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The reason Joni Mitchell hated performing with Bob Dylan

The relationship between Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan is a complicated one, especially given the clear comparisons in their origin stories. For a start, they both left home for Greenwich Village with the same dream, tapping into a thriving alternative music scene, and sharing the stage on plentiful occasions. However, they were never close on a personal level, and Mitchell has never shied away from making that fact well known.

The two folkies followed a similar path, and for decades, it seemed as though they were solid friends. In fact, Mitchell even joined Dylan for a lengthy period on his famed ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour, a string of dates in which they would duet together on several occasions. To people observing from the outside, it looked like everything was a world of counterculture bliss.

Years after the tour, and again Mitchell was was full of praise for her contemporary during an interview in 1979, openly discussing their “series of brief encounters”. While she did admit they endured some “tests” over the years, overall, the singer claimed that she “always had affection for him”.

Fast forward a few years, however, to 1994, and they performed several concerts together in Japan. Reflecting years after the run of shows, and Mitchell was less than complimentary about sharing a microphone with Dylan, citing his alleged poor hygiene as an issue in what felt like a low blow at the time of release.

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This detail came to light in Brian Hinton’s biography Both Sides Now, where 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.”

However, her complaint was supported by Dylan’s former staff member, Victor Maymudes, who later added: “He’s a very rude, obnoxious guy. He doesn’t take his clothes off when he goes to sleep and the guy doesn’t clean his teeth. Horrible breath.” While the situation appeared comical, it feels like a rather underhand comment from Mitchell in the broader context.

Years later, while speaking to the LA Times in 2010, the interviewer compared the two singers as similar artists, a comment which Mitchell would fiercely refute, angrily responding: “We are like night and day, [Dylan] and I. Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”

Furthermore, in 2013, Mitchell fired shots once more, this time while in discussion with CBC. She brutally commented, “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”.

In truth, it’s challenging to decipher the specific moment that sparked the animosity between the two, even if Mitchell continued her attempts to maintain that the issues were solely related to musical ability. It wouldn’t be too much a stretch to consider that the bitterness derives from Mitchell being forced to compete with Dylan in terms of songwriting in an agenda pushed by the media. Perhaps – quite rightly – she believes her own work deserves to be lauded to the same degree as Dylan’s in what is a reflection of the male-dominated music industry, but only time will tell on this one.

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