"In France They Kiss on Main Street" as written by and Joni Mitchell....
Downtown
My darling dime store thief
In the War of Independence
Rock 'n Roll rang sweet as victory
Under neon signs
A girl was in bloom
And a woman was fading
In a suburban room
I said, "Take me to the dance"
"Do you want to dance?"
"I love to dance"
And I told him, "They don't take chances
They seem so removed from romance"
"They've been broken in churches and schools
And molded to middle class circumstance"
And we were rolling, rolling, rock n' rolling

Downtown
The dance halls and cafes
Feel so wild you could break somebody's heart
Just doing the latest dance craze
Gail and Louise
In those push-up brassieres
Tight dresses and rhinestone rings
Drinking up the band's beers
Young love was kissing under bridges
Kissing in cars, kissing in cafes
And we were walking down Main Street
Kisses like bright flags hung on holidays
"In France they kiss on Main Street"
"Amour, mama, not cheap display"
And we were rolling, rolling, rock n' rolling

Downtown
In the pinball arcade
With his head full of pool hall pitches
And songs from the hit parade
He'd be singing "Bye, Bye, Love"
While he's racking up his free play
Let those rock 'n roll choir boys
Come and carry us away
Sometimes Chickie had the car
Or Ron had a car
Or Lead Foot Melvin with his hot-wire head
We'd all go looking for a party
Looking to raise Jesus up from the dead
And I'd be kissing in the back seat
Thrilling to the Brando-like things that he said
And we'd be rolling, rolling, rock n' rolling


Lyrics submitted by pumkinhed

"In France They Kiss on Main Street" as written by Joni Mitchell

Lyrics © Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

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In France They Kiss on Main Street song meanings
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  • +4
    My InterpretationThis 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.’
    TrueThomason December 16, 2015   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthis whole album was underrated in its time, and continues to be to this day. she carves out such a unique, sophisticated sound that nobody else has been able to replicate. i like the material here better than the songs on Hejira and Mingus.
    destroying_angelon December 24, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commentwhy has no one commented on this song? It's the closest Joni's ever gotten to really rocking out. There's a guitar solo fer chrissakes! I think it's just about being young and really living.
    pumkinhedon December 02, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commentif my life was a song itd probarly be this one
    edelweiss pirateLWon September 07, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentah youth! if more young lives were like this, then there would be significantly fewer emo kids, and that's always a good thing.
    pumkinhedon October 07, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentYouth, young love, sex, romance, being a non-conformist. The past-tense wording suggests someone a little older (and wiser?) reflecting back on the innocence of youth. You just want to have lived this song.
    Zubbyon June 16, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBrilliant song. The pictures she paints, the people she describes... And the way it's written too... This song's an absolute masterpiece.

    -Lexi C
    lexifercrowleyon April 29, 2008   Link

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