Joni Mitchell doesn’t like to do interviews, but once she starts to open up, she really opens up, not only about her own struggles but about her feelings towards her fellow artists. These are often decidedly negative. Maybe she took a cue from her personal hero, Miles Davis (who, it turned out secretly owned all her albums). Mitchell matched his level of caustic commentary in 2010 when she told the L.A. Times that Bob Dylan “is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Attempts to clarify fell flat with the most backhanded of compliments. “I like a lot of Bob’s songs, though musically he’s not very gifted.” If any musician has earned the right to criticize him… In any case, whatever she thought of Dylan during her mid-seventies period, when she recorded and released her densely experimental The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Court and Spark, she was happy to join the 1975 Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue.
Martin Scorsese captured the tour, which played smaller, more intimate venues than Dylan had in years. The documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, was only released last year. Dylan may have been the headliner, but this is also a Joni Mitchell story, and a Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and other artists’ story. In the clip above, Mitchell plays a new song, “Coyote,” at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, with Dylan and McGuinn joining in on guitar. Her performance is immaculate, full of confidence and nuance. McGuinn leans forward before she begins to introduce the song for Joni, mansplaining into the mic, “Joni wrote this song about this tour and on this tour and for this tour.”
Mitchell says nothing, but fans will know she wrote the song about Sam Shepard and first introduced it onstage during The Hissing of Summer Lawns tour. They’ll also recognize it as the first song on Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira. The studio version, above, is still driven by her acoustic guitar but incorporates percussion and Mitchell’s serpentine vocal line entwines with Jaco Pastorius’s bass. Lyrically, the song is full of dusty, forlorn images like the settings of Shepard’s plays. How McGuinn could have thought that it was about Dylan’s tour is beyond me. But Mitchell never needed anyone else to speak for her.