Today’s song is one of my favorites by birthday girl Joni Mitchell. She performed it memorably at The Band’s farewell concert, as shown in the film The Last Waltz (1978), but it was already a known entity as the most radio-played song from Hejira (1976), one of Mitchell’s landmark albums. The original track features, famously, the fretless bass playing of Jaco Pastorius, and it does indeed add wonderful tonalities to the track and to the album. The version with The Band though is exquisite too, mostly for how Mitchell, singing live, milks certain lines and looks so great as she performs it—I’ve always loved the little girl shudder she gives to “this flame—he put here in this Eskimo.” And when she puts her heart into “a prisonor of the fine white lines, of the white lines, on the free, freeway” and then keeps strumming with those faraway eyes, it just kills me.
The song has been said to be about a brief fling with actor-playwright Sam Shepard, whom Mitchell met while they were both on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76, which was being filmed for Dylan’s oddball shambles of a rock’n’roll film/arthouse film, Renaldo and Clara (1978). In other words, this music comes from the days when the mavericks of Sixties music were aging into eminences and flirting with the Big Screen, and it’s also the last hurrah for a certain kind of road saga that suited the less pretentious times before the Eighties—and MTV—hit. It was a different kind of rock’n’roll circus in those days, and though middle-of-the-road and down-and-out bands might continue to live it, they don’t live it the way those who came up in the Sixties did. And that, in essence, in what The Last Waltz is about.
So it’s great to see Joni singing this song, born of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and capturing the incompatibility of the rock’n’roll lifestyle with just about any other: “I’m up all night in the studio / You’re up early on your ranch.” Shepard, with his sophisticated shit-kicker demeanor, is perfect for Coyote, the kind of guy who has “a woman at home, he's got another woman down the hall,” and Mitchell confides, “seems to want me anyway,” then she giggles “why’d ya hafta get so drunk and lead me on that way.” It’s refreshing to hear how simply she spells out the seduction and, without being either a little girl lost or a maneuvering gal on the make, she manages to let us feel how exciting the attention is and the extent of her investment: “There’s no comprehending / How close to the bone / And the skin and eyes and the lips you can get / And still feel so alone / And still feel related.”
Mitchell puts it out there: every little notch on the barrel leaves more mark than that. But she begins her monologue with a clear-eyed, “No regrets, Coyote.” The song shows her to be, as they used to say, “a tough cookie,” but it also shows her to be detached from the “that was called love for the workers in song” situations so rife in those times: “Peeking through keyholes in numbered doors / Where the players lick their wounds / And take their temporary lovers / And their pills and powders / To get them through this passion play.” There are also, because this is a road saga, great glimpses of driving past a burning farmhouse, stopping at a roadhouse to get up and dance with “locals up kicking and shaking on the floor," and of Coyote dallying with a hawk in the field “near my old home town.” It’s a song crammed with little postcards from this escape-the-rat-race romance. And it sounds so free and easy, as Leonard says, “aw, you should’ve seen us.” And the wonderful specificity of “He picks up my scent on his fingers / While he’s watching the waitresses legs.” It’s not even that this guy is particularly a hound dog, but that compression in turning him into a hunter “picking up the scent” while also beguiled by the visual treat before him is not only knowing but also fond.
The only line in it that cloys a bit is that “run away and wrestle with my eeeeego” but it gets a fun rhyme with “Eskimo,” so, two wrongs kinda make a right. And anyway, who cares. The line she keeps coming back to “you just picked up a hitcher” is full of the immediacy of hitching practices at the time and signals as well the temporary nature of the bond: “No regrets, I just get off up aways.” Ta ta.
The track features a great swirling strum sound that gives the song its insistence and is bright and lively with the feeling of a sudden spike in erotic interest. It plays out but doesn’t burn out, that flame.
Privately probing the public rooms