"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" as written by Joni Mitchell and John P. Guerin....
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
Hissing 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


Lyrics submitted by nelia_slye_

"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" as written by Joni Mitchell John Guerin

Lyrics © DON WILLIAMS MUSIC GROUP

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The Hissing of Summer Lawns song meanings
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  • +3
    Song MeaningI am a witness to both the writing of this song and it's meaning. The song was written in 1975 about Jose Feliciano and his then wife, Janna. The blind singer/songwriter was having great difficulty in his marriage. Joni became friends with Janna Feliciano and attended Jose's birthday party in September of 1975. She was there with John Guerin. I have photos of them there. Joni wrote the song from Janna's viewpoiint, but alas, there are two sides to every story. Joni is the best! And THIS is what this song is about.
    BillieCourtrigon September 26, 2013   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationThis, the album’s title track, is a third-person song set in summer heat and looking at a woman who lives in lonely luxury above LA.

    The song starts off by telling us that her husband has given her an expensive pendant or necklace, though as we learn more about their relationship it may come to seem more like a slave’s neck collar, that he’s using his money to keep her obedient, even that she’s being strangled by it. He’s bought them a big house overlooking LA, presumably in the Hollywood hills where the rich and the famous live. There’s no suggestion in the song that either of them is famous, nor is it clear where his money comes from, but they’re certainly rich. From her lonely vantage point she can look at the lives of the less well-off enjoying visits by family and friends down in the San Fernando Valley, and see the little blue patches of their swimming pools in the dazzling sunlight. Meanwhile, the sprinklers watering the lawns outside sound (and look, if the hose is visible) like snakes in the grass. And since the world beyond her home sounds so dangerous, maybe she’d better just stay inside, and therefore controlled. The constant hissing also hints that this is her Eden, and that she’s being kept in thrall to it by the serpent and his promises. It forms a part of the album’s recurring snake imagery.

    Around the property (which includes herself by the sound of it) he’s erected a barbed wire fence with its ‘metal thorns’. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that it’s to keep her in, though by using it to ‘keep out the unknown’ he’s effectively sealed her off from anything or anyone new that might make her life less lonely. He apparently put in the fence himself, puncturing his skin repeatedly in doing so. This could be seen as something of a blood ritual to invest the fence with supernatural protective powers, or at least to mark his territory (it’s that fence of ‘his’, not ‘theirs’). Barbed wire is an odd fencing material for a suburban garden, being more commonly used for stock control, and by implication this is perhaps how she’s seen by him. Though it also ties in with it being a ‘ranch house’ - no open range for her! Furthermore she patrols it, not only defending his perimeter for him while he’s not there, but pacing around her limitations like a caged animal in a zoo. The ‘latin drum’ reference is puzzling - it may be music she’s listening to while she patrols, or music she can hear coming from somewhere beyond the fence (perhaps even from the barbecue parties down in the valley). Though it continues the theme of Africa-rooted music which runs through the album, and also satisfies the rhyming scheme to link the second-last lines of verses 1 and 2, and 3 and 4.
    Meanwhile the hiss of lawn sprinklers continues.

    The song then goes into the repeated refrain of ‘Darkness’ and its interleaved lines. The nature of this darkness is hard to work out here. Has night fallen? Is it a psychological darkness closing in on her? At first she protests that she’s living a life filled with wonder. Then she admits to wearing a ‘joyful mask’ in an attempt to deny the darkness. And in the end it resolves into the darkness of the TV having stopped working (this in the days when TVs used cathode ray tubes which sometimes broke down), leaving her with a blank, dark screen. What’s left has ‘no colour, no contrast,’ two of the adjustment controls on TVs of the time. Though it could also be that she’s seeing herself as a TV, that she’s been projecting a joyful image onto her face, but now she’s admitted to this it leaves her face a blank, with no colour and no contrast, showing her underlying life to be one of dull monotony.

    The third verse initially seems to be about a blind man (‘cup and a cane’), which would link with the ‘darkness’ of the previous section. His character is one of a certain style on top of a more general sordidness (‘diamond dog’), looking (even though he’s blind) through a double-glazed shop window at the luxury on display inside. Or even a blind man outside the double-glazed windows of her home, staring in sightlessly at her amid her opulence and degradation. But in the context of the song, the diamond dog might also be the woman.
    A ‘diamond dog’ would seem to be someone who combines the refined quality of ‘diamond’ with the base quality of ‘dog’. This album was released in the wake of Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’, so the phrase may have come from that. In Cockney parlance, ‘diamond’ means trustworthy, or to be treasured, so a diamond dog would be a valuable, perhaps a racing, dog - a treasured but subservient animal. And this is how the song has seen the woman so far, a creature who’s loved and valued but is also owned and cowed. We know she has a diamond jewel around her neck, and that she’s obedient to her husband, so in that sense she might be seen (and see herself) as a ‘diamond dog’. Yet she’s somewhat blind (the cup and cane reference) or in willing denial about her servile situation, as she stares back at herself in the double glass of the blank TV screen (CRT TV screens were glass-covered and reflective). She’s looking at the reflection of herself and the luxuries she’s surrounded with, and feels pride and shame (echoing the high and low implicit in being a ‘diamond dog’) in what she sees. ‘Her master’s voice’ resembles not only the RCA/EMI His Master’s Voice record label, significantly featuring a dog, but also implies that her husband is ‘her master’ in the same way that a dog has a master. In the previous verse she patrolled his fence, his territory, as a dog might. But is this an image of how her husband sees her, or how she imagines he might see her, or on some level how she sees herself?
    The last three lines, combining the ‘black fly’, the ‘heat wave’ and the eternal hissing, as well as indicating high summer, also make unpleasant associations with ‘her master’s voice,‘ which doesn’t bode well for their prospects together. And significantly, all these are non-visual (buzzing, heat wave, voice, hissing), which strengthens the verse’s blindness theme.

    In the last verse, it becomes clearer that the source of the darkness mentioned earlier is her husband. This darkness contrasts starkly with the overbright sunshine suffusing the rest of the song, and would be a good reason (among others) for her to leave him. She’s found herself penned into an expensively furnished house which nobody visits and she’s lonely. But for now she’s going to stick with him, by her own choice (Ladies’ Choice dances being where women, not men, ask someone to dance).
    And all the while in the background the sprinklers hiss water onto the lawn.

    The song fades out repeating the word ‘Darkness’, which we now know is his - he manifests a kind of darkness that the blazing light of an LA summer can’t reach.
    Perhaps this relationship has worked (so far), by her providing a light that can illuminate his darkness, while he provides these luxurious surroundings for her. But he’s been asking more of her than she can replenish, and her supplies of light appear to be dwindling and becoming slowly overwhelmed by his darkness.
    TrueThomason February 03, 2016   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI wonder if "A diamond dog" was in reference to the Bowie album from the year before this was released. A funny coincidence, intentional or no.
    Goomba4001on August 21, 2014   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's about a weathy woman with no life ouside of that given her by her husband. She's bored shitless, her soul nearly sucked dry, but she has no idea of the options open to her.
    A much sadder song than it allears to be.
    Zubbyon June 16, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti agree with zubby, and its set in a period of time when most women did not have many options open to them anyway, especially rich women. the were the property of their father until they got married then they became the property of their husbands. A trophy, to be admired and shown off but also to be protected from outside influences. And although she could leave him, what would she do if she did? she'd have no where to go, so she thinks its better to stay where at least she knows he will be loved in some way 'still she stays with a love of some kind'
    just katon July 06, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is about a kept woman who is a trophy wife of a rich man in Los Angeles. It is her choice to stay with him and she married him for his money. The parts about the contrast, color, tubes, etc. are about a color TV. This has been going on in Los Angeles/SoCal for decades and it still goes on today.
    TheHissingon February 18, 2013   Link

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