A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: First track from Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Issued as an unsuccessful single (reached No. 66) that happened to be on at least some people’s radios around this time of year in 1976.
And here’s why I like it:
1. The opening. The record opens with a softly, insistently strummed acoustic guitar (probably in one of Joni’s beloved open tunings), and a gentle, orchestral cymbal crash.
It reminds me of the sound of leaves being blown down the street by the wind … which is a pretty good metaphor for a song in which a thirtyish woman revisits her wild teenage memories.
As Top 40 cold opens go, it ain’t exactly “Saturday In The Park” or “Good Times,” which might help explain the song’s relative failure on the charts.
It’s more painterly than it is AM radio, if that makes any sense.
2. The low end. The bass line, with its grunting tone and inventive melodicism, sounds remarkably like jazz-fusion bass innovator Jaco Pastorius.
Jaco’s not credited on the liner notes. Instead, the bass player is listed as L.A. session man Max Bennett. I can’t believe it’s not Pastorius, though; I wonder if he went uncredited due to label issues or something.
Whoever played it, the bass line is really the instrumental heart of the song, a burbling river of propulsion and disruption underneath the well-groomed exterior.
It’s one of those individual efforts that sometimes makes me go back and listen to a song again, just to hear it.
3. Beauty, eh? I grew up thinking that only Canadians render the plural of “beer” as “beers.”
That’s the way the McKenzie Brothers did it. And that’s the way Joni, a native Albertan, does in verse two: “Gail and Louise in those push-up brassieres / Tight dresses and rhinestone rings, drinking up the band’s beers.”
I was always charmed by this small-scale bit of semi-exotica, and still am whenever I hear it, in this song and elsewhere.
(While I have learned that not all Canadians talk this way, I have long since adopted this coinage as my own: “As soon as this f–king work week ends, there will be beers.”)
4. The contrast. This is a song about youthful rock n’ roll rebellion; it closes on the lyrical image of two teenagers going all the way in a back seat.
And yet, there is scarcely any hint of actual rock n’ roll in the groove or the instruments — except maybe for the occasional bursts of fuzzy lead guitar, which are too studio-virtuosic to be convincing as gritty, energetic teenage rock n’ roll.
A polite grown-up song about dirty rock n’ roll youth tends to come across as bittersweet, no matter which one of many ways you choose to cut it.
It makes me think of a woman looking out the front window of her comfortable home; seeing the jean-jacketed high school kids come tumbling and scratching off the bus; and remembering what it felt like to be one of the girls giggling in their wake.
The first verse of the song contrasts the narrator’s mother (“fading in a suburban room”) with her blooming, adventurous teenage daughter.
The narrator’s transformation into her mother goes unsaid, but you don’t have to listen very hard to hear it in the grooves.
5. The ending. Joni has traditionally sung all her own backing vocals on record, and also tends to deploy interesting, unconventional, jazzy chords in her writing.
The last note of “In France…” features both devices, used to lovely effect.
Over a bed of her own overdubbed voices, holding some chordal suspension I’m not musical enough to identify, Lead Joni’s voice climbs, step by step, up to a peak note: “Rolling, rolling, rock and ro-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-llin’.”
Tentatively at first, then surely, he sounds like she’s spreading her wings and flying … and maybe recapturing the rapturous feeling of being brazen and 16, and kissing on Main Street.