where the players lick their wounds

And take their temporary lovers

And their pills and powders to get

them thru this passion play

RollingThunder Revue
The Rolling Thunder Revue

As for Sam Shepard, like many other relationships she had in the 60s and 70s, that one did not last. Luckily she ended up writing great songs about those affairs. Sam Shepard dedicated a page in his log book to Joni Mitchell, in which he quotes the lyrics from Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow: “Here’s someone who just appears, just walks out with a plain guitar, a beret, and a history of word collage. Every single time the place goes up in smoke like a brush fire. She stands there in the midst of it, making believe she’s tuning an already well-adjusted guitar until the place calms down. No doubt the element of surprise, of the audience not knowing she’s on the bill, is partly responsible for the explosions, but there’s something more important in it – the fact that people listen to her every word. Her music’s nothing outrageous, but her word maneuverings tend to verge on uncanny. ‘I got a head full of quandary and mighty, mighty’ thirst.’ She seems to have merged into a unique jazz structure with lyric and rhythmic construction and even managed to bite the masses in the ear with it.”

Coyote was written during her stint in the Rolling Thunder Revue. She joined the caravan of musicians in New Haven on November 13, 1975. In a performance on that tour on December 4th she told the audience: “I came to this tour in Hew Haven and I just hitched along to the rest of the distance. Its kind of like running away from home to join a circus. I’ve got this tune that has been growing, started off with two verses. A couple of nights later I added another one and last night I got a fourth one. ” The lyrics are close to the final recorded version on Hejira with some differences, for example:

He’s got a woman at home

He’s got another woman down the hall

He seems to want me anyway

started as:

He’s got a woman at home

A woman for the night

and now he wants one for the day

You can hear that early version, just Joni and a guitar here:

Hejira is the first Joni Mitchell album that features Jaco Pastorius. The musical relationship between the two started when Mitchell was about to begin recording the album. Robben Ford, LA Express’s guitar player, played her Jaco’s first solo record in 1976 and introduced Joni to the album. Joni loved the bass playing and asked Jaco to come to the studio to play on some of the songs later to appear in Hejira.

Joni Jaco 1979
Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius 1979

Jaco never heard any of her songs prior to meeting her. Joni later said about bass players and Jaco: “I was trying to find a certain sound on the bottom end, going against the vogue at the time. Bass players were playing with dead strings; you couldn’t get them to change to get a round, full-bodied tone. I liked that old analog, jukebox, Fifties sound-up-right bass, boomier. In the Sixties and early Seventies you had this dead, distant bass sound. I had started to think, “Why couldn’t the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?” Why did it have to always play the root? When Jaco came in, John Guerin said to me, “God, you must love this guy; he almost never plays the root!”. Jaco ended up playing on four songs in Hejira: Coyote, Hejira, Black Crow, and Refuge of the Roads. All these songs have his distinctive sound and style all over them.

Joni Mitchell Jaco Pastorius 1976
Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius 1976

Hejira was released in November 1976 and climbed up to no. 13 in the Billboard LP chart in January 1977, the week that saw a number of 70s iconic albums in the top three positions: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Eagles Hotel California and Boston’s debut album. The album’s cover features a photograph of Joni Mitchell by Norman Seeff who took many fantastic photos of her in the 70s.

In 1976 Mitchell played Coyote at The Band’s farewell concert The Last Waltz. There was very limited rehearsal time due to the cast of thousands that participated in that concert. John Simon, who served as the musical director for The Last Waltz, remembers: “the chords she played on the guitar were not standard. The guys would look at her left hand and go, ‘what?’ I remember this one quote from her: I said ‘What’s that chord?’ and she said ‘I don’t know the name of it. I tune my guitar this way, to make myself stupid’, in other words to not fall into predetermined patterns. I had to figure out what the chords were, then figure out some way for the guys to play something that meshed with her”.

Joni Mitchell at The Last Waltz

Chords aside, the obvious casualty was Rick Danko, The Band’s bass player and an amazing talent who wrote and sang some of the group’s best songs. However he could not handle the bass lines that Pastorius dished off effortlessly throughout the song. If you watch the Last Waltz footage of Coyote, you can see Joni and the band starting off hesitantly until Robbie Robertson starts strumming a steady rhythm and the band joins in a simplified but effective accompaniment. Robertson remembers that performance: “When Joni came out and the lights hit her, she seemed to glow in the dark. She was wearing a beautiful Native American necklace, and I was slightly surprised when she walked over and kissed me. She looked thoroughly enchanting and she sang her song Coyote, and it sounded sexier than ever. Joni’s songs might have been the most challenging of the night, with her syncopation and chord structures that kept you on your toes.”

The Last Waltz Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell and Rick Danko

As an aside, Joni Mitchell also sang background vocals that night to Neil Young’s Helpless. Robbie Robertson tells a rehearsal story: “When Neil Young sang Helpless, Joni did a high background vocals that sent shivers through the hall. In the show Joni wasn’t going to perform until after Neil, and I did not want to give away her appearance before that. I asked Marty [Martin Scorsese] if we could film Joni from behind the curtain while she sang her part on Helpless. ‘Definitely, he said, we’ll have a handheld camera back there’.” He continues with the actual performance of Helpless: “As soon as Neil Young took the stage, I could tell no one at Winterland was feeling better than he was. He made a profoundly touching statement about how proud he was to be onstage with us that night, before we steamed into Helpless. Right away, his harmonica set the mood and was magnificent. Neil’s vocal was so moving on this beautiful Canadian song of remembrance. When Joni Mitchell’s high falsetto came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from.” You can hear that falsetto voice starting at 2:30 in the Helpless segment of the Last Waltz. Overall, a good night for the Canadians.

Joni Mitchell with Robbie Robertson

Here is the studio version of Coyote, with Joni, Jaco and percussionist Bobbye Hall.

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Jaco Pastorius 2

 Three Views of a Secret, by Jaco Pastorius

No regrets Coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studios

And you’re up early on your ranch

You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail

While the sun is ascending

And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel

There’s no comprehending

Just how close to the bone & the skin & the eyes

And the lips you can get

And still feel so alone

And still feel related

Like stations in some relay

You’re not a hit and run driver

No no

Racing away

You just picked up a hitcher

A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

We saw a farmhouse burning down

In the middle of nowhere

In the middle of the night

And we rolled right past that tragedy

Till we turned into some road house lights

Where a local band was playing

Locals were up kicking and shaking on the floor

And the next thing I know

That coyote’s at my door

He pins me in a corner and he won’t take no

He drags me out on the dance floor

And we’re dancing close and slow

Now he’s got a woman at home

He’s got another woman down the hall

He seems to want me anyway

Why’d you have to get so drunk

And lead me on that way

You just picked up a hitcher

A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

I looked a coyote right in the face

On the road to Baljennie near my old home town

He went running through the whisker wheat

Chasing some prize down

And a hawk was playing with him

Coyote he’s jumping straight up & making passes

He had those same eyes just like yours

Under your dark glasses

Privately probing the public rooms

And peeking through keyholes in numbered doors

Where the players lick their wounds

And take their temporary lovers

Their pills & powders to get them through this passion play

I’ll have no regrets Coyote

I just get off up aways

You just picked up a hitcher

A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

Coyote’s in the coffee shop

He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs

He picks up my scent on his fingers

While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs

He’s too far from the Bay of Fundy

From appaloosas and eagles and tides

And the air conditioned cubicles

And the carbon ribbon rides

I’m spelling it out so clear

Either he’s going to have to stand & fight

Or take off out of here

I tried to run away myself

To run away and wrestle with my ego

And with this flame

He put here in this Eskimo

In this hitcher

In this prisoner

Of the fine white lines

Of the white lines on the free free way

Categories: Song

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44 replies »

  1. Hi Hayim! I’ve really been enjoying receiving the Afficianado! I do have some catch up to do but often read your notes saving the listening for later. I love this album. Probably in my top 10 or 20 if I started naming off top of my head. I have to share with you the moment totally seared in my memory that I first put ( probably a cassette) in deck of my car and had a cosmic moment. I knew all of Joni’s albums COLD, through Blue. Then I confess I dropped off, not sure why. I moved here in summer 84 for Brandeis master program. End of Summer I decided on solo Road trip to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Isl. car camping and taking local day bike rides and hikes. A great week alone. I then came back through Acadia meeting w friends. My then new grad sch friend Mark (still today) gave me the tape without a word about it. In the flow of 9 hour drive to my first stop, beautiful and mystical (for its 30′ daily tidal changes) Fundy National Park, I didn’t happen to put this on until I was already in Canada, 2 hours from Fundy.

    There aren’t too many people I bother telling this story to, as they might just shrug. I think you’ll get why I remember the jolt I got when she sang “Bay of Fundy”. Has stuck with me vividly. And the first time I heard Amelia on that listen I fell in love with it and still am. Peace B

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Very nice connection and this is how it seems to begin. I love it when random people just know what is needed. It is quite remarkable and importantly full of hope.

    • That is a great memory, Bruce. You were probably driving not too far from Sam Shepard’s house on that trip.
      BTW – you can click the youtube link on the right side of the blog. It is a playlist of all the music posted on that blog. Will save you lots of clicks if you just want to listen to the music.

  2. That is a great memory, Bruce. You were probably driving not too far from Sam Shepard’s house on that trip.
    BTW – you can click the youtube link on the right side of the blog. It is a playlist of all the music posted on that blog. Will save you lots of clicks if you just want to listen to the music.

    • We have a cottage a few minutes away from Sam’s old house. Our friend owns it now. It’s gorgeous and does indeed have an amazing view of the Bay of Fundy 🙂

  3. I always thought the ‘white lines on the freeway’ was a cocaine reference. Your story makes it more plausible. Coyote has always been one of my favorites by her. Thanks for the narrative.

    • As much as Mitchell’s use of allegory is unparalleled, I think that this time she really meant white lines on the freeway. She was doing a lot of driving around the writing of the song.

  4. Jaco pastorius( sp.?) is the only base player I can recognize as I do Andy McKay from roxy music, who played , maybe wrote, some of the music on the pbs masterpiece series ( public tv) and I just knew it was him. Very few musicians do that, for me, from the first note.

  5. Hejira is, hands down, my number one favorite album in the world, and the one that goes with me on any road trip or any place where and when I need to search my soul. I’m reading _Reckless Daughter_ now, and unlike some of our heroes, who become less heroic the more we know about them, this proves that she, above and beyond any other descriptions, absolutely REAL. Thanks for the homage to this amazing album.

    • I believe that only Garth Hudson played synths that night, while both played other keyboards like organ and piano. If my ears don’t fail me, I hear a high organ note and a whirling synth sound at the end of the song. It could be both of them playing or Garth only on both instruments.

      • Just for reference–that “whirling synth” sound is made by the one-and-only Leslie Organ–played a lot in those days before synthesizers were used very often. The “Leslie” as it’s referred to was unique in its design by using a dual set of large finely crafted wood speakers that amplified the organ keyboard (electric) but within the cabinets of the speakers also had a duo-set of fans that dispersed the players’ keyboard playing to create that unusual sound. I believe it’s a pretty old (maybe even late 19th-century?) organ-based instrument.

    • Thank you. There are over 100 articles here, that should keep you busy 🙂 For a full list of all articles, click “All Posts” at the top. There are also categories of posts on that menu.

  6. At 71 years old now, I look back at the Newport Folk Festivals I attended when Joan Baez appeared as a young though remarkable musician, and where Bob Dillon made his mark. I have adored Joan Baez my whole life for her humanity and her vibrato soprano, (and especially her song, “Silver Dagger.”) Now comes Joni Mitchell, whom I also felt was an extraordinary artist. I feel now that she is a kind of angel, like Baez, who was endowed with superlative talent and charisma. I have come to believe that some people are born with spectacular ability, though I suppose purely by chance. Joni, I believe said in an interview that she can see the colors in music, as she was by inclination a painter, not a musician. We are all better for her gift. I kept the DVD, “The Last Waltz,” for my daughter with a note inside the box extolling Joni’s performance of “Coyote.”

    There was a singer named Ariel Smith who had been trained to sing operar. She did one folk album in those days and her voice was spectacular. Then she just disappeared. She too was angelic in the sense of possessing a great gift to share with us. I wonder if anyone has heard of her since then and why I have not been able to find her via internet searches.

  7. Hi Hayim: I enjoyed the Mitchell piece. “Hejira” is still my favorite of hers, although “Blue” is amazing too. I just loved the density of her writing at this time– great visuals were created with few words. Also the cool open tone is helped by the fact that Mitchell plays nothing but electric guitar thoughout the LP. I was lucky enough to interview her in the mid-80s during a rare trip to her hometown of Saskatoon. Quite a lady!

  8. How did she write the song on a late 1976 road trip when the Rolling thunder Revue film shows her playing the song in full with Bob and Roger McGuinn during the 1975 tour?

    • Thank you for the observation. The road trip followed the North American tour which took place in January and February of 1976. The recording was sometime after that, likely during the spring or summer of 1976. But you are right, there is evidence of the song being written and performed during the Rolling Thunder Revue. I updated the article to reflect that. Thanks again.

  9. Love your nuanced informed commentary and the easy flow of images, lyrics and impressions. Now, I’m a subscriber!

  10. Great lines about Joni Mitchell. enjoyed to read this article about her. Such a great singer. And I know about her through this article. So many thank for sharing with us.

  11. Great lines about Joni Mitchell. enjoyed to read this article about her. Such a great singer. And I know about her through this article. So many thank for sharing with us.

  12. Of all of Joni’s albums, I’ve struggled with “Hejira.” Joni’s “For the Roses” was a seminal musical experience and made a believer out of me. I’ve listened to Joni’s lilting lyrics and Jaco’s elusive base line. It never made sense until I came across this blog. Thanks for clarifying its structure and musicality.

  13. Great article. Oh to have been there! A pedantic aside, it’s ‘Eagles’ not ‘The Eagles’

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