The Four Oh Project: Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Hissing_of_Summer_Lawns

In 1975, I was 15 and while much of that year was unique to my experience and location, I did one thing that a lot of 15 year olds did during the ’70s: I wore out copies of vinyl records playing them over and over again. The Four Oh Project looks back at some of those records in that light, looks at them as I aged, and looks at them now.

Released in November 1975, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was Joni Mitchell’s seventh studio recording and eighth disc over all. It was one of her most controversial releases too. Prince and Morrissey both cited the recording as a cornerstone influence, but Rolling Stone’s review in January 1976 lambasted the music as insubstantial and pretentiously chic.

I’m much closer to the musicians than the magazine in my opinion of the recording, but I think that in late 1975, how a person received The Hissing of Summer Lawns depended on when you joined the Joni Mitchell Party. I became a card carrying member less than two years earlier, in January 1974 upon the release of Court and Spark. To that point I already knew of Mitchell as the songwriter of “Clouds” as Judy Collins version was in heavy rotation on the Johnson household playlist, and I knew her sweet, crystalline soprano from the minor pop hit “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” from her November 1972 release For the Roses. I borrowed a copy of the album from my sister and recorded it, but its grandiose ambition eluded my adolescent ears.

What’s missing from this timeline is Blue, Joni’s June 1971 opus, the gold standard then and still for spare, poetic introspection. I didn’t explore that music until I was much older, say 17, which is if you don’t remember much older than 15. For those who cherished the Mitchell of Blue, For the Roses must have seemed like a departure, and Court and Spark, a pop ditty. To this way of thinking Hissing represented a betrayal. It was the final proof that Blue Joni didn’t live here anymore. She’d gone to the city, first to Los Angeles and fallen in with a jazz fusion band, Tom Scott and L.A. Express who often provided her with solid backing. Then she’d gone to New York and her music had become more experimental. There were African drums on one track, gospel structure on another.  Furthermore, while she was still looking for love in all the wrong places and philosophically parsing the results, Mitchell’s focus had turned outward with the same pith that she had employed in her inward views. Some fans of Blue may well have been targets of her withering gaze on Hissing. Small wonder it failed to sell half of what Court and Spark did. Joni’s relentless sonic wanderlust had become her equivalent of Dylan plugging in at Newport in 1965. She no longer wanted a “river that she could skate away on.” She wanted a seat at the cafe, or at the bar and she chronicled what she saw with a ferocity that would make Gawker or Deadspin envious.

I had loved Court and Spark passionately. The Johnson family apartment in Chicago had a kitchen table and in the late 60s and early ’70s, it seemed to me that at all times of day or night, you could find a discussion amongst my siblings, each a decade or more my senior, their friends or various aunts, uncles and neighbors about Mayor Daley, Vietnam, Watergate, or many other issues of the day. Joni’s observations were to me the poetic equivalent of what I heard at the table. “All the people at this party/They’ve got a lot of style/they’ve got stamps of many countries/they’ve got passport smiles” starts off “People’s Parties. It was impossible for even teenaged Martin not to pick up on the separation and order between stamps of many countries, IOW, pretention, then travel. Similarly when elsewhere on the recording, she sings. “everything comes and goes/marked by lovers and styles of clothes,” I thought she had described my elders lives to a T.

To my teenaged ears, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was a continuation of what Court and Spark represented, but it was much more adventurous musically. Although it started with the radio friendly “In France They Kiss on Main St.,” a song that could have been part of a larger piece with Court and Spark’s “Free Man in Paris,” it shifts into high gear with “The Jungle Line,” a piece sung over Burundian drummers. It imagines Henri Rousseau as a nightcrawler and describes the scene through his eyes. I always loved the couplet, “Floating, Drifting on the air conditioned wind/and drooling for a taste of something smuggled in.”

Whereas the characters in the songs on Court and Spark seemed caught in their own individual anomie, those in Hissing fell into categories. Either they were walking a financial or societal tightrope or they were recoiling from the frustrations from the fact that their dreams didn’t deliver. That’s the scenario in the album’s best tune, “Harry’s House/Centerpiece.” The song begins with cinematic vistas,

Heatwaves on the runway
As the wheels set down
He takes his baggage off the carousel
He takes a taxi into town
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

The scene shifts from the protagonists traveling to him at work, where

A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof
Like a dragonfly on a tomb
And business men 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

And with that the song segues into a rendition of the Jon Hendricks/Harry Sweets Edison tune Centerpiece replete with a jazz arrangement that recalls Lambert Hendricks and Ross (Joni covered Annie Ross’s Twisted on Court and Spark), the song sets up the frustration behind the pictures. And as Centerpiece fades, Harry’s House returns from the wife’s point of view.

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

These are the moments; people who thought they had a six lane highway and instead have much less leeway and they are weary of it. Hissing is chock full of observations about those sorts. The nuclear family dream of the 50s did not adapt well to the ’70s and Joni chronicles its failures in glorious detail.

In the credits, Joni mentioned that she considered the album to be more of a suite, a series of connected songs, and taken together the recording feels like one big rebuke to Burt Bachrach’s “Wives and Lovers.” Mitchell wasn’t a Joni come lately to jazz–as it was often assumed in the music press–she had been a fan since her teens if not before, so it’s likely that she knew both “Centerpiece” and “Wives and Lovers” from her formative years.  The reocrding is a takedown of the promise of domestic bliss and Joni clubs it to death with vigor. After all, she rightly felt that some of her artistic merit was overlooked by the music press who only wanted to gossip about her latest fella.

Some of the social critique probably eluded the fifteen year old me, even if I was up on some feminist reading and thus totally got the wife’s discontent in Harry’s House/Centerpiece. What affected me more on the record was its unique sound. Mid ’70s Joni more than anyone other than Steely Dan of the same era told me that my record collection was okay. It was okay to like jazz. I had relatives and classmates who unhesitatingly called me Uncle Tom for liking music that wasn’t in their rotation, stuff like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Going further out by liking Joni, and Neil Young, and Steely Dan got me beatdowns. Teenagers are always so enlightened. Even 40 years later, it still seems so weird; I was heavily into Gil Scott Heron, and my tormentors had no clue who he was.

By November 1975, I was looking to escape. We had moved to Dallas from my native Chicago in the summer of 1974, and I initially assumed that I’d return to the Windy City for college and stay. However, a new locale, New York City, had begun to exert a powerful lure and Hissing enhanced it substantially. Downtown cool (“The Boho Dance”) midtown bustle (“Harry’s House”), uptown affluence (“Shades of Scarlett Conquering”) and suburban discontent (the title track) were all detailed with Joni’s poetic observations. Along with Becker and Fagen, television shows like “Kojak,” and a handful of others (including a singer/songwriter from Long Island who hadn’t enjoyed his breakthrough yet, but his “New York State of Mind,” enraptured me), a body of work emerged in my life that began to attract me toward Gotham.

On the one hand, I’m a little surprised that Hissing hasn’t aged very well; it’s essentially neglected while other Mitchell recordings of that period have not been. Hejira, the recording that followed it in 1976 is regarded by many as a classic. And perhaps due to Bjork’s endorsement, Mitchell’s 1977 release, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, often seems on the verge of a critical reconsideration; Stereogum named it the sixth best Mitchell recording in a 2013 survey of her work. On the other hand, that sound—the sumptuous veneer of her pop jazz–is gone. Joni abandoned it in the early ’80s; Sade picked it up for her first four records but she too dropped it with 1992’s Love Deluxe. 1992 was a long time ago.

What’s resulted is that The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a recording stuck in its time. People who embraced it then still cherish now, but there’s no easy road into this innovative music for those new to this phase of a great artist.

Martin Johnson writes about jazz for the Wall St. Journal, sports for Slate, beer for Eater and a wide range of topics for The Root.  His work has also appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Newsday four books and dozens of websites. 

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About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at thejoyofcheese.blogspot.com. In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and www.theroot.com. I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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