To put it bluntly, Joni Mitchell and John Lennon didn’t see eye to eye. Their paths didn’t often cross, but from the first time they met each other, it became clear to the Canadian singer-songwriter that a blossoming friendship wasn’t on the cards.
Considering Lennon was obsessed with Bob Dylan, it’s surprising that he wasn’t a fan of Joni Mitchell. While he did have issues regarding her music, she later suggested the grudge derived from a personal vendetta that the former Beatle held against her. Their first encounter was an awkward one after Lennon decided to pick faults in her songwriting technique.
If some people were to attempt to defend Lennon’s actions, the first point to be made would be that this meeting came during his fabled ‘Lost Weekend’. A tumultuous 18 month period in which he and Yoko Ono separated and began having an affair with their assistant, May Pang. He was drinking to excess under the tutelage of Harry Nilsson and abusing drugs, leaving the former Beatle as a shell of his former self.
His rude behaviour towards Mitchell was an indictment of where he was at this stage in life. In a polar opposite, Mitchell was thriving, cooking up a masterpiece with Court & Spark in the same studio, which is how their stars coincidentally aligned.
“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 later says in her best Scouse impression. “I was cutting Court and Spark; he was cutting across the hall, so I played him something from Court and Spark.
“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.
In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine in 2014, Mitchell revealed that the next time that they bumped into each other was as abrasive as the first time when he again fired shots at her because of her middle-class upbringing. “That’s a class difficulty he had. He’s a working-class lad,” Mitchell explained. “I’m sure he had that same fight with George Martin because he was afraid that he was betraying his class. I know I’m going to get into hot water if I get into this but I have controversial opinions about him.
“I watched this [English film], which was a roundup of the best musicians of the 20th century,” Mitchell continued. “As soon as it hit my era, the intelligence of it dropped considerably. When it came to me, this guy folded his arms and crossed his feet and said, ‘I never liked Joni Mitchell—she’s too twee.’ Well, that’s what John Lennon was like. It was that fear working-class people have of middle-class people.”
Growing up in post-war Liverpool provided Lennon with an underdog spirit which he didn’t recognise in Joni. Yet, he didn’t know her whole story and the pain she suffered in her life that made her the person she’s become. Whether it’s her life-threatening battle with polio as a child or putting her baby up for adoption to give it a better life, Mitchell’s life wasn’t utopian. While she grew up in a more idyllic setting than Lennon in leafy Canada, Mitchell was no stranger to hardship.