Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan have a strange relationship. Despite crossing paths on countless occasions over the last fifty years or so, the two moved within the same circles at the peak of their careers. They even shared the stage on Dylan’s historic Rolling Thunder Revue Tour which took them all around the world but, despite that, the pair have seemingly never been friends and this Joni Mitchell track about Dylan confirms the distance between them.
The two folkies were part of the same scene throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s and there was barely a bad word shared in public. Mitchell may have held back from publically speaking about her initial dislike of Dylan for the benefit of her career, after all, Dylan was still the poster boy of all folk-rock. However, this didn’t prevent her from doing it the way an artist should — through her music. They both shared a similar fanbase and if she wasn’t careful in her attack on the anointed saviour of the entire scene, she risked alienating a majority of the followers who hero-worshipped the pair of them and leave those fans with an unanswerable choice.
After the famed Rolling Thunder Revue, Mitchell was left frustrated and trained her crosshairs on the culprit. The track in question which was aimed at Dylan was 1977’s ‘Talk To Me‘ which featured on her experimental record Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and included an exquisite snipe at her former tour buddy. “Or we could talk about power, About Jesus and Hitler and Howard Hughes, Or Charlie Chaplin’s movies,” she swoons in the track — Chaplin was a hero of Dylan’s, arguably one of his most dearly held, and leaves no question marks about who the track was taking aim at.
“Just come and talk to me, Mr Mystery talk to me,” Mitchell later sings on ‘Talk To Me’ as she lets out the frustrations of a year on the road with the silent man of immense musical mystery and intrigue. “Are you really exclusive or just miserly?, You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency,” she later fires in the direction of a certain bohemian singer-songwriter.
Another reason why Mitchell seems to be filled with contentment for Dylan dates back all the way to a time when she was working on her 1974 album Court and Spark. Joni was living at record label mogul David Geffen’s house and at this point and Geffen had also recently signed Dylan to Elektra/Asylum. When the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was played a preview of the record by Mitchell at one of Geffen’s parties, he was so enthralled by the record that he, erm, fell asleep. The ultimate mark of disrespect or a hint at the lullaby quality of Mitchell’s vocal? You decide.
Mitchell would continue to remain schtum about her not so bright opinion of Dylan for many years, with ‘Talk To Me’ being the only exception. The song provided her side of the story as to why they never got on, which wasn’t to do with her not trying or being dismissive of the singer. In 1979, even after the sleeping incident and during an interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell was full of praise for him. She revealed to the interviewer that she and Dylan had “a series of brief encounters” as well as “tests” over the years but Mitchell made it clear in her own words that she “always had affection for him”.
Contrarily, during an interview with the LA Times in 2010, the interviewer compared the two of the two singers as similar artists. Not a good move. The report claimed that Mitchell fiercely refuted this comparison and stated: “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.”
Even though the two of them have never been close by any stretch of the imagination and, perhaps, Mitchell’s opinion of Bob has a person has changed over the years since, but it’s clear that the friendship of Bob and Joni had damaged her view of Dylan’s artistry. One thing is for sure, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan are both comparable at least in one sense, they, like all true artists, put themselves on their canvases with honesty, even if it does upset the other.