One of the first records I ever owned was by Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi on a 45, and along with my other two 45’s, all of which were inherited, I played it to death along with Return to Sender by Elvis and Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich.
I played them on a Dansete type player, like the one in the picture but I think it was red, all three records loaded up and they would drop as they finished and the next one one play, then I’d lift them up and play them again. There was a finite number of records where this would work as they start slipping if there are too many, but three was fine. This happened in South Wales, before we moved to England and Big Yellow Taxi was the only Joni Mitchell song I knew, I was about 7 or 8 at the time.
Jumping forward and I’m now living in England, am about 13 or 14, and I have the old family record player in my bedroom. A bit like this one but not this one:
With this I could create compilation tapes from records and tracks off the radio. We had a much better system downstairs in the living room but this worked fine for me at the time.
One evening I was listening to The Friday Rock Show on the radio and they played the track Edith and the Kingpin by Joni Mitchell, which was probably the first thing I’d heard by her since playing that 45 and it both surprised and delighted me. It was absolutely nothing like that old 45 at all and I decided there and then that, when I had some money, I would buy myself a copy of the album that it was taken from.
It was a while before I actually managed to get a copy, several years, in fact I can’t actually remember when I bought it but it must have been 20 to 25 years ago, but I did get a copy and it was brilliant.
The first track, “In France They Kiss on Main Street”, is a jazz-rock song about coming of age in a small town in the 1950s rock & roll era. (The song was released as the single from the album and reached number 66 on the US Billboard charts.) “The Jungle Line” uses a field recording from Africa of the Drummers of Burundi (called ‘warrior drums’ in the credits), onto which are dubbed guitar, Moog synthesizer and the vocal line. The lyrics pay homage to the works of the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau. Mitchell blends details of his works with imagery of modern city life, the music industry and the underground drug culture.
“Edith and the Kingpin” marks a return to jazz in a story of a gangster’s new moll arriving in his home town. “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” is an acoustic guitar–based song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, focused on women standing up to male dominance and proclaiming their own existence as individuals. “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” is an orchestral-based piece about a modern southern belle basing her life and self-image on the stereotypes of the Scarlett O’Hara character from Gone with the Wind.
The second side begins with the title track, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which is about a woman who chooses to stay in a marriage where she is treated as part of her husband’s portfolio. “The Boho Dance” comments on people who feel that artists betray their artistic integrity for commercial success, with an ironic glance at those who said this of Mitchell herself and parallels Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” concerns failing marriage as example of the loneliness of modern life and frames the jazz standard “Centerpiece” by Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jon Hendricks. “Sweet Bird” is a sparser acoustic track that is a slight return to Mitchell’s so-called ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter style and addresses the loss of beauty power with aging. Its lyrics indicate that it may also be a reference to Tennessee’s William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. The final track is “Shadows and Light”, consisting of many overdubs of her voice and an ARP String Machine (credited as an ARP-Farfisa on the album sleeve).
I pulled the album out of storage yesterday and have given it a few plays now, it is still brilliant so looking back at what was written about it at the time I was surprised that, due to the jazz influence and experimental nature of the album, the record received harsh criticism, with Rolling Stone listing it as one of the worst album titles of the year. Oh Rolling Stone, you bloody idiots.
It would seem that this is one of those albums that has grown in favour over time, and rightly so. It is certainly true that this album was a departure from what had gone before, just look at the albums that preceded it:
Song to a Seagull – Released: March 1968
Clouds – Released: May 1969
Ladies of the Canyon – Released: April 1970
Blue – Released – June 1971
For the Roses – Released: November 1972
Court and Spark – Released: January 17, 1974
and there was the live album, Miles of Aisles, released in November 1974. All fabulous albums but not really stylistically in line with the Hissing of Summer Lawns, which must have been quite a shock to those who loved these first albums (Blue in particular is a work of genius in my opinion). The thing is, musicians need to grow, they need to develop by experimenting with new forms. While what we want is often more of the same that route will most likely result in stagnation and, ultimately, the demise of the artist as they would be similarly criticised for not doing anything new.
My copy is a bit battered now but the vinyl plays OK and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting aquatinted with it, which will, I think, result in the other albums I have getting another spin over the next week. I also always keep a look out in the used bins for albums I don’t have, which can often be quite cheap. There are 20 or so albums out there so I have a few to stumble of yet, I currently have 8.
I can’t recommend this album highly enough, i’ve been enjoying it, off and on, for 35 years or more and it doesn’t get stale.
A1 In France They Kiss on Main Street 3:19
A2 The Jungle Line 4:25
A3 Edith and the Kingpin 3:38
A4 Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow 4:05
A5 Shades of Scarlett Conquering 4:59
B1 The Hissing of Summer Lawns 3:01
B2 The Boho Dance 3:48
B3 Harry’s House/Centerpiece 6:48
B4 Sweet Bird 4:12
B5 Shadows and Light 4:19
Just because I wanted to, here are some cover versions of songs from this album: