Rock music is full of acknowledged great battles in all modes, at all levels—within performances, between players like Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton; at album level, between songwriters like Lennon vs. McCartney or Partridge vs. Moulding; in the big arena, between movements like Mods and Rockers or Punk and Disco.
A no less compelling battle can take place inside one soul and even inside one musical gesture. I see a good model for this possibility spreading its wings and bobbing up and down outside my window as I write. Feistiest of all the birds I live with, the mockingbird is known for capturing song material from other birds and singing songs that sound like battles with itself. When you hear a singer carrying on the great battle that way, you could feel apprehensive—has the singer been infected, possessed, “colonized”?—or, more likely, you could be encouraged by the singer’s mastery. Taking everything on in this way could be the royal road.
Considering human musicians, I don’t know who better exhibits mockingbird fluency and internal melodic drama than Joni Mitchell. But the Mitchell song I want to connect to the battle idea is not one you would pick as one of her melodic tours de force like “Chelsea Morning,” say. In this one it’s the lyrical content that matters most of all.
For many years I’ve wondered what makes “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” (on The Hissing of Summer Lawns) more than a passing happy hook-up of poetry to pop form and jazzy playing. This song hits the jackpot. How so? Today I have an idea, under the mockingbird’s eye.
The key to the song is the strength of mind enacted by a fierce and complicated battle of perspectives that we know will go on and on. The real battle inside the singer is embedded in a conversational battle with an obnoxious man about “women’s lib.” Call this the battle-within-a-battle device, where the interior battle is the bigger one. But notice how Mitchell snags bits of thought and language like a mockingbird using portions of other birds’ songs.
Don’t interrupt the sorrow
In flames our prophet witches
A room full of glasses
He says, “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden
Wash and balance me
Uprising in me tonight
She’s a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight
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
I’m leaving on the 1:15
You’re darn right
Since I was seventeen
I’ve had no one over me
He says “Anima rising—
Petrified wood process
Tall timber down to rock!”
Don’t interrupt the sorrow
He says, “We walked on the moon
You be polite.”
Don’t let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth and death and birth
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.”
Milk of the Madonna
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
She practically chirps “death and birth and death and birth and death and birth,” making the whole shebang of samsara sound like just another bit of song thrown into the battle.
At the end, however, when she comes back from her personal and cosmic “Anima rising” to feel the suffering of real women in their mothering enslavement to men, she’s asking you to have enough heart to encompass it all. Isn’t this a great Roman Catholic theme (and object of feminist misgiving), that Mary is the prototype of responsible human life in holding inside her heart all that’s hardest to bear? It’s also a theme of traditional romance: while men run around performing exploits and risking their lives and prestige, women put their hearts at risk in the complex and precarious economy of authentic caring. And now we struggle with that very notion, and women more than men need “a heart like Mary’s” to hold their own in that battle of sex. A heart like Mary’s, and mockingbird moxie.
 Richard Nelson, The Island Within (San Francisco: North Point, 1989). I found the quotation online and haven’t confirmed it yet.
 For interpretation of this enigmatic line see Comments below.