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If You See Her, Say Hello   Print

by Joe Jackson
Hotpress
January 23, 1999

This article is used by kind permission of the author, Joe Jackson, who owns the copyright.

BACKSTAGE AT Madison Square Garden, the big question is whether Joni or Bobby will run over time as Joni Mitchell later explains. "This place is the tightest union venue in America. If we go one minute over, the rent on the hall goes up and we're into triple gold-time for every union worker in the building especially given that it's Sunday."

At 75 bucks a ticket, in a sell-out venue holding roughly 17,000 people, you'd think Joni and Bobby could easily absorb the extra costs, right? But, hey, as Jagger once said "that's rock 'n' roll!" Corporate rock 'n' roll. And the point is that if either Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan do go into extra time for even a chorus of a song it'll cost at least $20,000, which is deducted from the 50-50 split profits for each artist. As such, Blue ain't the word for what these people are feeling or even Tangled Up In Blue.

Backstage at the Garden, which, legendary or not, really is only a big, old, forbidding version Dublin's National Stadium, I am told that Joni Mitchell will see me after the show "for a chat" but most definitely not an interview. Why, not an interview? "Joni always says there is no such thing as a good interview, they'll always use something to come back and attack you, so don't give anything away," one of her oldest friends explains. Her manager and my host for tonight - Steve Macklin, elaborates "Joni's had her problems with the press. She's been saying that for years. She has trusted certain people, then they just go and betray that trust."

No doubt this sense of betrayal, which has led to Joni Mitchell undertaking less than 20 interviews during the past 31 years, goes back to those days when Rolling stone described her as a rock 'n' roll groupie - bed mate of seemingly ever changing lovers such as Graham Nash. Now Joni's back in New York and no, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, is not on the list of invited guests.

However, outside Joni's door a member of someone's guest list gaily poses beside a portrait Of Frank Sinatra who graced the stage of Madison Square Garden in 1974, a gig I, as a student working in New York, missed by just a few weeks. Not that Frankie noticed. Right now, she's glancing across the corridor at Elvis '72 style, who seems to be looking up to heaven. But then Elvis always was more "spiritual then Sinatra. Get a shot of me beside some of these other guys." Not-so-wisely pressing her velvet jacket against the dust-laden concrete as she moves down along the line of images of Madison Square "stars" like Lennon, Jagger, Jackson, Celine Dion, Hope, Crosby, George Burns, one suspects that this group of happy snappers may have originally seen George Burns at his debut gig. Or, yes, Bobby Dylan, back when he was simply the stand-in piano player in Bobby Vees band, 37 years ago. Or a to hell-with-Elvis-I'm-A Little Richard "freak", 40 years ago.

"Where's Bob's dressing room?" asks a denim-bedecked guy who looks like he should be heading back to Woodstock in 1969. Then again, if he was at the original gig, one suspects there was no need for the ear plugs he now removes. Unable to locate Bob's place, he promises his female companion that they'll find it after the show. Rushing by, he brushes against Meryl Streep, the kind of woman Joni, in her song 'Peoples' Parties', describes as a "photo beauty". However, right now this particular beauty ain't getting much attention, if only because she's largely unrecognisable, dressed in de rigeur, "rock chick", or is it "rock chic" - black leather jacket - as are more than half the people backstage. Maybe they got a job lot somewhere. Allergic to black leather jackets and all they symbolise in rock, I back away from it all. But there's no escape. Peeping through the folds of curtain - black, of course, though, thankfully not leather - that separates the VIP enclosure backstage from the VIP section in the main auditorium, I see a silver tray glide by filled with champagne, en route to the likes of Julia Roberts and Jimmy Buffet.

Paul Simon walks by, half-crouching, as if skewered by his own private pain, possibly still suffering the after effects of his epic-flop on Broadway earlier this year, The Cape Man. Nine performances and "so long". Not Frank Lloyd Wright, but poor Paul paving a solo path he sure is moving at a beat removed from everything else that's happening in this corridor. Hey, Paul, How are you? Congratulations on the kids. Life's treating ya good? Oozes one of Simon's acquaintances. He, either instinctively aware that there is a journalist nearby, or paranoiac even among his peers, scans the corridor before giving the woman his reply. Can I hear it? Hardly. He's whispering, into her cleavage, as if terrified anyone will hear. Maybe even her. And how is our Paul dressed? Baseball cap in place of his toupee, brown jacket, blue leans. Y'know, the uniform of the I-may-be-a-multi-millionaire-but-I'm-still-a-regular-guy brigade. But then we all know that millionaires don't dare to wear their wealth at rock gigs. They just walk it. Especially when they're on stage.

Suddenly, all such nominations are reduced to rubble as people in the corridor, including Paul Simon, are almost physically pushed to one side by a bouncer who says: Everybody to their seats, tours, we need to clear the area. Why? Who has arrived? Bill Clinton desperately seeking not Susan, but any woman who is selling Havana Coarse? The local Mafia Don who wants to pay his respects to his colleagues among the rock aristocracy? Van Morrison? Madonna? No, folks. This particular dividing of the red sea of common people is simply because the Pope of Pop is about to venture outside the Vatican some call his dressing room.

Shit, at least we aren't asked to line up, bend down and kiss Dylan's ring. Thank God. And, yes, even though I do step back into the nearest open doorway, I still can see his holiness, Robert Zimmerman, shuffle by: pale, gaunt, post-heart operation, three years from sixty but still sharp as a heroin syringe. He's decked out like a latter day Hank Williams - dark suit, serrated design down the side of the pants, dressed to kill. Rather than just play with, or for, himself as he did in Dublin nearly a decade ago when he displayed that disgusting lack of respect for his audience by wearing an anorak, with the hood up and not bothering to speak a word, declining even to introduce his fellow musicians.

Tonight, the man definitely looks like he's here to be the troubadour he's supposed to be, the working musician who actually works for the audience that pays big bucks to see him.

"Did Zimmie actually receive you? I don't fucking believe it!" says a disembodied voice to the guy who, earlier was looking for Dylan's dressing room.

But to hell with Bob Dylan, And what he himself might call "all this mumbling of small talk to the wall" tonight. I'm here to try and get within greeting distance of Joni Mitchell, who surely is his female equivalent in many ways, if not his superior, in a musical sense. Indeed, Elvis Costello got it right when he said not just that she has no rivals among female singer-songwriters. She has very few peers among any songwriters. And right now Joni's out there, on stage, performing for thousands of fans who have probably been praying for this gig for a decade, since the last time she sang in public in New York. Or, at least, since her last unannounced gig at The Fez club on November 6th 1995, the night before the day she hit 52. And the night Carly Simon seemed to want to punch out Chrissie Hynde who was shouting "We love you Joni" but, instead, just told her to shut up. Hynde's response? She wrapped her hands round Simon's neck and snarled "that is a real singer".

And, of course, Chrissie Hynde was right. In fact, to look at Costello's claim, from another angle, Joni Mitchell is one of the few singer-songwriters who doesn't disgrace either side of the singer-songwriter equation, whose vocal talents actually more than match her masterful songwriting skills. Sure, in the beginning, she sometimes sang like a seagull unsure of where to settle but nowadays her voice is as finely honed and expressive as the trumpet playing of Miles Davis at his best. Tonight, Joni neither excessively plugs her latest album nor patronises her audience by playing only her most popular songs. Instead, her set list includes deliciously complex and challenging compositions such as 'Amelia', 'Don Juan's Reckless Daughter' and 'Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody'. Stand on stage to her left as she sings, I can see each sweet-hearted smile, nod of acknowledgement, and manifestation of sheer delight on her face whenever one of her fellow musicians creates a moment of magic on stage, which actually happens so often that it seems as though everyone playing here tonight is unified at some other-worldly level. As Bing Crosby might have said, "That's jazzy" and this really is a jazz gig in the purest possible sense, with no musician trying to outshine the other, but, instead, five musicians trying to help each other shine. As for the audiences - again, from this vantage point, it really does seem that their faces are ribbons of silk. Softly shimmering, translucent, a single line of light.

In fact, as Joni sings "Down at the Chinese Cafe We'd be dreaming on our dimes We'd be playing 'oh my love, my darling/I've hungered for your touch" she seems to have the power to send time into reverse. Not so much because she takes us back to the past but because she reminds us that the mythical or mytholigised "Richard" was wrong. How so? In her song 'The Last Time I Saw Richard' Joni quoted his warning: "all romantics meet the same fate/Drunk and cynical and boring someone in some dark cafe". Yeah, right, Richie baby. Step into Madison Square Garden tonight and you will see that no one here is drunk and though some may be cynical, few look bored.

In fact, Joni Mitchell's audience seems totally transfixed by even her spoken introduction to the song 'The Magdalene Laundries' when she speaks of women who "were incarcerated for life, often simply because they were attractive" or because some got pregnant by their own fathers. Or who, as in the case of "Brigid", "got pregnant by the parish priest," as Joni tells the audience. The latter, not surprisingly, inspires some lone female voice to shout, "Ban The Pope" but this, in effect, is something Joni has already done, given that she apparently refused to pose for a photograph with his less-than-holiness John Paul, if even though Dylan did, it's said, for a hefty cheque from the Vatican.

But then, The Magdelene Laundrles, as with those relatively recent Joni Mitchell songs that deal with subjects such as rape, domestic violence, druglords and warlords prove that she, unlike Dylan, never abandoned the element of social commentary that its supposed to sit at the soul of folk music. And right now she's out there singing about the bloodless brides of Christ, a politically-pointed attack on those nuns who, she once said, call themselves "the brides of Jesus, the compassionate ones" yet who are, in fact so hostile.

Fittingly, perhaps, Madison Square Garden suddenly becomes as suit and chilled as a confessional, while we, the punters, are in the priest's privileged position and the Church is outside on its knees praying for forgiveness. Without a doubt, this is the most powerful moment in the show and, more to the point, the moment that shows how pop music, at its purest, can humble even two thousand years of Christian ideology and propaganda. No wonder Joni steps off-stage beaming and as blessed as we have been by her performance.

Fast forward. Joni, in her dressing room, sits on a sofa beside Eric, her current companion. Twenty or so people clamour for a moment of her time. "I'm coming back to New York on the 7th to do about four days of press, so maybe then", she says to a woman leaning over the back of the sofa. Turning to her right, Joni nods her head, smiles "Listen, my mail is stacked up back at the house. I'll probably get it three years from now." She then gracefully acknowledges the outstretched hand of another woman, enquiring "How are you? Did you like the show?"

Obviously, there is no point in even thinking of approaching her right now. Focus instead on the fact that somewhere in the distance, Dylan has begun to sing. Suddenly, standing here, looking at Joni Mitchell and listening to Bob Dylan in the background, I realise there must be at least a million rock fans who would willingly die to be re-born where I am at this moment.

Meanwhile, some rock impresario, who "will be representing Robbie Williams here in the States" wants to talk about the guy and tells me "he's so eager to work here - so eager to get started that we can barely hold him back!" Yes, he has heard how Robbie "stole the show" at Slane. No, he doesn't believe Boyzone should even try to "break America" because they haven't "a hope in hell" whereas Williams has, "partly because he's a songwriter who is bursting at the seams with talent".

Well, yes, but it's all relative. And somehow it does seem slightly blasphemous to be standing here speaking of such pop acts as Robbie Williams and Boyzone in the presence of Joni Mitchell. Particularly given that, in her latest album Taming The Tiger, the title song mocks "formula music/Girlie Guile/Genuine junkfood/For juveniles/Up and down the dial... Mercenary style." Joni, meanwhile, is rising from her seat to greet, with deep affection, the man who created her customised guitar, Ken Parker. "Thanks for playing my guitar," he says as she clasps his right hand and exclaims "I'm sorry for drawing a blank, there. I was looking at you, wondering who you are but God that guitar is so great. It's light, weighs nothing." Turning to a fellow musician she gushes "His guitar is like what we always dreamed about in the coffee houses! Remember how we used to say 'when I get my tunings I'm going to weld it there!' Well, this guitar has my tunings locked right in, it's a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Thank you! I only had two guitars in my life that I loved and that's one of them!"

Steve Macklin reveals that one of the reasons Joni didn't tour for so long was because "she hated to go through all the tunings for every song." Then he says "Joni, I want to introduce you to one more guy, a friend of mine, who came all the way from Ireland."

Joni Mitchell spins on her heel. As she walks towards me, she shifts the ever-present cigarette into her left hand, offers me her right. Tight handshake, warm palm, an undeniably dynamic physical presence, beauty intact, eyes that lock you in their line-of-vision almost immediately. "Oh hi, nice to meet you," she says.

"You must perform that song 'The Magdelene Laundries' in Ireland," I suggest. She nods her head: "Well, you know I just cut a version of it with The Chieftains, for a project, with all women singers, an album they're bringing out next February," she says, referring to Tears of Stone.

"But I actually ran into this Irish girl in Canada who's just migrated there and she cornered me in a bar and said (affects 'Oirish' accent) 'Are you Irish?' I said, 'I've got a drop of Irish blood in me.' Then she said 'Are you Catholic?' I said 'no.' she said, 'Then, what business is it of yours, about our laundries? Why are you writing about our business? It was bad enough with Sinead ripping up the picture of the Pope, but, at least she's one of ours.' And she was going on and on 'till, finally, she said 'Anyway, it was well put!"'

That, no doubt is the single best review Joni Mitchell ever had! "It probably was!", she laughs. "In fact, she also told me that she'd settled with a Protestant and was living in sin with him and if her mother said anything against that she was going to play her that song. But she really had me on the grill about the whole thing!"

But surely Joni is fully aware that the subject of Catholic women who were incarcerated in Magdelane laundries is a subject that is still raw, difficult for many to deal with, and bound to fire a sense of pain?

"It is a raw subject, of course," she responds. "And I feel pain. I mean I was an unwed mother in the '60s and though they didn't incarcerate me, or anything, it was really difficult. That's where I get my empathy from, for these people. Can you imagine just how bad it must have been to be put in those places, never get out, know you would probably die?"

Like "Peg O' Connell" who, according to the song, dies and is quickly buried, without any form of ceremony "In the dirt like some lame bulb/That never blooms/Come any Spring"?

"Exactly. But it was easy for me to envision all that, though I never read anything about it except, maybe, that the Sisters of Charity sold ten and a half acres in Dublin and when they were ploughing up that land they found all these bodies. That's all I knew. And the song came from that."

Informed about similar atrocities in Goldenbridge, Joni agrees that "Ireland is going through some kind of period of culture shock along those lines." The same, she claims, is true of America.

"I saw these news clips and it was some kind of liberal programme set up to get prostitutes and bag-women and such, off the street, give them some 'self respect' by getting them work in laundries!" she elaborates, ignoring the cry of a voice that tells her, yet again, that her car is waiting. I read that and I immediately thought, 'that's the same thing as Magdelene laundries!' But when you hear it pitched at you that way, it's almost like a good idea."

Steve Macklin joins in "And you forget how insidious it was, at the time. Especially when you remember the kind of trust that was invested in the Church."

Joni cuts across "But all the dirt is rising up now. That's what's happening at the end of this century. We just played in Madison Square Garden, which is about to be torn down. They found out that every little hockey player was just about buggered by some one guy or another."

"That was Maple Leaf Gardens, Joni," says Steve.

"Sorry, right, it was Maple Leaf Gardens. But it's true. First there was one boy who said it was one guy who did it, now the floodgates have opened. These boys were abused by their coaches for years."

It is like a Millennium clean-up, isn't it?

"Definitely. It really is like all the dirt must rise. And, to me, at least, it's healthy and a hopeful sign that this is happening now."

To get back to the subject of the Magdelene Laundries, is Joni aware that Mary Coughlan once sang a song on the same subject, which quite explicitly referred to these women also sometimes being forced to wash the "cum" out of priests' habits?

"Wow! That's a strong image" she says, stopped short by a hand and that persistent voice declaring "Joni, we should really should be going. We're running out of time." Joni says "Okay," then turns back to this reporter. "The President, that woman, was it Mary Robinson, didn't she do some good, in terms of opening up things in Ireland? My hat's off to her. But if things are changing that rapidly in Ireland, that has to be a good thing. I love my Irish blond!"

Well, in 'Lead Balloon' from Taming the Tiger, Joni claims that selfsame "Irish blood" made her throw Tequila in the face of some "suit."

"Oh you read that!" she laughs, infectiously. "It is hard to handle. It rises up, spontaneously, doesn't it?"

As in her Irish blood/rage. To which one can only say may it always rise, if it leads to such songs and keeps Joni in touch with her core passions.

"It is the passionate blood, in me, I agree. Definitely. And listen, it was a real pleasure talking to you. see you again. In Ireland maybe?" she says finally disappearing out the doorway. The last words I hear her speak are: "Tonight I wanted to sing for longer, and it was hard-to-call, cutting two songs," which reminds one of Dylan. Will he go over-time?

As I step closer to the arena, Dylan's singing becomes clearer: One Too Many Mornings. I part the black curtains and, believe it or not, his voice does actually hit me "like a freight train." Hand to mic pulled back to his mouth, he's steamrollering forth those lines: everything I'm saying/You could sag it just as good. Who's he kidding? But Christ almighty, his voice does sound ten thousand times more powerful that it was during that less-than-live show I last saw, in Ireland. Earlier I may have joked about his being the 'Pope of Pop' but right now he sounds more like the Pope's "great commander-in-chief" to quote 'Highway 61 Revisited'. His voice really is one of the greatest instruments of communication in the history of rock, if not the history of this century. No pause, the train keeps rolling and Dylan does actually perform 'Tangled Up In Blue' dropping phrases, words, re-routing the melody and, basically rewriting the song just before it leaps from his mouth. This is the mark of his genius, this ability to make the truths in a song sound new, to himself, to us, and the musicians on stage, even though many of us have lived in a lyric like 'Tangled up in Blue' for nearly a quarter of a century. Likewise, in relation to Joey, his homage to kids from "the streets of Lime Italy" which one suspects, surely will make Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro smile tonight, whether they're here in this building or not. Wherever-the-fuck they are, I just know they can hear this song- The same may even be true of Sinatra, who, sadly, didn't live to see out this year and maybe if he had, might have come to see this show by his new "buddy". Either way, right now Bob Dylan is actually doing his tribute to one of his "original heroes", the man some call "The French Sinatra." Dylan says something like: Back in the early '60s I used to go to see this guy in Carnegie Hall. He's playing New York, again, this week, so I want to play, for him for you, the kind of song I usually play on guitar when I'm at home on my own. But, hey, I feel like I'm all by myself now." If I'm misquoting the man it's simply because, given that Charles Aznavour is also one of my original heroes", I'm basically stunned by this intro, fumbling to flick open my reporter's notebook, trembling with delight. Most of the other people in the VIP enclosure are, for whatever reasons, similarly stunned. "Who the hell's he talking about? asks one guy, who then simply shrugs his shoulders when he hears the reply. "Aznavour' I suddenly realise that tonight, in New York City, three of the greatest troubadours of our time are playing live. Joni, Dylan and Aznavour. Even Bob Dylan seems to know this night is special, a blessing, whatever way you look at it.

"I thank you for coming," he says, with a sense of warmth and emotion in his voice that is genuinely moving. And seemingly true. "When I played here before, I didn't appreciate it. But I sure do now."

And with that, it's all aboard for a positively main-street version of - what else? "Highway 61 Revisited." Then, 'Love Sick' with that chillingly accurate line "I spoke like a Child/You destroyed me with a smile" which, on the surface, sounds irredeemably defeatist, but, underneath, is bristling with what must be Dylan's sense of supreme joy at having survived his little dance with death last year. Maybe that's what this whole tour is all about, for Dylan, a deliriously life-affirming gesture from a man who got a reprieve from Death Row.

And to end? 'Rainy Day Women' which, according to my Gucci brings us right up to 1 hour 30 on-the-dot. Knowing Bob Dylan is said to be a man who is as much in love with money as he is with music I am almost totally convinced that's it. It's stopped rolling, Bob, right? Wrong.

Dylan slides right into 'Blowin' in The Wind', a gesture that, as I said earner, will probably cost him and Joni Mitchell at least $20,000. From the look on his face its seems as though he's worth it. It would have been worth an entrance fee of at least twenty thousand dollars. Rock music, at the peak of its redemptive powers, with two of its unrivalled masters. And let's hope that one day, Joni, in particular, does bring her Travelling Salvation Show to Ireland.

 

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