There was a time when Joni Mitchell raised a big stink with an interview where she threw some shade on Bob Dylan. Maybe Bob Dylan is the untouchable in the imagination of people. And perhaps he used to belong to the generation of Baby Boomers who have regarded him as some kind of a demi-God.
There are a few common perceptions which are basically bullshit.
First, there is the perception that Bob Dylan has more musical range than Joni has. In a way, that’s true. What Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have in common is that both of them started out as folk artists. Bob Dylan’s map is country, folk and blues. Joni Mitchell’s map is folk and jazz. Other than the folk music, there isn’t that much in common.
Both of them have surrounded themselves with the best. Dylan has had the Al Kooper Mike Bloomfield band, and also the Band. Joni has played with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny.
Perhaps I don’t really get those styles of music that much. I’m looking at this from the perspective of a jazz musician. For my money, Bob Dylan has never done anything musically that made my jaw drop, the way that Joni has, on several occasions. Bob Dylan is a fine artist, and he has plenty of musical originality. But musically he’s not in the same league as Joni, he’s not been as inventive. Joni, on the other hand, let’s just say that there are a few sequences of chords which are so distinctive that they can be called Joni chords. There has never been such a thing as a Bob Dylan chord. But I’ll have to admit that Dylan’s pretty handy with a guitar.
There was this article which actually compared what Bob Dylan was doing with John Coltrane’s improvisation on “Kind of Blue”. First, John Coltrane did a fine job on “Kind of Blue”, but that’s hardly his defining work. That was him, putting in a shift as a team player, and helping to create a masterpiece by Miles Davis. I say “a masterpiece” because calling “Kind of Blue” Miles Davis’ masterpiece is pretty unfair to him.
And second, comparing Bob Dylan to John Coltrane, musically, is like saying your five year old can paint like Picasso. Simply put, I don’t really value the musical opinion of a person who gets impressed when you start a chord sequence with a IV minor.
Second, there is the perception that Joni Mitchell is primarily a folk artist.
I don’t really think that Joni Mitchell has gotten her due as a musician. There’s a sense that she’s a little misunderstood. Joni Mitchell compiled her boxed set herself, and it wasn’t awarded a 5 star rating. It was awarded 4 stars instead, on the grounds that she left out a lot of music from her folk years. Perhaps there is a tendency to see her as a folkie who veered into jazz by accident.
After listening to enough of her stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that Joni Mitchell is primarily a jazz musician. I used to wonder why jazz was so dominated by men, other than vocal jazz. At least, we have in Joni, at least one jazz great who does the instrumentals. Joni appeared in blackface on “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”.
To me, Joni Mitchell is the male version of Joe Zawinul. They’re white folks from another country (Canada / Austria), who sorda play jazz but also combine it with other genres. They’re both egoistic as hell. Also, both of them have played with Shorter and Pastorius. I don’t think they’ve played with each other, because they’re such big egos that it would never have worked out, it would have been like Michael Jackson and Prince. But obviously Shorter and Pastorius are drawn to them both for what I presume to be similar reasons. More importantly, both of them have very unique and idiosyncratic approaches to music that can unsettle and ruffle people who very much prefer the traditional categorisations.
The other strain is that Joni Mitchell has tried to put out compilations of her own material – it’s pretty striking that she’s done that more than a lot of other folks I’ve seen. She tried with “Hits” and “Misses” in the 90s. Then she tried again in the 2000s with a triad, “Beginning of Survival” / “Dreamland” and “Songs of a Prairie Girl”. Then there was that boxed set, “Love Has Many Faces”. That’s 9 CDs worth of stuff, pretty remarkable. And perhaps none of them are unqualified successes. In addition, there were the albums “Both Sides Now” and “Travelogue”. “Both Sides Now” was perhaps an exercise for her to figure out how to set music to strings, and “Travelogue” was the payoff, to redo some of her music with different arrangements.
It’s pretty apparent that her 80s Geffen albums have suffered from some form of schizophrenia. They’ve suffered from the fact that 80s style synthsizer arrangements just aren’t very good. But they’ve also suffered from being in the wrong context, and nobody can really put their finger on what those albums are really all about. Thematically they’re all over the place. I see a lot of that compiling as attempts to salvage what has come to be seen as a few failed artistic decisions. In time, possibly some of her later material will be re-evaluated. I hope that something will come out of it, and I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in her later music. I just don’t exactly know what to make of it.
Third, there is this tendency to bring up Joni Mitchell in conjunction with what I’d call the “Lilith Fair” crowd. It’s undeniable that Joni Mitchell has been a great inspiration to many women, although I’m not exactly sure that she’s repaid the admiration. There are a lot of women who are like her on the surface, but I’m not exactly sure I admire their music as much. Your Paula Coles. Your Sarah McLachans. Your Natalie Merchants. They are daughters of the folksy Joni, and like I said, she’s put a little distance between herself and that legacy. I’m not that sure that she likes that tag. In fact, I’m also not sure that every time some white chick stands up there with a guitar, she’s going to like being compared to Joni Mitchell. It’s an association both party would do better without.
But here’s the thing: Joni Mitchell lives in a man’s world. Most of her collaborators are men. And she’s the leader. Her associates are Crosby Stills and Nash. And those jazzmen I’ve mentioned. So she might not necessarily be compared to other ladies, because she wasn’t part of that scene. And that’s how I’d judge her music: she’s pretty good for a guy.
Bob Dylan has not bothered to correct her. He hasn’t waded into this discussion at all. Does he think that he’s she’s wrong? I don’t really think so. In fact, he might have some sympathy for her because he knows what it’s like to come up against a bunch of folkie fundamentalists who decry sell out every time you come up with something unusual. The people who want to put Joni in a box as a “female folkie” have quite a lot in common with the crowd who booed Bob Dylan in Manchester and called him “Judas”.
I don’t think it’s really that wrong for her to say that Bob Dylan isn’t that musically gifted. Very few people are, compared to Joni. One of Bob Dylan’s enduring musical legacies was showing the world that you could have a creaky nasal voice, and making something useful out of it. Saying that Bob Dylan has a great singing voice, though, is literally making a virtue out of a necessity.
That article which said that Joni Mitchell owes such a great debt to Bob Dylan is a little wrong-headed. Maybe lyrically. Lyrically, I would say that he’s superior to Joni. But the majority of Joni’s musical work has nothing to do with Dylan. I’d say that what Joni and Bob Dylan have in common is that both of them are sick and tired of how Bob Dylan has come to be some great icon. Even Bob Dylan himself would resist that. His Bobness does not like being typecast. He’s embarked on some “never ending tour” because he just wants to be a travelling musician, not some famous pop / rock God.
What Joni said about Dylan “inventing characters for himself” as opposed to her is true. The one aspect where you could say Joni Mitchell fits into the 70s singer songwriter mould is that she writes in the first person. Dylan writes in the 3rd person. Even when he’s assuming a fake identity and wearing a mask and stepping into somebody else’s shoes. I’m not that familiar with his lyrical work but that movie “I’m Not There” had a lot of different actors portraying Bob Dylan, so I’m assuming that that’s what he does with his lyrics. I don’t think that’s really a knock on Dylan. Bob Dylan being a plagiarist is a proven charge. But he’s still a better lyricist than she is. Bob Dylan is special because of the lyrics, not the music.
Still, calling Bob Dylan a fake is pretty out of line. Joni should know better than that, and she should also know that she’s never going to be a better wordsmith than him.
I think that Joni Mitchell would have done better than to be wading like this into a shitstorm, but she does raise a good point. Dylan’s on a certain pedestal as being the greatest singer songwriter ever. Is anybody going to be challenging him on that pedestal? In my opinion, he’s one of the greats, but not the greatest, and I think it’s good to challenge that notion. But Joni’s remarks do make her sound like a sourpuss. Still, it’s a good question raised.