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Joni Mitchell slates Bob Dylan: Is she right?

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.

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Song of the Day: PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake”

PJ Harvey appeared on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show this morning for an interview and performance. Unexpected, to say the least, considering that Harvey doesn’t even have anything new out to promote – but more than welcome, nonetheless.

With her forthcoming new album already written and reportedly being recorded now for a planned late 2010 release, Harvey dropped in to perform one of the new songs, “Let England Shake,” which she debuted at a secret show at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms on July 24, 2009. It’s a weird, curious song in which Harvey crafts her own autoharp-driven melody around a repeated sample of the Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” It’s the kind of off-kilter, strange, leftfield song that Harvey throws at you that at first you’re not sure what to make of but slowly realise it’s pretty brilliant.

The other new song Harvey debuted last summer, “The Last Living Rose,” also indicates that the new album, which follows 2007’s spectral White Chalk and 2009’s collaboration with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, promises to be yet another interesting new chapter in a career that, as it heads towards the 20-year mark, seems to be ensuring its ‘classic status’ legacy with each passing new release. Harvey is yet to put out a dud record. Quite possibly she never will.

Things to look out for in this performance: i) Gordon Brown and Andrew Marr huddled together round a screen to watch PJ Harvey perform. Surreal. and ii) Harvey puts up her hand to someone off-stage/off-camera to stop the Constantinople tape. I wonder whether any numbskulls will complain to the BBC about “lip syncing.”

And here’s the interview too

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Song of the Day – Judee Sill: “The Kiss”

Judee Sill’s extraordinary life and music deserves a blog all its own (and it will get one soon), but for now marvel at the hymnal intensity of this song. Performed live at the BBC TV studios in February of 1973 for The Old Grey Whistle Test, here is “The Kiss.”

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Art of the Day: “My Birth” (Kahlo)

Frida Kahlo is one of my favourite painters; she imbued her work with a real colour and vivid imagination. Her paintings manage to be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

Her work always has a lot of personal feeling behind it; the veiled mother has been interpreted as a reference to Kahlo’s own mother, who died during the period in which the painting was created. The birth itself seems to merge these ideas of death with the pain of the miscarriage Kahlo suffered in Detroit around this time.

My reaction to 1932’s My Birth is, on one hand, shock at how graphic it is, a weird mix of the human and the alien. On the other hand, there’s an overwhelming sense of sadness and grief here. Yet also a stark beauty. All of that is down to Kahlo’s superior and sophisticated artistic vision.

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Film of the Day: “Sunset Boulevard”

Two of cinema’s most biting and witty examinations of the Hollywood system arrived within months of each other in 1950. August saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve following in October. Both were multiple Oscar nominees, but in the event All About Eve won Best Picture (and is probably my favourite of the two.) It has been argued that Sunset Boulevard was snubbed because its acerbic look at the film world was even closer to the bone than All About Eve‘s more theatre-based witticisms.

There has been much written about Sunset Boulevard and its importance, but I will voice some of my favourite aspects of the film. It’s an exercise in art imitating reality, for a start, and entertainingly so. In the film, Norma Desmond is the ageing, 50-year-old ex-silent film star who lives in a decrepit 1920s mansion on Sunset Boulevard with a dead pet monkey and a failed director as a butler and general dogsbody. In real life, Gloria Swanson was a 50-year-old ex-silent film star, and Erich von Stroheim (Max) was a famed director of the silent film era. In the film, Cecil B. DeMille – as himself – directed Norma in some of her best-known pictures. In real life, Cecil B. DeMille really did direct Gloria Swanson in some of her best-known silent films. All of this cross-referencing and real-life cameos lend Sunset Boulevard not just a healthy feeling of being an in-joke at the expense of Hollywood’s brutal system of creating and then destroying its stars, but also a real authenticity and power.

The characters are a lot less one-dimensional than they appear on first viewing, with Max so much more than Norma’s general assistant; his unabashed love for and devotion to Norma is genuinely touching. The revelation that he was once her husband adds a weird frisson to proceedings. William Holden as Joe Gillis, too, is much more than a jobbing scriptwriter, as his strange relationship with Norma, which traverses the personal/professional boundaries, attests. Norma herself is also quite a developed, rich character, more than the initial view at the boggled-eyed mad-lady villain would suggest. I found Gloria Swanson’s performance overbearingly camp and over-acted until I realised that, as a silent film star, Norma really would have used her eyes and hand gestures for such dramatic effect.

The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s a pretty quotable film. The atmosphere is a mix of camp melodrama and stylish noir, and despite an arguable sag in the middle, it’s quite tightly structured and executed.

Six decades later, Sunset Boulevard is still a film that hits home today. Harsh, funny, witty, and occasionally heartbreaking, it rightfully earns its classic status.

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