In flames our prophet witches
A love letter to the lyrics of Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow by Joni Mitchell
“Men just aren’t as interesting as they think they are.”
These words aren’t from Joni Mitchell. They belong to my wife, and were said to me recently in the casual but weary tone of someone resigned to what I now realise is our cultural default setting — the inward male gaze.
We’d been watching early episodes of OITNB. I’d mentioned it felt overdue to see a predominantly female cast for a major, serious US drama. Because I am a man, and therefore a self-absorbed idiot, I had expected praise for my enlightened view. Instead my wife expertly skewered my self-satisfaction.
What does this have to do with Joni Mitchell? Let me explain.
Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow is a song with some very big ideas. It’s about the battle between patriarchal privilege and the convulsions — big and small — wrought by feminism and social progress. Its menacingly intimate portrait of a marriage hangs heavy with the baggage and assumptions of its time, the 1970s. But the song attains a higher ground than that. It guns for the cultural long view, tracing the ripple effect of attitudes slowly changing, beliefs coming undone.
My wife’s comment pierced (again) the invisible bubble of privilege that, forty years later, I still get to walk around in simply because I am a man. Not only that, it set in relief the other TV shows we’ve watched together. Even, or perhaps especially, the canonised masterpieces of The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. These shows elevate the foibles of masculinity into existential crisis, meditations on the human (translation: American, male) condition.
It seems there is no limit to the introspection of American manhood on TV. We are asked to sympathise with sociopaths. Criminality and betrayal become symptoms of mid-life crisis. Adultery is cast as self-immolation. The protagonists exorcise their own demons as everyone else — particularly women — get caught in the crossfire.
Look at the protagonists’ professions: crime, advertising, teaching. That should make these shows very different, yet there’s a common thread to the narrative arcs — men acting out their sense of failure. Masculinity’s sorrow for itself. Women are mainly left out and left to deal with that sorrow’s consequences. Their own stories are secondary.
We don’t always notice how quickly Carmel, Betty and Sklyer learn to accept this sorrow. Very rarely do we see them dare to interrupt it.
So when Joni Mitchell titles and starts her song with the line
Don’t interrupt the sorrow
it feels like she’s singing an idea that might have always been understood but never actually spoken. And as she sings it, distances collapse. The distance between the patriarchal bias of forty years ago and now. The distance between Mad Men’s period paternalism and the contemporary angst of Breaking Bad. The distance too between the macro and the everyday, between the big and the small. Mitchell’s words bridge these divides and make it clear they are all symptoms of the same problem.
Like I said, Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow is a song with some very big ideas.
The second line is just the first of many perspective shifts. Mitchell sings
and it’s a response to the first. She’s still singing but it’s another voice, a fellow victim’s show of solidarity couched in the sisterhood vernacular of the mid-70s. If the first line sounds like hard-learned advice, the second is something more communal, the first signs of a shared experience perhaps.
And then, when Mitchell sings
In flames our prophet witches
she sets those first lines is an even broader context. We’ve zoomed out, from the communal to the historical. It’s our first sight of the song’s cultural long view, and the first encounter with the sinister reality Mitchell wants to depict. Don’t take a stand, she says. You’ll be vilified, burned for your words. The truths you speak are too uncomfortable for your own time. Watch yourself. Move carefully.
We’re four lines in — just thirteen words — and already, quietly, Joni Mitchell has nailed something enormous. When sorrow is this existential it’s best not to get in the way.
Let’s skip to the fifth verse (there are six in total, no chorus). We’ve zoomed in properly on the marriage, and we hear Be polite for the second time:
He says “We walked on the moon.
You be polite”
Woah. This time note the speech marks, and the He says. The mood music has changed. A threat hangs in the air. Humanity’s greatest achievement is invoked to quieten female dissent. This is sinister stuff and the big/small connection is made explicit, the grand narrative juxtaposed with the intimate portrayal.
[Note, too, the conflation that mirrors the patriarchal bias of those TV shows. A masculine put-down extrapolated into something existential. We, of course, really means America. The giant leap, as we know, belonged to mankind. Once again, humanity is conflated with the American male.]
The conversation continues and, though the sense of menace recedes, the oppressive reality of the marriage hits home:
He says “Bring that bottle kindly
And I’ll pad your purse
I’ve got a head full of quandary
And a mighty mighty thirst”
Don’t bother me, this says. My torment is too big for you understand — here, take some money.
There are two He says in this verse. Each is a dismissal, a spoken denial of a wife’s voice. And in-between, there’s a truly depressing line. Mitchell, back in the role of commentator, reveals the unending cycle that defines this dynamic. She sings
Don’t let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth and death and birth
as if to suggest that this is how it’s always been. This is life. There is no prospect of change.
But then again…. maybe there is.
We’ll talk in a minute about how the song deals with that change. But first, let’s talk about Be polite.
Politeness isn’t much of a currency in rock n roll, and nor should it be. Rock n roll is a world of unaccepted limits and symbolic patricide, a sixty-year source of perpetual black-swan deviance. Each generation celebrates its rebels, the ones who shift its centre of gravity. Elvis and Little Richard, Beatles and Stones, Iggy and Johnny Rotten — degenerates all, kicking against the pricks, kicking out the jams, outsiders fuelling the engine of social change. Heroes with an artistic sensibility that things could be different, better, more.
But women have rarely been allowed to embody that.
And certainly not Joni Mitchell.
By the 70s she was a Californian Canadian. A real outsider. As a child she had contracted polio, as a young woman she had given up a baby for adoption, and as an artist she had defined the Laurel Canyon trope before leaving it far behind, showing the way to a new kind of music. She did this without permission, needless to say, but not without ridicule. Rolling Stone called her the ‘Queen of El Lay’. They published a helpful guide to the men with whom she’d had relationships. Vilified and slut-shamed, even as she created her best work — in flames our prophet witches.
Then in 1975 she made The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, the album that includes Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow.
The record is steeped in poetry and jazz, politics and beauty, and its arrangements and lyrics are light years ahead of any male contemporary, whether she slept with them or not. It is astonishing.
Now, I’m no Mitchell buff. I only heard it last year but it’s been under my skin ever since. And I’ve not dared listen to anything else yet. A bit of me fears nothing will be as good. Most of me feels I’m nowhere near being done with this album yet. I’m kind of infatuated and I could have happily picked any of the first four songs to write about, so good is the lyric for each.
I could have picked In They France They Kiss On Main Street, a song of innocence on the cusp of experience, the freedom and danger and romance of 1950s America defining and falling in love with its new self. Feel so wild you could break somebody’s heart doing the latest dance craze… Thrilling to the Brando-like things that he said.
I could have picked The Jungle Line, a meditation on the savage beauty of the city, its druggy art and squalor, its underground illicit exoticism. Rousseau walks on trumpet paths… Thru the mathematic circuits of the modern nights.
I could have picked Edith And The Kingpin, which follows the arrival of a new girl in a drug lord’s harem. It is full of despair and empathy, harrowing. You want to look away, largely because the women daren’t. What does that hand desire that he grips it so tight… He tilts their tired faces gently to the spoon.
But instead we’re talking about track 4, Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow.
Why? Well, it might not be biographical but Mitchell sure came up against the closed world of the patriarchy. She wrote the whole album, produced it too. And designed the cover. It is manifestly a masterpiece and therefore borderline hilarious that on release Rolling Stone (them again) could have got it so wrong. They called it a “great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack.” They called its arrangements “as pretentiously chic as they are boring.”
Ouch. Back in your box.
So Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow stands for Mitchell’s own dismissal, too, her own vilification. The first verse shows us, in characteristically poetic style, the limits of female emancipation the 60s afforded someone like her:
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches, liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall
Have sex with whoever you please, doll, but that’s it. Same as it ever was, women there to be seduced and reduced. Wash my guilt of Eden, she sings in the next verse, as if she, like every other woman, has inherited the original sin that men choose to use against her.
Note again, by the way, the room full of glasses. More drinking, like bring that bottle over here. And like seventeen glasses, Rhine wine later on in the song. The entire song is soaked in alcohol.
Don’t interrupt the sorrow — especially if it’s being drowned.
But back to the prospect of change. The song records a big existential battle, the convulsions of feminism are being felt.
So when Mitchell sings
it sounds like a clarion call. A warning to men, a call to arms for women:
Uprising in me tonight
She’s a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight
Anima is an idea of Carl Jung, the psychologist. It represents the feminine impulse, found in men as well as women (Animus is the masculine equivalent). Anima is caring, nurturing, the comforting saviour, but it can also present a threat. Anima is the part of women that is seductive, devouring, something for the male (son as well as partner) to fear and be freed from. Within men, Anima rules the sexual, psychological and relational (as opposed to rational) aspects of the psyche.
But it is an impulse that also governs the relationship between men and women. It goes beyond the psyche of individuals and to define something within both genders’ shared cultural consciousness. And so Anima represents the feminine within the man. The feminisation of men. It is the sense men have of becoming more feminine, of losing control.
In astrology, ‘rising’ means ascendant — the trajectory of a sign in the east, at the time of your birth. It has a disproportionate effect on how others see you.
The Ascendant is said to be the mask one wears in public… it is the first impression we make when we meet new people. Often, if you are confused at how others have described you, it is because they are describing this aspect of your personality. The Ascendant takes part in your appearance and personality, going as far as influencing physical characteristics sometimes. The Sign becomes expressed in your image, style and mannerisms. It is also expressed in how you act.
The imagine of Anima rising echoes through the song. It’s the refrain that turns the lyric into a song of men’s sorrow, of their failing and fading power. It charts and foretells the feminisation of men, and of their relationships with women.
This is what threatens the men — or rather — manhood — in this song. This what they’re fighting back against. It’s the impulse that Be polite seeks to quieten. The guy in the song claims that nothing can change. He conflates tradition with rules.
He says “Anima rising
Petrified wood process
Tall timber down to rock”
So what, he says. You’re trying to fight geology, the way things simply are.
But then another perspective shift, perhaps this time to Mitchell herself, as she zooms out to trace the complex arc of change, and even the illusory nature of received wisdom.
Truth goes up in vapors
The steeples lean
Winds of change patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams
God goes up the chimney
Like childhood Santa Claus
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause
Those are extraordinary lines, the best of the song in my view, full of ambiguity. The ‘winds of change patriarchs’, evangelists who peddle certainty to people who want to believe, see it as And what does it mean to place this image next to lines that conflate the beliefs of churchgoing slaves with children who believe in Santa and deluded rebels?
I think it says that, religion, like patriarchy, is merely tradition understood as rules. It says that the people who hold on to their beliefs are neither good or bad. It’s just how people are.
And so the song ends back within that portrait of a marriage, now framed by that idea of religion. A couple living the way that couples really live, a woman dealing with the way her man’s sorrow the only way she knows how. A woman trapped, caught, awaiting the rise of Anima, and until then doing what’s expected of her.
He don’t let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary’s these days
When your man gets weak
It’s a line that leaves you wanting to hear more. It’s spoken by a woman keeping her feelings of control, empathy and hope inside. Another untold story, the kind that is as interesting and as valuable as anybody else’s, if only we’d let ourselves see it.
Since you got this far, would you mind going a little further?
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