Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan have a strange relationship. Despite crossing paths on countless occasions over the last 50 years or so, moving within the same circles at the peak of their careers and even shared the stage on numerous instances, the pair have seemingly never considered each other as friends. With that notion, we explore one Joni Mitchell song about Dylan that confirms the distance between them.
The two folkies were part of the same scene throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s, and during that time, there was barely a bad word shared in public. Mitchell may have held back from publically voicing her initial dislike of Dylan for the benefit of her career; after all, Dylan was still the poster boy of the folk-rock scene. However, this didn’t prevent her from doing it the way an artist should — through her music. Both artists shared a similar fanbase, and if Mitchell wasn’t careful in her attack on the anointed saviour of the entire musical movement, she risked alienating a majority of the followers who hero-worshipped the pair of them.
After Dylan’s famed Rolling Thunder Revue tour – of which Mitchell featured a number of times – she was left frustrated and trained her crosshairs on the culprit. The track in question, aimed directly at Dylan, was the 1977 effort ‘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 as to who the song 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 appears to be filled with contentment for Dylan dates back to a time when she was working on her 1974 album Court and Spark. During this period, Mitchell was living at record label mogul David Geffen’s house, and at this point, 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 material that he allegedly 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 quiet on 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. In 1979, even after the sleeping incident and during an interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell was full of praise for her contemporary. During the conversation, 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 singers as similar artists, which, it turned out, was 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 artists have never been close friends, perhaps Mitchell’s opinion of Dylan as a person has changed over the years, but it’s clear that the relationship 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 in one way only; they, like all true artists, put themselves on their own canvases with honesty and sincerity, even if it does come with repercussions.