I have three Joni Mitchell albums in my collection – The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Blue and Heijira. They have acted as both a personal and a professional musical resource. They’ve become albums I return to, not exclusively but consistently, and yet it took me ages to own them all. I remember exactly the first time I heard each album, all years after they were released. But it was The Hissing of Summer Lawns that I got to know first. It proved to be a substantial and sustained influence, and it’s a right little slice of the Seventies.
In 1978, two of my friends drove into Nelson from Appleby and met me outside the Majestic one Friday night. We were going to The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese – whoever he was. Pre-MTV, pre-video, it made a mark. Not only was it my first rock-u-mentary, but, stuck in small town NZ at the age of fifteen, it was literally my first view of a rock concert. I remember how Muddy Waters sang and that Neil Young looked like someone in a gorilla suit who had forgotten to take the head off, but the only lyric I can recall to this day is what Joni Mitchell sang:
You just picked up a hitcher,
prisoner of the white lines
on the freeway
So, in 1979, another friend lent me her LP of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and I kept it for months. I tried to work out Mitchell’s distinctive chords on our clunky old borrowed piano. I poured over the lyrics, osmosing all the words, and I mean all of them. “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” became my theme song:
I’m leaving on the 1.15
Since I was seventeen
I’ve had no one over me
(“Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow”)
The title track was the triumphant soundtrack to my soon-to-be strident feminism:
He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a room full of Chippendales
That nobody sits in
“Edith and the Kingpin” articulated (my) anguish at the awkwardness of ritualised teenage socialising. “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” seemed to be Nelson personified with its endless summers, sprinklers and weathered blondes in yachts. It resonated with my frustration of feeling so stuck in the cul-de-sac of the sixth form, in an adolescent halfway house of mind and body:
We’d all go looking for a party
Looking to raise Jesus up from the dead
(“In France They Kiss On Main Street”)
I found it utterly singable, densely evocative, lushly arranged and ripe with rebellion. I let it underscore my teenage scathing of every aspect of my parents’ way of life. Yeah, baby, I loved that record!
Now I revel in Mitchell’s material with much more multi-layered admiration. It’s taken years of having a go myself to realise just how good she is. Because writing and recording music is such a process of synthesis, once you have gone through it yourself, it is hard to listen to new music the same way ever again, to respond on a genuinely global level. You tend to listen analytically, which, surprisingly, doesn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a piece. You dissect music – listening as much to the tuning as to the content of the vocals, to what effects are used on the third guitar part, what they’ve done with the gate on the snare or whether the highhats poke out too much. In fact, maybe a musician “hears” more than most on a constructive basis, but it does mean that I can never listen to a piece of music like I did as a teenager.
Now I admire the clarity and deftness of Mitchell’s vocal performances, the prolificacy of her songwriting, the idiosyncratic skill of her guitar and piano playing. I marvel at her strength of character to survive and develop artistically, to weather the storms of musical fashion and styles of production. I appreciate how each of her albums has a definite, unified musical character – from the soundtrack-to-suburbia song cycle that I found so attractive in The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with its varied and complex arrangements, to the confessional simplicity of the starkly solo production of Blue. And I delight in the fact that she’s also made the odd totally duff record, namely Dog Eat Dog – dog being the operative word.
I’ve read and re-read her lyrics and still hear new nuances. They are full of every literary trick in the book and yet remain deceptively free of artifice, slipping easily off the tongue when sung. They can act as the most pictorial of snapshots:
A helicopter lands on a Pan Am roof like a dragonfly on a
And businessmen in buttondowns press into conference
And they can give great descriptions and insights of life as a working recording artist –
The perils of benefactors,
The blessings of parasites.
(“Shadows and Light”)
– which I sure have sung under my breath when mired in some mind-numbingly tedious funding application.
Now, one of the things that I like most about Mitchell, but didn’t particularly even consider as a teenager, was that she is a she. All her songs just happened to be in a key I could sing along with. It didn’t occur to me as a kid that it was strange to be a woman functioning so extensively in that environment with the level of commercial control that she’s maintained. I just liked the music.
But while I have finally replaced my dog-eared LP copy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns with its trim 21st century CD cousin, there was nothing like first opening that heavy double album-sized sleeve to discover the photograph of Mitchell floating on her back, across the middle of the inside cover in her bikini, mirroring her own lyric:
With her body oiled and shining
At the public swimming pool.
(“Harry’s House / Centerpiece”)
Charlotte Yates’s latest album Dead Fish Beach was released earlier this year. Her website address is: www.charlotteyates.com