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Joni Mitchell’s Skewed Perception of Bob Dylan
“All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” (Bob Dylan)
Joni Mitchell is the only confessional singer/songwriter besides Jackson Browne who can break through my protective barrier of musical cynicism and make me well up from a lyric. Okay, fine: I downright bawled like a baby one time when “River” came on the radio during a hard time in my life. And I’m not the only one. I’ve actually taught her songs in university English courses, where everyone in the class is holding back tears while they follow along to the lyrics of “Both Sides Now.” In a time when the word “genius” is thrown around more carelessly than ever, she truly embodies the word – both in the concrete and the abstract.
Her personality is as equally disarming as her lyrics – only in a different, arguably less appealing way. In an interview this week with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi for the show Q, Mitchell spews forth cantankerously for an hour and 44 minutes on a wide range of topics. Some of it is riveting, especially her recitation by memory of a poem she wrote at 16 years old called “Fishbowl” about the pitfalls of celebrity. Her descriptions of how art works differently than music with regard to the creation element is also interesting; she has unique philosophical viewpoint on the creative urge. However, once Ghomeshi steered the dialogue in the direction of Bob Dylan, my hackles immediately went up. Mitchell quickly makes her viewpoint clear in this segment of the interview that Dylan is not beyond her reproach.
I must preface my refutation here by saying that Joni Mitchell should have more personal sense than to publicly undress one of her musical peers anyway. This is the kind of stuff that musicians say about each other over dinner or leaning against a kitchen counter drinking coffee and smoking a joint; it’s not the type of conversation you have with a stranger for a publication or television show. It is delicious material for a journalist, however, which is probably why the bait is thrown out there so often. But Mitchell should know better. Instead she keeps weaving this ongoing diatribe about Dylan, which has wrapped around her so many times that she’s now trapped by it.
Ghomeshi brought up the topic of Dylan while Mitchell was explaining that she took a painter’s approach to originality, saying that she pursued music “with a painter’s need to be original.” In essence, she claims to not have “sat in a room and copied a hero” like so many other musicians. She says she feels liberated by not being part of any one sound or style. When Jian reminds her of a quote from a 2010 L.A. Times article in which she called Dylan an inauthentic plagiarist, she tells Jian that the article is “journalistic bullshit” and that the interviewer (John Kelly) “was an asshole.” She then tries to explain herself by saying that inspiration is fleeting and that artists have to reinvent themselves. As a result, she argues, Bob created this character that we see today. And Mitchell states that Bob has borrowed his vocal style from “old hillbillies.” That’s also bullshit, but not important enough to contest here now. What really made me wince was this audacious quote: “Musically, he’s not very gifted.” Really, Joni? Luckily this time she can’t claim she was misquoted, because it’s right there on YouTube for everyone to see.
Just think about that above quote for a second. Bob Dylan is not very gifted musically. Where do I start? The vocal phrasings in “Sweetheart Like You” where he syncopates like John Coltrane on Kind of Blue? The originality of the chord structure in “Idiot Wind” where he starts every verse in the minor IV? His capacity for matching melody with mood in “Just Like a Woman”? I’m trying hard to convince myself that Joni meant something different here, something more technical like his inability to play a structured guitar solo or to control his vocal vibrato properly. But it’s not working. Words convey meaning, and Joni’s words about Dylan convey to me something more than just disregard. Of course, there’s always a backstory.
According to excerpts from Brian Hinton’s 1996 collection of interviews and stories about Mitchell called Both Sides Now, Dylan and Mitchell first met in 1969 when they were both performing on the Johnny Cash Show. They went to an afterparty at Cash’s and had brief, casual conversation. Mitchell had heard Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” in 1965 and it had given her the realization that all the rules about subject matter in pop music lyrics had been officially thrown out the window. She even went as far as saying she began to write songs because of Dylan:
“When I heard ‘Positively 4th Street,’ I realized that this was a whole new ballgame; now you could make your songs literature. The potential for the song had never occurred to me — I loved ‘Tutti Frutti,’ you know. But it occurred to Dylan. I said ‘Oh God, look at this.’ And I began to write. So Dylan sparked me.”
So why does Joni, decades later, feel the need to minimize a writer to whom she owes her creative genesis? It could have something to do with the fact that Dylan once referred to her in an interview as “kind of like a man,” which Joni recognized as a backhanded compliment. She appreciated that it made her exempt from “tarted up” female singers, but it also implied that Dylan didn’t acknowledge her visual appeal – which could be interpreted as a thwarting of sorts. If her fascination with Dylan was anything like that of her folk counterpart Joan Baez (whose performance style inarguably influenced Joni greatly as well), then you can imagine the seeds of bitterness growing.
Another famous story centers around Dylan pretending to fall asleep while Mitchell and David Geffen played him a copy of Court and Spark in 1973 at Dylan’s Malibu home. According to Hinton, Mitchell has “neither forgotten nor forgiven” this snubbing of what many consider her greatest work. No consoling from Geffen could quell her anger at Dylan’s apparent indifference to her work.
Then there’s Joni’s account of Dylan joining her onstage in Japan in 1994:
“On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me and that’s the one that went out on tape. And if you look closely at it, you can see the little brat, he’s up in my face — and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like… right in my face — and he’s mouthing the words at me like a prompter, and he’s pushing me off the mic. lt’s like he’s basically dipping my pigtail in ink. The press picked up on it and said ‘Bobby Smiles!’ Yeah sure, because he was having a go at me out there.”
Admittedly, Hinton’s book has taken some flak for not being authorized by Mitchell nor containing any direct input from her. Still, these excerpts were taken from interviews that are on the record; there’s no way she’s been taken out of context every time she’s opened her mouth about Dylan.
Bethany Larson’s 2010 article “Folk Face-Off: Joni Mitchell vs. Bob Dylan” (Flavorwire, April 23), sums up the Dylan-Mitchell dynamic nicely: “Mitchell and Dylan have always had a tenuous relationship that is rooted in respect, but manifests itself through ridicule…kind of like in elementary school when everyone was mean to the person they had a crush on.” This is probably more along the lines of the deeper reality than any sort of flippant attitude that Joni likes to present when confronted with the name Bob Dylan. They have a history, plain and simple. And Larson’s article reminds us of another disturbing aspect of Mitchell’s 2010 L.A. Times interview: “[Mitchell has] also made incendiary comments about Joan Beaz, and in the same [L.A. Times] article that called out Dylan, describes Janis Joplin and Grace Slick as drunken whores.” Perhaps if she’d just concentrated on blaspheming the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century instead of also dragging some of her ‘60s flower child counterparts through the mud, we would possibly believe her claims of being misunderstood.
She does make a slight concession in the Q interview by saying that she likes some of Bob’s songs. However, she says this as if she’s talking about The Monkees or Herman’s Hermits. She knows better than to be condescending about Dylan’s catalogue; unless, of course, she truly believes that it doesn’t contain songs that drastically changed the course of popular music. She seems to forget that as a songwriter she is still a disciple of Bob Dylan. No Dylan, no Joni. And this indisputable fact alone should give Mitchell pause for thought before she assumes the role of Bob’s casual friend. Years before Mitchell got up and poured out her colourful, playful, vivid verse for rapt audiences (by then accustomed to intelligent lyrics), Dylan was blazing trails through the concert halls of North America, Europe, and Australia setting a new standard in popular music. Even the Beatles shifted away from bubblegum lyrics after being put to shame by Bob; they were jealous of the respect he was getting for his impossibly creative and mind-expanding verse put to music.
The closest that Mitchell comes to Dylan artistically is that many consider her to be the female equivalent to Dylan. I will concede that. And make no mistake: that’s mighty high praise. No female songwriter (besides possibly Carole King and maybe Tori Amos) could articulate emotion in a lyric like Joni. But she still comes from the Dylan well. And she has admitted this in the past. So maybe it’s time that she acknowledges Dylan for the contributions he’s made to popular music – and to thousands of singer/songwriters’ careers – instead of analyzing his persona and deconstructing his image. Maybe Mitchell could do with a bit of reinventing herself. Many are tired of the “misunderstood genius” persona. While her brilliance still manages to mesmerizes millions, she leaves us cold when she participates in character analyses of people who have helped shape her as an artist. Can you imagine Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, or Neil Young referring to Bob Dylan in such a way publicly? Not a chance.
Putting their music catalogues back to back, you could stand on Mitchell’s and never hope to reach the top of Dylan’s – literally nor figuratively. Mitchell as a musician should reassume her place alongside Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and many others as they continue to stand on the shoulders of the giant that helped define their destinies. If she truly understood Dylan, she wouldn’t utter a word about him. But instead she continues to illuminate her fascination of him by unsuccessfully trying to interpret his motivations.
Mitchell actually expresses her distaste for interpretation in Karen O’Brien’s book Shadow and Light: “As the writer and critic Susan Sontag observed, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art and the world: ‘To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.'” It is a futile exercise to even pretend to understand or give meaning to Dylan as a person anyway. As Dylan once remarked about himself, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.” Joni Mitchell could use some of Dylan’s certainty about uncertainty. She really doesn’t know Dylan. At all.