Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Hissing of Summer Lawns

The Hissing of Summer Lawns marks the beginning of the end for Joni Mitchell as a pop-rock icon. But this is the album that got me hooked on Joni Mitchell, and it is the only album in the batch given to me by Reverend Bookburn for my birthday that I already owned in its entirety - and I don't think I've ever been without the entire album, in one form or another, since I first got it on vinyl in 1978.

Bookburn himself, as I recall, was not a big fan of this album - he liked to mock it, especially Edith and the Kingpin which he thought was ridiculously soap opera-esque. Which it was, but that doesn't mean it's bad. The Rev was in his hard-core early punk rocker phase then.

 It's certainly one of Joni's least autobiographical songs, it's about an undercover cop beginning to fall in love with a crime lord.

The CSNY connection is still hanging in there on this album, with Crosby and Nash, along with James Taylor, doing backing vocals. But most of the musicians are LA Express types.

The most important song for me, on this album, is The Jungle Line. It would be hard to over-estimate the impact this song had on me when I heard it on the local Philly FM radio station as I was getting ready for school. Starting with the drums, which were rhythmic but with a weird, asymmetrical beat. Turns out the drums are a field recording of the Royal Drummers of Burundi. I had never heard anything like it and I thought it was insanely great. Only two other rhythm tracks rival this, for my money - Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Dave Brubeck's Take Five. And Joni was years ahead of the rest of the rock world - New Wave groups started to incorporate Burundi drum sounds in the early-mid 1980s.

And on top of the drums were the weird synthesizer sounds that are very reptilian, which makes a lot of sense, considering the recurring theme of snakes on this album, starting with the double-entendre of the title and the cover art. Joni got the cover image, of the people carrying a giant snake, from a National Geographic article. I was once paging through some old National Geographics and came across the original photo and immediately recognized it as the source for the Hissing cover.

And Joni's odd vocals. The melody is pretty flat and she sounds like she's talking instead of singing in several places but even so it has an hypnotic effect. And the lyrics are trippy, which I recognized on the first listening, because I was familiar with the work of Henri Rousseau. The lyrics move between two realities - on the one hand we see Rousseau painting the picture, the next instant we're in the picture.
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.
And then later the references to drugs:
There's a poppy wreath on a soldier's tomb
There's a poppy snake in the dressing room.
Poppy poison, poppy tourniquet,
It slithers away on glass like mouth piece spit.
And metal skin and ivory birds
Go steaming up to Rouseau's vines
They go steaming up to Brooklyn Bridge
Steaming steaming steaming up the Jungle Line.
When the song was over and I heard the D.J. announce the name of the composer/performer I was flabbergasted - wasn't Joni Mitchell that hippie Big Yellow Taxi lady? Clearly this women contained multitudes, and was an indisputable fucking genius. I was hooked on Joni Mitchell like poppy poison at that moment, ever after. Music truly is the best drug.

 My next favorite song on this album is Don't Interrupt the Sorrow which has a great tempo and melody and weird Jungian imagery. And the lyrics are about as blatantly feminist as Mitchell has ever gotten:
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.
And I defy you to find any song like this ever, much less in the mid-1970s pop-rock milieu. Mitchell is ever sui generis.

Shades of Scarlett Conquering has more literary than musical value in my opinion, along with Edith,  In France They Kiss on Main Street, The Boho Dance and the title track. But very good literature. And even Shadows and Light, with Mitchell's impressive a capella singing doesn't do much for me. But they can all come along for the ride, that's fine - The Jungle Line has mighty coat tails.

Harry's House/Centerpiece had special significance for me though - there was the not especially original  Man in the Gray Flannel Suit lament - it's all very Mad Men - but then the jazz-blues Centerpiece comes in, for maximum ironic effect while Harry is having a nostalgic reverie:
The more I'm with you pretty baby
The more I feel my love increase
I'm building all my dreams around you
Our happiness will never cease.
Cause nothing's any good without you
Baby you're my center piece.

 (piano solo)

We'll buy a house and garden somewhere
Along a country road a piece,
A little cottage on the outskirts
Where we can really find release
Cause nothing's any good without you
Baby you're my center piece.
Then as Harry is coming out of his reverie Joni does her impression of Harry's wife, which sounded to me - especially when I was a teenager - exactly like my mother:
When you be home Harry?
Get down off of there.
I sure am sick of that sofa.
When you be home Harry?
I said get down off of there!
Nothing's any good.
When you be home Harry?
Nothing's any good!
And the effect was only intensified by the fact that my father's name actually was Harry. My mother and I have always had a rocky relationship, but no surprise it was at its absolute worst when I was a teenager. We were constantly at each other's throats - and not always just figuratively - there were several bouts of fisticuffs. We've calmed down these days, although that might be due in part to the fact that she's an old lady now and I could totally kick her ass.

Sweet Bird is beautiful, the way the piano and guitar fade in, and the theme of the fleeting nature of existence. The first lines are especially powerful:
Out on some borderline
Some mark of in-between
I lay down golden in time
And woke up vanishing.
I remember nodding sagely and thinking, yes, Joni, so true. All these vain promises on beauty jars to keep us looking young. It made me very nostalgic for my lost youth. I was seventeen at the time.

Well but Mitchell herself was 32 when she wrote it. A mere baby from my antique perspective now. 

Well that's depressing. Time to reach for the more hallucinatory drugs:
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 a five piece band
He hangs it up above the Jungle Line.

The Jungle Line, the Jungle Line
Screaming in a ritual of sound and time.