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Joni Mitchell – Coyote Lyrics 5 years ago
After writing that screed yesterday, it occurs to me that my interpretation of the first part of the third verse, about the coyote playing with the hawk, may be off. This may instead describe a memory of seeing a real coyote running through whisker-wheat and being bothered by a hawk. And then morphs through the representation of the coyote as him jumping up to make passes at the hawk as her, and then into saying the coyote had the same eyes as Coyote in the song under his sunglasses. Yer pays yer money...

Joni Mitchell – Coyote Lyrics 5 years ago
Coyote - Joni Mitchell

Sam Shepard’s death was announced today, so since this song is about him, it seems a fitting day to post an interpretation of it.

The song concerns a brief fling Joni Mitchell had with him on the Dylan-led Rolling Thunder Revue. She had joined the tour for one night and ended up staying with it for nearly a month. Dylan had brought Shepard along to document the tour and come up with a script for his own proposed movie Renaldo and Clara (which ended up being pretty much improvised anyway).

Ms Mitchell wrote some songs on the tour which would appear on her Hejira album. This was one of them, and she performed it on the Montreal date in an unfinished form, having written a draft of the final verse only the night before. The song as it appears on the album is naturally more polished, but retains that breathless intensity consistent with its cocaine-fuelled origins. Its delivery lies somewhere between song and the spoken word, as much akin to future rap as to any other musical genre. There’s a lot of road imagery throughout, reflecting the circumstances it describes and under which it was written. The lyrics shift in time between the present tense (imbuing the song with an immediacy to what it’s describing) and sections in past and future tenses, as experiences reported, occurring or anticipated.

The name Coyote, which she uses for Sam Shepard, presumably came from his slightly coyote-like or lupine appearance and presumably also some aspects of his behaviour (coyotes are seen as tricksters who charm to deceive), although as the song makes clear at the outset, she’s at peace with him (‘No regrets Coyote’). She immediately continues by contrasting their lifestyles, hers as a recording artist in Los Angeles and his on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, as an obstacle. She shifts into the future tense as she considers the impossibility of them being together, how she’ll be up all night working in the recording studio, only getting home late at night with what she’s recorded (her ‘reel-to-reel’ master tapes) by which time he’ll already be up and grooming a breeding mare in the early morning. Though with Nova Scotia four hours ahead of LA this is perhaps less of a difference than it might first appear. ‘Reel’ also carries the suggestion of her reeling home late at night through either tiredness or drink.
She says it’s perplexing how close you can be to someone physically (skin, eyes, lips, the interfaces of passion - ‘bone’ here may or may not be a phallic reference) and yet still feel isolated from them (and perhaps from everyone). This seems to be a general comment, not one about Coyote specifically.
‘Stations in some relay’ implies him or her going from partner to partner to partner. It’s perhaps in the nature of things to see yourself as the stationary base while lovers come and go, or yourself as the runner pausing temporarily to be with some lover before heading off again, or as an object being transported along by the process. But all pieces in the relay have a value to all other pieces.
He’s not a hit and run driver (more road imagery) leaving the scene of damage he’s caused. Instead he just picked up a hitcher (‘pick up’ in both the way a relay runner receives a baton and also in the amorous sense, and ‘hitcher’ in both the hitchhiker sense and also the ‘hitching up together’ sense of a temporary binding with someone, like hitching up one of his horses). They just travelled along together for a while and then parted, neither of them the worse for the experience. Ms Mitchell’s also spoken of hitching up temporarily with this tour and playing dates in Canada and the North-Eastern US, almost like someone thumbing down a ride with them for a short time. She’s described this time as like running away to join the circus.
‘The white lines of the freeway’ has (at least) a dual meaning here - freeway markings are often a pair of solid white lines down the middle of the road, or solid white lines at the sides. So she’s on the tour, feeling imprisoned in vehicles by those white lines of the freeways she travels on. But this must also refer to cocaine - she’s talked about how she got heavily into cocaine on that tour, and indeed instead of getting paid in cash she allegedly took her payment in cocaine.

The second verse starts with the tour vehicles passing the sad spectacle of a farmhouse on fire. She was keenly aware of being in the presence of someone’s tragedy, yet the vehicles kept on moving to leave it far behind. They stopped at a roadhouse (a pub-restaurant-motel type of establishment) where a local band was playing music (I wonder how they felt when these famous musicians dropped in. Though it was presumably known in advance that they were staying there that night from the booking, even if done under aliases) and local people were busy doing some rollicking dancing. She went to her room and we shift back to the present tense as Coyote comes drunk to her door, insisting she come and dance with him (using the predator-prey imagery of her being pinned in a corner, caught and dragged out). This marks the start of their affair. They’re dancing romantically, even though he’s in a relationship back home on the Bay of Fundy and is also involved with someone else on the tour. She complains about his drink-fuelled coaxing, and perhaps her own weakness in being easily led, but feels she has no choice - she’s a captive of the road, and must let it lead her where it will.

She confronts Coyote on the way to Baljennie, 80 miles from her home town of Saskatoon. Instead of facing up to her he runs off playfully through a wheatfield (presumably a type of wheat with bristly hairs, or awns, so ‘whisker-wheat’). I can’t imagine he’s playing with a literal hawk here (such creatures would rarely attack an active man unless their nests are threatened, and they wouldn’t be nesting in a wheatfield), so it looks like the hawk is her, or perhaps a representation of her anger as he clowns about and flirts with her. Then she addresses someone else in the second-person, accusing them of having the same kind of eyes, or look, beneath their sunglasses. She might even be addressing herself here, seeing herself in a reflection and accusing herself of the same kind of behaviour.
Coyote is actively watching (hawk-like?) everyone around him, ‘privately probing’ the tour personnel while they’re in public spaces (the ‘private’ suggesting a private investigator) and covertly peering through keyholes into people’s rooms to observe the players (the musicians on the tour) going through their troubles, their sexual encounters, their drug-taking to cope with the madness of this tour. This is presumably being done for the purposes of the screenplay, to document what happened, although Shepard later wrote a book about it all.
She tells him she has no regrets, that they’ll be parting soon anyway when she leaves the tour while he continues on with it.

The use of the third person in the last verse suggests that she’s gone and so is looking at the scene remotely, as a narrator rather than a participant. Coyote sits in a coffee shop lost in thought, staring at a plate of scrambled eggs in front of him but not eating. There are thoughts going through his head. Maybe he’s missing her, although he’s already eyeing up the waitresses (significantly in the plural - this is just his lust idling) while he notices the smell of her scent on his fingers (so she can’t be long gone - and this scent is presumably of a more sexual nature than scent that comes from a bottle. There’s also the link here with Coyote as a hunting animal picking up a scent).
He’s homesick - at the time Sam Shepard had a farm on the NE shore of the Bay of Fundy, with its appaloosa horses, eagles in the sky (a link with the earlier hawk reference?) and the world’s largest tidal range. These are all things with a feel of open-air freedom about them, while he finds himself stuck in air-conditioned cubicles (buildings, rooms and vehicles), typing away on an old-style typewriter (which, for anyone too young to have used one, had a carbon ribbon for ink above the moving roller carriage in which the paper was held). Coyote is a creature of the open-air cooped up in small spaces. And the words he finds himself typing show him that he’s either going to have to tough this tour out, getting from it what he can, or flee it. She also tried to flee, to wrestle with her personality and with the warm feeling he’s kindled in her. She calls herself an Eskimo - someone used to the cold, or who was feeling cold, or was cold to him, or perhaps just someone from the north (she’s Canadian). It may even be his nickname for her because of that. She’s also a hitcher, and a prisoner of cocaine and of road travel. ‘The free free way’ trails off the lyrics by conveying the nature of the open road and the freedom she has found there.

The song has a carefree, playful, easy-rolling feel to it. The music rolls along like wheels moving down the highway. There’s lots of lovely alliteration in the lyrics - ‘Privately probing the public rooms’, ‘sun is ascending’, ‘brushing out a brood mare’s tail’, etc. And in the end the music fades out rather than finishing, like the road going on into the distance, getting smaller and smaller. While she could have got snagged in the situation the song describes, instead she remains free and able to move on from it with relative ease.

Leonard Cohen – Story of Isaac Lyrics 5 years ago
It’s just been announced that Leonard Cohen died three days ago, at the age of 82, and has already been laid to rest in Montreal. This is by way of a tribute to him. He was a considered and profound writer, and composed some wonderful songs. This song was my gateway into his music.

Story of Isaac melds the familiar Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac into both the conflict which was going on when the song was written, and further out into the seemingly endless state of warfare we seem to be locked into as a species. It seems to be told throughout in the voice of Isaac.

The first half is Isaac’s report, with sensitive simplicity, of the story of Genesis 22 from his point of view. We are given an idea of Abraham’s suffering at what he’s been told to do, and of Isaac’s innocent witness to it all.

Abraham opened the door slowly, viscerally reluctant to carry out the instructions of his vision. His blue eyes were shining, possibly with the vision’s after-effects, possibly with tears at what was being asked of him, possibly from the two things combined. He and Isaac began to climb the mountain, Isaac running around in his excitement at this adventure, his father Abraham walking, reluctant but resolute.

They climbed high. The trees became stunted by exposure, there was a tranquil lake (the mirror opposite of Abraham’s frame of mind). They drank wine from a bottle and Abraham broke down in tears at the thought of what was being asked of him. He put a hand on the son he loved. Isaac saw a bird that he thought was an eagle, a noble bird, though in retrospect he thinks that it might have been a vulture waiting to feast on his body. Then Abraham built the sacrificial altar, while Isaac remained nearby.

With the third verse, the song shifts significantly, into the present tense, into anger, and into the mature voice of Isaac or perhaps Mr Cohen. It extends the message out from Isaac’s story to a general instruction to the old not to sacrifice the younger generation, to the contemporary situation of old men in power sending out young men to die in Vietnam (the song was presumably written around the peak of the anti-war protests). It states that there is no divine or demonic inspiration behind the plans of these old men, only their own motivations. They stand there, Abraham-like, with their axes blunt and blood-stained from their slaughter of the young, devoid of the spiritual compulsion that made Abraham almost sacrifice his son, and then stay his hand, trembling with relief.

The last verse moves into the interminable cycle of conflict we seem to be subject to. Ideas of death (‘kill’, ‘war’, ‘dust’) suffuse it. It begins by declaring, don’t dare say you speak for me through some tenuous assumption of association, then moves into ambiguity, stating that when it comes down to it (using ‘dust’, presumably the ‘dust to dust’ of death) that he will kill if he must but help if he can, and then that he will help if he must but kill if he can. And whatever clothes we wear, whether a man of peace or a man of war, have mercy on us. This may resolve the earlier ambiguity, the actions depend on whether that person is a ‘man or peace or man of war’. At which point the peacock spreads his fan - the hundred eyes of Argus now watch us, and witness what we do.

The song contains several variations from, or additions to, the Biblical text (Abraham’s knife becomes a golden axe; he has blue eyes; there’s a bottle of wine and a bird; there three-day journey with servants to get to the foot of the mountain isn’t implied; Isaac carried the wood for the altar up the mountain, so is unlikely to have been running; and there’s little reported emotion in Genesis 22). But that doesn’t matter. This song is its own story.

Joni Mitchell – Shadows And Light Lyrics 6 years ago
While ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ album begins in a bright and breezy way looking at the simple pleasures of a teenage girl, by the time we reach this track at the end the mood has become altogether more sombre, slow and considered, conveying the nuanced complexity of a mature wisdom. The experiences during the intervening years have brought with them a hard-won understanding of the contrasts at work in the nature of things. There’s still a brightness here, but also a recognition of shadows everywhere. It’s not a sad perspective, though - more a balanced one which allows a deep and rich examination into the workings of reality.

Shadows and Light isn’t a song with a protagonist as such. It comes across more as a reflective philosophical statement about maintaining the ability to appreciate the light in the world while recognising the darkness which is also at play.

The song can be imagined as being the thoughts of a painter who immersed herself in life and has now stepped back from it. She’s painting quietly by herself, reflecting on all she’s been through and the things she’s learned from it.

The first verse begins by stating that, as in a painting (possibly the painting she’s working on), every aspect of life has its areas of light and shadow. Some things are out in the open, easily understood, while others are hidden, obscure or impenetrable.
People who wish to help us can bring with them collateral damage, while those determined to drain us can provide benefits.
Everything is both a threat and an attraction, associated in this verse with the devil, who is also seen as governing blindness and sight. This presumably refers to the devil in Eden (in the form of the serpent, continuing the album’s snake imagery) who leads Eve to a knowledge of good and evil, so opening her eyes from blindness to sight within the framework of the ever-present laws.

The second verse contrasts the conditions of the rich and comfortable, whose easy existences lived in the light allow their skins to tan, with those of miners whose lives of hard toil in subterranean tunnels lit only by helmet lamps turn their skins pale. It’s a nighttime world that the miners inhabit, while the rich live in a world of sunny daylight.
But all may not be as it superficially appears. Presidents on society’s top rung may be concealing tremendous worries behind their easy demeanours (hostage situations are given as an example), while those on the bottom rung (spraying graffiti in subways, and in that sense subterranean like the miners) are able to exercise a degree of freedom (using, significantly here, a kind of art).
God, the creator of day and night (who can possibly therefore be seen as the ‘source of light’ of the first verse), can appear cruel and/or beneficent. Meanwhile the eternal physical laws maintain the ongoing succession of day and night.

The last verse exhibits an antipathy towards critics (a coterie Ms Mitchell has suffered from unduly over the years, and who would generally pan this album on its release), and extends this more widely to any criticism of any creative work, and perhaps to anyone making critical remarks without understanding. Critics, being generally pro- or anti-, miss the nuances and so lack the competence to judge anything fully and fairly. While creativity constantly attempts to push beyond existing boundaries, critics, comfortable only within the limits of the already-known, feel threatened by anything new and react against it. Though if they manage (using the Biblical imagery of being ‘born again’) to push their discernment beyond what is familiar and comfortable, they may find delight in these things.
Critics, and fallible humankind in general, warp the fundamental laws in order to manipulate what is seen as wrong and right. So not only do critics defile the creativity of artists, but they (and humankind in general) defile the creativity through which God made the world and set up the eternal laws.

The three verses of the song parallel each other in structure and content, and the imagery within them draws a good deal on the Book of Genesis. The first verse deals with the devil and ignorance and knowledge, the second with God and day and night, and the last with man and wrong and right. Each verse has its cruelty and its delight; everything is threatened by everything and drawn to everything; the laws change from ever-present to everlasting to ever-broken (the latter, naturally, by man).

The ultimate message of the song? Perhaps it’s that, if we want to understand the whole picture of anything, we must take into account not only the extremes (and possibly what lies beyond even these), but also the nuanced complexity of all the elements within.

Joni Mitchell – Sweet Bird Lyrics 6 years ago
A beautiful song about that liminal moment where you realise you no longer look young.

It opens with the narrator finding that overnight (between laying down and waking up) she’s crossed the threshold between looking young (‘golden in time’) and visibly showing signs of ageing. It feels like she’s vanishing - perhaps she knows she’ll no longer attract the attention she once did; perhaps she doesn’t quite recognise her own face in the mirror; perhaps she’s picked up an intimation that her life is now headed inexorably towards its demise, its own vanishing point.

Life is passing by so quickly that it seems shorter than the streak of a meteorite. Embodying time and change in the ‘sweet bird’ links it to the idiom ‘time flies’. It might also bring to mind ‘time’s wingèd chariot’, from the Marvell poem, and also suggest that while we earthbound mortals worry about its passage, time flies about us free and joyful as a bird, unworried about our passage through itself. It may also relate to the song and the Tennessee Williams play ‘Sweet Bird of Youth.’
Cosmetics can’t halt the passage of time and its effects on us, despite the claims on the labels, ‘vain’ carrying its two meanings here - the bird is both laughing at these empty claims, and at our attempts to remain looking young.
But our inner selves tally the years, and lines form around our eyes as the skin there adapts to ageing, tired wakefulness and the frustrations and compromises of our daily lives. The circles that form around our eyes also suggest circled dates or appointments on calendars, perhaps appointments we don’t want to keep but know we must.
She presumes that the bird is amused by all this worry, by our struggles and the compromises we make as we try to fit everything that we want to do into this finite and all too short lifespan that we have.

Then comes a musical interlude which sounds like she’s stumbling - perhaps, in her shock at what’s happening to her, she’s lost phase with time; perhaps she’s trying to break herself free of its control; perhaps this is the sound of her crossing the threshold, like a train going over a set of points. Soon the song returns to its gentle pace, acquiescing, perhaps submitting to the inevitable, and we move forward and into the next verse.

‘Golden in time’, reprised from the beginning of the song and signifying her youth, seems here to be a wistful looking back on that now-lost phase of her life. There’s the image of the smooth skin of youth becoming lined, and pushed at by bones nearing the surface, using the metaphor of the remains of buried cities being exposed as the smooth sand above them is blown away (presumably imagery taken from north Africa or the Near or Middle East), bringing to the surface the character and complexity of the life that’s been hidden beneath. Power declines through time, ideals are compromised, and glamour fades - all three qualities spiral down through time in us both as individuals and as civilisations whose cities were (or will be) eventually buried beneath the sand.

The last verse begins with a plea (presumably to the ‘sweet bird’) for more time, because her own seems to be running out fast and everything is rushing by so very quickly. It could also be a plea to an evanescent other to give her a chance, because life is so fleeting that we mustn’t waste any opportunity for possible happiness (in perhaps another link to the Marvell poem).
She’s at her known limit, the horizon line between her past and her future. No-one knows what lies beyond the present, they can only make their best guesses based on what they’ve managed to understand of what’s gone before. But while we’re fastened ineluctably to the present moment, that moment itself isn’t a fixed point - it rushes on from one ‘set of time and change’ to the next, and all we can do is try to navigate our way through the lifetime we’ve been given, knowing that it’s constantly running out, and that while our end point is unknown to us, its existence is all too certain.

Though more accepting by the end, the disquiet expressed throughout the song’s lyrics seems in sharp contrast to the relaxed, almost languorous music, which has the feel of fingers being trailed through the placid surface of a river while the boat carrying us makes its ineluctable way downstream.

Joni Mitchell – Harry's House/Centerpiece Lyrics 6 years ago
An examination of a marriage gone sour. The song, told in such a way that it’s almost like watching a film, describes the present circumstances of a husband and wife, then looks back into their past, and ends by giving an indication of where they’re headed.
The husband, Harry, is visiting New York City on business while his discontented wife is back at home, presumably in LA. It might even be a later stage in the lives of the couple from the album’s title track (the house is still the husband’s, not theirs together), in which they’re now raising a family.

The song opens like a movie, with fade-up music mimicking a plane’s engines relaxing towards touchdown, and the lyrics then begin with a description of the husband’s plane landing at a New York airport. The heatwaves on the runway and the wheels setting down are something the husband can’t actually see, so we’re immediately being presented with an external point of view, though as the song continues, it will enter and exit the characters’ thoughts at will. The heatwaves convey a sense of the heat of the day, which will prompt the later swimming-pool memory.
He collects his suitcase from the luggage carousel, so we know this is going to be more than a day trip. And since all this seems routine to him, there’s the inference that he’s often away from home, possibly one of the sources of his wife’s discontent.
He gets a taxi into Manhattan from the airport, sitting in the back seat while the meter clicks up the cost of the fare.
As the taxi stops for traffic lights outside Bloomingdales department store, through his window he watches attractive women shoppers, including bleached-haired blondes used to luxuries paid for by their husbands. This is perhaps how he sees his wife. And while the written lyrics state that the black models have ‘raven curls’, in the sung version it sounds more like ‘raving curls’, suggesting that they convey a Medusa-like cautionary message to the husband, that he needs to keep his mind off attractive women and the dangers they present (this possibly being another problem within the marriage).

He’s in a luxurious hotel suite thirty floors up (increased from twenty in the demo), and this, combined with the ‘chief of staff’ reference in the following verse and the fact that he’s been flown here at all, implies that he’s in a senior position in whatever organisation he’s a part of. Looking down into the street, the crowds walking along the sidewalks seem little more than patterns of moving colour (which may relate to how his job has taught him to see the world, if it involves discerning how people behave as groups - management, product development or advertising, for example).
The song then uses the lovely simile of a helicopter arrival on a skyscraper roof looking like a dragonfly landing on a gravestone. Being east-facing, gravestones from a north or south elevation can resemble skyscrapers, and vice versa, and a crowded graveyard can look like Manhattan. Between 1965 and 1968 (which would seem to place this song in that time), helicopters used to ferry passengers in from JFK airport to the roof of the Pan Am building (Pan American airlines, now gone) beside Grand Central Station.
Businessmen (all men in those days) wearing shirts with collar points that button down over their ties, crowd into rooms (the plural indicates that this is not a single conference, or it’s at least a conference with separate presentations or discussions). They distribute and examine papers laying out what’s important to them, money and commodities. The paper theme then morphs to describe their wives and children back home, who seem little more than assets which could be similarly evaluated on paper. It then morphs again into the wallpapering the deserted families are doing to keep their minds off their dissatisfactions.

We now shift to the husband’s wife back home, who is planning out, or actually putting up, yellow patterned wallpaper in the kitchen, and arranging some climbing ivy in the bathroom. She’s immersed in decorating and lifestyle magazines, planning her next project to keep herself occupied.
Meanwhile the husband is trapped in a meeting with the head of Personnel/HR. Sitting there looking out at the hot sunny weather, his mind wanders off into the schooldays image of his now-wife lying by the side of the local swimming pool, shining and alluring. ‘Love me, love me, love me...’ she sings, using her Siren-like attraction to draw him towards her from the pool (as the original Sirens drew men from the open water with their enchanting voices).
The photograph inside the album’s original gatefold sleeve illustrates the swimming-pool imagery here.

The song then segues into Centrepiece, a 1958 jazz standard, which suggests they were at school at that time (incidentally about the same time as the album’s opening song, In France They Kiss On Main Street). This tallies again with the main part of the song being set in the latter 1960s, by which time they’re married and have young children. The use of Centrepiece carries the message that she’s the centre of his life, or was back then, and that they foresaw their future as an idyllic life together in an idyllic house.

But the reality hasn’t worked out like that for her. She’s dissatisfied with both the man and (possibly by extension) the house. We pass into the main song again through a litany of her complaints, presumably over the phone while he’s at his conference : he’s never home; she doesn’t like the sofa; the kids are driving her up the wall; nothing’s any good.

Then we’re back in the main song, still holding on the image of her gleaming beside the swimming pool, but now it’s overtly stated that she consciously used her attractiveness to hook and reel him from the water like a fish she’d caught.
And we pivot to the present day, where she’s drawn him in to her again, shining this time with anger, to tell him bluntly that she’s had enough of him, his house, and his money, with the strong implication that this is it and she’s leaving him.

Joni Mitchell – The Boho Dance Lyrics 6 years ago
A section in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word apparently describes The Boho Dance as an art mating ritual between a modern artist and a patron, whereby the artist attempts the ticklish task of hawking his or her artistic output while maintaining a self-image of impecunious bohemian purity.

While the book focusses on the visual art scene, this song also concerns itself with the equivalent process in the music industry. It looks back on the journey the narrator has taken for her music to become successful - the struggle to maintain integrity while keeping the accountants happy. Since it’s told in the first person, and seems more autobiographical than other songs on the album, it seems safe to assume it’s about Ms Mitchell herself, though the only clue that the narrator is even female comes in the last line, ‘Not mine these glamour gowns’.

In some ways this song echoes The Jungle Line - both are first person, the narrator is observing a band in a cellar venue, and both are the second track on their sides of the original vinyl album. It’s even possible this song is also set in New York, where Ms Mitchell began her solo musical career, though the location isn’t specified in the lyrics.

It’s a song about looking back from a certain level of success to its more humble, comparatively cash-starved beginnings. In this it echoes Ms Mitchell’s earlier ‘For Free’ and ‘For the Roses’. The song also contrasts her own approach with that of the ‘you’ introduced in the second verse, somebody who seems to be a visual artist still very much caught up in Boho Dancing.

The first verse of the song begins with the narrator descending from her now-comfortable lifestyle into a music cellar in a counterculture part of the city - and it has to be a city of some size to have its own bohemian zone. She’s looking for some music with authenticity that might inspire her, but finds only something tired, imitative and hackneyed. Oh well.
This sets her thinking about the beginnings of her own musical career, when she played as an unknown in places like this. She acknowledges the pull that those times still have on her, that striving for commercial success while retaining artistic purity.

I’m guessing ‘the scuffle’ is a generic term for the dusty, worn-out stages she performed her music on, though the word also suggests the struggle she had to get her songs heard back then. But even in those bohemian venues, she put some effort into what she wore, something that would have been anathema to the more self-regarding bohemian performers - her jeans were cleaned and pressed, and she’d accessorised her clothes with lace.

In the second verse we’re introduced to the character referred to only as ‘you’. I’m assuming it’s a man, though the only indication of this is that he’s compared to a ‘priest’ in the last verse. And that he’s arrogant. Is he literally in an underground car park? Or is that symbolic of his below street level existence (extra-genuine bohemian that he is)? Perhaps he lives or works in an underground studio because it’s cheap. Perhaps he’s vandalising the car park by painting on the walls (which would provide another link with The Jungle Line, and with ‘freedom scribbled in the subways’ in Shadows and Light). Perhaps it’s even symbolic of his bank balance. It’s hard to tell. The cellar bar the song started in was below street level, so perhaps it connects through to this car park.
By being scornful of her success (and as he sees it, her capitulation to the system), he implies that his own position is the morally pure one of ‘noble poverty’, where realising significant money for your art invalidates it. (This is an argument that still goes on - Grayson Perry has some interesting things to say about it.)
She tries to mollify him by citing two contrasting Biblical examples, firstly that of Jesus being incorruptible and admirable in his life of poverty, and then the counter example of Solomon maintaining his integrity despite his great wealth. Therefore it’s possible, she argues, to remain true to your ideals whether you’re rich or poor. She insists she’s remained true to hers, even though her drive to achieve has taken her beyond this particular masquerade (using the combined image both of taking a different dance step to those of the Boho Dance, and of stepping outside of it).

There follows the description of an expensively-dressed lady at an elegant televised event who has ladders in her stockings. This might mean that even the rich can have a bohemian streak (albeit accidental), or that the lady is poor even though she sits among the wealthy, or that anyone can appear bohemian, that there’s no inherent honour in it. It’s also possible that this lady is the narrator, which would correlate with the mention of ‘glamour gowns’ at the end of the song.

The third verse begins by considering the books, presumably about artists, which show that achieving wealth, while at first welcome, can in the end ruin the artist’s creativity by tethering it to financial gain, rather than it remaining a pure reflection of the artist’s intent. On the other hand there are books which extol artists who were poor and unsuccessful during their lifetimes yet remained true to their artistic vision.
She accuses the ‘you’ of feigned sensitivity, because it’s so much at odds with the pride which she knows drives him. She says he would be unable to leave the systematised push-pull of maintaining the artifice of bohemian credibility, even if he were to make enough money to move beyond it; that while he accuses others of being slaves to money, he himself exhibits an equally unhealthy slavery to the Boho Dance.

While his identity (visual and otherwise) is that of a bohemian poor-but-true artist, he’s lured by money in much the same way as a celibate priest is drawn to sex.

She, on the other hand, never felt her identity was defined by being poor (‘the streets’), just as it now isn’t defined by being well-off (‘these glamour gowns’). And since she never fully identified with either extreme, those identities never fully defined her.

Joni Mitchell – The Hissing of Summer Lawns Lyrics 6 years ago
This, 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.

Joni Mitchell – Shades of Scarlett Conquering Lyrics 6 years ago
This seems to be the portrait of a young woman who’s come out of a bad situation back home in the South to make it in Hollywood. We don’t learn the nature of what happened - it’s referred to only as ‘the fire’. Though as well as the pyres lit under Catholic martyrs, combining ‘the fire’ with the song title suggests the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. There’s perhaps also a hint that she’s overcome a state of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ by getting out of the fire as well - a narrow escape. But whatever happened back there, it’s left her damaged (‘still smouldering’, ‘her deep complaint’, ‘the dark things she feels’, ‘madness’). And while she’s certainly no saint, as the song makes clear, she has the ability to appear like one, at least temporarily (‘southern charm’, ‘impossibly gentle hands’, ‘mimicking tenderness’). Perhaps this is part of an acting talent she’s hoping to capitalise on in LA. And she’s certainly attractive (‘auburn hair’, ‘beauty’), which never hurts in the movie business. That she’s in LA to make it in Hollywood is indicated by various movie references (‘cinematic’, ‘celluloid’, ‘reels’, ‘Gable and Flynn’, ‘stand in boys’, ‘extra players’), though the first and second verses suggest that she’s got no further than being a bit player in Southern films.

Her delicate mental health is becoming increasingly problematic, though, as the damage from her past catches up with her. This echoes similar problems suffered by Vivien Leigh, the actress who played Scarlett O’Hara whose shades our protagonist manifests. Appropriately for someone who wants to act, she uses artifice to cover this up - mimicking tenderness, hiding her need and greed behind a brave face, working ‘harder and harder just to be nice’. But acting only gets you so far, and ‘she covers her eyes in the x-rated scenes’ - possibly violent scenes, more probably sexual ones - presumably because they rekindle memories of ‘the fire’ she fled from. That her problems are connected to sex is reinforced by her men’s accusations that she’s frigid (‘Block of Ice’) - her neighbours are being kept awake not by the throes of passion but by loud arguments. She brings men home yet can’t fulfil their (and presumably her own) expectations. And these men falling for her are taking an unknown risk (‘any man in the world holding out his arm/Would soon be made to pay’, ‘blood red fingernails’). Nevertheless, she continues to use her powers of attraction to work her way through handsome minor actors, and seems to have set her sights on finding a future movie star whose earnings will let her return to the South and live in luxury. But given her fragility and the fact that she’s already struggling (‘not easy to be brave’, ‘so much need’, ‘cast iron and frail’, ‘still smouldering’) you’ve got to think it’s unlikely she’ll succeed - even if she manages to sustain a relationship, would she be stable enough internally to enjoy the riches of such a lifestyle? Straight out of casting for something Southern Gothic, this particular Southern belle is proud and damaged and probably self-destructive. But you’ve got to feel sorry for her.

A beautiful song about the reality that may lie behind beauty. Lots of lovely imagery, alliteration and assonance, soft syllables and a melody that weaves a graceful path through lush, languid orchestration redolent of Southern nights and balls held in porticoed mansions.

Joni Mitchell – Don't Interrupt the Sorrow Lyrics 6 years ago
I find these to be among the most impenetrable of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. Told from a woman’s point of view, the song seems to be about an unsatisfactory relationship with an unreliable and inconstant man (‘he lies and he cheats’). He justifies his behaviour by pleading internal discord (‘a head full of quandary’), but she’s trying her best to stay with him despite how he treats her. There seems to be a lot of alcohol involved (‘a room full of glasses’, ‘bring that bottle’, ‘a mighty mighty thirst’, ‘Rhine wine’) and also a lot of religious imagery flying about (prophet witches, serpent, anima, steeples).

The first verse begins by insisting on her right to feel sad, which may mean that the man (only ever referred to as ‘he’, though who may be the artist Larry Poons referred to in the album notes) is trying to cheer her up. The flames of the prophet witches bears some similarity to ‘Out of the fire like Catholic saints’ which begins the next song on the album, so possibly interrelates with that. ‘A room full of glasses’ implies that a lot of drink has already been taken. The Ethiopian wall could be an artwork, and is one of the African references which pepper the album. The mention of the serpent continues another of its running themes.

The anima which opens the second verse is that part of us which is in touch with the subconscious. It’s described here as Queen of Queens (in contrast to the Biblical ‘King of Kings’) presumably not only because it’s her anima, but also because animas are seen as a feminine part of the psyche. Here she’s pleading with it to absolve and rebalance her, to forgive her and restore to her some semblance of self-control. Though it doesn’t seem too happy with the way it’s been treated so far.

The third verse is full of Bible-related imagery (steeples, patriarchs, bible belt, God, good book), portrayed in a negative light. She seems to be saying that for her, religion is just an evanescent fable, all smoke and mirrors. She appears to revel in her rebellion against it.

The fourth verse concerns itself with time as much as anything, beginning with a precise 1.15, followed by a reference to when she was seventeen years old (ie. shortly after the stage of the album’s first song) and stating that from that time on she’s had ‘no one over’ her, implying that was the age she left home, and therefore she’s certainly able to leave him now (on the 1.15). The verse then shifts far back into geological time with the fossilisation of wood. The quote that closes the verse (‘Anima rising...’) seems to be an attempt by him to put her down by shifting the meaning from anima to animism, the belief that plants (and other things) have spirits. The suggestion is that the anima of the living tree is preserved, and possibly crushed or at least rendered inert and irrelevant, as it becomes fossilised into rock over geological time. As it was with the tree, so it will be with her.

The fifth verse has the man saying, ‘We walked on the moon/You be polite.’ Is he claiming that because it was men (not women) who walked on the moon, therefore man (and by implication he himself) is superior to her? Or that it was Americans rather than Canadians, so ditto? Either way, unless he was part of the moon programme it’s unlikely he’s really got anything to brag about here. There might even be a suggestion of the moon representing a woman’s heart (as in Willy) and that he’s conquered hers and now feels able to walk all over her, to take her for granted. Then he asks for a bottle of wine (his feelings of uncertainty have given him a great need for it), saying that he’ll pay.

The last verse details the drinking of a lot of Liebfraumilch (literally the ‘milk of Mary’, or the Madonna), while the narrator’s misery because of her unfaithful man continues. She declares that a woman has to have the strength of Mary to be with such a man. Will she really be leaving on the 1.15, darn right? It doesn’t seem very likely.

Joni Mitchell – The Jungle Line Lyrics 6 years ago
A song with a dark, dangerous feel to it, something like a pounding fever dream run through with the imagery of African jungle and a packed smoky cellar. The lyrics weave the paintings of Henri Rousseau into the world of jazz. But while jazz in its earliest form did overlap with the end of Rousseau’s life (the period in which he was producing his jungle paintings) it’s unlikely he ever heard this new musical form.
As it developed, jazz came to be known as ‘jungle music’ (Louis Armstrong had his ‘Tiger Rag’, Duke Ellington developed his ‘jungle sound’, etc) though neither the music nor the paintings are quite as African as they might seem. Rousseau never set foot in Africa, and while jazz certainly has most of its roots there and was developed primarily by African American musicians, it also incorporated other musical genres filtered through the American experience.

The Jungle Line’s music (not recognisably jazz, at least not to my ear) uses the thunderous rhythms of Burundi drummers (and the use here of authentic African music makes this an early example of ‘world music’), a form of music that’s presumably very traditional, set against the hot rasp of that most modern of instruments at the time, the still-monophonic Moog synthesiser. In essence, the song itself is its own jungle path. 

As she moved into jazz around this time, Ms Mitchell was presumably devouring knowledge, impressions and experiences of that music and its world, and this song would seems to be a result.

Lyrically, the song takes place during a single evening in a New York City jazz cellar. An initial impression might be that it’s describing Rousseau (or at least, since Rousseau was long dead, a Rousseau-like artist) painting images on the walls while the music plays. But further listening seems to indicate that the song is more about the narrator (presumably Ms Mitchell herself, artist that she is) imagining how Rousseau would respond to having his creativity fired by this music and this setting. So, moving forward with that interpretation...

The lyrics begin by imagining Rousseau walking into the African interior, following paths laid down by trumpet melodies. ‘Trumpet paths’ suggests ‘trumpet pads’, on which the musician’s fingers walk to create the melody; the music of the trumpet mimics the sound of African elephants; and ‘...all that jazz’, as well as meaning ‘all that kind of thing’, might even reference the song of that title from the show Chicago (which opened some months before this album’s release), set in The Jazz Age in that city. The safari then takes us back through time and place into the history of jazz music : out of this no-frills cellar bar, with its exposed metal beams and service conduits; through the music of poor black people in Southern shacks and Harlem apartment blocks; through singing in jails and churches; through the early jazz enjoyed by the rich on Park Avenue (where Gershwin played it at fancy parties) and the poor on Vine, wherever that is (though there’s a Vine St beneath Brooklyn Bridge, and the name ties in with the jungle vines being painted on the cellar walls); through jazz’s roots in Mississippi Delta blues and European folk music, and so back into Africa. The phrase ‘savage progress’ is open to the interpretation of ‘the progress of savages’, but I take it to mean the brutality that runs through the journey that this music has had to take to arrive here in this cellar bar at this moment, a history of enslavement, coercion, prejudice, disadvantage and poverty.

The second verse begins with a waitress bringing drinks to the table. She wears a top that displays her décolletage, using (perhaps being forced to use) her attractiveness as part of the job. In the lines that follow she’s described as a ‘working girl,’ so perhaps she also works as a prostitute. The narrator imagines Rousseau would exoticise her with a jungle flower behind her ear. There are dangers for her in this place, and if she succumbs to the banter she receives (‘shuck and jive’ being deceptive tomfoolery), things could go very badly for her.
Imaginary Rousseau meanwhile decorates the cellar with African scenes, and we learn that the band playing the music is a five-piece ensemble.

The third verse meditates on the music the band is playing, a construction of sound in time played within a system, a product of the pain of historic suffering, but also of proficiency and practice. The cellar is air-conditioned (removing the music still further from the natural African setting conjured by imaginary Rousseau, though very necessary during the stifling New York summers).
There’s an exploration of some of the things which can be heard in the music : the musicians’ craving for their next fix (drug use being rampant among jazz musicians at the time) - though ‘smuggled in’ could also indicate the music which the African slaves carried over to America unseen; the mental or physical presence of ‘pretty women’ with their various temperaments; the sound of charging elephants and the chanting of slaves on the boats bringing them across the Atlantic. This all gets given voice through trumpet valves, as the music moves through the air like the smoke which fills the cellar (this was pre-smoking-ban days). Though ‘valves and smoke’ could also suggest the steamships bringing people (mostly immigrants, though also some native jazz musicians returning home from overseas tours) from the Old World into New York Bay, carrying with them some of the musical traditions which would eventually find their way into jazz.

The last verse begins by linking the First World War, which caused so many young men to die, with heroin (poppy poison) use, which was responsible for many casualties among the young men who played this kind of music. The tourniquet used to inject heroin intravenously looks like a snake on the dressing room floor (continuing the snake imagery which runs through the album). But as well as causing death and illness among many musicians, the drug also seems to inspire the music which issues from the ‘metal skin’ of the brass instruments and the ivory keys of the piano. This music climbs imaginary Rousseau’s vines (possibly the transmogrified ‘wires and pipes’ running up the walls) out of this hot cellar and up onto nearby Brooklyn Bridge, under which pass steamships, those other ‘metal skins’, bring people and their music into the cultural melting pot of New York City.

So what, in the end, is the ‘Jungle Line’? The route across the Atlantic by which black people were brought into America, bringing with them the toolkit for jazz? A path through the African jungle? The style of Rousseau’s paintings? The way jazz took to be in this place at this time? It could be any of these and more, though I’d opt for it being jazz music itself, that ‘ritual of sound and time’ which, like a snake, veers off at oblique angles while always remaining part of the whole.

Joni Mitchell – In France They Kiss on Main Street Lyrics 6 years ago
This opening track to the album ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ gives us a phase in a girl’s adolescence, told both from her viewpoint then (present tense) and that of the woman she later became (past tense). Although the album it comes from isn’t autobiographical in the way much of Ms Mitchell’s work is, this song may well be about her - it’s told in the first person, set in the latter 1950s when she herself was a teenager, and seems to tally with what she’s said about a certain phase of her Saskatoon adolescence. Its time setting can perhaps even be dated to the spring of 1957, since the boy is singing ‘Bye Bye Love’ from the hit parade, which the song occupied at the time.

The late 1950s was the era of the first teenage subculture, when post-war affluence had provided that generation with enough freedom to enjoy an interlude before taking on adult responsibilities, and enough spending power to support its own music. And its music was the exciting new youthful sound of rock’n’roll.

The song’s three verses follow the same basic form, and all are infused by a fast-moving, carefree, romantic exuberance. While the song’s music isn’t, as we might have expected, rock’n‘roll, it nevertheless shares rock’n’roll’s pace and energy.

The beginning of each verse states the location as ‘downtown,’ the epicentre of excitement in her teenage world, and each ends with the coda, ‘And we were rolling rolling rock 'n' rolling,’ the narrator and her friends immersed in restless movement and their rebellious music.

The first verse starts with her downtown in the company of her boyfriend, a petty shoplifter (‘my darling dime store thief’) and all the more alluring because of it. (A dime store was a shop which sold cheap goods, equivalent to the pound shops and dollar stores of today.)
She’d reached the stage where she was in a ‘War of Independence’ against her parents’ restrictions, this being the only real tension in the song. As her background music to that war, rock ‘n’ roll ‘rang sweet as victory’.
Lit by the bright colours of neon downtown shop- and advertising-signs she felt like a fresh flower blossoming, while out in the dull suburbs she imagined her mother as an older flower fading under the pallid incandescence of indoor light. While the girl, immersed in music and vitality and passion, was coming into her time, her mother, static and with her own vibrancy waning, seemed to be at the far end of her own flowering. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that at this point the narrator still saw herself as a girl, and not yet as a woman.
The three breathlessly giddy lines - ‘I said take me to the dance/Do you want to dance?/I love to dance’ - convey the girl’s enthusiastic restlessness.
She then accuses (presumably to her dime store thief boyfriend) her parents and perhaps their entire generation of having lost the romantic sense of adventure to be found in taking risks, though ‘They don’t take chances’ carries the implication that she does, and who knows where this will lead her in the future. But for now she’s just craving pleasure and adventure, heedless of any thought of consequences.
She derides the older generation for having been broken like horses by religion and education into serving society’s mores, of having swapped their own natural irrepressibility for the comfort of conformity and mediocrity. She certainly won’t allow herself to be repressed like that. The narrator exudes that teenage confidence of knowing the answer to everything and not being shy about sharing it.

The second verse begins with her telling us that in the downtown ‘dance halls and cafes’ (further examples of the venues she frequents there) emotions are so overrevved that she feels you can break a boy’s heart just by dancing in the latest style in front of him. She and her friends are obviously attractive, and are starting to realise the power which comes with that. And they’re making the most of what they have, exemplified by Gail and Louise in ‘those push-up brassieres’ and ‘tight dresses.’
‘Drinking up the band's beers’ could mean finishing off the band’s drinks once they’ve left, but probably means the more risky behaviour of accepting drinks off these older men, who presumably have expectations in return.
The song then pulls back to describe the pre-sexual innocence of ‘young love’ as being no more than kissing in concealed places (‘under bridges’/’in cars’/’in cafes’), then feeling still lit up inside by ‘kisses like bright flags hung on holidays’ when ‘walking down Main Street’ afterwards. Main Street would be where the real version of these flags would be hung on celebration days, and also where the neon signs add their sparkle to both the night and her imagination. The title suggests they weren’t actually kissing out in the open on Main Street, where such behaviour would be frowned on by the conservative society she was living in. But she imagined that in France, her conceptual apogee of romantic liberation, they do just that. And it’s real love over there, she insists (‘Amour, mama, not cheap display’), spitting out the last two words as if refuting the very accusation. It sounds like she’s addressing her real ‘mama’ here, either in her head or in reality, protesting that her jaded mother either can’t understand or refuses to. The use of the French word ‘amour’ here links with the romantic spirit of France, and is also perhaps a nod to Ms Mitchell’s partly-Francophone home country.

The third verse begins in ‘the pinball arcade,’ the last of the downtown attractions mentioned. She’s again with her darling dime store thief, who’s coming out with ‘pool hall pitches’ (presumably some variety of teenage braggadocio, though possibly challenges to to people to bet on playing pool games with him) and singing ‘songs from the hit parade’ while he plays pinball. We can infer that he spends a lot of time listening to the radio and jukeboxes to keep up to date with the latest chart music.
He’s singing ‘Bye Bye Love’ by The Everly Brothers (‘those rock ‘n’ roll choirboys’) while he accumulates free plays on the pin-table. And as someone who wasn’t bad at pinball back in the day, I know how much time and money you have to waste to get that good. The title ‘Bye Bye Love’ might be a hint that she’ll be finding herself deserted by him before too long.
Three of her friends, Chickie, Ron and Melvin (at least two of whom were boys) had access to their parents’ cars and would drive the group of friends around. This is the first time in the song we’re not downtown. Lead Foot Melvin in particular sounds like a dangerous character to be around - a fast driver and mercurial with it. They’d cruise around town trying to find a party to gatecrash, and ‘raise Jesus up from the dead’, a phrase no doubt used by her parents’ generation (moulded by religion as they are) to express disapproval for the kind of noisy excitement she finds so alluring. But she doesn’t care - she’s out to have fun, and is more than happy to co-opt their phrase as her own. She would be in the back seat of the car with her boyfriend, kissing and enraptured by ‘the Brando-like things’ he was coming out with - Marlon Brando was the contemporary epitome of cool and danger, so her boyfriend must have been saying cool and rebellious things, while she relished the excitement of it all.
The song ends by repeating the last line of the previous verses, ‘And we'd be rolling rolling rock 'n' rolling,’ three times, ending on a slowing and rising refrain that perhaps hints that this giddy time won’t last forever, and that what follows may not be quite as gratifying as her expectations suggest. But that’s for the future - for now she’s immersed in that golden time of heady adolescence, and this song captures that wonderfully.

It’s interesting to compare this song with the later Chinese Cafe, which seems to be a wistful look back from an older perspective on this time - the cafe setting, being ‘wild in the old days/birth of rock’n’roll days’, ‘dreaming on our dimes’, and the recognition that ‘nothing lasts for long.’

Joni Mitchell – Hejira Lyrics 8 years ago
Apologies for the length of this but, given the song’s complexity, it hasn’t been possible to make my thoughts on it any shorter.

This song is a kind of cerebral road movie, full of onward movement, fleeting images and introspection, while the music itself has a rolling quality to it. The lyrics read like thoughts that might go through your head when you’re already well into a journey but still have a long way to go (and you've the acuity, life experience and articulacy of Ms Mitchell, of course).

The song is about flight from a desperate situation, echoing Muhammed's Hajj from Medina to Mecca. Though in contrast to the desert environment of the original, the setting here is bleak and wintry. Indeed, it feels like the outside world is almost monochrome, perhaps reflecting of her own inner world at the time, an impression that is lent further weight by the album cover. The song, and the album, seem to explore a hiatus, a period of withdrawal from an otherwise colourful emotional life; a distance to be travelled in the hope of finding some sort of welcome, or at least resolution, on the other side. She seems to be in post-relationship trauma, and has withdrawn from the world, almost gone into hibernation in this winter cold, in order to deal with it.

The song is not situated in any one location, but rather in a linear progression of locations through an area most likely in the northern US or Canada. Various settings are mentioned - a cafe, a pine forest, a church, a bank, a hotel room - mostly interiors, perhaps unsurprisingly given these cold conditions.

The lyrics begin by dropping us immediately into her continuing journey, with the completion of another stage. The locations are indistinct and shifting (‘some vehicle’, ‘some cafe’), as if she's become so inured to being on the road that everything has become generic to her. And this anonymity may be something that she’s trying to deliberately disappear into. It's even possible that she's feeling so disconnected from herself that, withdrawn into the interior, she sees her body as a kind of vehicle in which she’s moving herself around.
She seems to have walked out on a relationship (‘A defector from the petty wars’) that was so full of conflict and bickering that not only has her love for him has fled (as she herself has now), but she’s been left with some level of psychological damage (‘shell shock’).
She grew tired of having to explain and justify her feelings to him. Now melancholy can move through her unhindered, as naturally as the way the heavy clouds move by overhead - she can observe without having to analyse.
It was an unhealthy, greedy relationship (‘possessive coupling’), though the lines which follow can be read in two ways : either that they both had to keep parts of themselves hidden from the other in order to maintain the fiction of a functional relationship, or that she suppressed things in herself and he also suppressed things in her. She now says, 'I’m returning to myself' - she’s beginning to repatriate her estranged parts, and to occupy her own authentic being again.
In the relationship she was bound almost exclusively to him, but having broken free, she is now able to reestablish connections with the rest of humanity (‘I see something of myself in everyone’).
Snow swirls in clumps from the sky as if fastened to a dancer's dress.

The second verse begins by asserting how difficult it is to either remain engaged in life (though perhaps she’s thinking specifically of relationships here) or retiring into seclusion; and then the difficulties of either exploring all points between the bounds of possibility (‘travel the breadth of extremities’) or sticking to the more standard course (‘straighter line’) of most people’s paths through life. In her current journey she seems to be opting for the straight and safe, both in terms of the highway and of her at least partial retreat from an otherwise adventurous life.
She sees a couple sitting together on a rock in the cold, and foresees their relationship as either warming them or going icy on them. Though in her sour view of things, she perhaps believes that any relationship is destined to veer off the straighter line into the extremities of hot passion or cold contempt.
She hears, or possibly imagines she hears, faint music coming through the snowy firs.
Her website tells us that the four lines beginning ‘I’m porous with travel fever’ are adapted from Camus. She reshapes his words to reveal that, while her mind is glorying in this elevated freedom, and soaking in new experiences, her wilful body yearns to be with somebody again.
‘I know no one’s going to show me everything’ could mean that she doesn’t expect anyone to be all-wise (perhaps she’s still thinking of Camus), or perhaps that nobody she’s in a relationship with is ever going to be entirely open with her. But it seems more likely that it’s part of an existential emptiness, since it leads into the line, ‘We all come and go unknown.’ Again, this could mean we come into a relationship not really known by the other person, and leave without ever having been properly understood. But (and she might be thinking here of the story of The Stranger, Camus’ most famous novel, which is seen as an existentialist work) the line seems to be more about mortality, about our time on earth - that we’re born, and we die, and what impact have we really had in our ‘deep and superficial’ lives between birth (the ‘forceps’ of the delivery room) and death (the grave’stone’)? We come into the world unknown, and leave it again without ever really having been understood, and once we’re gone all memory of us fades back into the anonymity from which we came. Each human life, seemingly so full of feeling and experience and impact, is really in the end insignificant (‘...full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing,’ as Shakespeare put it).

The third verse has her in a churchyard looking (or continuing to look, following on as it does from the preceding existential angst) at gravestones (‘granite markers’), whose inscriptions include the ‘finality’ of the date of death and often a piece of text stating that the deceased lives on in ‘eternity.’ She turns her gaze on herself, writing these lyrics (‘chicken scratching’) in the hope that they, and through them some part of her, will live on after her. But she’s also aware that her songs may ultimately have the transient insignificance of a chicken scratching in the dirt for food, and the meaningless marks it leaves there. The word ‘chicken’, being slang for frightened, also implies that she’s doing this in an anxious way, frightened of death, or of being forgotten, or of having lived a meaningless life.
She enters the church, where she watches lay visitors lighting candles in memory of those already gone, and the molten wax running down the candles’ sides like the tears of their loss. She thinks of the religious beliefs and practices she’s watched all her life, but seems to see it all from an atheist point of view herself. She continues by stating that we’re only physical particles in constant flux, using an astronomical point of view to imagine herself and the rest of us from way outside our solar system, insignificant small specks on our planet’s surface as we orbit the sun. Yet how can she hold on to that lofty concept when she’s always in a relationship, emotionally attached to someone, orbiting him (perhaps they orbit each other) instead. She knows it’s not the laws of physics that are binding her to the other person, and perhaps this realisation brings her back down to earth at this point.
‘Winter chimneys’ again spells out the season, and smoke (possibly smoke from domestic fires in the days before clean air legislation, possibly steam from heating systems condensing in the cold air) rises from them and is caught by the wind, making it look like ‘white flags’ flapping. The moon (a symbol of love and femininity, and perhaps a remnant of her previous astronomical viewpoint) is visible, and she imagines the chimneys are waving white flags of truce at it, as she attempts to make peace with her own romantic longings. She’s seeing these chimneys reflected from the glass walls of a bank building, or from a hotel room window - or perhaps she’s looking out from her hotel room and seeing smoking chimneys reflected in the window glass of a bank. These are two more anonymous locations she’ll be very familiar with in her travelling - the hotels providing her accommodation, and the banks she visits in order to withdraw money (these were the days before widespread availability of cash machines/ATMs, and even the routine use of plastic).

The last verse is a partial reprise of the beginning, but her reasoning seems to have come full circle, like a car wheel performing a full rotation to arrive at a different position. She’s still fleeing a relationship, or perhaps relationships in general, but realises that in time she’ll fall for someone else and be dragged by her desires (the word ‘sucks’ implies it’s against her will) back into another partly-fulfilling, partly-unsatisfactory coupling, returning to the same old pattern. Perhaps by her interpretation of the winter chimneys she’s prepared the ground for this. And whereas the song began with her travelling only to flee a situation, by the end she realises that this journey is only taking her ultimately to a new but similar state of affairs. Significantly for this song about an ongoing journey, the music doesn’t reach a definitive end, but fades out as it rolls on, as if into the distance.

Joni Mitchell – Willy Lyrics 8 years ago
This song is a piano-based vignette, very like 'For Free' on the same album. The tale it tells is, on one level, little more than a brief description of a scene and her thoughts around it. This being Ms Mitchell, though, she has woven a lovely and percipient few minutes of song out of this humble material. Convincingly ascribed to her relationship with Graham Nash, nicknamed Willy (for reasons perhaps best left unexplored here), the song examines what seems to be a significant moment early in their time together, when she is already in love with him, but he is still doubtful and hesitant.

The setting for the song would seem to be her house in Laurel Canyon (she mentions 'my windowsill', and counting 'cars up the hill' - such a vehicle appearing in the album cover artwork, and a trope she returns to in Car On A Hill). It's nighttime (stars are shining), and he's standing at a window looking through a lace curtain at the moon while she watches and waits. And that's it. It's almost a still-life - nothing moves except the unseen cars coming up the hill. Everything else in the lyrics concerns the thoughts and feelings she has tumbling around.

She begins by stating that Willy is her perfect man, satisfying her desires as a mother, as a child, as a lover. She's ready to commit to him lifelong. But he has voiced conflicted thoughts concerning their relationship, and it’s that which has brought them to this uneasy and pivotal moment. He would 'love to live' with her, but he still bears the wounds of a former relationship ('an ancient injury that has not healed', the melody dropping sadly towards the end of the line). He feels he may have fallen for her too quickly and recklessly. Desire battles wariness within him.
What follow are perhaps the song's most significant lines : 'He stood looking through the lace/At the face on the conquered moon'. These convey almost the whole visual reality of the song. But they hold much more, with that internal rhyme lending them further strength. She may be regarding the moon (a symbol of both love and femininity) as her avatar, while he, in observing it as he does through curtain lace, isn't seeing a clear image. By implication, neither is he seeing with clarity her love for him and what she's offering. That word 'conquered' is also heavy with meaning - she recognises that he's already claimed her, but on top of that, this song was written in 1969, the year of the moon landing, when Armstrong and Aldrin had recently conquered, or at least briefly visited, the moon. This was a consciousness-changing event for humankind in general at that time, and must certainly have been so for Ms Mitchell, who returns to images from astronomy and the space programme in other songs, such as Woodstock, Hejira, Refuge of the Roads and Ethiopia.
So he stares at the moon, and she waits. She counts cars coming up the hill, the stars on the windowsill. Perhaps she's trying to pass time with what patience she can until he's made his decision. Though by immediately following on, 'There are still more reasons why I love him', she seems to have found the total she's reached still insufficient to cover all his attractions. (We're perhaps reminded here too of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways').

The second verse begins with a line still reminiscent of counting, but this time magpies ('One for sorrow, two for joy' etc.), attempting to divine which way a situation will go for the person counting. Willy makes her feel both happy and sad, and he too is suffering. He wants to retreat - he doubts their love is genuine because he can't foresee it leading to marriage ('the chapel's pealing silver bells'). But she tells herself, or perhaps him silently, that it's difficult to see clearly whether your love for someone is either sensible or solid when you're tumbling in the turmoil of its early stages. But you have to take the risk, because (again propelled by an internal rhyme) '... you're bound to lose/If you let the blues get you scared to feel'. She's internally telling him (or possibly herself) that if you allow old pain to close your heart to new possibilities, then you seal disappointment into your life; that we enrich ourselves through relationships with other people, despite the necessary vulnerability of opening ourselves up to them.
In contrast to him, she feels that she's coming alive in this turmoil, using the lovely image of a 'light breaking in a storm'. She might also be seeing herself in some way as a guiding light, to encourage him out of his internal storm towards the warmth and safety she’s offering. There may even be a suggestion that she's beginning to perceive that he loves her too, and the joy of that makes her radiant. The verse ends exuberantly : 'There are so many reasons why I love him.'

The last line of the song is a reprise of the first, 'Willy is my child he is my father', but this time seems to carry a more nuanced tone, of her being indulgent to, while slightly exasperated by, his childish unreasonableness and paternal sternness and immovability. She’s still acknowledging, though, that she loves him, as you love a father or a child despite their uncooperativeness or where their obstinacy gets in between you and what you want. It's even possible that in her maternal love of Willy, she's manifesting something of her feelings towards the daughter she had given up for adoption some years previously.

SPOILER ALERT : As a context for the song, Graham Nash left his crumbling marriage, moved in with her, and they lived together in her house for two years. In the end she split from him with a telegram from Greece stating, 'If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.' Oof. More poetic than 'You're chucked,' I suppose, but I bet it hurt every bit as much.

Crowded House – Fingers Of Love Lyrics 9 years ago
My favourite Crowded House song, and as with many Neil Finn compositions, the impressionistic lyrics of this one don't deliver the song's meaning directly to you. Instead, you have to go out to meet it, and that meeting point becomes a place of enrichment, almost of meditation. The interpretation draws on the listener, perhaps as much as on the song itself, so any interpretation, as long as it's tethered to the basic meaning of the song, would seem to be valid. Here's mine, for what it's worth, and having read the earlier comments, I may be way off :

I see this song as the tale of a troubled man. He's quarrelled with his significant other, and now he's sitting out alone among the grasses above a beach, cooling off, regretting how he acted, and watching the sun go down. The sunset's glorious, richly coloured, flinging down rays through the clouds. It's breezy but pleasant. He has to fly overseas soon and is reluctant to go. Watching the sunset slowly fills him with joy, and in this joy he realises that all is not lost, though he may have to do some serious grovelling. But he's pretty confident in the love of his sig. other, and that this love will heal their breach and save him once again.

The identity of his sig. other is vague. The obvious interpretation is that it's a woman, and this is certainly the side I lean to. That said, however - and I think Neil Finn is on record as being a non-believer - it could be interpreted as God, and the song as a psalm-like hymn of longing : 'There is time yet/for you to find me.' Whichever, I think it's about his regret at having been a disappointment, and the journey of his thoughts towards transcending this.

That's the basic meaning I take from it, at any rate. To explain what took me there :

Firstly the 'fingers of love' themselves. I think these are crepuscular rays, the diverging sunbeams created by gaps in the clouds ('the light that falls through the cracks'). Various cultures have interpreted these rays as spiritual, and given them a spiritual name, so they could be seen as manifestations of love. The 'dying rays of the sun' phrase seems to establish the time as towards sunset.

There's a lot of hand imagery in the song - hands being what we use for physical contact, for carrying out actions ('your hands come out to rescue me'), for playing music, etc. They're also the organs of help, which is what he needs here, and perhaps the ethereal hands of love are trying to get to him to save him, though so far only the fingers have got through the clouds. Of course 'fingers of love' has sensual and sexual overtones too.

The setting I'm picturing as marran-grass-covered sand dunes above a beach, presumably on a west-facing coast (so the sun sets over the water) in NZ. There's a lot of sea imagery in the song, and I'm taking 'every blade of grass that shivers in the breeze' to be marram grass, which grows on and binds dunes. The sun going down 'all at once' at the end puts the location closer the equator than my own latitude, and NZ is a good 10-20 degrees in the right direction.

There's no sense of physical discomfort (it's breezy but pleasant; the water's inviting; there are insects around, indicating it's not too cold). His discomfort is cerebral, not physical. The only sense of physical discomfort comes from the grass that 'shivers', and the 'dying rays', though I take both of these to mean other things.

Overhanging him is the fact that he must leave soon to fly overseas, so time to fix this situation he's in is short. The 'endless murmur' that surrounds him (the combined sound of waves breaking on the beach, the breeze in his ears, the rustling grasses, and even sand being blown) is the same sound as the jet engines that will shortly take him away 'across the land and over the sea.' Even the breeze might suggest the push of jet engines.

The song follows the transmutation of his feelings as the fingers of love work their effect on him.
It starts with him sitting there thinking and watching the sun descending. I think the 'itch too sensitive to scratch' is his situation, which needs to be handled more tactfully than he knows how, or requires him going to lengths he's not yet willing to go to. It's the antithesis of, 'if you've got an itch, scratch it.' Scratching this itch will lead to more discomfort before it gets better. The 'light that falls through the cracks' could be an indication of the healing love already piercing the clouds of his dark mood.
There follows a chorus of sorts - he can't look up or back. Perhaps he's mesmerised by the sunset, and can't take his eyes off it. Perhaps he doesn't want to look into the sky where he'll be flying soon, or into the past where his current unease came from. He doesn't want to leave, and this sunset is certainly rooting him here for the moment.
He enters a state of ecstasy in the following verse, which starts with him being overwhelmed by the colour of the sunset ('Colour is its own reward', mentioned twice), then experiencing it synaesthetically as music in 'the chiming of a perfect chord' - a musician's line. After this the verse launches into the full careless exultation of 'jumping overboard', 'joy and clarity', 'playing', 'laughing'. The 'mad dog' image is interesting - maybe he's just got an idiotic dog with him on the beach, but the mad dog could be symbolic of his ill humour, which has become dormant in this ecstatic state. Churchill labelled his depression his Black Dog, after Samuel Johnson visualising his own episodes that way, so the 'mad dog' label perhaps suits this current dark mood. 'Let's...' is significant in introducing the idea of another person or persons, and encouraging them to jump with him into immersive bliss and enlightenment. The 'joy and clarity' he's feeling might be experienced as coming at him in 'waves', or maybe it just feels like he's riding the waves of the sea.
Into the semi-chorus again, and this time he says, 'I won't be helped,' doing the man thing of, in weakness, denying what you really need if it has to be supplied by another person; that male way of projecting emotional self-sufficiency though in dire need of comfort, support and help. So he resists being soothed - even though the influence of the fingers of love are doing all they can to help him (they 'move everywhere'), he's blocking them.
The next verse brings him crashing down to earth, as he realises how possible it is for him to 'fall by the way', victim to some calamity on his journey 'from the cradle to the grave', such as ruin ('from the palace to the gutter'), and in this mood he sees the sunset in a defeated way as the sun's 'dying rays'. He's the man on a tightrope looking down and realising how low he can go. But still, underlying all this, is the support of the 'fingers of love'. This verse starts with the interesting lead-in, 'there is time yet,' which will be repeated differently later - he's thinking in this verse, 'There is time yet for me to wreck everything, if I don't resolve this situation'.
He comes out of that into a short, uplifting musical interlude, and then partly back into his earlier ecstatic state, looking at the sunset, and this time seeing a fallen angel walking on the sea (presumably the sun's track over the water resembling a luminous, upright being, walking Jesus-like across the waves, perhaps coming to bless, perhaps to rescue, him. A sign of hope).
There's now a repetition of the semi-chorus, where he once again confirms his refusal to accept help, despite the fingers of love still doing all they can for him.
And now the song ends with him addressing his sig. other, 'There is time yet' (that lead-in again, but this time followed by the more hopeful :) 'for you to find me'. 'And all at once/fingers of love move down' seems an ambiguous way to finish. Is it hopeful, or is it hope disappearing? Have the fingers of love vanished suddenly before he can accept their help? With the sun gone, is all that's rooting him here also gone, bringing again the bleak realisation that he's going to have to leave soon? I interpret it as a hopeful ending, but maybe that's just me.

Like I say, I'm sure many different meanings can be assembled out of the lyrics. I remember reading an interview in which Neil Finn said something along the lines of, he couldn't always explain what his lyrics mean, but he'd defend them all to his dying breath. I think the value of a song is what meaning you're able to take from it when you first get to know it, and (in the case of more complex songs, like this one) how it can grow with you, as you gain experience and are able to bring more to it.

Joni Mitchell – For Free Lyrics 9 years ago
Preceding the step change up to Blue, Joni Mitchell's 'Ladies of the Canyon' album gives the impression of a tying off of her former folky simplicity, and 'For Free' sits happily within this as a straightforward if contemplative, depth-in-simplicity song.

The song is actually longer in duration than the moment it describes - she's standing on a street corner waiting to cross the road when she hears a busker playing a clarinet on one of the other corners. But this provides a framework for reflection on their contrasting musical fortunes.

The song considers how unwarranted it is that people pay good money to hear her music, while his, just as worthy, is being ignored. She gets to play in concert halls, receives 'velvet curtain calls' for her performances, stays in good hotels, can afford to treat herself to jewellery and gets driven around in limousines. The venue for his 'good music' is a noisy street corner beside a quick lunch stand in a windy, dirty town. Although his playing is 'real good', the busker is earning little if anything from it. People pass him by because he's an unknown ('never been on their T.V.'), and on top of this there are boisterous children to contend with, released at the end of their school day (which sets the song in mid- to late-afternoon)

She has a notion to cross over to him and make a request (and presumably a much-needed contribution), perhaps join in with his playing. But the lights change allowing pedestrians to cross, and his tune is coming to an end anyway, so instead of creating any kind of serendipitous musical alliance, however fleeting, each just carries on with their activities - he presumably into his next tune, and she to continue her journey. In effect, she is herself passing his music by.

The music is imbued with the song's subject. The falling melody of the first lines of the verses conveys her dissatisfaction with what they report ('I slept last night in a good hotel', 'Now me I play for fortunes', 'Nobody stopped to hear him' - the latter ending in piano-thumping frustration). In parts the singing mimics the exuberance and agility of clarinet music, and the song fades at the end into a clarinet solo, in memory of the busker's performance.

On a personal note, as someone who's tried busking and received deservedly scanty reward for my definitively-not-real-good music, I sympathise with the clarinettist in this song. And I can accept the wilfully atypical pronunciation of 'schools' to make the rhyme, coming myself from a place where 'school' has two syllables (though she'd corrected this by the time of Miles of Aisles). It's a song I have an enduring soft spot for, because it's the one (heard on cheap cassette recorder playing a tape borrowed from the library) that first attracted me into Joni Mitchell's music, opening up that rich world for me.

Mark Knopfler – Sailing To Philadelphia Lyrics 9 years ago
Mark Knopfler has said this song was inspired and informed by Thomas Pynchon's book on the subject. Short of actually reading it, here's what I've come up with so far about its meaning :

The song can be taken as a prologue to what Mason and Dixon would do once they reached America. Its title and content suggest the setting is the ship carrying them towards Philadelphia to start their work, a voyage which took place in Autumn, 1763. The use of present tense give the lyrics an involving immediacy.

The song begins with Jeremiah Dixon introducing himself. As a Geordie boy like Mr Dixon, and indeed Mr Knopfler, I'll start by defining what this means. A Geordie is a person from the North-East of England, and Geordie is the accent and dialect they speak. Definitive enough? Not really, because the area involved depends on who's defining it. It's always centred on the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the industrial communities along the river's lower reaches, but its size can range from this discrete area right up to the whole of the traditional counties of Northumberland and Durham, all the way from the Scottish Border to the River Tees. And though the Geordie accent is distinctive, it does very significantly within that area. Born along the region's lower edge, Dixon bears a Border surname (like Armstrong, Nixon, Elliot, Johnstone, etc.), so its likely his male-line ancestors at least had always lived within the Geordie catchment.
In keeping with the stereotype of Geordie males even to this day, Dixon is partial to drink and women (and probably in that order).
He's a surveyor and astronomer, and to have charted an area the size of the counties of Durham and Northumberland would have been no small feat.
In 'To make my mark upon the earth' he's presumably thinking forward to marking out the Mason-Dixon line (they were transporting marker stones with them from England for that purpose).

Next comes Charles Mason's introduction. The senior of the two, this son of a baker has become an astronomer, and an expert in measuring longitude - latitude was easy enough using the sun and stars, but longitude was a far more intractable problem in the days before accurate chronometers.
The West Country is England's south-west peninsula, stretching from Gloucestershire, where Mason was raised, down to the tip of Cornwall.
In the only part of the song which leaps into the future, Mason's subsequent membership of the Royal Society is mentioned. The Royal Society is an august old English institution comprising the leading scientists of the day, and is only ever joined by invitation. For the son of a baker to achieve fellowship in those class-conscious days must have been a rare achievement.

The chorus describes the Tyne as 'coaly' (reprising an old Tyneside folk song, though I'm unconvinced the word exists in the real world) because of the river's association with coal exports. As son of a coal mine owner, this association would have been well-known to Dixon. Northumberland and Durham was one of the earliest mining areas, and a lot of the coal produced was carried down the Tyne on its way to London and other east coast ports. ('To carry coals to Newcastle' is an expression still used for a pointless activity, even though the coal trade in the area is now effectively finished.) The coal industry in Dixon's day was still some way short of its peak, and he'd have no idea how 'coaly' the river would be a hundred years hence. It's only recently that the first salmon in centuries has managed to cough its way up past Newcastle into the purer waters upstream, and even then it was presumably utilising some sort of aqualung. Although the line starts with 'we', this phrase really seems to belong to Dixon.
An interesting geographical parallel here is that the lower Tyne's position in England (England rather than Britain) is equivalent to the Mason-Dixon Line's location in the continental US (and even moreso within its colonial-era boundaries).

Following the first chorus, we're given a sense of the two men's different characters - Mason's measured, even downbeat wariness against Dixon's ebullient optimism (Geordies do tend to be optimistic in the face of all reason, perhaps an attitude born of necessity). Yet they must both have been brave, determined men, facing as they were several years' arduous work on what was for them the edge of the known world.
Dixon seems full of the idea of American independence (Geordies have a long tradition of radicalism in politics), while the more conservative Mason calls him 'gullible'. Since Philadelphia was the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed just 13 years later, 'talk of liberty' was presumably already in the air, perhaps even among their fellow passengers.
It would be interesting to know what the Iroquois people made of Mason and Dixon and their team marking out a straight line across 'the forests of the Iroquois', land which any normal person would already know well. Even moreso when it was all just to settle a territorial dispute between two English families.

And early one morning comes their first sighting of America. An eager Dixon calls Mason up from below decks to 'feel the sun' - as an astronomer, Mason is more used to the night sky. The Capes of Delaware are on the horizon, marking the entrance from the Atlantic into the Delaware river estuary. The unpredictable ocean crossing is behind them, and Philadelphia, where they will receive their instructions, is only 'another day' upriver.
'A new morning' conveys not only the time of day, but also the promise of this opportunity for them both to achieve something of consequence, and perhaps also the optimistic feel of America moving towards Independence.
'Your stars should guide us here' suggests Mason's astronomy bus also an almost astrological guidance towards their destiny.

The two men's endeavours would result in a line of astonishing accuracy. You can't help but wonder what they would have made of the division it came to signify, with all its consequences for human beings of colour.

Joni Mitchell – Edith and The Kingpin Lyrics 9 years ago
A quick look at some proper reviews of this song, as well as the previous comments on this site, indicates that my interpretation may be way off. But hey ho, it still seems to valid to me so here it is, for what it's worth. It's ridiculously long, but I can't get it shorter and still do justice to the lyrical complexity of this song :

The song begins with the arrival of the 'big man'/'kingpin' (someone who's never named). He's flown in to pay a short official visit to a small town. This is all about him at this point, there's no mention of Edith or any other entourage.
The town's put on quite a show to welcome him, razzamatazz including a disco dancing display (this is the 1970s) followed by a marching jazz band from the local university.
He's also 'greeted' by 'plainclothes cops'. The consensus interpretation is that the big man is a drug-lord, or at least a crime boss, so being 'greeted' by cops here carries the undertone of a possible arrest for his 'crimes' mentioned later, or maybe they're keeping an eye on him because so far they have nothing to arrest him on. My interpretation is that he's a politician, and the cops are providing his security. A President would have his own security detail, so it's someone below that level, yet still important enough to be assigned official police protection back in the 70s, so I'd guess this puts him at Member of Congress/State Governor level.
The phrase 'small town, big man' encapsulates the peculiar perception that one person can be seen as more important than a whole small townful of people.
There's the impression that most of the town has turned out for this event, all dressed up and looking their best ('fresh lipstick glistening').
The jazz band give their display, the tapping of drums and the pressing of brass instrument valves reminiscent of how they write their essays on manual typewriters (this was the days before the personal computer). They play mechanically and with little feeling, in stark contrast to the warm jazz infusing this song. But the big man is used to this kind of reception, and his mind is otherwise engaged. Use of the word 'sophomore' confirms the setting here as somewhere in the United States.
Now we come to the first mention of Edith, who the being held in the big man's stare. Edith is obviously his partner, and presumably his wife (politicians of this era had to be married, whatever they got up to in their private lives, in order to exhibit the societal norms expected of them by the electorate. Their wives would turn out to support them at public events such as this). 'His eyes hold Edith' perhaps implies that he sees her as his property, or that he's exercising his power to control her (there's a tension in the air - it's possible they've recently argued), making sure she doesn't do anything to show him up.
His left hand grips his right tightly - a rigid, tense stance. Significantly, the hand with his wedding ring (the ring would be visible) is containing the right, the more active hand (in most people, so we'll assume in him), the one that does the taking. 'What does that hand desire?' Women? Wealth? Power? Edith?

The song turns here - up to this point it's been about the 'big man', but from now on it becomes mostly about Edith.
The verse begins with 'Edith in the ring' - but what kind of ring? A ring of people surrounding the big man? A secure area around him which only the favoured few are allowed inside? The whole event sounds a bit circus-like, so perhaps it all seems like a circus ring. My preferred interpretation is that it's a reference to the wedding ring she wears (and is therefore inside) for him. His own 'diamond ring' is mentioned shortly.
The women he's rejected in favour of Edith ('the passed-over girls') are discussing her or the big man, or they may be plotting to supersede her. If there are sufficient women here to scheme in this way, enough women to have been declined by him in the past, it implies that we're back on his home turf, and that this small town is where he grew up.
The man with the diamond ring (presumably the big man) is assuaged for the moment ('purring/All claws for now withdrawn'), as he laps up the attention. 'Purring' implies a cat-like persona, and not your standard house moggie, but a big cat. He can be dangerous, he has claws, but is content not to use them 'for now,' while his ego is being gratified.
A succession ('one by one') of women bring tales of the man's past deeds ('his renegade stories/His crimes and his glories') to Edith. Her marriage faces constant, wearing challenges from other women ('in challenge they look on'), as well as from having to hear tales of his chequered past ('crimes and glories'). Edith must be, or will have to become, very strong to survive this relentless onslaught. There's a strong impression that, in his own life, the big man doesn't follow the values expected of him by his electorate. Perhaps this is why he's so controlled and controlling.
Women he has been with previously (not just been with, but 'taken') are prematurely aged. This may be a result of the demands of being his partner (is there some truth in the perception that politicians' wives look older than their similarly-aged husbands? Especially in the days before personal stylists and routine cosmetic surgery?). Or perhaps the drug lord interpretation is correct, and the big man either chooses addicts or makes his women addicts, which ages them. Whichever, is it also Edith's destiny to age prematurely? It looks likely. There follows an illustration of how old these women appear, 'He tilts their tired faces/Gently to the spoon,' which could be (drug lord interpretation) helping the women feed their addiction, but could equally be (politician interpretation) a photo-op visit to an old folks' home, perhaps something the big man is doing as part of his visit to the town. Though why would an old folks' home be filled with his past conquests? Maybe it's just an illustration of how aged his past women become.

Later, Edith is 'in his bed' - why 'his' bed? Are they not married? Is she an irrelevance here? Maybe it's just to show that they sleep together, or have just slept together. Presumably this is in a hotel room allocated to him for his visit. But why is she alone? Is he up and gone? She can hear a plane humming (a propellor plane rather than a jet). Is it flying high overhead, or is it waiting nearby, its propellors running, (politician interpretation) waiting to take him to his next engagement? Or (drug-lord interpretation) is it a plane waiting to transport drugs? Or is it a plane overhead bringing drugs in? The rain lends the idea that the song's setting is one of the less arid states.
The wires in the walls of the room are humming - this might mean the man and this room (and Edith by association) are under surveillance, or it could just refer to the old fixed line phones (whose wires came through the walls into the room) being busy. Edith may be muddling the sound of an air conditioner or a fridge with hidden wires. In the days the song is set, before mobile phones, fixed line phones were the only way of him keeping in touch with his office. Perhaps his staff, or journalists covering the event, are making a lot of calls, keeping the hotel's lines busy. The wires didn't actually hum (unless there was something very wrong with them). Nevertheless, she hears (or imagines) a humming that sounds to her like 'some mysterious song', so maybe she doesn't understand what's being talked about, or is being kept deliberately in the dark about the big man's activities, or she may just be tuning it out, uninterested, but aware of an overall song-like pattern to it all.
The 'bars in her head' are presumably the musical bars of this 'mysterious song', but the phrase also carries the feeling of her being imprisoned by this life of hers, or (drug-lord interpretation) fearing imprisonment as a result of it. Or she may have erected barriers across parts of her mind she doesn't want to examine for now. It may even self-reference the music of this actual song in some way. The bars are 'beating frantic and snowblind/Romantic and snowblind' - apart from the 'romantic' bit, none of this sounds good, almost migraine-like. The 'snow' and 'frantic' suggest cocaine use, though could also come from the hectic lifestyle she leads with him, the accelerated heart rate, the blinding camera flashes. And there's still that 'romantic' side of all this to her.
'She says his crime belongs' is a bit impenetrable. Belongs to what? Belongs to himself alone? Belongs behind the bars in her head? She's judging him, or accusing him of something, but beyond that I can't discern any clear meaning.
Now for the first time he's referred to as 'the Kingpin' of the title, rather than 'big man'. Kingpin often refers a drug lord, so maybe he is. Yet he has official receptions laid on for him, which seems odd in that case. So I think the word is being used to convey his importance and also his air of possible menace ('claws').
Both Edith and the big man are charming in their own right, and able to influence. Both have the beauty and allure to exercise power over others.
With 'staring eye to eye', we're back to his eyes holding Edith, but this time she's staring right back. (Does the phrase carry a suggestion of the Biblical 'eye for an eye' punishment?) 'They dare not look away' reveals a lack of trust in each other no doubt born of experience, though you have to fear more for Edith than for him in this relationship, given all we've heard about his effects on women.
I think practically anyone would advise Edith to get away from him, fast.

Overall, I still think the 'big man' is a politician rather than a drug lord. The song seems to cover an official visit to a small town in his constituency, possibly while he's running for reelection (considering everything laid on for him, and that he's already a 'big man', he must hold office at some high level currently). The song's flavoured by the time of its writing (presumably around the end of the Nixon administration, when politics seemed a particularly dirty business). There's no real hint as to who these people really are; they may be generic. He's just an interchangeable 'big man/kingpin', while she is at least given a name, even if an old-fashioned one.
The whole song comes across as an event watched on television (no media is mentioned in the song, though presumably they're present, so perhaps our viewpoint is that of the media).
The lyrics use an interesting technique of adjacent lines which end with the same word or even whole phrase. This technique seems to be being used to emphasise or to shift meaning.

As for the album and this song's place in it, I may be superimposing my own structure, but I think the ten songs follow a woman's journey through a few decades of her life, possibly spanning the potentially childbearing years between adolescence and menopause, from the teenage exuberance of In France They Kiss On Main Street to the hard-won mature wisdom of Shadows and Light. This particular song lays out the first of her associations with unsuitable men (also seen in the title track and Harry's House).
Ms Mitchell has denied she's a poet, but if she isn't, she certainly occupies the highest ground of lyricism. And during those golden years from Blue to Hejira, of which this song, this album, forms part, she showed a remarkable ability to lock into the zeitgeist.

Carly Simon – Boys In The Trees Lyrics 9 years ago
This is a woman's remembrance of the summer she reached the cusp of adolescence, and began to be attracted to boys.

The singer has returned as an adult to the family home and to her childhood bedroom. This room, with its single bed and low ceiling beams, created problems for the singer as she grew taller (by implication, during the growth spurts of adolescence). But the most absorbing problem was that its window looked down over the garden where boys, who she had begun to be attracted to, would play in the trees.

She found herself wanting to be with boys in ways she knew were frowned on by church and school. Her desires made her feel guilty, and were strong enough to frighten her. And all the while her mother looked on in silent sympathy, as her grandmother had done while her mother went through this stage in her turn. The singer was somehow given to understand that she must let time pass, and let the boys be boys until they developed the capacity to reciprocate her feelings.

At that age, the singer had no experience with regard to romance and boys, and recounts the ways by which she sought to attract their interest ('go to them', 'let them come to you', 'hope someone will see'). Her bewilderment stands in clear contrast to the boys, who are still content with their simple play, not yet having reached their own adolescence.
The line 'live like a flower' seems pivotal, and conveys an image of her standing looking quietly lovely in the garden, while above her the boys play on regardless. She must wait patiently for the fruit to ripen in the trees and fall at her feet.

The last verse brings the singer back to the present. Though she's now fully grown and passionate ('sheets the colour of fire', 'curse my own desires', 'burn and... freeze'), she sleeps alone and frustrated. She has had both euphoria and disappointment with men, and even in adulthood, still feels all the discontent of having to wait for males to catch up to her.

The reprised last line of each verse contains an undertone of 'boys don't grow on trees' (i.e. there isn't an endlessly available supply of them). In her case, that is just where the boys were growing, as they played that soft summer, tantalisingly out of reach, fruit that wasn't yet ready.

This has long been my favourite Carly Simon song, so personal and wonderfully-realised a crystalisation of a girl's adolescent confusion, all sung to that lovely limpid acoustic guitar-based accompaniment.

Joni Mitchell – A Case Of You Lyrics 9 years ago
This isn't among among my favourite songs on the Blue album, but since it's held in high regard by people better than myself, I've had a tinker around in it to see what I could see.

The song is addressed to the singer's (ex-)lover. Its first line makes it clear that relationship has already finished ('Just before our love got lost...'). The conversational snippet which which follows passed between them 'just before' the relationship ended. 'Got lost' carries an insulting tone of 'get lost', but also implies that their love drifted off course in an aimless way, rather than anything more fractious.
'"I am as constant as a northern star"' is an adapted quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The use of 'a' is significant. Caesar says, '"...THE northern star",' as anyone would. Only Polaris holds the constant position required by traditional navigation, as Ms Mitchell knows very well (This Flight Tonight contains, 'Not THE northern one that guides in the sailors'). So this man's own words reveal his inconstancy, his unreliability. And the song is purportedly about Leonard Cohen, a star from Canada, a northern country, like herself. Canada is already on her mind, as becomes clear a few lines later.
'Constantly in the darkness...' - this darkness carries several meanings (ignorance, mystery, evil, unhappiness), none of them particularly positive. She might be accusing him of being bad to be around, or of robbing her of her own clarity or vivacity. On top of this, she seems to sing it as 'constant in the darkness', which could imply that he's faithful to her only when they're sleeping together at night, and she knows where he is.
'If you want me I'll be in the bar' - if he wants her, he'll have to come and find her. This is her taking control. And the bar, which is as much a setting for this song as anywhere, is a place people escape the darkness, somewhere relatively bright and peopled after nightfall.

'On the back of a cartoon coaster' - I'm not much up on bar coasters of the world, but I guess this one had a cartoon advert for some refreshing beverage on the top, and a blank underside, so she flips it over to draw on it. 'Cartoon' implies humour, which is a bit of a contrast from the song's contents - whatever else this song is, it isn't humorous.
'In the blue TV screen light' - so she's found herself still in relative darkness, illuminated by the monochrome TV. 'Blue' also refers back both to the album title, and to her feelings of dejection here. There's a suggestion that the TV, ignored as it imparts its content, being as neglected as she is.
'I drew a map of Canada' - now that can't be easy, with all those crinkly coastlines. But she draws it out of homesickness, or because of its association with the man whose face she's drawing 'on it twice'. Canada, their shared home country, is an unbreakable bond between them, unlike their relationship.
'Oh Canada' comes across as a kind of sigh, a lament, a cry of longing for home, for childhood, a plea perhaps for her country's help in this relationship. It also plays on 'O Canada', the name of the Canadian national anthem.
'With your face sketched on it twice' - Canada, as a 'landscape format' country, has enough room in a map of it for two faces ('portrait format' by definition) side by side. It's interesting that she draws his face twice, rather than his face and her own, which could imply that she thinks he's more in love with himself than he is with her.
Also, since cartoons were originally serious drawings (as in the cartoons of Leonardo and Raphael), which any serious painter such as herself would know, there's a link back to the cartoon coaster that starts the verse.

The song shifts from past to present tense for the chorus. This is how the singer feels now, either sitting in that bar, or looking back on this difficult love affair from a distance, but still living with its legacy.
'You're in my blood like holy wine' - he's infused into an essential part of her. 'Holy wine' is the blood of Christ transubstantiated from the red wine drunk in church communion. 'Like holy wine' implies that she sees something spiritual but also drug-like in him. He delivers the headiness of wine with its dangers as an intoxicant. As a New Testament image, this may be a defiant move away from Leonard Cohen, who habitually uses Old Testament/Hebrew Biblical imagery. And if she is sitting in that bar, she may well have red wine in front of her, and possibly more inside her, which might channel her thoughts into this imagery.
'You taste so bitter and so sweet' - she has a mixed impression of him, some pleasing, some not. And while it's probably pushing it too far, 'sweet' and 'bitter' are used in Old Testament imagery, the sweetness of honey (e.g. land flowing in milk and...; Samson's lion riddle to the Philistines), and the 'bitter herbs' eaten in preference to living with a disagreeable partner, or representing slavery in the Passover ceremonies.
We move into the hypothetical ('could... would...') for the final part of the chorus, with its confident, almost boastful, assertion. While it seems to come out of her strength, could she instead be using defiance to protect the vulnerability she feels in the face of him?
'A case of you' - as a song title on its own, this phrase implies he's a kind of illness. But in the context of the chorus, it's transformed to mean a lot of him (a case is 12 bottles of wine, at least in the UK - that's a serious quantity of refreshment). She's saying that if he's the equivalent of wine, then she could take a great quantity of him and still be able to function. The phrase is also open to sexual interpretations, but I think it's more about emotion and spirit than about any sexual activities.
Has she become so inured to his intoxicant-like powers that he doesn't affect her much any more, that even after absorbing such a quantity of him she retains the power to walk away ('on my feet')?

Next we have a present tense verse, describing a couple of thoughts concerning herself.
'I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints' - Ms Mitchell was always a painter, by its nature a solitary and possibly lonely pursuit. She's already created some art on the back of the beer mat in the previous verse. But I think these lines are about using elements of the people around her (the 'box of paints' she lives in) in her vocation as a songwriter ('painter'). Perhaps she feels that other people provide the colour in her life. Or it could even refer to music, where she's trying to find her own musical voice from the many genres available. Or it may refer to the fact that she's a solo artist and a solo songwriter ('lonely painter'). The one thing the phrase almost certainly isn't about is painting.
It may even refer (leading into the following lines) to the many available religions that were available in liberal 70s California, and being unable to find one that satisfies her, though I think this is less likely.
'Frightened by the devil' - religious imagery, which links with the title song on the album's 'Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go...'. Mention of the devil also contrasts with the 'holy wine' of this man's influence on her.
'...those ones that ain't afraid' - perhaps she's seeing something of the diabolical as well as of the sacred in this man that she's 'drawn to'. Or maybe she's saying that this man has no fear, not just of the devil, but of anything.

'You told me you said' - at first this reads as uncharacteristically clumsy construction in a Joni Mitchell lyric, but does it mean he told her about another time he used the phrase?
"Love is touching souls" - whatever else this man is, he's eloquent.
'Surely you touched mine' - after proposing that love is a mutual touching of souls, she states that he touched hers (she was in love with him, and allowed him in). But was he similarly in love with her? She doesn't seem so sure.
'Part of you pours out of me, In these lines from time to time' - liquid imagery again. It may be continuing to follow the way wine goes into, through and out of the body. It may even be further sexual imagery. But I take these lines to mean that she is channeling whatever part of him she took into herself, out into songs, certainly this into one - she even uses two directly-delivered quotes from him. It's another mention of the songwriting process (following on from the 'painter' of the previous verse). Is she pouring the holy wine of him out of herself as a song? Perhaps this is the type of bleeding ('be prepared to bleed') she mentions at the end of the following verse.

When she sings 'a case of you...' this second time, her voice takes flight. Even though she can survive him, he still evidently makes her giddy. And it actually sounds like a (very musical) climax, so maybe the more sexual interpretations possible throughout this song gain currency. But immediately afterwards comes the assurance again that she'll still be on her feet.

'...a woman, She had a mouth like yours, She knew your life' - who could this mysterious woman be? Is her mouth physically similar to his, and so she's genetically linked, his mother or sister? Or someone who knew him intimately and from an early age, who grew up in the same area and consequently had the same accent? Or an ex-lover whose mouth had shaped itself to his? Almost certainly this is someone who knew him from childhood ('she knew your life') and could shed light on him for the singer.
'devils and your deeds' - this line doesn't reflect well on the man. The woman says he has devils in him, while the singer has already stated that she's 'frightened by the devil' earlier. So that's a bit of a compatibility issue. And 'deeds' implies his less savoury acts, rather than the totality of the things he's done.
'Be prepared to bleed' - but what form will this bleeding take? It's unlikely to be literal blood, though it may be in one respect, that in refusing to have a child by her, she will continue her normal menstrual bleeding. But it's most likely to mean 'be prepared to suffer'. And it may link back to 'you're in my blood', and the means by which she will get him out of her system, by writing songs (especially this song) about him.

The last chorus uses slightly different wording to the previous ones.
'But you are in my blood' seems like an admission to herself that, given all she's said, she has to acknowledge that part of him nevertheless still inhabits her.
'You're my holy wine' - this has shifted from simile to more intimate and definitive metaphor, with a statement that he still lifts her spiritually.
'You're so bitter, bitter and so sweet' - the 'bitter' part of him receives the emphasis, showing which way she sees the balance in him tilting.
And she gives another, slightly different, climactic 'you', followed by 'darling' - she still feels affection for him.
In spite of still craving some of what he gave her, though, she's still able to function, still able to separate herself off from him.
And at the end, both the music and the lyrics seem to drift to an indecisive finish, perhaps mirroring her uncertainty about how things will work out in the end.

It's a song of great complexity of possible lyrical meaning. But I think it's ultimately just an expression of simple pain and hesitant defiance, sung in a plaintive voice over beautifully spare music. She's a hurt and pensive woman, leaning over her instrument (a dulcimer is played on the lap), sitting in the aftermath of the relationship, trying to understand the man and what went wrong, but knowing that she has the strength to carry on. Lyrically eloquent and musically sparse, she has used some of what she imbibed of him to create this song, her Pyrrhic victory over him.

Peter Gabriel – Here Comes The Flood Lyrics 10 years ago
Mr Gabriel himself has said that this song is about people finally being able to read each others' minds, and the resultant flood of knowledge and consequences. But what does he know about it? Here's my interpretation :

At nightfall, radio signals become clearer and reach further ('signals grow'). Shortwave radio signals, which are analogue and have intercontinental reach, are always liable to 'come and go' in a regular fade-and-return cycle. This waveband carried (still does, for all I know) English service versions of Radio Moscow, Voice of America and some other countries' foreign propaganda stations. And the news these are broadcasting isn't good - it contains harbingers ('early warnings') from distant lands of the coming destruction. These are all the more frightening through being only half-heard through the 'come and go' of the signal. I was a lad when this song was written in the mid-70s, and the Cold War was so pervasive then that many of us doubted we'd make it to adulthood. (Though personally, I'm still waiting for that to happen.)

The physical setting for the song now becomes apparent as a place where land and a restless ocean meet ('starfish', 'tide,' 'tall cliffs'). The starfish have been 'stranded' by something that sounds like a tsunami or earthquake, but overall the song makes clear has mankind is its cause. The 'swollen Easter tide' the starfish await is not only the high spring tide following the low which has stranded them, but also a tide of the dead (religious imagery, from the Easter crucifixion of Jesus).
The wordplay of 'There's no point in direction' links in with 'You cannot even choose a side' - the tumult will engulf us all, no matter which way we turn. There is no escaping this.

The singer decides to take to the sea by boat ('the hollow shoulder'), echoing the way Noah survived the first flood. 'The old track' I think refers to the preference of mesolithic and neolithic people in Britain to travel by sea and river rather than make the relatively difficult journeys by land; or perhaps it refers to Noah's strategy, which worked far back in the past. He sees children massed on the clifftops and just waiting there ('getting older'), having nowhere further to run. What's left for them? To hurl themselves off? Evil is triumphing effortlessly ('jaded underworld') over mankind. 'Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky' sounds like a nuclear submarine (that quintessence of the Cold War) launching a missile ('nail'), and the crowd of children suffering the resultant radioactive fallout.

Now we reach the chorus, which again uses the religious imagery of 'Lord' and the apocalyptic 'flood'. Only Noah's immediate family, out of all the earth, survived the first flood, and the odds are against us surviving this one ('say goodbye to flesh and blood'). If anyone does, it will be those prepared to let go of what they owned ('their island' - everything that formerly kept them safe and secure, above the danger level) in order to survive. It may even refer to us Britons having to give up our country, island nation that we are, to endure. The chorus ends (using further wet/dry imagery) by warning those of us who are enjoying life that our time is running out.

The last verse tells how nightmarish this apocalypse will be, how we'll be defenceless ('have no walls') against it. In the 'flash'/'thunder crash' of the nuclear explosions, we'll panic, seeking a thousand ways of escape ('you're a thousand minds'). At such a time we mustn't be afraid to communicate our emotions - being leaderless, we only have each other ('the actor's gone, there's only you and me') and must now be open and honest about how we feel, to see how we can best work together to try to make it through this. If we lose all hope of survival ('break before the dawn'), everything we were will be used to further the conflict.

Having said that, an alternative interpretation of this verse would be more in line with Mr Gabriel's explanation : all mental barriers ('walls') come down, and other people's minds enter ours like a thundercrash. We're no longer able to fabricate impressions of ourselves in others' perceptions ('the actor's gone'), but are seen for who we truly are, and see others with equal clarity ('there's only you and me'). And those of us who can't stand being known in the full light of this honesty ('if we break before the dawn') will shrivel away to nothing; which will further the common good.

And the song ends on the chorus, and indeed on the downbeat warning of, 'Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry.'

The song seems to me to be a powerful but bleak vision of a man-made calamity, with the only hope being that those few who survive will be better people, selfless, honest, cooperative and emotionally open.

Suzanne Vega – Freeze Tag Lyrics 10 years ago
A group of children, the singer's younger self among them, go to an urban playground on a winter afternoon. The sunlight is already disappearing from the swings, the slides, the chainlink fence (...'dimming diamonds/Scattering...'), and the lyrics carry a tangible sense of cold ('wintertime', 'trembling', 'freeze' tag).

The game the children play has the chaser 'tagging' others, who must then stand motionless until freed by someone else. They're running around in the falling darkness, absorbed in their game, raucous with the excitement of it.

Then singer and a friend (a boy) leave freeze tag behind, and use the less innocent templates of screen icons (Dean-Dietrich, Bogart-Bacall) to pose in roles that will one day be in earnest. 'Slow fade now to black...' - movie terminology, linking the screen stars, the fading light, and a fading of childhood innocence ('Do you see/Where I've been hiding/In this hide-and-seek?').

'We can only say yes now...' Since they're still children, they can't yet say 'yes' (that token of compliance) to each other, so for in the meantime they practice on the sky, the street, the night.

For me, this song is about the fading of innocence, with children performing play versions of what will later be real and serious - freeze tag a metaphor for adult interplay (where it's possible to be rendered motionless by someone until freed by someone else), the movie roleplay a precursor of romantic relationships, and the playground (with its grown-up propensities to 'slides into the past' and 'swings of indecision') a play version of the world that waits beyond its chain-link fence.

Joni Mitchell – Jericho Lyrics 10 years ago
This song is about the singer's contract of intent towards love as a concept, and her current love in particular. This intent is hopeful and high-minded, idealistic in the way you can be before your first real experience of love or at the start of a new relationship, when all things seem possible.

The first verse looks back on her first aspirations towards love ('...a promise that I made to love/When it was new'). She's saying that when in love, her ideal was to be open and undefended, like Jericho with its fallen walls. She identifies herself with Jericho, and is willing her own walls to fall.

She's already into a relationship by the second verse, still aiming for that openness in herself and supporting and encouraging it in her partner, asking openly for what she needs, offering the same in return in '...a warm arrangement.' She sees their dismantled walls as enabling 'a rich exchange'.

The third verse, the bridge, is the voice of experience, even of pessimism. 'Anyone will tell you...' that when you open yourself up fully to another person, you make yourself vulnerable; you risk being hurt, and may find your openness not being returned ('Maybe they'll short sell you'), or even betrayed (Judas, who betrayed with a kiss). And if the other person isn't nourishing the relationship from their side, you may find yourself closing up as well.

The last verse is full of optimism about the current relationship. This time it seems to be different, it's getting to the point where she trusts him enough to be completely open, to let out all the bad and good things she's been keeping inside, and to make herself fully known to him.

Joni Mitchell – Blue Lyrics 10 years ago
After three decades of familiarity with this song, its depths and its haunting maritime imagery, some fog still swirls around its solid centre for me. But here's my understanding of it so far...

First of all, the song's addressed (assuming it's Joni Mitchell doing the addressing, paragon of autobiographical songwriters that she is) to something called Blue - is Blue a person, or does Blue represent general melancholy? It works as both. And the way she lingers over that first word.

'Songs are like tattoos' - songs get under your skin, they occupy a place where previously there was nothing, they stay with you. They're full of detail, can be pretty much anything, and you develop a relationship with them. In these ways both songs and tattoos have the qualities of love affairs. Which is what this song is ultimately about ('Blue, I love you').

After assuring Blue that she knows she can survive on her own, because she's done it before ('I've been to sea before' - and there's an overtone here that she'll be 'all at sea' without Blue), she asks Blue to either commit to her ('Crown and anchor me') or release her ('let me sail away.'). That Crown and Anchor imagery is striking - as a nautical tattoo motif, and an entreaty to Blue to both exalt and stabilise her (if Blue's a person, it might even mean 'marry me').

'Hey Blue, here is a song for you' - trying to get Blue's attention, by making this song an offering

'Ink on a pin' - both the tools of tattooing and of writing songs (this song) down using pen and paper

'Underneath the skin, an empty space to fill in' - both an unoccupied place for a tattoo, and conveying the hollowness inside herself (or Blue?) for this song to occupy.

After this there's an examination of the ways and costs of trying to avoid these periods of melancholy ('these waves') - the casualties ('so many sinking'), the methods (drugs, loveless sex, violence), and ending with the compelling sadness of the lines 'lots of laughs, lots of laughs' - is this another method (obviously failed)? A reflection on the hollowness of the these pleasures? The memory of better times now all over?

'hell's the hippest way to go'/'I'm going to take a look around it though' - People are telling her that indulging in the distractions listed, although these are abhorred by religion, is the best way to live. Or the best way to die? She doesn't think they're right, but she's going to think about what they're saying.

'Blue, here is a shell for you, inside you'll hear a sigh' - she's offering Blue a hollow thing which, if you listen, produces a sad sound. Sometimes a shell is just a shell, but not here. I think it represents both herself and the song. This line also echoes the earlier 'Here is a song for you', but now she's offering an empty structure for Blue to fill with his/its own meaning.

'A foggy lullaby' - is there a better description of this song itself?

'There is your song from me' - she's turned the shell of herself into a song, used her own melancholy to create this gift for Blue.

And there is your interpretation from me. Tread with care.

Kate Bush – Never Be Mine Lyrics 10 years ago
I've just been talking with a friend, and her situation reminded me of this song, so here's my tuppenceworth on its meaning.

The singer has been out somewhere with a man. It's been a while since they last talked, and he's told her of his newfound contentment with a new partner. Now it's afterwards, and he's driving the singer home. The two of them have some shared history, either as lovers or as friends with lover potential. Now she knows that door has closed forever, and she's feeling the first bleakness of it.

It's autumn, a dry day after harvest, and the farmworkers are burning straw and stubble left in the fields. It's also the autumn of their relationship - what was previously warm with possibility, now promises only increasing cold and distance. Some of the smoke has got into the car and hangs in the air between them, showing the way he'll fade from her life, the way any familiar but absent face fades through time. Sitting here side by side, she's physically close to this significant man, but already feels he's drifting away from her, and that will continue until she's nothing to him. But he'll never be nothing to her. Too late, she's realised that this is where she wants to spend her life, at his side, feeling alive with this excitement and pain, but knows now that it will never happen.

At the same time she knows it isn't the real version of this man that she wants, but her imagined version of him. So while her heart is yearning for the man beside her, her mind is telling her that this is illusory. They reach her home and have a clumsy parting kiss, clumsy because it means more to each of them than either is pretending, a fumbled moment of stolen intimacy. And as he drives away, she knows that he's found his fulfilment without her, leaving her behind and still searching for hers. Her life will be less for the lack of him.

And whenever in future she smells burning stubble, it will bring her immediately back to this place, this time, these feelings.

And all this in that vulnerable voice and that lovely, wistful music.

There you go, a 350-word interpretation of a song Ms Bush polished off in a quarter of that. Such is the artistic gift.

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