Joni Mitchell dropping by to visit Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at Blondie’s show in Santa Barbara, August 7, 2019, via Chris’s Instagram.Chris’s caption for this photo: “Joni Mitchell came to our show. I’m dead. I don’t have that many heroes. Joni was such a huge influence on my musical life it’s hard to express.”
Joni Mitchell, “Coyote”, accompanied by Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, December 1, 1975
It was a wild night, even by Rolling Thunder Revue standards. The show topped four hours that night, as Gordon Lightfoot was featured in a prime spot just before Dylan’s own set, bringing the house down with his hit “Sundown”. Caught up in the spirit of things, Gord invited some friends back to his house, and it wound up being over 70 of ‘em blocking up the cul-de-sac. “We were told we had quite a lot of fun,” Ramblin’ Jack Elliot recalls, although not many folks can recall exactly what transpired.
I’ll SHOW you a little of what transpired. Joni, Roger, and Bob snuck away with Gordon for an intimate little hootenanny. Gord’s rendition of Bob’s “Ballad in D” has circulated in bootleg circles for years, but I never even heard a RUMOR about this little miracle. Scratch that – it’s almost inconceivable that this exists, and that it was recorded at all, much less to complete, off-the-cuff perfection by Howard Alk’s crew.
Look, there’s no doubt that Sam Shepard figures in as one of the titular coyotes, predators of a not unsexy sort, but predators nonetheless. This not-quite-finished version of the song doesn’t include Joni’s eventually perfectly crystalized description: “He’s got a woman at home/ He’s got another down the hall/ He seems to want me anyway”.
But here’s the thing. Parsing the men in Joni’s songs is a mug’s game. It’s sexist as shit, and will lead you down the wrong path every fucking time. These songs are about Joni, every god damned one of them. You want to talk about perfectly crystalized? Her description of herself: “a hitcher, a prisoner of the fine white lines of the free, free-way.”
(Don’t get ahead of yourself with the coke references, either. Not that she didn’t do plenty of it on this tour. One of my favorite Rolling Thunder stories is when a Buddhist monk passing through the madness asks Joni if she believes in God. She gives the perfect monk’s answer, too: “Yes, here is my god and here is my prayer” as she snorts a rail straight at him.
Listen to the whole album, though, and the ones before and after. She’s talking about the road. Her addiction is to leaving. The title track of the album where this song would land, Hejira, refers to The Prophet’s precipitous departure from Mecca to Medina. Likewise, Joni’s got many tales to tell of gettin’ while the gettin’s good.)
So here in not quite finished form, with Joni calling out the chord changes so Bob and Roger can try to keep up (HA!) while Gordo lurks behind them, Joni absolutely devastates with one of the best songs anyone has ever written or sung. Who says there’s no such things as miracles?
btw, you can find some of these stories here and here, but others I’ve been carrying with me for 40-odd years and have no idea where I picked ‘em up, which in the end seems just about right. You should also check out the Netflix Rolling Thunder Revue fantasia that gifted us with this clip. Enjoy the music, but don’t believe a word of it otherwise, and you’ll probably come out just fine.
Joni Mitchell on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975, by Ken Regan, via getty.
(I don’t believe in removing watermarks, but Getty happened to serve these without ‘em. They were a mess, though, and, imperfect as they are, still took me hours to clean up in Photoshop. Thanks for keeping the caption!)