Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and the Playwright Lover Who Inspired It

The 1976 track might epitomize Joni Mitchell’s prowess as a lyricist and composer, but it wouldn’t have become the song it did without playwright Sam Shepard. While both on the road for Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour, Mitchell and Shepard struck up a short-lived affair that inspired Mitchell’s iconic track and lead single off ‘Hejira.’

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An Intensely Close Bond Written In The Stars

The opening lines of “Coyote” present two characters in opposite worlds. This separation and the couple’s intense attraction for one another creates a bittersweet mixture of emotions, as Mitchell describes: 

There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get 

and still feel so alone and still feel related 

Mitchell described this intense connection with Shepard in David Yaffe’s biography Reckless Daughter (via Rolling Stone). “Sam and I had a flirtation. It was like we were twins. The stars were really funny. He was born November 9, and I was born November 7. I was born beneath a really powerful sky, and I think he was, too.”

The Canadian singer-songwriter said she was drawn to Shepard’s multi-talented abilities so much that she used his creative approach to help craft “Coyote.” “I was forming sentences like he would’ve,” Mitchell explained. “Everything was creating an aversion. But for me, on coke, I found him very attractive.”

The Other Woman Was Well Aware, Too

Part of what made Joni Mitchell and Sam Shepard’s relationship so tempestuous was the fact that Shepard was married. Now he’s got a woman at home, Mitchell sings. He’s got another woman down the hall. He seems to want me anyway. In this case, the woman at home was Shepard’s wife, O-Lan Jones, and the woman down the hall was tour manager Chris O’Dell.

Shepard and O’Dell’s affair started before the playwright’s fling with Mitchell—a heartbreak O’Dell later discussed in her book Miss O’Dell. “I loved the lines Joni wrote about how we licked our wounds and took temporary lovers, using “pills and powders” to get us through the drama.”

“She was right,” O’Dell continued. “I had my pills, my powders, and my whiskey to help me through the drama of those hard days and nights. I knew I had to march forward. The show must go on. But that thing with Sam hurt like hell.”

The Hidden Details In Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”

Joni Mitchell uses extensive metaphor throughout “Coyote,” but not every lyric is opaque. Indeed, some lines directly reference more personal details about herself and playwright Sam Shepard. One subtle nod to Shepard occurs in the final verse. Mitchell sings, He’s too far from the bay of fundy / From appaloosas and eagles and tides.

A few years before Mitchell and Shepard’s affair began, the playwright and actor lived in West Advocate, Nova Scotia, which is located by the Bay of Fundy. Mitchell referenced her old stomping grounds, too, in the line, I looked a coyote right in the face / on the road to Baljennie near my old home town. Baljennie is an unincorporated community in Saskatchewan where Mitchell was raised.

Finally, the song offers a glimpse into Mitchell’s isolation and hedonistic lifestyle on the road, where the endless droning of the highway and mind-altering drugs made it easy to ruminate over love and loss.

I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego 
And with this flame you put here in this eskimo
In this hitcher, in this prisoner of the fine white lines
Of the white lines on the free, freeway

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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