Joni Mitchell – Classic Music Review – The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Joni Mitchell was the darling of critics in the early ’70s, earning enthusiastic kudos for her albums Ladies of the Canyon, For the Roses, Blue and Court and Spark. By 1975 she had qualified as a long-term resident of Southern California (actually, anyone who lives in L. A. for more than a year is considered a long-term resident, so after seven years Joni qualified as a lifer). It would have been both easy and expected for her to embrace the norms of the music industry, rest on her laurels and release album after album in her distinct romantic-folk style, assuring herself of annual Grammy nominations by continuing to color inside the lines.

Though Court and Spark received an overwhelmingly positive reception from fans and critics alike, there is a restlessness about that album, manifested in occasional tiptoes into jazz territory. While jazz was on the decline in terms of popular acceptance, adding a touch of jazz in one’s music was considered a cool and sophisticated thing to do in the mid-’70s. Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire, and Chicago had all integrated jazz sensibilities into their music to varying degrees, so Joni was validated for keeping up with the times.

Then came The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with more pronounced jazz influences and several free-form meditations that defied genre. Critics went ballistic. Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone was particularly harsh in his assessment:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production. This parallels Mitchell’s growing interest in jazz, a form that would seem the ideal vehicle for developing her gift.

Four members of Tom Scott’s L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell’s romantic style. Always distinctly modal, Mitchell’s tunes for the first time often lack harmonic focus. They are free-form in the most self-indulgent sense, i.e., they exist only to carry the lyrics. With the exceptions of “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” and “Sweet Bird,” neither of which boasts a strong tune but at least have appropriately lovely textures, the arrangements are as pretentiously chic as they are boring.

Despite years of classical and jazz training, I had never heard the term “harmonic focus,” so I googled it. I learned that “harmonic focus” is the trademark name for a pair of surgical shears that, according to Johnson & Johnson, are “today’s standard for head and neck surgery—enabling fine dissection and sealing of vessels up to 5mm in head and neck procedures.”

Shame on Joni Mitchell for not integrating the Harmonic Focus® and the soothing sounds of surgery into her music.

Like many English majors I’ve met, Holden apparently loves to fiddle with words, producing empty phrases presented in the intimidating voice of the self-styled expert. Though my words won’t have the impact of Mr. Holden’s, as I lack the credibility afforded to those with a B. A. in English from Yale, I consider his review of The Hissing of Summer Lawns“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

What I hear on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is Joni Mitchell . . . liberated. Her tone throughout the album is that of an artist who has found her voice, a woman who has finally found a way to give form to a vague but persistent vision and celebrates the moment with excitement and intent.

I don’t know how anyone can say that “In France They Kiss on Main Street” lacks melody unless one’s concept of melody never developed beyond Bach. The song has a breezy melody that glides through the air while covering a lot of ground inside and outside the staff lines. What strikes me is the confidence and capability in Joni’s voice, navigating the rich lyrics and extended melodic line while occasionally dropping into teenage girl conversation mode: “I love to dance.”

The song is set in the ’50s to early ’60s, when prudes still ruled the world, The Pill was but a dream and dance was a vital form of sexual expression for the teenage crowd. Unlike the revolutionaries who would appear later in rock history, the crowd Joni describes avoids politics like the plague, largely expressing their disdain for bourgeois life through the medium of dance:

And I told him They don’t take chances
They seem so removed from romance
They’ve been broken in churches and schools
And molded to middle class circumstance
And we were rolling, rolling, rock and rolling

The dance halls and cafes
Feel so wild you could break somebody’s heart
Just doing the latest dance craze

Though most of the lyrics call up the predictable images and activity of the period (dimestores, hot-wiring, pinball arcades), “In France They Kiss on Main Street” is a far more true-to-life depiction of the era compared to the saccharine muck of Happy Days. The hot distorted guitar licks are clearly out of sync with the period, but Joni compensates for that oversight with lively vocal harmonies that sound pretty focused to me. And just to get the bitchiness out of my system, I’ll also point out that it is possible for instruments to harmonize with vocals, as Victor Feldman demonstrates with his sweet touch on the electric piano.

I was stunned to learn that some of the most intense criticism of the album was reserved for “The Jungle Line.” Holden called it “The album’s most flagrant example of pseudo-avant-gardism” and “brittle, gimmicky and enervated.”

Well, as my Dad always says, “Harvard gave us Vietnam, Yale gave us Iraq and Afghanistan.” Even in his mid-30’s, Holden was already a hopeless old fart, and he would fully embrace that label a few years later when he joined the New York Times, the “gray lady” of journalism. For me, “The Jungle Line” is one of the best damned things Joni Mitchell ever did, and this is coming from a woman who can’t stand Henri Rousseau’s work—particularly his jungle scenes.

Artistic quibbles aside, Rousseau’s presence in the song is a brilliant device, for instead of the songwriter relating the imagery, Joni steps aside and allows the artist to paint the scene in real time. What Rousseau seeks to capture is the world on the other side of the “jungle line,” a milieu that embraces the dark, erotic side of human nature, embodied in the late night jazz clubs where white people flocked to hear Ellington and Calloway during the Harlem Renaissance, or to catch Bird and Diz as they shattered paradigms of melody and rhythm in the post-war era:

Rousseau walks on trumpet pads
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts through Harlem through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line

Inspired by this relentless force, Rousseau attempts to integrate the trappings of modernity with the sights and scents of the jungle, painting a more complex but more authentic picture of the human condition and our warring urges:

In a low-cut blouse she brings the beer
Rousseau paints a jungle flower behind her ear
Those cannibals of shuck and jive
They’ll eat a working girl like her alive
With his hard-edged eyes and his steady hand
He paints the cellar full of ferns and orchid vines
And he hangs a moon above the five-piece band
He hangs it up above the jungle line

I love the last verse, and that love has more to do with Joni’s delivery than the poetry. The synth-enhanced Warrior Drums of Burundi have been pulsating in the background since the start of the song, highlighted by contrasting patches of dissonant melody from the Moog and brief appearances of rhythmic chanting. Up to this point, Joni’s vocal has been a mix of darkness and bite, as the lines “Pretty women funneled through valves and smoke/Coy and bitchy, wild and fine” vividly demonstrate. In verse four, though, she completely immerses herself in the percussive rhythm, responding to the stimuli with marked attitude and grit:

And metal skin and ivory birds
Go steaming up to Rousseau’s vines
They go . . . steaming up to Brooklyn Bridge
Steaming, steaming, steaming up the jungle line

That tiny pause noted by the ellipses is killer—the fragment tossed off in confidence, the core phrase all grit, smoke and libido.

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In contrast, the soft jazz of “Edith and the Kingpin” feels somewhat deflating, the musical edges blurred, more like background music than something that grabs your attention. Joni explained its origins in an interview with Mojo magazine: “Sometimes you write about the exact thing you saw, but other times you take something that happened over here and put it with something over there. In ‘Edith And The Kingpin,’ part of it is from a Vancouver pimp I met and part of it is Edith Piaf. It’s a hybrid, but all together it makes a whole truth.” As far as romance is concerned, Piaf did live on the edge, preferring tough guys like boxers and hoods to more conventional types, and the “whole truth” behind that superficially inexplicable attraction is explained succinctly in the closing lines:

Edith and the Kingpin
Each with charm to sway
Are staring eye to eye
They dare not look away
You know they dare not look away

Danger makes any experience more exciting, hence the thrill of the roller coaster and the fetish of auto racing. Skirting the edge of danger in sexual relations adds extra excitement because the thing you want to do (a love slap, changing the location of orifice penetration, pinching a nipple) is also deliciously taboo. This is the principle that fuels film noir, and Edith Piaf’s life was pure noir melodrama. Though I don’t care much for the vague music, Joni was balls-on (can a girl be balls-on?) in the motivation behind the apparent madness.

Joni’s practice of using alternative tunings to transform chords from the mundane to the magical serves as the foundation of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” enhanced with subtle support from Robben Ford on dobro, Victor Feldman on congas and Wilton Felder of The Jazz Crusaders on bass. The lyrics have been labeled “stream of consciousness” by those who are too lazy to put the pieces together; my view is that the song probably sounds like gibberish to men but resonates beautifully with the superior sex. At the risk of sounding like a “fema-nazi” (as I was recently labeled by a reader at @50thirdand3rd), I will elucidate the meaning for those poor creatures whose right brain has atrophied due to centuries of male entitlement.

The context of the song is that period in liberation history when women began to think of themselves as equal players in sexual matters and decided that they could fuck anyone they wanted to fuck, a right previously limited to oat-sowers. As we know from history, women who dared assert themselves (except for a few infused with royal blood) were labeled witches, facing consequences ranging from banishment to becoming the feature act at the town barbecue. As she steps out alone for a night on the town, the song’s narrator is fully aware of the stigma and the parallel expectation that women should be nice (i. e., compliant, obedient, shut the fuck up):

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite

When confronted by the male half in a bar or nightclub (“room full of glasses”), he pokes fun at the narrator’s egalitarian leanings in securing sexual partners, reminding her that her status as an object is grounded in the ancient truths contained in the good book:

He says “Your notches, liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

The Ethiopian wall is a reference to art heavily influenced by the Coptic Christianity that united Egypt and Ethiopia centuries back, a valid symbol reflecting the inescapable truth that religion has played a crucial role in institutionalizing the repression of women. The narrator burns with resentment over the idealization and objectification of women as manifested in the anima, a psychological construct that in essence defines a woman’s role as one who supplies inspiration to men who lack creative and emotional intelligence. As such, the figure of Eve is both revered and reviled, but always considered inferior. The narrator resists such status with every fiber of her being:

Anima rising
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden
Wash and balance me
Anima rising
Uprising in me tonight
She’s a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight

In the third verse, it feels like Joni herself steps in with a more direct message concerning the source of female repression, and to hardly anyone’s surprise, the source is religious tradition:

Truth goes up in vapors
The steeples lean
Winds of change patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams
God goes up the chimney
Like childhood Santa Claus
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause

That last line is a message of resistance, a protest against the marginalization of women, fortified by a line in the following verse: “Since I was seventeen I’ve had no one over me.” This display of cheek is soundly rejected by the male half, who insists that the notion of gender equality will fall victim to the “petrified wood process” and end up as dead rock. Possessed with greater sensitivity, the narrator tells herself, “Don’t interrupt the sorrow,” meaning the sorrow attached to the potential loss of male privilege. Oblivious, the man treats her as he would any wife—part servant, part whore, but always less-than:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says “We walked on the moon
You be polite”
Don’t let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth
He says “Bring that bottle kindly
And I’ll pad your purse
I’ve got a head full of quandary
And a mighty mighty thirst”

Fortunately, this man doesn’t get drunk and angry enough to beat the shit out of the woman, preferring instead just to reach a state where he can forget about the whole thing and wallow in his misery. “Seventeen glasses” later, nothing has changed, and in a beautiful act of non-violent resistance, the narrator urges herself to (ironically) display the fortitude of the only woman to ever give birth minus clitoral stimulation or vaginal penetration:

Seventeen glasses
Rhine wine
Milk of the Madonna
He don’t let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary’s these days
When your man gets weak

The alleged vagueness of the lyrics reflects the vague state of male-female relations in the ’70s, a period of transition when the triangle of self-other-context was shattered by the disruption of gender role definition. Nobody knew who the hell they were and were becoming because the characteristics attached to “woman” and “man” had become blurry. “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” is a remarkably insightful look at the challenges of transition from patriarchy to . . . something else.

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Before we get into “Shades of Scarlett Conquering,” I must divulge that I loathed the film Gone with the Wind and in particular the character of Scarlett O’Hara, whose two noteworthy achievements were blowing off the head of a would-be rapist and proving that women can mimic male behavior in business by transforming themselves into aggressive assholes. I accept in part Margaret Mitchell’s explanation of Scarlett’s motivation as “survival,” but that only applies to her character during the postwar years, and certainly not while she was in pursuit of a hopeless wimp like Ashley Wilkes.

Joni’s tale involves a modern version of Scarlett who isn’t all that different from the original, having adopted the heroine of Gone with the Wind as a role model. In contemporary parlance, she certainly qualifies as a “dick tease” and one seriously uptight prude:

Friends have told her ‘not so proud’
Neighbors trying to sleep and yelling ‘not so loud’
Lovers in anger ‘Block of Ice’
Harder and harder just to be nice

Given in the night to dark dreams
From the dark things she feels
She covers her eyes in the x-rated scenes
Running from the reels

Joni does give this Scarlett heavily ironic credit for surviving what Scarlett would consider her disastrous circumstances of having been born in the wrong place, wrong time:

Beauty and madness to be praised
‘Cause it is not easy to be brave
To walk around in so much need
To carry the weight of all that greed

The exit from melody to spoken word on the crucial line, “A woman must have everything” is punctuated by Joni’s cold, matter-of-fact tone. The soft jazz music here is beautifully enhanced by a light but evocative string arrangement courtesy of Dale Oehler . . . one of many outstanding arrangements on the album.

“The Hissing of Summer Lawns” has become something of a period piece due to a combination of perpetual drought and the disappearance of charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid from the L. A. lifestyle. Having grown up in San Francisco, where grass is something you see at the park, summer barbecues are comparatively rare due to the relentless fog, and swimming pools are largely indoor experiences reeking of toxic levels of chlorine, I have a hard time identifying with the environment described in the song, and an even harder time empathizing with the woman trapped in a loveless marriage . . . or more accurately, the woman who chose to be trapped in a loveless marriage in exchange for comfort, status and a diamond necklace:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns

I am heartened that Joni took the same position, for even with hints of a relationship marked by infidelity or domestic violence (“his darkness to regret”), she is certainly no victim. Another soft jazz piece reflecting the cool and comfort of Bel Air, I think the piece would have been stronger and more historically accurate with a brief insertion of Vin Scully calling a Dodger game in the background.

I’m serious.

“The Boho Dance” deals with the perpetual struggle between artist and benefactor, purity and mammon, refusing to sell out versus the need to survive. The Manhattan form of the phenomenon was accurately depicted in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, conveniently summarized here in a brief, though somewhat robotic animated video:

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Whether she’s talking about her life as a musician or her dabbling in paint, Joni’s position is fairly pragmatic. Artists who wanted to avoid poverty have always had to accept the backing of a patron, whether the patron belonged to some noble family or ran a record company. Artists who felt that contact with the money changers represented an act of self-abnegation that defiled their art accepted poverty as part of the deal. Joni accepts that we live in a capitalist universe and that waiting for humanity to evolve is foolish if you want people to appreciate your work:

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don’t you get sensitive on me
‘Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed

Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes

Nothing is capsulized in me
On either side of town
The streets were never really mine
Not mine these glamour gowns

Since Joni did some of her best work after she became rich and famous, “selling out” is hardly a guaranteed path to artistic corruption. The artistic urge is as powerful any force in the human experience, including the power of wealth. If the urge is genuine and not the ego masquerading as artist, purity will come naturally. Of all the songs on Hissing, “The Boho Dance” is one of the most liberating songs, a feeling that comes through loud and clear in Joni’s shame-free vocal and the bright background marked by Chuck Findley’s flugelhorn.

“The Boho Dance” segues directly into “Harry’s House” with a loud sound somewhere between a siren and freight train but more likely to represent the deceleration of a jet engine, given the opening lines of the song: “Heatwaves on the runway/As the wheels set down.” The immediate appearance of a muted trumpet frames the piece in jazz values, a choice that at first seems at odds with a story about the rather mundane life of a road warrior named Harry. The first hint that Harry has more on his mind than accounts comes after he grabs a taxi:

Yellow schools of taxi fishes
Jonah in a ticking whale
Caught up at the light in the fishnet windows
Of Bloomingdale’s
Watching those high fashion girls
Skinny black models with raven curls
Beauty parlor blondes with credit card eyes
Looking for the chic and the fancy to buy

That passage tells us that Harry is firm in his belief that all women are golddiggers at heart, content to stay put as long as the man is man enough to provide. That philosophical orientation motivates him to embrace the masculine world of business while his stay-at-home wife and their brood of kids endure the emptiness of it all:

And businessmen in button downs
Press into conference rooms
Battalions of paper-minded males
Talking commodities and sales
While at home their paper wives
And paper kids
Paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid

The wife is described as “lost in House and Gardens,” but Harry’s mind drifts to images of happier, pre-marital times when her presentation was far more appealing:

He drifts off into the memory
Of the way she looked in school
With her body oiled and shining
At the public swimming pool . . .

At this point, the tempo begins to unravel and Joni’s voice is channeled through a time-warp filter to bring us back to the era of jazz clubs, where Harry dreams he’s watching his wife on the bandstand singing the Edison-Hendricks jazz classic “Centerpiece.” Joni’s liquid vocal sounds like she’s dressed in a form-fitting evening gown stretched across the top of a grand piano, sensuous and seductive. The second verse of that song presents a dream that bears little resemblance to the couple’s currently lifeless state:

I buy a house and garden somewhere
Along a country road a piece
A little cottage on the outskirts
Where we can really find release
But nothing’s any good without you
Cause baby you’re my centerpiece

As we hear mom in the background anxiously querying Harry about when he’s going to come home while yelling at the kids to “Get down off of there!” you begin to understand why Harry indulged himself in faraway fantasies even with all that important business to attend to. Harry’s behavior seems understandable but is quickly exposed as short-sighted once Joni lets us in on the rest of the story:

. . . Shining hair and shining skin
Shining as she reeled him in
To tell him like she did today
Just what he could do with Harry’s House
And Harry’s take home pay

The phrase “reeled him in” indicates Harry has chosen to take the low road and blame it all on the broad. The man is as clueless as clueless gets, and I wish his wife hundreds of great fucks with the partners of her choice. In the context of his demise, the jazz overtones make perfect sense—jazz is grounded in the blues, and Harry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have stocked up on Howlin’ Wolf records to help him through hard times.

“Sweet Bird” is the song on the album closest to the Joni of Court and Spark, set to a guitar strum tuned to CGDGBD (or C77543 in ‘Joni’ Tuning”). It’s also the one song on HissingI have a hard time relating to because it deals with the Baby Boomer obsession with aging. I’ve never understood why a perfectly natural and inevitable process is so horrifying to that generation, but if Cher feels she needs to look like the girl who sang “Bang, Bang” for the rest of her life, well, okay. I just can’t imagine putting that much effort into that kind of denial. While I feel good when I look good, I don’t think age precludes you from either. The fade line, “Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching,” which Joni repeats as if she’s talking to herself and nowhere near a microphone, may indicate some doubt in her mind as to whether worrying about aging is worth all the trouble.

In complete contrast, I have nothing but admiration for “Shadows and Light,” one of the most powerful album closers I’ve ever heard. Building a chorus by layering her own voice, she delivers half the lines acapella and half over a synthesized organ drone to stunning effect. While the main melody is straightforward and within the boundaries of gospel, the song features key changes and variant melodic and harmonic lines symbolic of the struggle to find the balance between opposites. As such, the narrative plays out through both lyrics and music, intensifying the impact.

Acapella singing tends to cause one’s ears to perk up and sharpen the focus on the singer. As such, it’s a double-edged sword: if you choose to sing acapella, you’d better be good and you’d better have something important to say. Though sparse, Joni’s lyrics possess exceptional resonance:

Every picture has its shadows
And it has some source of light
Blindness blindness and sight
The perils of benefactors
The blessings of parasites
Blindness blindness and sight

Threatened by all things
Devil of cruelty
Drawn to all things
Devil of delight
Mythical devil of the ever-present laws
Governing blindness blindness and sight

Beneath the recitation of opposites lies a greater question: if, as Blake posited, “contraries” are necessary to human existence, why do we attempt to compromise their power by making one side “good” and the other side “evil?” This denial of opposites is a prime source of human guilt, aggression and our flawed sense of justice, a point doubly emphasized in the song when Joni takes that second verse and replaces “devil” with “god.” While the substitution seems to lead us down the road to paradox, what truly creates the paradox is our own discomfort with ambiguity. We want things to be clear, pure and understandable; when they aren’t (as is nearly always the case), we feel “threatened by all things.” That fear drives our “need” to resolve conflict through violence, but there is another equally powerful force that seeks delight in life and all it has to offer:

Threatened by all things
Man of cruelty-mark of Cain
Drawn to all things
Man of delight-born again born again
Man of the laws the ever-broken laws
Governing wrong wrong and right
Governing wrong wrong and right
Wrong and right

The stunning simplicity of the arrangement combined with Joni’s acrobatic expressiveness—alternating between tones of concern and tones of celebration—make “Shadows of Light” an extraordinarily moving, one-of-a-kind experience, a song that sears the soul and nourishes the heart.

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While Joni certainly took her lumps for defying expectations of fans and critics alike, her daring exploration of musical boundaries in The Hissing of Summer Lawnsresulted in a timeless work of art. It is a dynamic record featuring a variety of lyrical and musical approaches that spark fascination, delight and inner reflection. The phrase “ahead of her time” does not apply to something timeless—what “ahead of her time” really means is that the people who first encountered the work felt “threatened by all things,” the common overreaction to difference and novelty. Though the critical reaction had to hurt, eventually Joni decided to be Joni and grace us with the equally powerful Hejira.

The artistic urge is indeed a powerful and wonderful thing.

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • A fine review of possibly Mitchell’s best. A work of art from a time when the album was the form for a consumate artist like Mitchell; and yet breathtakingly about a lot if what matters to humans now; but to women in particular. And yet it is also so heartbreakingly — and disarmingly –empathetic to men despite the frankness. If there is a greater work of feminism in all its complexity, dilemmas
    hope and even delight, then please post a link to it.

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