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Kanye, Joni, Dylan and great musicians who say idiotic things Print-ready version

Sometimes they need to just shut up and sing

by John Sakamoto
TheStar (Toronto)
February 13, 2015

Joni Mitchell with friends at a pre-Grammy salute to industry icons on Feb. 7. She's being skewered for saying she's experienced being a black man.

In a week in which Kanye West was being mercilessly skewered for disgorging yet another graceless Grammy remark, a quote from Joni Mitchell threatened to overtake him in the online-outrage sweepstakes.

Here's the problematic statement she made to writer Carl Swanson during his lengthy and engrossing interview on nymag.com:

"When I see black men sitting, I have a tendency to go - like I nod like I'm a brother. I really feel an affinity because I have experienced being a black guy on several occasions."

Uh-oh.

Swanson, tactfully: "I ask her what she means. 'Well, did you ever see the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter?'"

That's Mitchell's 1977 jazz-folk-rock album whose cover features her in black face and dressed like a man.

Wait, she's saying she's "experienced being a black guy" by appearing in black face on an album cover?

And there's the problem. Taken at face value, that equivalency is not just ludicrous but deeply offensive.

Taken in the context of decades of interviews in which Mitchell has expressed pride in making music that crosses all boundaries, it's possible for a fan to convince himself that it's merely an extreme and regrettable expression of just how far she feels that ability extends.

Still, Mitchell might do better by adopting the Kanye West approach to foot-in-mouth syndrome: just keep on talking. Treat every day as the latest instalment of a serialized interview.

One day, West is expressing moral outrage at the Album of the Year Grammy by proclaiming to E! Online, "Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé."

The next he's calling Beck one of the nicest guys in the game and explaining away his outburst with a characteristically off-kilter, musculoskeletal metaphor.

It is, he told Ryan Seacrest, "almost like a chiropractor. You know, you just get a little crook out like, 'Wow, this crook has been there!' It's just a little jolt of truth, right? And then you know, everyone feels better after the fact, or everyone is way more famous after the fact, or everyone sells way more albums after the fact, and then Kanye just goes on being an ass---- to everyone."

Which brings us to Bob Dylan.

"Now listen, I'm not ever going to disparage another songwriter." That's never a good thing to say during an acceptance speech, in this case one for being named the Person of the Year by MusiCares, the foundation that provides assistance to musicians in need.

"I'm not going to do that," he reiterates, right before saying of a song by country great Tom T. Hall that "it might be a little overcooked" and not long after dismissing Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who, apparently, did the same to Dylan at some point) as writers of "novelty songs." This, about the team that wrote or co-wrote with others "Stand By Me," "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway" and "Is That All There Is?"

Later, during a speech that veered from exhilaratingly honest to downright petty, he took time to praise Johnny Cash.

"Johnny was an intense character. And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted letters to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing."

After this week, some of us might be thinking the reverse: "Sing and let them shut up."

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Added to Library on February 13, 2015. (3457)

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