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From Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan: The songs Joni Mitchell wrote about the men in her life

Like any truly great artist, Joni Mitchell has never been one to hide her personal life from her professional one. Though Mitchell started life in the limelight primarily as a songwriter, the singer soon stepped out on her own to enjoy the spotlight on her skin and she did it by wearing her heart on her sleeve. Never afraid to hide her true feelings, and, in large part, using those feelings to imbue her songs with a heavy dose of authenticity, Mitchell became known as the world’s premiere confessional songwriter.

It’s relatively easy to chart the life and times of Joni Mitchell, one simply has to revisit her discography. Across her collection of songs, the singer has accurately noted her life — the love, loss, the turmoil and the good times — with a veracious accuracy. It has also meant that more often than not if you were a friend or lover of Mitchell, the chances were high that it was only a matter of time until you featured in one of her songs. Here, we’ve got our favourites, as she picks out the men in her life and it makes for not only a cracking list of tracks but a list of who’s who in the sixties folk scene.

Through a plethora of studio albums, Mitchell has proved that she is one of the most unique songwriting talents modern music has ever seen. It’s an extensive career which has seen the singer, a noted vocalist as well as songwriter, be recognised as one of the founding pillars of music as we know it. Through her songs, we get a vision of Mitchell’s life.

It’s a vision that can be seen from across her albums, that of Joni Mitchell’s life away from the spotlight. One of the most confessional songwriters the world has ever seen, Mitchell even uses her covers to imbue the song with her own expression. It’s something potently seen on the new release Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1 and was shown in her early career as a travelling singer across Canadian TV. But elsewhere, it was when Mitchell was in control of the lyrics that she really shone.

Never shying away from being open and honest, Mitchell is one of the founding members of a special pop group — pioneers of songwriting and, ultimately, the singers who shaped our current musical landscape. She certainly met some fascinating people along the way, many of which can be found below.

Joni Mitchell songs about her famous friends:

Leonard Cohen

Mitchell, a pioneering figure of alternative and folk music, was repeatedly compared to Leonard Cohen during the early stages of her career until she solidified her own unique style. Even though some similarities in their work overlapped, given the fact that they both expert storytellers, the two artists were firmly in their own lane sonically.

Following the festival appearance when the pair first met, it was reported that Mitchell would spend a month living with Cohen at her Laurel Canyon home. Mitchell, reflecting on her career years later, told Malka Maron this in the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words about their first meeting: “Leonard did ‘Suzanne’, I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. ‘Suzanne’ was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.”

Mitchell penned the wonderful song ‘Rainy Night House’ as a farewell to their short but sweet relationship. Joni confirmed that the track was about her relationship with coming to an end, stating: “Yeah. I went one time to his home and I fell asleep in his old room and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all night and he watched me see who in the world I could be.”

She continued: “There’s some poetic liberty with those two lines; actually it’s ‘you sat up all night and watched me to see who in the world…’ I turned it around. Leonard was in a lot of pain. Hungry ghosts is what it’s called in Buddhism. I am even lower. Five steps down.”

Neil Young

In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a member of a very small but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young and the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba. Later, she would encounter him again in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. At the time, the aspiring musicians were desperate for club experience but both were struggling to make an impact.

Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins as well as a bunch of other hits including a track about her then-21year-old-friend Neil Young. The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work. ‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’ a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented the loss of his teenage years.

Introducing the song in 1968, she said: “This is a song that’s been recorded by a couple of friends of mine, so maybe you know it a little better than the other ones. And if you do – if you know the chorus, wow – just sing along, cause it’s a chorus about people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”

James Taylor

Mitchell’s confessional songwriting has often seen her heralded as one of the pioneers of modern pop and her authenticity is what has cemented her position as a musical legend. If there’s one song which allows this style to be seen most clearly it has to be ‘A Case of You’. While there are several suggestions that the song is, in fact, about Leonard Cohen, many have pointed to James Taylor as the man behind the music.

There are two songs, however, which we know for a fact are about Taylor — ‘See You Sometime’ and ‘Just Like This Train’ were both written for the singer. “I wrote a song for James Taylor that mentioned his suspenders,” recalled Mitchell when reminiscing about their somewhat secret relationship. “And then on his next album, he went and wore his bloody suspenders on the cover! Well, then the cat was completely out of the bag!”

Sam Shepherd

One of the more famous songs on this list, ‘Coyote’ was written about Sam Shepherd as the duo shared a brief relationship during the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue, of which they were both a part of. It sees Mitchell lament their “different sets of circumstances” and how difficult it is for her to maintain a fruitful relationship.

It’s one of Mitchell’s most sexually aggressive songs and sees the folk singer struggling to align her past values with her new life. To illustrate this, the continuing use of juxtaposing visuals of nature and urbanisation offers up every piece of Mitchell’s conflict both with and without Shepherd.

Jackson Browne

This is one song which has never been fully confirmed to have been about the suggested recipient of Jackson Browne. While Mitchell was certainly working within the same circles, she has never put her rubber stamp on the song’s origination. However, judging by the lyrics it’s hard to see past Browne as the target.

The 1994 song sees Mitchell allegedly single out Browne for his role in the suicide of his wife, Phyllis. What’s more, Mitchell also apparently goes after Browne for shirking the responsibility of a domestic abuse case which featured his then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah who was a teenager at the time. All in all, ‘Not to Blame’ is certainly one of Mitchell’s most vicious attacks.

Many have also suggested that ‘Car on a Hill’, a song about being stood up, was also about Jackson Browne.

Jose Feliciano

One of the more underrated folk singers of his age, Feliciano found a lot of fame with a quite perfect cover of John Lennon’s Beatles number ‘Help!’. Aside from this, the musician was known for his strong opinions and involvement in the counterculture movement. It means the song ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ was a direct attack on him and his lifestyle.

Namely, his pursuit of materialistic things. On stage Feliciano was singing of folk tales and rhetoric to make hippies squeal but, at home, he was the same as anybody else, clocking up his big TVs and furniture just like the rest of the world.

Chuck Mitchell

Like ‘I Had a King’, on her debut record from 1968 Song to a Seagull (where the archives release ends), Mitchell displays all of the poetic qualities and pop sensibilities that would make her music not only wholly unique but utterly captivating. It was the first shape of Mitchell’s writing coming into focus.

It was, perhaps accurately, written about her first husband, Chuck. The pair never shared a truly happy marriage and the singer chose to use this track to showcase that feeling with the dexterity of a tapestry weaver.

David Geffen

Appearing on Mitchell’s 1974 album Court and Spark, Joni’s song ‘Free Man In Paris’ was inspired by the head of Geffen records, David Geffen.

The pair enjoyed a close relationship over the years and, in the song, Mitchell describes the trip she shared with Geffen, Robbie Robertson and his wife Dominique as they travelled to Paris. It has since become one of Mitchell’s most revered and popular songs.

The song quite explicitly describes Geffen at the time and how Paris offered him respite from his imposing career. Mitchell sings “I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favours. No one’s future to decide.” It’s a joyful piece.

John Guerin

John Payne Guerin is one of the more little known name son this list. A wonderfully gifted percussionist, the late, great Guerin was also in a relationship with Joni Mitchel for some time. It meant that, perhaps quite naturally, the drummer was in line for a song or two about his life and their love. Except, it sort of didn’t turn out like that.

Guerin is rightly seen as one of the most influential drummers of the day. When you can call Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Frank Zappa and The Animals as collaborators then chances are you’re at the pinnacle of your field. Being a drummer for both The Byrds and Joni’s touring band meant that night after night he was surrounded by ‘groupies’. It was this fact about which Mitchell penned a song.

‘Blue Motel Room’ offers a wry take on her jealousy about the women who surrounded Guerin and it’s one of the more playful moments on this list.

Nate Slate Joseph

Written for Israeli sculptor, Nate Slate Joseph, ‘Good Friends’, features on Mitchell’s 1985 album Dog Eat Dog and has since become a vital piece of her sound. While the album sees Mitchell move away from her folk roots sonically, lyrically she was still very much in her preferred pocket of performance.

It’s a vivid reminder that while Mitchell was able to talk about the socio-political movements of the time within her songs, she was also able to speak about touching personal moments too. It shows that above all else, Mitchell had an innate sense of balance.

David Crosby

Mitchell was an accomplished musician and arranger alongside being a supreme lyricist. It meant that not only could she write potently and poetically about her personal life but she could turn songs around in quick time too. The result, more often than not, was that songs were created about experiences that had happened to Mitchell in recent weeks and that if you so happened to be a boyfriend of Mitchell’s you were almost guaranteed to hear pieces of your life put out as songs—it’s certainly something David Crosby can attest to.

Crosby and Mitchell shared a relationship after they began dating around 1967. The duo had a significant impact on one another’s careers. Crosby exposed Mitchell to the rock ‘n’ roll set, providing her with the lift-off she needed having returned from Britain ready to become a performer as well as a songwriter. Mitchell introduced Crosby to Buffalo Springfield, two members of which, Neil Young and Stephen Stills would join Crosby to form the rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

One track, according to Crosby, captures the pair in their salad days together — the beautiful song ‘The Dawntreader’. It’s a lilting piece of music that is imbued with the hopelessness of love. It wasn’t all plain-sailing though.

The relationship, however, deteriorated as the two musician’s paths began to diverge. Before they could completely separate, Crosby took up semi-permanent residence with an old girlfriend and began a romantic relationship. When Mitchell found out she was rightly incensed. It saw the singer confront Crosby at a party held at The Monkee’s Peter Tork’s house. “Joni was very angry and said, ‘I’ve got a new song’,” Crosby reveals in David Browne’s book, The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup.

Mitchell then played ‘That Song About the Midway,’ which had “references to a man’s sky-high harmonies and the way she had caught him cheating on her more than once… there was no question about the subject of the song,” Browne writes. “It was a very ‘Goodbye David’ song,” said Crosby. “She sang it while looking right at me, like, ‘Did you get it? I’m really mad at you.’”

“And then she sang it again. Just to make sure.” Hear both songs bookending their relationship below.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

OK, so we can’t exactly say this about one of Joni Mitchell’s friends, as we’re not sure Tibetan Buddhist master’s keep friends, per se. However, it’s clear the admiration Mitchell held for the controversial master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It became ‘Refuge of the Roads’, the closing track on Hejira.

Mitchell describes the controversial figure in the song as “a friend of spirit” later suggesting he was an at times troubling figure who “drank and womanised”. While the song is not one of Mitchell’s more revered tracks, it is a key insight into how she approached every facet of her life, with unwavering honesty, even when discussing religion.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have never endured a perfect relationship. Though they could count each other as friends for some time, it appears as though that relationship deteriorated rather quickly, even when Mitchell was a par of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue the pair were at loggerheads. It led to Mitchell, naturally, penning a song about the “miserly” figure of Dylan.

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 fires in the direction of a certain bohemian singer-songwriter. Later, Mitchell would call (and then recant) Dylan a “plagiarist” so while many of these songs offered Mitchell a sense of cathartic process,s it’s clear this one is still as potent today as it was then.

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