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Joni Mitchell: The Road, The Revue and Chögyam Trungpa

Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan

In 1975, Bob Dylan’s famous Rolling Thunder Revue took to the road. Dylan claimed that the purpose of his tour was to “play for the people” and he would achieve this aim by playing at smaller venues in cities that would usually be dismissed by artists of his acclaim.

The first concert was played in Plymouth, Massachusetts – the seat of the first colonial Pilgrims – and would wander across the country until it sputtered out nearly a year after its conception.

The tour was a theatrical endeavor. After meeting Jacques Levy, a well-established theatre director and the director of a successful Broadway show Oh! Calcutta!, Dylan became fascinated with The Revue as an artistic concept: one that would enable him to revel in the American musical tradition without constraint.

The Revue, as Lou Kemp explained, traveled as a “caravan” for musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers.

Along for the ride were names such as Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Gordon Lightfoot, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, actress and singer Ronee Blakley, poet Allen Ginsberg, long-time friend Bob Neuwirth, as well as playwright Sam Shepard (who would later help write Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara). Invited were names such as Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, who both amicably declined.

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Joni Mitchell joined the tour in Connecticut, for a show on the 13th of November in Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and traveled with the troupe for the greater part of the first leg.

In an interview with Mary Aikins in 2005, Mitchell describes her time accompanying Dylan and his followers. By her account, the tour was not a caravan or a musical cavalcade but a circus:

I went on Rolling Thunder and they asked me how I wanted to be paid, and I ran away to join the circus: Clowns used to get paid in wine — pay me in cocaine because everybody was strung out on cocaine.”

Joni Mitchell (2005).

Despite this, Mitchell appreciated the opportunity to be “an observer and a witness to an incredible spectacle” (her words, taken from an interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979). She recognized the event as a significant and formative experience that would come to influence the album she would come to release a year later, Hejira.

In 1988 journalist Timothy White talked with Joni concerning Hejira. She mentions that:

Hejira came out of another of my sabbaticals, another time when I flipped out and quit show business for a time. This instance was in ’76. I’d been out with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which was an amazing experience, studying mysticism and ego malformation like you wouldn’t believe. Everybody took all of their vices to the nth degree and came out of it born again or into A.A.

Afterward, I drove back across the country by myself, and I used to stay in places like light-housekeeping units along the Gulf Coast. I gave up everything but smoking, and I’d run on the beach and hit health food stores. In New Orleans, I wore wigs and pawned myself off as someone else. Meanwhile, nobody knew where I was.

I’d do these disappearing acts. I’d pass through some seedy town with a pinball arcade, fall in with people who worked on the machines, people staying alive shoplifting, whatever. They don’t know who you are: “Why are you driving that white Mercedes? Oh, you’re driving it across the country for somebody else.” You know, make up some name, and hang out. Great experiences, almost like the prince and the pauper.

So whenever possible during these breakdowns in my career I would pawn myself off as someone else, or go to some distant clime and intentionally seek out a strata of society I was sure I would never have gotten near otherwise.”

Joni Mitchell playing ‘Coyote’ in Gordon Lightfoot’s House with Bob Dylan during The Rolling Thunder Revue.

Joni did not arrive at the decision to distance herself from the chaos of The Revue and the entertainer culture that had infiltrated the mainstream music scene alone. Her attempts to experiment with ego and surrender her vices were inspired by an acquaintance made on the tour:

It was Chögyam Trungpa who snapped me out of it just before Easter in 1976. He asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes, here’s my god and here is my prayer,” and I took out the cocaine and took a hit in front of him. So I was very, very rude in the presence of a spiritual master.”

Joni Mitchell

Trungpa was a spiritual teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing on the non-sectarian dissemination of Buddhist teachings, particularly meditation practices. In an interview for Readers Digest, Joni later explained that for three days after the encounter she “was in awakened state”:

The thing that brought me out of the state was my first “I” thought. For three days I had no sense of self, no self-consciousness; my mind was back in Eden, the mind before the Fall. It was simple-minded, blessedly simple-minded. And then the “I” came back, and the first thought I had was, Oh, my god. He enlightened me. Boom. Back to normal — or what we call normal but they call insanity.”

Joni Mitchell

The visit was immortalised in her song ‘Refuge of the Roads’ and the editorial note that appears on the record – Hejira – reads:

I consider him one of my great teachers, even though I saw him only three times. […] [Later], at the very end of Trungpa’s life I went to visit him. I wanted to thank him. He was not well. He was green and his eyes had no spirit in them at all, which sort of stunned me, because the previous times I’d seen him he was quite merry and puckish – you know, saying “shit” a lot.

I leaned over and looked into his eyes, and I said, “How is it in there? What do you see in there? And this voice came, like, out of a void, and it said, “Nothing.” So, I want over and whispered in his ear, “I just came to tell you that when I left you that time, I had three whole days without self conscious-ness, and I wanted to thank you for the experience.” And he looked up at me, and all the light came back into his face and he goes, “Really?” And then he sank back into this black void again.

Joni Mitchell painting of Chogyam Trungpa.
Joni Mitchell, Chogyam Trungpa – Painting accompanied the release of Joni’s 2002 album Travelogue alongside the lyrics to ‘Refuge Of The Roads’.

For those who are interested, the lyrics to ‘Refuge Of The Roads.’

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back, simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
"Heart and humor and humility"
He said, "will lighten up your heavy load"
I left him then for the refuge of the roads
I fell in with some drifters
Cast upon a beach town
Winn Dixie cold cuts and highway hand me downs
And I wound up fixing dinner
For them and Boston Jim
I well up with affection
Thinking back down the roads to then
The nets were overflowing
In the Gulf of Mexico
They were overflowing in the refuge of the roads
There was spring along the ditches
There were good times in the cities
Oh, radiant happiness
It was all so light and easy
'Til I started analyzing
And I brought on my old ways
A thunderhead of judgment was
Gathering in my gaze
And it made most people nervous
They just didn't want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads
I pulled off into a forest
Crickets clicking in the ferns
Like a wheel of fortune
I heard my fate turn, turn, turn
And I went running down a white sand road
I was running like a white-assed deer
Running to lose the blues
To the innocence in here
These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads
In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn't see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here, least of all
You couldn't see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling, taking refuge in the roads

Written by Tom Westhead

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