Joni Mitchell – Coyote Spirit

Note: Many Native American tribes view the coyote as a trickster, shapeshifter and transformer. In the natural world (vs the cartoon world 😉 ), the wily coyote is recognized for being inventive, pure-instinct, clever, resourceful and fearless. I set out to re-aquaint myself with Joni Mitchell, after recently watching the Martin Scorsese music documentary, “The Last Waltz,” (released 1978), and becoming awe-struck all over again by her live performance of “Coyote” with The Band. After seeing that film on the big screen in ’78, I lost touch with Mitchell who was shapeshifting musically, becoming too inventive — for my tastes — with pure jazz. My favorite Joni-times were spent listening to “Court and Spark” and her first live tour album, “Miles of Aisles” (both released in 1974); these were the beginnings of her transition from folk-rock into jazz-fusion (my preferred harmony to this day). Eventually, I picked up the CD “Hits” (1996) and became much more appreciative of the critically acclaimed songs released before “Court and Spark.” No matter what Mitchell tunes I’ve connected and reconnected with over the past 30-plus years, however, my choice for the song that best embodies her primal, clever — and sexy — spirit is her performance of “Coyote” (YouTube video at end of this post). 

Joni Mitchell - Folk musician and artist
Untitled, self-portrait from photograph taken by rock music photographer Henry Diltz in Laurel Canyon, L.A.

Of course, I knew who Joni Mitchell was before I left home for college in the ’70s. Her Grammy Award winning album “Clouds” (1969) showcased two of her biggest hits, “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now.” But, she didn’t strike a chord with me then, I suppose, because I never cared much for folk music. If I wanted to listen to slow and easy melodies — most often, alone in my room — I chose Simon and Garfunkel, The Carpenters or Bread. If there was one solo, female artist I admired then, it was Carole King whose “Tapestry” (1971) my girlfriends and I could not get enough of. Oh, the spirited discussions we had about our favorite song(s) on that album! Mine was “I Feel the Earth Move.” Or “Smackwater Jack.” Back then, I wasn’t nearly so introspective. The romantic lyrics of a particular song from that period did not speak to me as much as the faster beats and rhythms of other songs. I wanted to dance — hop around, shake-off-the blues dance, not dreamy-eyed, swaying slow dance. Now, more than 40 years older and more quick to reflect than react, my favorite “Tapestry” song is “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

It’s interesting to note that Mitchell was a backup singer on that album. The two legendary women met each other in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, sometime in the late ’60s, where they both lived and created music along with their more celebrated male counterparts, such as James Taylor; Crosby, Stills, Nash & (sometimes) Young; the Eagles; Jackson Browne; Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison. For sure, it was a wildly creative and juicy environment.

In “An Oral History of Laurel Canyon, the 60s and 70s Music Mecca,” (“Vanity Fair,” March 2015) music producer David Geffen says, 


Mitchell moved to Laurel Canyon with David Crosby, after he “discovered her” in 1967 in a Florida music club. In a 1997 interview, he said about first seeing her, “I was extremely fascinated with the quality of the music and the quality of the girl. She was such an unusual, passionate and powerful woman. I was fascinated by her (guitar) tunings. … We learned things from each other.” Later in the interview, he revealed she outgrew him both musically and romantically. In fact, after she and Crosby ended — while he was producing her first album, “Song to a Seagull” (1968) — she had a passionate love affair with Graham Nash. It’s well-known his “Our House” is their song. Could be their affair was more passionate on his side and fleeting on hers, tho’ they did live together two years. During her “Lady of the Canyon” days, Mitchell may also have been loving or merely fantasizing about other artistic soulmates, such as Taylor and Browne — the latter, who had a reputation of being abusive, drove her to attempt suicide in the early ’70s.

Regardless of who, when, where, why or what was actually happening (and many of the principals do not agree on the details), Mitchell had had enough of the drama in Laurel Canyon and set off for Europe in 1970, to refresh herself personally and musically. There, she channeled her emotions about failed relationships and her insecurities into songs on her fourth album, “Blue” (1971) … “generally regarded by music critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.” Evidently, this is the album that could be entitled “Ode to Sweet Baby James” (as in Taylor); there are specific references (in the songs “Blue” and “All I Want”) to their relationship, such as “the sweater she knitted for him and his heroin addiction.” (Taylor was Mitchell’s lover before — rumor has it — he met Carly Simon at Laurel Canyon’s Troubadour when Simon opened for Cat Stevens.)

My first memory of “Blue” is its broodingly dark indigo album cover with a close-up photo of Mitchell’s tormented face. I had left home then (transferring colleges, mid-’70s). One of my housemates had all of Mitchell’s albums (seven at that point); they were stacked like books on a shelf inside a wooden produce crate on the floor, and her record player sat on top. When she was home, she pretty much controlled “the music scene.” A sweet, tortured soul, her favorite go-to album was “Blue.” It wasn’t mine, however, tho’ it definitely made an impression on me, as two of my best-loved, evocative Mitchell songs — that I connect more with today than I did then — are on that album: (Listen to both) “River” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” 

Back then, my favorite “Blue” song was the much happier, bouncy “Carey,” about the bright red-haired, cane-carrying chef she met on the Greek island of Crete. In fact, she lived with him and other hippies in a cave. If you clicked on the “Carey” link, you can hear how much happier she was feeling at this stage of that journey. Also, she was becoming homesick for California: Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here CareyBut it’s really not my homeMy fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feetAnd I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne …  

I officially hopped onto the Joni Mitchell bandwagon with the release of “Court and Spark,” which was the genesis of her personal and commercial transformation from folk goddess to jazz queen. According to the Wikipedia link: (‘Court and Spark’) made Mitchell a widely popular act for perhaps the only time in her career, on the strength of popular tracks such as the rocker ‘Raised on Robbery,’ which was released right before Christmas 1973, and ‘Help Me,’ which was released in March of the following year, and became Mitchell’s only Top 10 single when it peaked at No. 7 in the first week of June. ‘Free Man in Paris‘ was another hit single and staple in her catalog. While recording ‘Court and Spark,’ Mitchell had tried to make a clean break with her earlier folk sound, producing the album herself and employing jazz/pop fusion band the L.A. Express as what she called her first real backing group. 

She toured with the L.A. Express and recorded her first live, double album “Miles of Aisles,” which — like “Court and Spark” — rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts. “Woodstock,” a footnote to this post, is a track from this album and my favorite version of it. Ironically, Mitchell didn’t perform at the music festival as planned because she was scheduled to be on the Dick Cavett show (at about six minutes in, she performs “Chelsea Morning”). She wrote “Woodstock” based on what she heard about it from then-boyfriend Graham Nash. When Steven Stills heard her new composition, he asked if Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young could record it. (Click here for their popular, rockier version.)

Mitchell’s North American tour with the L.A. Express was both successful and turbulent, primarily because of the passionate chemistry between drummer, John Guerin, and herself. During the recording of “Court and Spark,” Guerin had helped Mitchell exorcise Jackson Browne demons (“Car on a Hill” is about Browne.) As close as Guerin and Mitchell were, however, they broke up and got back together several times before their final split — possibly over her fling with screenwriter Sam Shepherd. Shepherd had been hired by Bob Dylan in 1975 to document Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour; Mitchell flew out east for one show and ended up staying three nights. Thus, “Coyote,” her first single from her eighth studio album (“Hejira,” 1976) was born. Many of the songs on “Hejira” were conceived during a cross-country road trip Mitchell took to get over her breakup with Guerin.


Her many “failed” love affairs — along with the pain she carried from giving up her daughter to adoption in 1965 — only fueled the genius, transformative juices that drove her to be recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest 100 guitarists. Regardless, in recent years — most likely the result of poor health — she’s been labeled “bitter, imbalanced and full of ingratitude for the amazing experiences and accomplishments that have been part of her life’s journey.”

As for me, I choose to remember Joni Mitchell as the awesome kick-ass woman I saw on the big screen in 1978. This older “sister” — more than 10 years my senior — not only owned the stage with her celebrated male contemporaries (in the following video from “The Last Waltz”) but also owned her power as a woman. I absolutely love how she strokes beautiful Robbie Robertson’s face and kisses him on the cheek before launching into “Coyote.” (click for lyrics). Typical Joni — clever and wily — this song begins with the story about the man (Sam Shepherd) as the coyote, then throws the spotlight on a real coyote — “running thru the whisker wheat, chasing some prize down” — before turning attention on herself as “the hitcher,” who — tho’ “a prisoner of the highway” — runs wild and free like her spirit animal.


Woodstock (lyrics), from “Miles of Aisles” live album

As I was writing this post, I read countless Joni articles/interviews; this Rolling Stone interview by Cameron Crowe in 1979 is one of the best.

2 thoughts on “Joni Mitchell – Coyote Spirit

  1. What a wonderful blog! I learned so much. Joni was a great architect to the musical scene of those times. I wonder if her troubled choices were “part and partial” to the true genius of her nature. Thanks for posting this!


    1. Thank you, Pam, and you’re welcome! I’m sure that her troubled choices were a result of her genius. Also, she was a driven, strong person from very young — stricken w/polio when she was 8 – 9, was in a remote hospital far from her family; she was told she would never walk again. She said she willed herself to health by singing at the top of her lungs every day for nearly a year. Later on, her genius guitar tunings evolved from compensating for her left hand, which never fully recovered from the polio.


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