September 17, 2021

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Joni Mitchell on Bob Dylan through the years

In Gordon Lightfoot’s living room

Rolling Stone, July 26, 1979

Interviewer: When did you first meet Bob Dylan?

The first official meeting was the Johnny Cash Show in 1969. We played that together. Afterward Johnny had a party at his house. So we met briefly there.

Over the years there were a series of brief encounters. Tests. Little art games. I always had an affection for him. At one point we were at a concert whose concert was that? {shrugs} How soon we forget. Anyway, we’re backstage at this concert. Bobby and {Dylan’s friend} Louie Kemp were holding up the wall. I went over there and opened up the conversation with painting. I knew he was discovering painting. At that point I had an idea for a canvas that I wanted to do. I’d just come from New Mexico, and the color of the land there was still very much with me. I’d seen color combinations that had never occurred to me before. Lavender and wheat, like old fashioned licorice, you know, when you bite into it and there’s this peculiar, rich green and brown color? The soil was like that, and the foliage coming out of it was vivid in the context of this color of earth. Anyway, I was describing something like that, really getting carried away with all of the colors. And Bobby says to me {an inspired imitation}: “When you paint, do you use white?” And I said, “Of course.” He said, “‘Cause if you don’t use white, your paint gets muddy.” I thought, “Aha, the boy’s been taking art lessons.”

The next time we had a brief conversation was when Paul McCartney had a party on the Queen Mary, and everybody left the table and Bobby and I were sitting there. After a long silence he said, “If you were gonna paint this room, what would you paint?” I said, “Well, let me think. I’d paint the mirrored ball spinning, I’d paint the women in the washroom, the band….” Later all the stuff came back to me as part of a dream that became the song “Paprika Plains.” I said, “What would you paint?” He said, “I’d paint this coffee cup.” Later, he wrote “One More Cup of Coffee.”

Interviewer: What does this do to your confidence when Bob Dylan falls asleep in the middle of your album?

Let me see, there was Louie Kemp and a girlfriend of his and David Geffen {then president of Elektra/Asylum Records} and Dylan. There was all this fussing over Bobby’s project, ’cause he was new to the label, and Court and Spark, which was a big breakthrough for me, was being entirely and almost rudely dismissed. Geffen’s excuse was, since I was living in a room in his house at the time, that he had heard it through all of its stages, and it was no longer any surprise to him. Dylan played his album {Planet Waves}, and everybody went, “Oh, wow.” I played mine, and everybody talked and Bobby fell asleep. {Laughs} I said, “Wait a minute, you guys, this is some different kind of music for me, check it out.” I knew it was good. I think Bobby was just being cute {laughs}.

LA Times Feb 1991:

“”Well, I love Bob,” she says. “And I’m always pulling for him, defending him. I must admit I was mad at Bruce (Springsteen) initially because everyone was calling him the ‘New Dylan’ even though it wasn’t even his fault. But there is no new Dylan. There never will be. Bob is still capable of being inspired at any moment and it was a shame to see some of his records not being appreciated enough.”

Vox April 1991

“It offended me when they would call Donovan the new Bob Dylan,” she rages, fidgeting on the edge of her chair and squirting off malevolent jets of smoke. “Think about it. Really, it’s absurd! Who in their right mind could compare that kind of talent to Bobby’s?”

Rolling Stone May 30, 1991

Interviewer: How big an influence was Dylan on you?

I wrote poetry, and I always wanted to make music. But I never put the two things together. Just a simple thing like being a singer-songwriter – that was a new idea. It used to take three people to do that job. And when I heard “Positively Fourth Street,” I realized that this was a whole new ballgame; now you could make your songs literature. The potential for the song had never occurred to me – I loved “Tutti-Frutti,” you know. But it occurred to Dylan. At first I thought he was a copycat of Woody Guthrie. For a while his originality didn’t come out. But when it hit, boy, oh, boy. I said, “Oh, God, look at this.” And I began to write. So Dylan sparked me.

Dylan made a pretty interesting comment regarding you a few years ago.

Oh, I remember. He was talking about how he didn’t like seeing women onstage, how he hates to see them up these whoring themselves. So he was asked, “Well, what about Joni Mitchell?” And he says something like “She’s not really a woman. Joni’s kind of like a man.” [laughs] The thing is, I came into the business quite feminine. But nobody has had so many battles to wage as me. I had to stand up for my own artistic rights. And it’s probably good for my art ultimately. I remember early in my career somebody wrote that my work was “effeminate,” which I thought was pretty odd. So over the years I think I’ve gotten more androgynous – and maybe become an honorary male, according to Bobby. But he’s born on the twenty-fourth of May. My mother, Queen Victoria and Bobby were all born on that date. I always think that birth date is the day of the extreme moralist.

So you weren’t offended?

In a way he’s right. Music has become burlesque over the last few years -video’s done that. Every generation has to be more shocking than the last. But at a certain point you’ve got to reel it in because decadence ultimately isn’t that hip. Our country is going down the tubes from it. It’s rotten to the core. And I think women can be more than decorative. I mean, it’s the same old thing actresses have been saying all along, that these are no good roles for women. Well, there are women creating their own roles, but they’re creating such shallow roles I wonder why.

Is the audience any different?

People knew what a song was back then. Which they don’t know anymore. Dylan said to me: “I don’t know. I used to know what a song is but I don’t know anymore.” And part of that gets beaten out of you, because we make this music and we put it out and the critics have gotten into the scheme of, like reducing Wild Things Run Fast to I Love Larry songs.

What do you think motivates someone like Dylan spend year after year on the road?

Well, he’d rather play music probably than do anything else. He doesn’t relate well to people. He probably feels most himself out there.

Festival Press Conference Edmonton Folk Festival, August 5, 1994

Re: the Nara Japan Concert :

“It was an interesting braiding of cultures, Bobby [Dylan] played and it was a miracle that he held to his structures. I thought he was excellent. It was hard stretching his forms, he has his own time.”

What poets have influenced you? :

“It was very instrumental in the shaping of me as a poet. Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” showed me that the American pop song has finally grown up. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend …”

Mojo Dec 1994

Interviewer: Listening to Free Man in Paris again made me think of Dylan saying that you weren’t really a woman.

Yeah, they asked him about women in the business and he said, “Oh, they all tart themselves up”. And the interviewer said, “Even Joni Mitchell?” And he said, “I love Joni Mitchell, but she’s”…how did he put it?…”kinda like a man”, or something. It was a backhanded compliment, I think, because I’m probably one of Bobby’s best pace runners… you know what I mean, as a poet? There aren’t that many good writers. There are a lot that are touted as good, but they’re not literature, they’re just pretty good for a songwriter.

Interviewer: What was it like singing with Dylan at the Great Music
Experience in Japan?

Oh, he’s such a little brat, you know. He really is. He’s never been very complimentary to my face – most of the boys haven’t. But he loved Sex Kills, and was very effusive about it. Anyway, we played three concerts, and they kept shifting my position on the mics and which verses of the songs I was going to sing. On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me, and that’s the one that went out on tape. And if you look closely at it, you can see the little brat, he’s up in my face – and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like…right in my face – and he’s mouthing the words at me like a prompter, and he’s pushing me off the mic. It’s like he’s basically dipping my pigtail in ink. The press picked up on it and said, “Bobby Smiles!” Yeah sure, because he was having a go at me out there.

Grammy Interview March 1997

Joni on Sincerity in songs:

“Well, I do hear it in Bob, absolutely, Bob can connect up to his stuff really sincerely. In that way he’s a great singer. And then he puts his jive in where it belongs. Bob’s a great singer.”

Joni on Songwriting Styles:

“Yes. I did make a conscious lyrical shift to “you,” which is a device that Dylan used for a lot of his autobiographical stuff, I suspect. That has a certain amount of self-protection built into it.”

“Yes. I tried with Dylan’s device to switch from “I” to “you” on Hissing of Summer Lawns but people didn’t like it. In my case, the device failed because people said suddenly, “why are you pointing at us?” In other words, with the “I” device – which wasn’t a device, it was just a way I wrote -when I said “I” the listeners could see themselves in it if they wanted to but they could always say “it’s her” because of the “I”.” “It’s safer for the listener. I have a friend who was raised on my music and I’ve been trying to get him into Dylan. But he doesn’t like Dylan because he says Dylan is preaching at him and that’s the “you” device. “

About God in songwriting:

“I just know that this is a very mysterious place we’re in, and I hardly ever use the word God. As a matter of fact I asked Dylan one time, “what do you mean by ‘God,’ ’cause if you read the Bible, I can’t tell God from the devil half the time! They seem to me to act very similarly.” And Dylan said, “Well, it’s just a word that people use.” I said, “yeah, but when you use it, what do you mean?” And he never answered me.”

“Prior to all of it. Then, a couple of years later, when he went through his Christian period prior to his Judaic return, he came up to me and said, “remember that time you asked me about God and the devil? Well I’ll tell you now,” And he launched into this fundamentalist crap, and I said “Bobby, be careful. All of that was written by poets like us; but this interpretation of yours seems a little brainwashed.” “Poets like us…” he said. He kind of snickered at that. “

Mojo Aug 98

Interviewer: Actually the Dylan album, I think. But I wondered if you were as sensitive as the Yeats estate might be when someone was altering your own work.

Oh, no, no. And I love Bobby. I think Bobby thinks of himself as not friendly. I think he just thinks of himself that way. But I’m very fond of him, and over the years we’ve had a lot of encounters, and most of the discussion has been about painting, actually. No, he can do whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned (laughs). He’s one of those people like Miles, you know! Even if he wasn’t up to it that night – or I saw a performance where he just kinda cruised – whatever it was, I would always be curious about the next. Because he’s kind of untouchable in a lot of ways.

And I love his writing – you know, not all of it. And I was a detractor in the beginning. In the beginning I thought he was a Woody Guthrie copycat. I never liked copycats, and I just found out why from these horoscope books that just came out. I’m born the Day of the Discoverer in the Week of Depth. really love innovators. I love the first guy to put the flag at the North Pole; the guy that went there second doesn’t interest me a lot of times. Although some could say that Wayne Shorter is the guy who got there second, but he took it somewhere. So Dylan went to Woody, and you have to build off of something. Not everybody comes out of the blue as a genuine muse – a real cosmic muse. It used to be that’s what music was – but now it’s formulated. And, especially, it’s become a producers’ art, who’s an interior decorator basically.

Interviewer:Does Dylan know that you were initially a detractor?

Oh, I don’t know if he knows that or not, but you know, the thing that turned me around was Positively 4th Street. It stopped me in my tracks, and I went, Oh my God – that’s just great. We can write about anything now.

Because up ’til then, I was writing songs. And I wrote poetry in the closet because I didn’t like it. I wrote it, I just rhymed, haha. Rhyming Joan, I guess. But I didn’t care to show it to anybody, or I did it in school on assignment because I had to. And I was praised for it, but I just figured I got away with it. And songs I loved, stories I loved – I always loved stories from the moment I could understand English. Poetry was kind of like shelling sunflower seeds with your fingers – it just was too much work for too little return, a lot of times. I like things more plainspeak.

The Bob, Joni & Van tour @ MSG:

I think we all did kick each other up. Bobby – I don’t want to be indiscreet to Bobby, but it’s beautiful what he said. I don’t want to be a tattletale here.

So anyway he greeted me after the show in Vancouver, he went on last that night, and it was a difficult show for me because I’m not used to playing big sports arenas, and there was a lot of milling, a lot of going for beer, and a lot of talking really loud through all of the shows. It seemed to be that that crowd had come for the beer and the event itself – not to listen, just to be at it, you know! And I thought that was a shame. And you have three people that are really listened-to artists, it’s OK if there’s no lyrical text or something, but I assumed that this was gonna be a writers’ tour, so I picked a set for Bobby. And I think he did for me, too – because he put in one of the best line-ups of songs that I’ve seen him do for a long time. All of that you can quote me on.

But when he came off-stage, he was there to greet me, and it takes a moment to kind of recover – and I wasn’t sure if it was a good experience. I thought we played well in spite of it, but that we weren’t properly listened to. It was the first one, you know. Then I realised it was just the nature of the crowd. But Bobby was standing and he was very excited, and he said, (affecting Dylan’s voice) “Oh those chords, those chords – you’ve got to show me some of those chords. I love those chords that you play. We’re gonna sound like an old hillbilly band when we go on.” I don’t know whether that’s indiscreet or not – what do you think! – I’m so sensitive to it. I said, Bobby you don’t want to learn these chords. First of all you have to learn tunings, and tunings are a pain in the butt. And you won’t have nearly the fun that you’re having now with your music.

Bobby and I played in Tokyo a few years back, three or four I guess, and he called me up just before we went over and he said, “I forgot how to sing – but I remember now, I remember now. The trouble is they want me to do all those Bob Dylan songs – and they’re so heavy.” And that’s exactly what I feel about my material

Interviewer: I had a difficult time trying to describe that when reviewing your show; I compared the speak-singing style to later Lou Reed…

It’s the same thing that Bob does. The poet takes over. Maybe I guess Lou Reed, although I’m not as familiar with his material as Bob’s. The point in the performance is to make the words come alive. Like Ella Fitzgerald is a beautiful singer, she has perfect pitch and perfect time, but she doesn’t illuminate the words – she just sings through them. “S’wonderful, s’marvellous” – that’s the way it’s written, she sings through it. Whereas Billie Holiday makes you hear the content and the intent of every word that she sings – even at the expense of her pitch or tone. So of the two, Billie is the one that touches me the deepest, although I admire perfect pitch end perfect time.

Dylan does that. He never reads the same thing the same two days in a row and as a result, you can almost see his state of mind in the reading. And I respect that, I think that’s emotional honesty, and when you have this complex creature, the singer-songwriter…

Progressive Quarterback March 2000

“I worked up “Comes Love” and sang it in the second leg of my tour last year with Bob Dylan. Bobby came to the room and said, “That new voice, that new voice, where’d you get that new voice? I like that new voice.”

The LA Times, April 2010

Interviewer: You’ve had experience becoming a character outside yourself. The folk scene you came out of had fun creating personas. You were born Roberta Joan Anderson, and someone named Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.

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.

CBC Music 2013