Record shopping yesterday, I finally found an album I’ve been looking for: The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell. It was released in 1975, right after what has over the years become my all-time favorite record, 1974’s Court and Spark. If Court and Spark is my water, a daily, life-giving necessity that I can’t live without, then Hissing is my homemade unsweetened iced tea; bitter, bracing, and mildly uncomfortable, yet just as necessary as its sweeter cousin. As Pitchfork said it in its review of Mitchell’s studio albums from 1968-1979, “the era of Mitchell doing no wrong was over.” This is a more difficult listen than Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, or Court and Spark. The jazz influences are still there, but her lyrical hieroglyphics are denser and more inscrutable. I’ve listened to the album on CD and Spotify over the years, but I’ve never owned a vinyl copy until now. One of the beautiful things about albums, and especially Mitchell’s early works, is the gatefold covers, many of which are decorated with Mitchell’s own drawings and paintings. She also created the cover art for CSNY’s de-facto greatest hits album, So Far.
So imagine my surprise when I opened the fold and saw this image above. I was so struck, I had to take a photo of a photo. I was sitting at my in-laws’ dining room table in Camden, Maine as the afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and cast shadows on the image of a young Joni in a black two-piece, executing a sultry backstroke in what I imagined to be a nighttime California pool. This was not the shy, mildly geeky folk singer from Alberta, Canada. Not the turtleneck-clad Joni Mitchell I knew from The Last Waltz. No, not at all. I even took another photo of a drawing on the back cover of the album,
drawn by Joni herself (you can see the artist’s signature). I don’t know whose house this is. Hers? David Crosby’s? But I do know that I want to swim in that pool, the pool that perhaps the bikini-clad young Joni is swimming in in the photo above.
As the Maine summer turns to fall, and the chances for any swimming at all dwindle to nothing, I’m also thinking of another California dreamgirl, the writer Joan Didion. I can’t claim to be as familiar with her work as I am with Joni’s but her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, remains one of my favorite books for its diamond-tipped analysis of a Sixties counterculture and rapidly changing society that no one, least of all Joan, can begin to understand. But she tries. Oh, how she tries. On Keeping a Notebook, On Self-Respect, On Morality, On Going Home, all from that collection, are the Tangerine/That’s The Way/Bron-Y-Aur Stomp/Hats Off To Roy Harper quadfecta of my literary dreams. There’s also just the way she looks. The long flowing dresses, the sandals, the ever-present cigarette, the cocktail in hand, the wry smile or scowl, the languid West Coast affect, her white Stingray. All these things drive me crazy.
In my coming-of-age in the 1970’s imagination, the three of us would take a ride in Joan’s white Stingray. The T-top would be open, the night air cool on our faces. We’d find a quiet Italian place just off the Pacific Coast Highway for dinner; all dark wood, twinkly lights and candles. After, we’d go back to Joni or Joan’s house, have some imaginary cocktails and cigarettes, take a midnight swim in an underwater spotlit pool. We’d be perched on the pool’s edge, under the warm stars, looking out at the water from a cliff above. Troubled children, breaking, as Joni sang, like the waves at Malibu.
Is it wrong to think these things? Joni is seventy years old now. Joan is almost eighty. Neither woman would have any inclination to take a car ride and then have a skinny-dip with a shaggy-haired married father of two. The chances of a chimpanzee writing a sequel to Hamlet are far greater. But at least in my mind’s eye, I can imagine such a time. This is my Seventies, shag carpet, sunset, Going To California fantasy. (Sorry, Robert and Jimmy; you’ll have to wait in the tour bus.)
And I realize none of this makes sense, but I have to write it down before we all forget. That’s what blogs are for.