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By John Kelly
The Birthday Party
The next day I called Robbie in LA. He told me to call Joni at her hotel to wish her a happy birthday, so I left a message on the voice mail. I later got a return call from Joni's boyfriend Don, inviting me to her birthday party that night at Tanti Baci, a tiny restaurant under a Jazz shop in the West Village. I showed up on time to find an L-shaped table squeezed into a 10/10' room with 14 chairs, lots of flowers (including a huge bouquet sent by Yoko Ono), and a couple of on time but obviously too early guests. I went back outside and sat on the curb across the street, musing on the events of the past few days. I finally rejoined the other guests, and as we waited, the Limo's arrived, and the Birthday girl entered, in wine colored leather and Versace.* Greetings, hugs, kisses, seating, tequila and bottles of cranberry juice. At one point during the meal we made eye contact from across the room, and laughed and toasted to nothing, though we didn't throw our empty glasses down. Chaka Kahn "baby, you got a joint?" and her sister arrived. Julie Larson, A&R from Reprise took photos and promised to send a comparative astrological chart of myself and Joni. Liz Rosenberg, Madonna's Publicist, coerced me into bringing out the birthday cake, covered in lit candles, which I placed in front of Joni, an offering at this altar of art. She wished and blew.
The crowd eventually thinned, and I found myself seated with Joan and Don. As I spoke, those wise eyes were definitely checking me out. I said "Do you realize how much people love you?" to which she gave a quiet affirmative nod. As we spoke of guitar tunings and plucking she allowed me to inspect her fingernails, the right hand which she augments with synthetic applications. I insisted she see the Carl Dreyer film "The Passion of Saint Joan", informed her that my Moon is in Cancer. She let on that "Shadows and Light" was written during a foreplay. Then something about a tour, with her starting from the west coast, I from the east, meeting in the middle. I offered to be a double, like the guys Warhol sent out in Andy drag to fulfill speaking engagements. Nice to feel like one of this gang. Time to go. Group photos in the street in front of a tree. Bye Bye.
In retrospect, the inevitable occurred, and in the best possible manner. I'm glad she saw Paved Paradise here in New York and not in its earlier incarnation in LA. I met the challenge and did my job well. She told me that during the course of that strange night she had cried 4 times. People in the audience saw her hooting and hollering, singing along to "The Circle Game." Julie told me that while we were performing "Amelia," Joni turned to her table and said "What song is this?" Don at one point screamed out "I love you Joni!" And on this night I got to hang out with her on her birthday, check out her fingernails, look into her eyes and press my leather jacket against her own as we sat getting to know one another, my arm around her as we posed for snapshots for my friend Hebe.
Joni Mitchell exudes the quality of physical intimacy, a great warmth. She seems part intellectual, part cowgirl, part oracle. An artist who has no choice, who decides to face the inevitable head on her gifts she grapples courageously with her demons , attempts to honor her muse, to make sense of her life. She told me that the performance was very strange for her, as it most definitely had been for me. I'm glad we then had this time to hang, without impatient handlers hovering. I gave her my best, and she in turn looked me straight in the eyes, regarding me not as a demon or a muse, but as a fellow artist.
*(Great artists and famous folk carry with them a particular vibe, especially in public. Or maybe it is our relationship to their work or myth which ignites that frisson, that spark. The only other artist of this caliber who I had been out with in public was Leonard Bernstein, who, after having read a review of one of my solo works in the New York Times in 1988, arrived unannounced at the performance at LaMaMa, to inspect my stuff. Afterward, I went to a restaurant, La Spaghatteria, with the Maestro. The moment we walked in that place, the sparks began to fly. My encounter with Joni brought back that same experience, that same charge, akin to confusion, or like love.)