' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Tag: Feud

Dylan-Joni Mitchell feud – Revisited

A quick update to my previous post in which I referred to Joni Mitchell’s claim that she had had a conversation with Bob where he had said that many of his more recent songs had been written by “the box”. She then said to him “What do you mean ‘the box’?” and he replied “I write down things from movies and things I’ve heard people say and I throw them in the box.”

Did not know at the time that Larry Charles, who collaborated with Dylan on Masked and Anonymous, had actually seen ‘the box”. Here is his description of it:

“The first thing he did, and this gives an illustration of how his mind works, he had this box on the table. He opened it and dumped out the box. It was all these little scraps of paper, stationery from all around the world. And on each scrap of paper was an aphorism or a line or a name of somebody. He dumped it out and said, ‘I don’t know what to do with all this.’

“I started looking and I said, ‘This can be a line of dialog. And this could be the person’s name who says the dialog.’ He was like, ‘You can do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And I realized that’s how he writes songs. He has all these fragments and he weaves the fragments until they become poetry. It’s kind of automatic writing or the cut-up technique William Burroughs used. That’s how we started to write that script actually. It was a very organic, very stream of consciousness process.

The full interview from which this quote comes can be found here:

Dylan-Joni Mitchell feud

Rather surprisingly, much of the commentary on Joni Mitchell’s (admittedly over the top) remarks on Dylan and plagiarism tends to skate over the fact that they were probably influenced by a statement which Dylan himself made to her. She referred to these in an interview she did with Morrissey some time ago:

” I know Dylan said to me at one point that he, you know, he couldn’t write anymore, and I said, “Oh, what about this and what about that?” And he said, “Oh, the box wrote it.” I said, “What do you mean ‘the box’?” He said, “I write down things from movies and things I’ve heard people say and I throw them in the box.” I
said, “I don’t care where you got your bits and pieces; you still put them all together.”

The important line here, I think is Dylan’s plain admission that his borrowing began at a point where ‘he couldn’t write anymore’. This admission of suffering from writer’s block is very different from his claim in the Rolling Stone interview that ‘borrowing’ is simply something songwriters do…

Unlike Woody Guthrie, for example, who often borrowed the melodies for his songs from people like the Carter family, but generally wrote his own lyrics to those tunes,in recent times Dylan has appropriated both words & music…