The Strange Case of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Michael Stipe

by Scott Warmuth
April 22, 2010

Joni Mitchell made some inflammatory comments regarding Bob Dylan in a recent interview with the LA Times: "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."

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair suggests that Mitchell's comments might stem from some discoveries that I made regarding Dylan's use of material from the poet Henry Timrod on his album Modern Times.

The plagiarism portion of Mitchell's comment doesn't interest me that much, but I am intrigued by the notion of Dylan and deception that she brings up. Much of Dylan's recent work does involve elements of deception, much in the same way that the work of Penn & Teller or Ricky Jay is about deception. Dylan has been engaging in puzzles and games and false surfaces and things that are not exactly what they seem. It is not something to put down, it is something to celebrate and marvel at. It is a major aspect of his work. One place that he does this extensively is in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One.

One puzzle, a hidden commentary of sorts, that Dylan has incorporated into Chronicles: Volume One is, in part, about Joni Mitchell. In the book Dylan writes this about the recording of his album Oh Mercy -

Chronicles: Volume One, p. 216:
I wasn't sure that we had recorded any historical tunes like what he had wanted, but I was thinking that we might have gotten close with these last two. "Man in the Long Black Coat" was the real facts. In some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my '" Walk the Line," a song I'd always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.
The phrase "mysterious and revolutionary" is the key to a puzzle. It is not a commonly used phrase, if you hunt you will not find that many examples. When I narrowed down the examples of usage of that phrase in conjunction with songwriting I was left with only one other person who had used it, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. It turns up in a biography of Joni Mitchell. I believe that Dylan chose it specifically. Here is the passage in context:

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light by Karen O'Brien, p. 128:
Each 'relationship' song is held up to the light, scrutinized, examined for clues and hidden secrets, energized by a reluctance to accept mystery, to accept that it's good to be puzzled sometimes, that it's a gift not to be presented with the transparently obvious time and time again, because in that space created by not knowing, we can imagine, we can relate, we can endow work with the value, if any, that it holds for us. Significant writing uses mystery, abstraction, subtlety and skill to enable us to do that. As the writer and critic Susan Sontag observed, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art and the world: 'To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings"'.

In the coming years, Mitchell would express her frustration at the often wildly inaccurate theories about her lyrics and their subjects, theories that destroy the listener's ability to make the song their own. Michael Stipe of REM has articulated the same frustration:

I really don't want to reveal anything about a character
or a song because I can remember, as a teenager, a
record falling into my lap, and how magical and mys-
terious and revolutionary
 and unbelievably life-altering
even one song on a record like that can be. I would hate
to diminish or be unfaithful to that notion. Plus, I main-
tain that my take, my interpretation of what my songs are
about, is, in the whole world, the least important take. I
wrote them but that does not give me some divine insight
into their meaning.

The best possible response, however, to the question "What are your songs about?" was vintage 60s Bob Dylan: "Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve," he replied.
I laughed out loud when I first found this, it is a very clever joke. Karen O'Brien has credited Dylan as having the best possible response to people's reluctance to accept the mystery of songs and Dylan deflects, using the words of Michael Stipe in response. That the passage that drew Dylan's eye also includes mention of "clues and hidden secrets" makes it even more rich. For attempting to be the Sherlock Holmes of the old, weird America I was rewarded with an example of Dylan's wonderful humor and a poke in the eye for playing detective at the same time.

I am sure that some would dismiss these three words as mere coincidence, but I think that this is no coincidence. Dylan's entire memoir is structured in this manner, from cover to cover. To try open the minds of those who may say "nay" to my theory I present something else that Dylan has done in the very same sentence. Dylan ends the sentence by calling "I Walk the Line," "a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master."

I present that tail end of the sentence in question is clearly lifted from the work of Jack London.

White Fang:
White Fang was in a rage, wickedly making his attack on the most vulnerable spot. From the shoulder to wrist of the crossed arms, the coat sleeve, blue flannel shirt and undershirt were ripped in rags, while the arms themselves were terribly slashed and streaming blood.

All this the two men saw in an instant. The next instant Weedon Scott had White Fang by the throat and was dragging him clear. White Fang struggled and snarled, but made no attempt to bite, while he quickly quieted down at a sharp word from the master.
I've written an article for New Haven Review that should be published soon that explores many of Dylan's other puzzles, including his extensive use of the work of Jack London throughoutChronicles: Volume One.

When it comes to this approach to composition Dylan is in good company, James Joyce once wrote, "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description." When the full range of Dylan's scissors and paste work is revealed I believe that there will need to be a complete reevaluation of his memoir.

Joni Mitchell's comments regarding Dylan's authenticity brought to mind a 1939 Billboard article that Nick Tosches included in his book Country. It points out that, "synthetic hillbillies are as a rule more desirable in a night club than the real ones." The article begins with this wonderful passage: "Real hillbillies rarely have good night club acts, says Meyer Horowitz, who ought to know. Jewish and Italian hillbillies usually outshine all others on showmanship, he says."

Authenticity has been out for more than seventy years. Synthetic scissors and paste hillbillies with a sense of showmanship are in - and I'll take Dylan's night over Mitchell's day every time.

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