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'Jungle Line' thread Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell Discussion List

JoniMitchell.com
March 1999

Discussion thread from March/April 1999; Compiled by David Wright

DAVID L:
Deb, I totally agree with you about "The Jungle Line"--it is so clear, so fierce, so startlingly original. One of the first indications that her innovations would go beyond lyric-writing and harmonies on into the total setting of a mood, evoking a mood that you could call "confronting" "threatening" "sinister"--the recognition of a new world out there she hadn't seemed completely to bring into the music before. The easiest word for it would be BLACK . It reappears briefly in "Don't Interrupt..." with the reference to being chained to that Ethiopian wall. (Pardon me if I have the order of albums mixed up and am not taking into account DJRD).

COLIN:
The Jungle Line is the song responsible for me getting into Joni. I heard it on the radio in 75 and went out and bought HOSL.

BOB:
Speaking as someone who put it as a "least favorite", I'll clarify by saying that I don't dislike it at all! I think it's just kind of a misfit on the album, whether it's the Burundi drummers or the lyrical content or just the overall sound of it, it stands apart from the other pop/jazz/airy songs dealing mostly with the dark side of suburbia.

DAVID W:
> ...evoking a mood that you could call "confronting" "threatening"
> "sinister"--the recognition of a new world out there she hadn't seemed
> completely to bring into the music before. The easiest word for it
> would be BLACK.

My immediate thought is, and *why* is that?

What strikes me is that the language of this post lays bare (perhaps inadvertently) the social constructs which affect how we hear, and how Joni created, The Jungle Line. As this post clearly states, American/European culture, including The Jungle Line, equates Africa/"BLACK"ness with "confronting," "threatening," and "sinister" -- otherness. This kind of symbolism is ingrained in our culture and reinforced in a lot of ways (remember also the prevalence of "white-good; dark/black-evil" metaphors in our texts -- e.g., Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), and it's racist. I have a real problem with how Joni participates in, or plays into, this racist construction (as well as that problem with her appropriating field recordings I described recently; the two problems are not unrelated, I think). David Lahm is quite right: she surrounds those (appropriated) Burundi drums with a synthesizer line which practically begs to be heard as "sinister" and "weird."

WINFRIED:
Very interesting point, David. I agree with both you and "the other David" on the "weird" mood evoked by that synthesizer line and the song in general, and this is probably one of the reasons why I don't like it.

I think, given Joni's outspoken admiration for "black" music, calling her perspective "racist" is probably a bit too strong.

Cultural differences between Europe and Africa are undeniable, and there definitely are differences in mentalities as well. They still exist, even if it needs to be pointed out that there has been a lot of overlapping and interaction going on and there is no such thing as a purely "white" or purley "black" culture anymore. These are dangerous myths. We all live in multicultural societies.

Nevertheless, I don't think portraying something as alien is racist in itself. However, people are extremely quick to identify "alien" with "inferior" and that is the real birthplace of racism.

DAVID W:
I don't mean that Joni had consciously "racist" intentions, just that I think it's appropriate to apply the term "racist" to works like The Jungle Line to mean that they reflect the racism of the society in which they were produced. (Yes, by this definition, a *lot* of things are racist, including a lot of things that I like. We live in a racist society.)

I agree that it's not racist to acknowledge or portray differences between cultures, but I also think "alien" can also imply this "Otherness" - -- which implies exclusion, marginalization, "us/them" oppositions -- recognizing the difference, but not the value or acceptable-ness of that difference; only its "weird," "sinister," "threatening" qualities.

I think it also needs to be pointed out that a crucial element of racism is power. With the spread of capitalist American/European culture around the world, the American/European media controls the way other cultures are portrayed (and the perpetuation of stereotypes) not only in America and Europe but on an international scale in a way that other cultures in our multicultural society do not.

MARK:
Well Bob, I have to say I disagree. I think 'The Jungle Line' fits quite well into the overall concept of HOSL and if Joni ever recorded a 'concept' album, I think this is it. I wrote a post some time ago about the thread of primitivism lurking right underneath the surface of so-called civilized society that runs through this album. 'The Jungle Line' is the most blatant expression of this on the record. It insinuates itself 'through i-bars & girders through wires & pipes/the mathematic circuits of the modern nights' and later Edith hears it as 'the wires in walls are humming/some song, some mysterious song'. The song also deals with drugs which also snare the Kingpin's victims as 'he tilts their tired faces/gently to the spoon.' 'The Jungle Line' sets up the theme of something threatening that lies uncomfortably close to the surface in everyday life on any street in any town. I don't think there was any racist comment intended or any equating of the Burundi drummers with Primitivism or darkness or evil. I also don't think that 'threatening' or 'primitive' necessarily means 'bad'. The sound of those rumbling drums just happened to fit the mood & tone of the song. IThey help to give the song an exotic feel which is appropriate to the setting. Does exotic equate with racist? I'm not trying to be glib, I'm honestly asking the question.

DAVID L:
David, I could see the possibility that Mitchell's moving to America and further up the ladder as a professional musician brought her rather quickly into contact with many more black people than she'd known earlier in her life. As someone who takes human interchange seriously, probably doesn't go in for small-talk, she might well have had some memorable--painful, thrilling, illuminating--conversations and relationships with black people (most likely men). In "The Jungle Line", I get the impression that what is black is painted as having considerably more vitality than what is white. When I used the word "sinister", I was using it to suggest STRANGENESS, ATTRACTIVE MYSTERY, better yet (Although unfortunately clinical-sounding) SOMETHING WHICH IS ANXIETY-PRODUCING rather than moral deficiency or evil. And I don't believe that JM was writing a tract. The song (like all her songs, like all songs) is first and foremost a work of the imagination. It seems so bold and confident that I was surprised at its being the Least Fave of so many posters.

DAVID W:
> I don't think there was any racist comment intended or any equating of
> the Burundi drummers with Primitivism or darkness or evil. I also
> don't think that 'threatening' or 'primitive' necessarily means 'bad'.

But you said above that The Jungle Line is the most blatant expression of the thread of primitivism running through HOSL. I agree with that interpretation, actually. My question is, why the equation in The Jungle Line (and elsewhere) of the Burundi drummers with "primitive" and "threatening," whether those things are bad or not (I think it's arguable), when the Burundi drummers are *not* primitive or threatening? (Threatening whom, and with what?)

I think the thing is, "exotic" is almost always applied to non-Western (frequently Asian, in my experience) cultural products -- I doubt you would ever see "exotic" used to describe, say, a western classical music piece, even a very unusual one (unless of course it was influenced by Asian or other non-western music), or a painting by Van Gogh. Just like there are some (derogatory) adjectives that are sexist because they are usually only applied to women -- "bitchy," "catty," "hysterical" (in its "neurotic" meaning; from the same root as "hysterectomy"). This usage of "exotic" seems to me to imply that elements/products of our white culture *transcend* race and culture; "exotic" marks something that exists in the west only as a foreign ("other") element -- it does not transcend -- or something that, as the Sami singer Mari Boine Persen puts it, exists "to be stolen for mere decoration."

EVIAN:
All this talk about "The Jungle Line" is really interesting. Maybe I have been missing the point all these years, but the reason that I thought that people maybe don't react positively to "The Jungle Line" is just because it marks such a departure for Joni. I didn't get into Joni until '88, and my first Joni albums were Blue, CMIARS, C&S;, and Hejira. Then I got HOSL in '90, and I could tell that was a VAST change for her... it wasn't that I didn't like it... it was more that I was expecting another album that sounded like a prototype of Blue, or FTR, or C&S;, or whatever. Then, when I heard "The Jungle Line", I thought "whoa baby, this marks an end of an era" in some way. Joni took a huge gamble I think by "branching out" or whatever you want to call it with HOSL instead of making C&S;, Part Two. So anyway, I wasn't all that impressed with "The Jungle Line" for quite a while because it seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. Of course, now that I have seen the error of my ways, and am obsessed with the album, "The Jungle Line" is one of my fave tracks. Anyway, I just assumed people weren't all that receptive to it because of its startling "difference" from the rest of Joni's work up to that point.

TUBE:
I've mentioned this before but I'll mention it again as I'd love to have a quick discussion with anyone about it.

I love the Jungle Line. It was the first HOSL song I ever heard, on Alan Freeman's Saturday Rock Show on British Radio One when it was first released in the 70's. I had a little Sanyo mono tape deck lined-in and running at the time so it recorded JL and I thus played this very hissy, wowy recording of the track many times over the following months, though it was almost another ten years before I heard the rest of the album!

Anyway, in Scorsese's film 'New York, New York', when the De Niro character launches his solo career and opens his own jazz night-club, his band play in front of a painted backdrop which is a Rousseau-style jungle scene.

I'm not sure which was made first, HOSL or NY,NY, but it seems possible that one could have influenced the other with regard to Scorsese's cinematic and Mitchell's musical rendering of the atmosphere of a jazz club.

Or, they may have really been at some time, somewhere, an actual jazz club with Rousseauesqe jungle murals on the walls, which both Marty and Joni knew of or perhaps even visited at some time, and both used it to colour their treatments of the jazz-scene.

Sure, Jungle Line is like no other track on the HOSL album, but for that matter it's unlike any track on any album, any time, so what the heck? :-)

For me it seems to fit in well -

I think that HOSL is a story told in flashbacks from the point of view of the bitter, disillusioned married woman trapped in Harry's House near the end of the album. Shadows and Light is a spiritual piece looking for wisdom and looking forward to some state which will allow her an escape or transcendance from her dead-end middle-class suburban life, but before that, everything looks backward from Harry's House.

The album may also be a pastiche of the experiences of two different women, though I'm not sure. This is all IMO anyway, (it may be trash, ie, I'm not even a woman so how should I know, but after many hours over the years 'immersed' in the musical pool of HOSL, eyes closed and floating, that's the feeling I'm left with at the end of every listening)

'In France they etc etc' seems a flashback to the observations of the young college girl, who, like many American girls, has 'done' Europe, picking up University credits along the way. She's was impressed with Paris - "Ammoooooouuuuurrrrr Mama! Not cheap display!"

After graduating she probably returned to Paris to dissappear into the steamy 50's jungle of Le Jazz Hot, or a recreation of it somewhere down deep inside New York Beat Village. For a club with a jungle scene on the walls, jungle music funnels from the cracks. Black faces suck and blow smoke and spit through weed and brass. Striped T shirts mingle with olive and rust rough-silk shifts and sweat against the Rousseau jungle walls and wires and pipes and potted palms. Any eye for detail could see a little lace between the seams but for the time being she will slum it with some artist who paints a palm-strewn path of apes and tigers through the vertical shadows of xyla-vibra-tigraphone and weeping sax. Poppy poison, poppy tourniquet. Horns like drinking tusks and stripes of ivory and ebony glimpsed through stripey gaps in white and blonde dancing bodies and oiled and shining flashing black blue brown skin and flailing pernod gold glistening unshaven underarm dripping dark pits of continental hair slither against and around and under and over her and away on grass like mouthpiece spit.

Rousseau paints a jungle flower behind her ear. Is she in front of the painting, or merged into it? Does the painting fill her mind or does she step into it. Is the paint on her skin or on the walls? Is she painted green, painted black or painted tiger? Is the painter Rousseau or just a copier of Rousseau? It hardly matters, her experience of life in this phase is so intense, driven, dark and foreign force primeval.

She wakes up one Chelsea morning ten streets uptown with a crashing headache.

Good fortune allows so she gets the hell out of it, drinks a fresh orange on Fifth and goes home to mama. Reinvents herself in the school of southern charm, cos hey girls, when it comes right down to it a woman must have everything and she's got her eye on her oil-rich college beau and that ranch house on a hill after a fling with the Kingpin.

Okay so I'm mixing it all up a bit with the Boho dance and other Joni stuff, but that's my take on The Jungle Line anyway. It makes perfect narrative sense to me in its place on the album.

Dash it all, why doesn't someone make a movie of this album, it's crying out for a treatment!

DAVID L:
Lahm here. Moving along to "In France..." and your take on it: to me, it's not about going to France but about how rock 'n' roll was the most important symbol and mechanism for the adolescent needing to stretch wings and get independent of parents ("churches and schools...middle-class circumstances"). As is often the case, part of the text is chosen as a title or motto for the whole. Just as one song lends its title to the album, one line, a vivid image, lends it's poetry to the song as a title. I hear the teenage girl saying, exasperated, to her mother ("a woman...fading in a suburban room")--you know--"Mom, for heaven's sake, he only kissed me goodnight on the porch. In France, they kiss on MAIN STREET for cryin' out loud!!!"

JASON:
It seems that back when NRH came out, Entertainment Weekly said of it in their review something to the extent that it was her first album without a crazy darting song to match a crazy darting thought (surely a misquote, but the sentiment is correct). Exploring Joni's catalog since that point, I can see where they are both correct and incorrect. Invariably, it seems that each JM album has had a song that seems somewhat "out of place" at first, only to later become part of a larger fabric. The Jungle Line and its Burundi drums and moog laid the groundwork for much of her later explorations (and Paul Simon's, among others, if you were to ask Joni) and its "state of belonging" is best gained in hindsight. This of course goes hand-in-hand with the general rule of thumb that Joni's music is not readily accessible on first (or even fourteenth) listening, but rather grows on you.

I tend to the like the experiments that don't seem to work (even if I still maintain that they still don't after repeated listenings, i.e. six months trying to appreciate Lead Balloon) if only as a clue into creative processes and generations. Anyone else for experimentations that seemed out of place on an album and fleshed themselves out more fully over time? Just a means of keeping evolution and mutation in check. . .

MICHAEL:
> "exotic" marks something that exists in the west only as a foreign
> ("other") element -- it does not transcend.

I agree with David 100% on this point. It reminds me of one of my common gripes with majority/other speech, at least in America, which is to label the other but not label the majority (e.g. R&B; and rap are "black" music, but alternative rock is just music; I go to "gay" bars but my friends just go to bars, etc.) I don't necessarily object to the acknowledgement that R&B; music owes its life to the black community or that some bars cater to primarily gay people. What I object to is the *lack* of acknowledgment that alternative music now is as much a product of white sociological environments as R&B; is of black, or that straight bars are as constructed to appeal to a certain sociocultural group as gay bars.

I am more inclined to agree with Mark about "The Jungle Line" than with David, though. I think Joni is not really "othering" the Burundi drums so much as she is drawing a line between them and her suburbanites; i.e. writing about a different, unacknowledged side of her primary subjects. On a certain level she is even subverting the kind of othering I wrote about above, perhaps even claiming a transcendence for the Burundi drums that most Westerners wouldn't give them.

It is possible that she is equating this unacknowledged side with primitive or sinister qualities, which would not be cool, but this is debatable, IMO. What is more revealing, is that so many listeners make that connection themselves.

RANDY:
Gosh, all this analysis...I'm enjoying the thread, but my take on the song is that it is simply a great portrait of the jazz soaked opiated European art scene of the 30's, and doesn't really aspire to make statements about racism, etc...maybe I'm just too simple....

MARK:
Taking this one step further, maybe the Burundi drums are a reference back to the roots of one of the roots of rock-n-roll - the African influence on jazz, r&b; and by extension on rock-n-roll. In this line of thinking the drums represent rebellion against the WASPish world Joni portrays just as rock-n-roll does in 'In France They Kiss on Main Street'. She could be using them as another musical metaphor for rejecting the status quo to pursue that Bohemian lifestyle that the artist has trapped himself in in 'The Boho Dance'. This lifestyle can lead down many different roads, both enriching & perilous. Ironically the woman behind the barbed-wire fence in the ranch house on a hill also finds darkness lurking underneath the surface of the sanitized, supposedly safe world that she has imprisoned herself in.

I love HOSL! You can lose yourself in it & try to unravel its mystery and still there's more to be solved.

MARIAN:
I loved Tube's entire post on this song.

When I first heard the Jungle Line I thought it was so ~scary~ and dark that I couldn't and didn't listen to it for years and years. In fact, I only listened to it again in this last year, and now it still seems dark and a little scary, but also interesting and rather clever. I think it's that little buzzing four-note repetitive phrase between the drum beats that gives the song its creepy feeling and not the drums themselves. I actually like this song now, although it's not a song I would choose to play over and over.

TERRY:
I've been following the discussion on TJL and appreciate everyone's interpretation, but for me, the drums are just too damn annoying. Fine, flame me, hiss at me. But there ya have it. If a song doesn't sit well even after hearing it a zillion times, then I'm gonna say...hey, it just doesn't work for me, regardless of the artist's intentions.

MARCEL:
Im in Terry's camp on this particular song. Personally I think that Jungle Line is maybe the worst song Joni ever produced and I could go on for a long time but I will mention just one point which is important and that is pretty basic. The drums which comprise most of the "song" are one of those recordings of a group-rhythm ensemble.

Like the musicians Paul Simon used on Graceland. The ensemble is doing its thing, cranking out a staccatto rhythm which if played by itself has the continuity of sound. Unfortunately when you try to take something truly precise (the rest of Jonis production and vocals) and overlay it upon a rhythm ensemble like this then the Rhythm Ensemble sounds off timing wise. What happens on Jungle line is much the same as if one used the background noise of the earth movers at a construction site for your rhythm section. It will work to a degree but not totally.

I liked Graceland for its creativity and originality but if I want a band ill go to Muscle Shoals, NRBQ, or The band because the "band" on Graceland cant carry a precise beat. Jungle Line is the same and thats why it stands out to me. Also its the second song on the album. The first song is classic Joni and then this. Now I too have found the song "daring" , "ground breaking" and (like Sun Ra) avant garde and all that and if one listens to the song and it conjures up Rousseau making love to Jung while reciting Alice in Wonderland backwards in pig-latin I can get down with the fact that its tre-cool for them BUT for me the song sucks, goes on far too long and is almost totally responsible for HOSL getting panned hugely at the time of its release which sent Joni into the recycle bin at most critics homes.

Like Heavens Gate did for the director who made it. Of course real tallent prevails and Joni has obviously gone on to bigger and better things musically BUT that song was too big a departure to be taken in one gulp by the critics of the industry which like it or not was not what Joni wanted or intended. She took a risk but it didnt totally work. Let the flames begin I have my asbestos suit on with this one.

DEBRA:
NO, NNNOOOO WAY!!! The Jungle Line is a great song. It has to be played loud though, so loud you can feel the drums, otherwise they are just annoying, I agree. And I don't ever try to do anything while it's playing except stand and listen intently.

The timing of the drums and Joni's singing IS off in places, but I like that. The drums just keep on going with Joni trying to fit herself around them, sometimes not so well, so they're almost doing battle. In a very visceral way this one song gets across what is only talked about in the other songs: that we ALL have this natural passionate heartbeat pounding away all the time; how do we fit intense, sometimes childish, feelings, desires, needs, even ideals, into polite, conform-or-be-shunned society, or even into our own self-image of acceptability? What do we do to make ourselves acceptable and "polite" to ourselves? Every song on the album deals with this.

I like the "ladylike-sounding songs" on the album too, but there's something really appealing to me about the imperfection and raggedness of TJL. And unlike other listers who think it's a misfit on this album, I think it's the cornerstone, the heart of it.

From what I've read recently, including an interview with Joni, the critics didn't like her harsh "critiquing of society", as though she was above it all, and the lazing in the pool picture seemed to offend some. It didn't matter to me what the critics might be saying when I got HOSL. I didn't know it then, but have since learned that critics, like most people, tend to like what they're comfortable with, which is usually what they've had the most contact with, so who cares what the critics said, or say?

(OK, OK, I guess they can influence sales, but in the long run I don't think they have much power.)

But, we all have the album now don't we? And are (heatedly?) discussing it almost 25 years after its release. Amazing! So the critics were obviously short-sighted on this one.

KAKKI:
That is interesting - I never knew she was criticized for those reasons - how specious of them! I loved the lazy swimming pool and summer lawn imagery! I've always thought it was her most briliant album title, too.

I recall that most of the album was regarded as too far out a departure for her at the time. Guess they wanted her to paint another Court and Spark.

Some of the critics have missed it big time on a few of her albums. I always think of all her albums as being ahead of their time, but there are a few standouts which are *really* eons ahead of their time. I consider HOSL, DJRD and TTT in that special category. If HOSL or DJRD were released just today, I guarantee they would be up for album of the year and receive 100% critical raves. No wonder Joni gets cranky about it all - harrumph!

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