Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Episodic Episodes

How I discovered... 
(An occasional series that may never be repeated but this is the first episode in a lifetime of episodic episodes): 
Hejira / Hegira. 
An album of songs by Joni Mitchell.
The Hegira is the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, later renamed by him Medina, in the year 622. In May 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate him, Muhammad secretly left his home in Mecca to emigrate to Yathrib, 320 km north of Mecca, along with his companion Abu Bakr.

Hejira is the eighth studio album by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. The songs on the album were largely written by Mitchell on a trip by car from Maine back to Los Angeles, with prominent imagery including highways, small towns and snow. Characterized by lyrically dense, sprawling songs, as well as the overdubbed fretless bass playing of Jaco Pastorius (whom Mitchell had just met), Hejira continued the musician's journey beyond her pop records towards the freer, jazz inspired music she would adopt on later recordings.

In about 1974 or 75, I returned home from the ashes of a failed musical venture in Jersey and fell down a black hole that did not look like a black hole at the time. Some might say that is exactly the problem with black holes, being able to identify them and avoid them in good time. Mine had a few silver linings, it's just that they were not obvious to me. Anyway I failed to correct things and was engulfed in the black hole for a while. I was also unaware at the time that any of this was happening being a black hole denier. Turns out that you only learn about your life by looking backwards at the various ruins and piles of rubble peppered with odd spots of colour along the way, I'm now a master at this grim but amusing art. 

So the circumstances leading up to me discovering Hejira were nearly really normal but not really normal. When the album was released in 1976 I wasn't listening to music, I was a ghost. I did see a mirror depicting the cover on display in a market in Cockburn Street Edinburgh. That was my only experience of it but the image stayed. Joni Mitchell was OK but nothing special. Life moved on. Occasionally I listened.

A few years later, I'm married, I have kids and I'm holding down a job and for fun I'm attending college in Bath, England. Though my family are down staying in Bath with me, after a while they move back to Scotland and I travel up and down as work and study times allow and live in a room in a Victorian mansion out on London Road. Everyday at lunchtime my group of students go for a run along the canals. We socialize a bit, have meals together and nights out, mostly we're not local so it helps keep spirits up and passes otherwise dead time. It's 1985 now. I may be losing bits of my hair at the edges of my head.

Finally, before the exams and assessments were carried we meet up one last night for a meal and whatever else. I remember it was the first time I'd encountered Grolsch beer bottles and their revolutionary caps. We ended up in some club but only all got in after we managed to all convince the doorman we had ties (?). This involved some subterfuge whereby in order to arrive at the correct number of ties per person, ties had to be smuggled out and reworn by the person hoping to gain entry. My thin red leather tie was one of the main assets in this venture. It worked and soon we all back on the bottle and bopping to Simple Minds or some other 80s twanging chancers from Glasgow. 

Suffice to say I never did see the tie again (not a problem) but the guy who'd last worn it was a good sort and he recompensed me some time later with a HMV voucher for £10s that one day arrived in the post. I was back home by now, the hectic, mid-life student days being a thing of the past. 

I'm not too excited about the voucher so it goes in the wallet and I guess I'll spend it one day.  For some reason I had to go into Edinburgh so I decided to go in on my motorbike, a small Honda. It was a windy April day and I can recall not enjoying going over the Forth Bridge but eventually I got into town, did what I had to do (can't recall) but also wandered into HMV for a browse.

These were the golden years of the Sony Walkman and the stereo cassette tape. It was to that counter I was headed. Regular journeys down to and up from Bath had made the Walkman essential and I needed new or at least different material. So I idly picked up a copy of Hejira, remembering the mirror in the shop many years ago and I picked up another cassette, I've no idea which. Impulse buying at it's finest. I was in no hurry to listen to them, I headed home and put them aside, as you do.

Somehow Hejira made it's way down to Bath with me where, apart from odd sparks of  college social life I was mostly alone, evenings and weekends. I was supposed to be working on some project management kind of thesis, writing it longhand as these were the days before laptops and PCs, strange to think of that now. Eventually it would be typed up and bound by some disinterested typist, and it duly was and again, as is normal, duly forgotten once marked. As fudgey and tortuous a piece of drivel as you'd never wish to read but it gained me a pass.

In the background I had started to listen to Hejira. It was akin to beginning some strange drug taking habit. Silent and dark, growling calmly, mysterious and smokey in some elusive but heavyweight way like an opium paste dripping slowly from a knife blade. It was in the spindly headphones, regularly competing with passing traffic, the landlady's hoover or my own thinly spread out thoughts.

It wasn't a particularly productive period of my life, I was skimping on expenses so we could have a family holiday in Ibiza, I wasn't writing or playing music, it was heads down and study and get myself comatosed by any cheap alcohol and music, Herija was starting to get a grip. Train to Reading, bus to Heathrow, flight to Edinburgh, car back to Fife, the soundtrack was forming up. Then back down again on a Sunday afternoon and into the Huntsman by the Abbey or the Boater by Pultney Bridge for a quick pint and the required stare into the oblivion of bar room mirrors.

"I could say each song is an actual journey but that would be a lie. They do transport the listener, whoever that might be." Quotes courtesy of the bad journalism of the NME. I never did take that paper seriously. What was serious though was the live version on "Amelia" on Shadows and Light. The songs is stretched out by a lengthy coda in the form of a meandering Pat Metheny guitar solo. As he starts he heads up a scale and it just sounds a bit out, there's this one single note that jars. It's weird, I think about that note a lot. That's also weird.

Meanwhile in Bath my life was slowly unraveling to the tunes of Hejira. I could feel the stitches come apart, one by one as I descended into getting to know myself as a fully formed adult. One Saturday I had a strange epiphany, I was walking down Walcott Street and I decided to buy a burger for lunch. Designer/fancy burgers were a new concept to 30 year old me,  a man unsure what mayo was and how garlic might taste, I was in a dietary slump. I bit into the garlic mayo burger out on the cobbled street as "Song for Sharon" played in my headphones. Looking back it was the precise moment I lost my religion, I couldn't care less about god or belief, I saw myself alone and confused but rooted in the material world. I didn't look back and I didn't tell anybody. It was all to complicated and I knew I lacked the basic vocabulary to describe what was happening.

Fast forward, life's wonky cassette player is running too quickly. I'm in Scotland on the A811, a road as straight as a crooked arrow. The same songs are playing. Everyday I drive 75 miles there, 75 miles back. I'm in a state of hypnosis for the full 90 minutes. News, music, news, tapes, Hejira. This is the journey. The strange thing is it gets me nowhere. I'm a tiny spec moving across a landscape, that's all it every is, moving. One morning, about 6.45am a huge white owl hit my windscreen. It bounced off and way into the darkness, the windscreen remained intact. The car was a battered Rover, tougher than I'd imagined it would be. Owl proof. A great white portent had marked me now, sought me out and awoken me. The tapes kept on rolling as I mulled things over and began to wake up. Heaven was trying to get my wandering attention, as were the twists on the A811.

Now I'm older and wiser. I tell myself that I understand myself much better now. I understand many things I might have misunderstood, an advantage of the aging process and the ongoing delusion of progress. I tune in on a occasional basis, just to keep grounded, mostly while driving, that's their natural setting. Back and forwards across the Queensferry Crossing, slowing down then speeding up, searching for a break in the traffic, taking the exit lane, respecting other road users, watching others speed off into the distance and wondering where they might be going. Then, quite by chance seeing yourself in another car, headed in the opposite direction.

These are not songs for funerals, old men or the bewildered. They're not for background noise or filler. Nor are they fit for some kind of careful eulogy or signing off, there's no apology to be had for listening and no easy explanation as to what they might mean. They are about something that's more than something. I just can't quite put my finger on it at the moment though, but on my next long journey I'll be there, alone, listening.

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