Joni Mitchell is well known for handing out verbal barbs, and her discourse has, in years gone by, verged into a borderline acidic tone. Even her closest contemporaries have faced the wrath of the folk singer’s scathing criticism, including Neil Young, who, in her opinion, “had never rocked and rolled a day in his life”.
Mitchell has always been honest, never willing to hold back from letting her opinion known. With her songwriting, she has an otherworldly skill to touch troubling subjects candidly. When the singer partakes in interviews, she’s forthright and not one to shy away from saying precisely what’s on her mind. After all, her ability to never gloss over the edges is what has made Mitchell such a revered artist.
This unorthodox method is how Mitchell has continuously operated, and it rocketed the musician into a league of her own. Her lyrics are never sugarcoated, and her blemishes are on show for all to see. One person with who her life has intertwined is Neil Young, with both having left Canada behind for the glamour of America in search of fulfilling their dreams. In fact, Mitchell is said to have written the song ‘The Circle Game’ about Young, while his not-so-secretly-titled but very rarely performed song ‘Sweet Joni’ is clearly aimed back at the singer.
The pair first met in the blossoming Toronto folk scene in 1964, and Mitchell even played an integral role in CSNY forming. After becoming close with David Crosby, who was producing her work, she allegedly told him, “You’ve got to meet Neil Young. I know him from Canada. He’s in the Springfield. He’s so funny. You’re going to love this guy.”
This moment would be the seed that helped grow a musical institution. While Crosby’s friendship with Young has eroded, his relationship with Joni Mitchell has continued to blossom both privately and in the public eye. They’ve exchanged performances, and Young even played the harmonica on some of HEJIRA, Mitchell’s eighth studio album. Young continues to be an artist that Joni has nothing but love for, yet, even Neil Young isn’t safe from a thinly veiled dig every now and then. Referring to his track ‘Hey Hey, My My’, she once commented: “You know, Neil Young is singing rock n’ roll will never die, and Neil never rocked and rolled in his life. I mean, he rocked, but he didn’t roll. He has got no swing in him”.
In truth, Young does lean more into the folk-rock category than rock ‘n’ roll in the traditional sense. However, that doesn’t take anything away from him being one of the most revered figures that rock music has ever produced. Furthermore, Young is an artist that sits in the pantheon of songwriters from all across the musical spectrum. Of course, Mitchell has never been rock ‘n’ roll either, and perhaps her comment comes from noting that Young has more in common with her than he does with artists from that world. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what box you want to thrust Neil Young into; one thing that can’t be denied is his radiant talent.