It’s no secret that Joni Mitchell is a little cranky in interview. Once famously described as “about as humble as Mussolini” by David Crosby, Mitchell is never abundant in her praise of other artists and has, quite pertinently, decried “false modesty.” She’s good, she knows she’s good, and she’s got no problems saying she’s good. While uneducated pop critics would align her in a “folk” school with Judy Collins or Joan Baez, Mitchell says she’s more in tune with the Miles Davises and Mozarts of this world. Well, no. In fact, Mitchell puts herself above Mozart – from a January 2010 interview in The Vancouver Sun: “[My music] is too complicated for some people, certainly it’s too complicated for pop music. It’s more complicated than Mozart, his stuff is more orderly. There’s a lot of counter-patterns and stuff that painters can enjoy, because it’s more like painters’ layering, the movement, the counter-rhythms and so on in the piece.”
Pretentious? A little. Or a lot, you might say. Her comments have always attracted quite a bit of press coverage; back in 2002, a W Magazine interview carried quotes along the lines of the music business being a “repugnant cesspool” and Madonna having “knocked the importance of talent out of the arena”; Madonna’s spokeswoman was moved to comment that the remarks had been “disappointing,” since Madonna had told of Mitchell’s 1974 LP Court and Spark being a favourite of hers.
In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times, with the singer and also with Mitchell drag impersonator John Kelly, Madonna comes under fire again, as do Grace Slick and Janis Joplin basically for being drunken sluts (Mitchell’s quote is “Grace [Slick] and Janis Joplin were [sleeping with] their whole bands and falling down drunk, and nobody came after them!” but you get the subtext.) But it’s the Bob Dylan quote that has received the most attention.
According to Mitchell, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”
Now, that’s a comment that is sure to rankle with Dylan fans. But is it so off the mark? Dylan started out as something of a Woody Guthrie mimic; he found his own voice and there’s no disputing that he is a masterful lyricist, but whether he’s a plagiarist or a fake is rather a matter for debate.
Musically, certainly, Joni Mitchell is more sophisticated than Dylan both in her melodic structures and her use of chords. She has a healthy (or some would say unhealthy) sense of her own importance, but you can’t say that she wasn’t an innovative, highly accomplished pop composer. Songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi” and “River” appear to be canonised now, but really it’s her run of records from 1972’s For the Roses to 1979’s maligned Mingus that find Mitchell revelling in an experimentalism and musical sophistication that Dylan simply never achieved. I happen to be a Dylan fan, but I can recognise that Mitchell was the far superior writer and singer. Dylan’s voice was revolutionary, yes, but in terms of technical ability, prowess, and emotional impact, there’s no contest.
But what of Dylan’s supposed fakery? I for one am not sure quite what to make of that. Mitchell is more known certainly for writing about the self and writing about her personal life, but I think you could quite equally say that her Third World posturing on the ambitious Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or her feet-first (and not entirely successful) foray into jazz on Mingus were personae, trying on a different dress so to speak, being somewhat deceptive. As much as those records, particularly Don Juan, still wow with their scope and depth, it’s still somewhat odd to hear something like “The Tenth World” and then read a comment slamming someone else for being inauthentic.
But, ultimately, Mitchell’s career has been built on authenticity and honesty. An album like 1976’s Hejira is clear evidence; even her unfairly maligned ’80s records often feature songs of searing honesty and power amid the preaching. But it’s odd that she would say “everything about” Dylan is a deception, when there are other much clearer targets. Perhaps she’s tired of Dylan getting all the recognition ahead of her. But it’s not like Mitchell has been unfairly dismissed. She has had her fair share of plaudits and notices. Someone like Rickie Lee Jones, whose writing is of a similarly sublime and interesting, sophisticated standard as Mitchell’s (and has maintained a strong level of consistency for three decades), but has never been awarded the same kind of widespread recognition, has more right to rail against such perceived injustices.
Ultimately, I’d have to take what Joni Mitchell says with a pinch of salt. In interview, yes she’s arrogant and prickly and cranky at the same time as being genuinely insightful and funny, and one has a lot of respect for an artist as significant to the landscape of 20th century pop music as she is, but the Dylan accusations are still a little puzzling. Anyone else have any ideas? Answers on a postcard.