Today is International Women’s Day, and in its honor, I’m going to post about the female recording artist I first purchased an album by. There were not many in the running, back then. There were few enough female artists who wrote their own material in those days, which was pretty much a pre-req for me. There was Carole King and Carly Simon and Janis Ian, but they were all too girlie, if you know what I mean. Maybe you don’t, but I’m not going to go into that now. This is supposed to be in tribute to women, y’know? So let’s just say that, back then, Joni Mitchell was head and shoulders above her sisters on that score. She had a very unusual way with a vocal right from the start (see “Big Yellow Taxi,” which I remember as a radio hit that seemed like something new under the sun), and wrote the songs that the chanteuses sing (“Both Sides, Now”—who didn’t record it in the Sixties?), and then wrote songs that no one but her can sing. There are no doubt many of those much better known than my choice for today. One that I take no end of delight in is “Free Man in Paris,” once she turned to the jazziness that really got my attention, and there are songs on Blue, and, later, Hejira, for which she is rightly renowned. But the album I bought was The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and primarily for three songs, though I came to admire most of it: “Jungle Line,” “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” and “Shades of Scarlett Conquering.” The LP was introduced to me by my older brother Tom, Mitchell being one of the few female artists he listened to too.
The reason we listened to her was because, like our main man Bob Dylan, the lady has a way with words. Today’s song’s lyrics have been recited by Leonard Cohen, no less, with backing track by Herbie Hancock. And, sure, they might be a poem in their own right, but still, hearing even a voice as good at reading poetry as Cohen read them doesn’t do them the justice that Mitchell’s vocal does. And then you add the Drums of Burundi—Mitchell used a field recording of the African drummers as the “loop” that dominates the sound of the track, adding some very sinuous Moog on top of it. That combo itself speaks of what this song is up to: positing a “jungle line” or call it, to use HST’s characteristic phrase, “an atavistic fondness” for the pre-modern, hell, maybe even pre-Cambrian texture of biological life, in the midst of our modernized world, so memorably phrased as “the mathematic circuits of the modern nights.”
Every line of this song works for me, and Mitchell’s phrasing is so precise, even where she takes audible breaths becomes part of the texture. And hear how she says, “It slithers away on brass like mouth.piece.spit.” Wonderful. And how about “those cannibals of shuck and jive / They’ll eat a working girl like her alive.” Then she has an artist named Rousseau—to remind us both of the artist who painted works like “The Snake Charmer” as well as the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau who speculated about human nature pre-civilization and penned the immortal phrase, “Man is born free but everywhere in chains”—who I always identified with the character called Pablo in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, kind of the founder of the feast, so to speak, the guy who makes the scene happen.
“In a low-cut blouse she brings the beer / Rousseau paints a jungle flower behind her ear.” The song captures not only a kind of subculture, given over to the poppy (of opium), “and drooling for a taste of something smuggled in,” but keeps making huge panoramic gestures: “Through Europe and the deep, deep heart of Dixie blue / Through savage progress cuts the jungle line”; “the jungle line, screaming in a ritual of sound and time,” so that the jungle line also becomes the connections of the drug-runners, conducting “safaris to the heart of all that jazz,” where a “heart of darkness” export becomes the bloodline for hundreds of art and music scenes.
Mitchell doesn’t judge it so much as give it the kind of expression a painter with a gift for caricature might, like the kind who were good at capturing scenes of subculture—Toulouse Lautrec, Grosz, or even a kind of Rousseau meets Picasso. The song is insinuating and seductive and Mitchell, a painter herself, sings it that way; we might expect to see her captured in a corner of the painting somewhere, an onlooker, a recorder, an habitué perhaps, one who appraises the women who come and go, “coy and bitchy, wild and fine,” all feeding a ritualized orgiastic world that hums along below the girders and I-bars, the concrete and the steel.