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The Hissing Of Summer Lawns Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s atmospheric song is almost a mini-novel, with a subtle feminist kick.

by John Sieger
UrbanMilwaukee
June 1, 2018

I pay a neighbor who is developmentally disabled to mow our lawn. This doesn't make me a saint, but does allow me to skip one of my least favorite chores, while reaping the rewards of a tidy yard and fewer concerned looks from the neighbors. It's also is an opportunity to bathe in the aroma of new cut grass, everyone's favorite perfume. He's out there now and the drone of that single stroke ozone destroyer is like bad rock and roll. Ah, summer!

The hypnotic drone of his self-propelled Toro brings to mind a much more pleasant sound: Joni Mitchell, and one of her many masterpieces, "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns." The video that accompanies the song, an out-of-focus survey of a summer yard, is a treat for the eyes. If this doesn't evoke pleasant memories of long summer days, check your pulse.

I've often thought Joni would have made a good novelist. She paints a good picture, literally and figuratively, hinting at layers of emotional disquietude others can't even begin to imagine. In this track, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Steely Dan record (I'm sure they shared some of the same session players), she goes beyond the weary cynicism of that great band and explores a different kind of resignation. This could be the theme song for some West Coast Melania Trump, bought, paid for and locked up in the kind of luxurious prison many imagine, but few attain.

He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
She patrols that fence of his
To a latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns
Darkness
Wonder makes it easy
Darkness
With a joyful mask
Darkness
Tube's gone darkness darkness darkness
No color no contrast

A diamond dog
Carrying a cup and a cane
Looking through a double glass
Looking at too much pride and too much shame
There's a black fly buzzing
There's a heat wave burning in her master's voice
The hissing of summer lawns

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

© John Guerin/Joni Mitchell

"Blue pools in the squinting sun," how well written is that? And she rolls them out, one memorable line after another, as if there is an endless supply somewhere only she knows of. The kick in the gut comes in the last verse, right where it should be and it says it all: "A room full of Chippendale that nobody sits in" and complete surrender to a life of security and unhappiness. "It's the lady's choice," is another great compact expression of the illusion of free will. If anyone has expressed this kind of exhaustion and ennui before, I missed it, but I'm sure they didn't do it with this keen an eye... or ear.

The song was co-written with drummer/producer John Guerin. That makes it a rarity, but I wouldn't have guessed someone else helped until I read the credits. That's a compliment to both of them. Joni Mitchell has written many kinds of songs in all kinds of different styles, but somehow they remain of a piece. Each and every one bears her unmistakable imprint, even if you can't quite say just what that is. One thing always on display is her keen intelligence. Sometimes you catch it in her sly humor, other times in the more literary voice she uses so often. Her kind of seriousness is hard to get right. Compared to her, many artists seem aspirational, looking to be or impress someone. Others fall into the trap of sounding important and then believing they really are. Ms Mitchell avoids that by keeping her eye on the prize, the story itself, and just being herself. She manages to sound completely comfortable in her own skin as she describes a life that maybe wasn't always so. Something tells me her escape hatch leads inward, a place where the terrible can become beautiful.

It's funny how we want to champion the ones who have already won it all. No has ever said Joni Mitchell is anything but one of the all time greats. One reason is that songs describing the woman's point of view so clearly and sympathetically, in a way the average thick-headed man can relate to, are rare. That's the power of her work: it's an expression of feminism that is easily accessible to women and men alike. Where is Joni Mitchell in the pantheon of songwriters? On any given day, she's at the top - on the first hot days of summer, there's really no competition.

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