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Contemporaries, cohorts and competition: Exploring Joni Mitchell's feud with Bob Dylan

@TomTaylorFO

Of all the feuds in music, Joni Mitchell’s battle with Bob Dylan is the most peculiar. It has twisted reverence with ridicule like a judgement contortionist and left many simply scratching their heads or searching for a backstory. The compliments commonly land with a backhand and the discredits are often tinged with an ironic commendation, thus, we’re delving right into the feud below. 

In 1965, three years before Mitchell’s first solo album hit the shelves, Dylan released ‘Positively 4th Street’. The impact it had on Mitchell was profound. “There came a point when I heard a Dylan song called ‘Positively 4th Street’,” she once recalled, “and I thought ‘Oh my God, you can write about anything in songs’. It was like a revelation to me.”

In one fell swoop, her view of songwriting was changed. Speaking to Clive David she later reflected: “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it”. Many of Mitchell’s early songs were takes on traditional folk pieces which go back to time immemorial.

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However, she quickly ditched the traditional for something a little closer to the heart, “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like [Bob] Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”

However, in 2010, she was less than happy when a comparison was made between the two. “We are like night and day, [Dylan] and I,” she said. “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” While some were quick to point out the irony that Joni Mitchell also changed her name, many questioned why her opinion had changed so much over the years. 

In 2013, her opinion seemed to have softened as this time she was drawn to Dylan and conceded that she “liked a lot of his songs”. But then she added: “Musically, Dylan’s not very gifted; he’s borrowed his voice from old hillbillies. He’s got a lot of borrowed things. He’s not a great guitar player. He’s invented a character to deliver his songs … it’s a mask of sorts.”

Well, one pivotal moment in her changing opinion was on the folk troubadour came when she played Dylan a preview of her 1974 album Court and Spark at her former boyfriend and Elektra/Asylum record head, David Geffen’s party. Mid-listening session, Dylan simply dozed off which is less than a stellar review with a public audience. 

Nevertheless, Mitchell still agreed to follow her folk friend onto his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour the following year. Although Dylan was truly brilliant on this tour, he wasn’t all that easy to be around as he delved into the myth of folklore. “Dylan has invented himself,” Sam Shepard wrote in his tour log. 

Continuing: “He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He’s not the first one to have invented himself, but he’s the first one to have invented Dylan.

As it happens, on that very tour, Mitchell had a brief relationship with Shepard himself eventually spawning her classic hit ‘Coyote’. As the song depicts, they were from two different worlds, and it never worked out. Whether this tainted her closest experience with Dylan is open to speculation, but things were about to get more personal. 

Things took a literal sour turn in her feud when Mitchell commented on how unpleasant it was to perform with Dylan. In Brian Hinton’s biography Both Sides Now, Mitchell recalled: “On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like right in my face.” Needless to say, this cynical whiff is probably the most cutting of them all, because the other elements can happily be refuted by anyone who has basked in Dylan’s back catalogue, but very few fellows have smelt his breath to be able to comment. 

All the while, Dylan has largely remained silent on the matter. Clearly, he liked Mitchell enough to invite her on his star-studded tour, but it’s hard to find either a compliment, insult or single comment he has made with Mitchell in mind aside from that. I’d opine that’s for the best because regardless of the feud, both stars are part of the same magical tapestry of music that changed the world and just keeps on giving.

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