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Music

The Joni Mitchell album that put Bob Dylan to sleep

Being the ultimate songwriting demigod of our time, Bob Dylan can be a hard man to please. Like most eminent artists within their given field, he humbly reveres the artists before his time that inspired his initial interest in music and shaped his early rise to success. From the early 1960s, when his career skyrocketed to the thermosphere, Dylan would never shy from lauding the likes of Elvis Presley, Jimmy Reed, Allen Ginsberg and Woody Guthrie, who all contributed to Dylan’s muse and ultimate success. 

But as we enter the mid-to-late 1960s, when Dylan’s career was more firmly established, and he was trailblazing a folk-inspired rock style of his own – much to the dissatisfaction of the pedantic folk purists at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 – he became a pedant himself. As any artist attempting to guard one’s own artistic integrity, Dylan was often harshly critical of contemporary musicians, especially those he suspected of copying his style. 

One such victim of Dylan’s sniping suspicion was John Lennon, whom he thought had completely ripped him off on 1965’s ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’. In true Dylan style, he launched a counter-attack in the form of verse in his 1966 Blonde on Blonde cut, ‘4th Time Around’. 

Dylan was a popular figure in the artistic elite of the 1960s and ‘70s and the friend of many a musician. His candid critique was rarely sugarcoated. Over the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Joni Mitchell, a prolific star in the folk circles, would frequently brush shoulders with Dylan. The pair were on and off with each other over this time and could only really be regarded as acquaintances.

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In a July 1979 interview with Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone, Mitchell recounted playing the newly completed Court and Spark to Dylan in 1974. Instead of hailing praise down upon his peer, according to Mitchell, the unamused Dylan fell asleep. She later suggested that Dylan was probably trying to be “cute” in front of label boss David Geffen, who was also present.

Perhaps Dylan had been subject to a particularly devious and debilitating hangover after a late night on the tiles and simply couldn’t help but drift off. But from Mitchell’s subsequent distress, it would seem Dylan wasn’t particularly impressed with Mitchell as a person or as an artist. 

Contrary to Dylan’s reaction, Mitchell’s sixth studio album, Court and Spark, went on to become her most successful and critically acclaimed album. Seemingly in response to Dylan’s slothful critique and perhaps some other personal issues between the pair, Mitchell wrote 1977’s ‘Talk To Me’. 

The song directly addresses her former touring partner: “Or we could talk about power, About Jesus and Hitler and Howard Hughes, Or Charlie Chaplin’s movies,” she sings.

Later adding: “Just come and talk to me, Mr Mystery, talk to me. (…) Are you really exclusive or just miserly? You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency.” 

The lyrics of ‘Talk To Me’ come as a genuine outcry for the mysterious, moody and often cantankerous Dylan to lighten up and humour her in amiable conversation. Listen to the track below.

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