It’s been a rather miserable summer in the UK so far. Here in the middle of England there’s hardly been a day when it didn’t rain or at least threaten to. There have been sunny periods, too, but I’ve lost count of the times we planned to go out for the day and at the last minute changed our minds because of the weather. Then the other day the grey skies cleared, the sun came out and we ventured out to explore Felley Priory Gardens.
It was a rather half-hearted adventure. Felley is only about 45 minutes from our house and the gardens are small as visitor attractions go. Still, we had an appetising lunch in the café, strolled across the lawns, admired the herbaceous borders, sniffed the roses and gazed out over the pond to the green fields beyond. The birds were singing overhead and the bees were busy in the flower beds. It was good to be out in the sun and the fresh country air.
The following morning the sun was shining again, a butterfly flitted across our back lawn and a honey bee danced over our rather soggy flower beds. A line from a familiar song ran through my head.
Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!
It is, of course, from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and for a moment that song felt like a celebration of summer rather than a lament for the precious things we have lost. I was struck by the curious disconnect between the cheerful, up-beat music and the stark bitterness of the words. I guess there in my own garden I had caught some of the jarring incongruity that hit Joni when she looked out from her hotel window and saw the beautiful green Hawaiian mountains in the distance juxtaposed against the seemingly endless parking lot below.
This most famous of Joni Mitchell songs has been given a sparse production. There’s little more than Joni’s acoustic guitar and light playful voice. But a sprinkling of bongos gives it an almost Caribbean calypso feel and backing vocals add a sixties doo-wop effervescence. It’s the sound of sweetness and sunshine. The lyrics, though, are much darker. The first three words generate instant outrage in anyone with a soul: “They paved paradise”. And they did it, she says, to make that most ugly of modern inventions, a parking lot.
The song goes on to mourn the disappearance of far too many of the world’s trees and to protest about the over-use of pesticides that are poisoning the birds, the bees and, if we are not careful, ourselves. Then it moves on from the plight of the natural environment to the much more personal pain of losing of a loved one in the line that gives the song its title:
A big yellow taxi took away my old man.
That can be interpreted in several ways but there’s no denying that Big Yellow Taxi is a cry of pain and disbelief at man’s selfishness and folly. And yet, there is no sense of despair – the song is much too exuberant for that – and it ends with a musical romp as Joni’s voice leaps up an octave and plunges two octaves down before she giggles over the last fading chords. Perhaps the all too tragic message is the stronger for being wrapped in the clothes of a comedy.