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Why Joni Mitchell called herself a "punk"

Aside from her highly influential music, Joni Mitchell is well-known for her uncanny ability to hand out verbal barbs to anyone that dares to cross her path. This bloodlust is something that has set her apart from many of her contemporaries, perhaps except for David Crosby. Unsurprisingly, this has also set her on many collision courses over the years.

Nothing and no one is safe from the venom of the Candian songwriter, and although her takes are sometimes bang on the money, often, they’re somewhat misguided and, on occasion, as some have argued, totally flawed.

Neil Young, David Crosby, Bob Dylan, the “sylphlike” heroine is afraid of no mortal. Akin to a folkish version of Perseus, destroying the titans is her forte, and it is something that she seems to take great pleasure in doing. Even though she is prone to be contentious at times, to sit down and have a conversation with Mitchell would surely be an electrifying experience.

Her forthright nature and honesty have understandably bled into her music. She touches on complex subjects with an adroit manner that many have tried and failed to replicate. In fact, she is partially to blame for the thousands of ‘troubled’ singer-songwriter types we get in contemporary times. However, her ability to hit you straight in the face with a frail but mighty fist of honesty is what has truly established her as one of the most revered artists of all time.

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One instance in which she gave us some classic nuggets of honesty came in 1997. This marvellous occurrence arrived when Rolling Stone sensed a winning partnership and roped in the former Smiths frontman Morrissey, one of her overtly depressive disciples, who was asked to extensively interview one of his idols, Ms. Mitchell.

During the discussion, Mitchell covers everything from not being a “confessional artist” to Slyvia Plath being “contrived” – even the gender politics that underpin the music industry gets an outing. At one point, Morrissey even managed to coax out of her the name of her favourite lyricist, to which she replied: “Dylan—there are things that he can do that I can’t.”

At another point in the interview, things turned to the punk movement. Morrissey asks Mitchell whether there was any truth to the well-known rumour that Glen Matlock was fired from the Sex Pistols for listening to her records. After laughing it off for a second, Mitchell then provided a totally divergent anecdote. She recalled: “When I met Johnny Rotten, I liked him immediately. He was younger than I was, but he was a lot like I was in high school: fashion-conscious… kind of pale and pimply and avoiding the sun. But I’m a punk. I’ve never really been in the mainstream.”

Let’s be clear, Joni Mitchell is not a punk. There might be some flecks of punk in her perennial willingness to fire vitriol at innocent bystanders – something that ye old Johnny Rotten is no stranger to. In a sense, hippies were punks, but aside from that, Mitchell is very far away from the concept of punk; in music, aesthetics and ethos.

Her politics are at loggerheads with everything that underpins the subculture – does her rejection of the hippie movement ring any bells? Furthermore, when dating Graham Nash, her outburst at CSNY for criticising the US government’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the Vietnam war also seems about as un-punk as you can imagine.

Being difficult isn’t punk, regardless of how many belligerent adherents to the unwritten ‘punk ethos’ might say so. It’s a much more subtle way of living. It’s evident that Mitchell has some skewed perception of her artistry, but in a way, this is Joni Mitchell; what else would you expect? She and Morrissey were a match made in heaven.

Listen to a segment of the Morrissey-Mitchell interview below.