John Lennon and Joni Mitchell are undoubtedly two of the finest songwriters of all-time. Still, their approach to music came from opposite ends of the spectrum; that’s if Mitchell’s debut encounter with the bespectacled Beatle is anything to go by. It was during this first meeting when Lennon decided to give the folk singer some career advice.
The source of contention that led to Lennon handing out words of wisdom to Mitchell came from one of the standout singles from Mitchell’s album Clouds — the track, ‘Both Sides Now‘. It remains, to this day, as one of Mitchell’s most iconic compositions. Mitchell is said to have written ‘Both Sides Now’ in March of 1967, after being inspired by a passage in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King.
However, the song is best known by Judy Collins’ version and charted at eight in the States, a whole year before Mitchell would get round to sharing her own version of the track. Lennon found this staggering. The singer was perplexed by the idea that an artist wouldn’t protect a track like ‘Both Sides Now’ at all costs and, what’s more, allow their friend to have a hit with it.
Once commenting about the track, Mitchell noted: “I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book ‘Henderson the Rain King’ is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa, and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”
The most famous example of Lennon giving away a song came when The Beatles allowed The Rolling Stones to have their first hit with ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Lennon later commented: “It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”
During a television appearance in the ’90s, Joni spoke of ‘Both Sides now and joked about people not realising that the track written by her, not Judy Collins. Mitchell revealed that people come up to her on the street and ask,” ‘How did you get Judy to give you permission to sing her song?”.
This unselfish approach to music epitomises Mitchell, but it’s fair to say that most artists of her size would hoard their best work rather than letting their friends have it. During the same appearance, the singer recounted the words of warning that John Lennon gave her about this the first time they met each other.
“When I met John Lennon, it was during his lost year in LA y’know, and he came up to me to say, ‘Oh it’s all a product of overeducation, you want a hit, don’t you?’,” she says in her best Scouse impression, which if you’re from the UK, sounds just like a typical American attempt at a standard British accent — the kind that sounds like absolutely nobody in reality. But it’s the effort from Mitchell that counts.
“I was cutting Court and Spark; he was cutting across the hall, so I played him something from Court and Spark,” Mitchell remembers before resurrecting her best Lennon impression once more. “He said, ‘You want a hit don’t you? Put some fiddles on it! Why do you always let other people have your hits for you y’know?'”,” she adds before bursting into laughter.
Even if John Lennon would have you believe that all he cared about was expressing his artistry, his comments to Mitchell show that the former Beatle loved searching for a hit record, and few people managed to strike gold as often as Lennon. Whereas Mitchell’s road to success was a route less travelled and hit records were never on the horizon of her desires. Instead, she chose a purer artistic road, something she would have done with or without Lennon’s words ringing in her ears.