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It's a Joni Mitchell concert, sans Joni

Actor and performance artist John Kelly channels the iconic singer-songwriter in his tribute show, 'Paved Paradise: The Art of Joni Mitchell.' Even the real Mitchell is a fan.

April 22, 2010|By Matt Diehl, Special to the Los Angeles Times

LAT: John, when did Joni become an influence?

JK: Growing up, I wasn't exposed to classical music, literature or wanderlust; my sisters listened to Joni, however, and I found refuge in her music. The lyricism of "Rainy Night House" and "For Free," the piano songs from "Ladies of the Canyon" — those were miraculous for me, and got into my bones.

LAT: John, when did you decide to begin performing as Joni?

JK: When I started singing, I always knew I wanted to do Joni's music. So when the first Wigstock [New York's annual drag festival] happened in 1985, a light went on: "Now's your chance." It came from love, really — you can't sing something you don't love.

JM: That's the thing about the show that's so special. I could tell John loves the music: He did all these little, Joni-esque vocal things that brought giggles from the audience. And it's an actual performance. Lots of drag is lip-synced, which makes for a lesser degree of theater.

JK: Drag does have a power, though — that netherworld of a thing you can't quite know, which makes people nervous.

JM: Drag wasn't always counterculture. In his memoirs, Nixon talked about the Harvard and Yale men in power who would put on these plays where they dress like women, and Milton Berle did a kind of "hairy drag." Becoming a gay thing made drag go underground.

JK: My drag choices have been Mona Lisa, Pina Bausch, Jackie Kennedy, Joni Mitchell, and the cross-dressing trapeze artist Barbette. That's an obtuse family; I've done Egon Schiele and Caravaggio too! The whole problem I have with drag is how it focuses on the dress or wig, but when Cate Blanchett played Dylan [in the 2007 film "I'm Not There"], it was considered acting. I may stop doing performing "Paved Paradise" in drag, actually.

JM: It was an interesting way to establish it, but at a certain point it's not necessary. Just before he died, Jimi Hendrix, his drummer [Mitch Mitchell] and I would sit up all night listening to tapes of our shows. Jimi was the sweetest guy. He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him. "I can't stand to do that anymore," he said, "but they've come to expect it. I'd like to just stand still like Miles." Transitions aren't easy. After I took a jazz band into the Grand Ole Opry, they never invited me back!

LAT: As well, you've had experience becoming a character outside yourself [Mitchell caused controversy when she appeared as an African American male on the cover of her 1977 album, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter"].The folk scene you came out of had fun creating personas. You were born Roberta Joan Anderson, and someone named Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.

JM: 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.

As for my name, my parents wanted a boy, so they called me Robert John; when I came out a girl, they just added two letter A's to that. Then I married Chuck Mitchell; I wanted to keep my maiden name — I had a bit of a following as Joni Anderson — but he wouldn't let me.

LAT: When John performs Joni's early songs, it really takes the audience back to the dawn of women's liberation. There was a double standard back then: John Lennon singing about sex was one thing, but if Joni did the same, it proved controversial.

JM: It was very shocking; even Prince said that to me. I first saw him in the audience of one of my Minneapolis shows. He was the only person of color in the front row — he concentrated on me for the whole show with his big eyes. When Prince later became a star, he told me, "You used to be shocking, but I can cut you now!" I never actually tried to be shocking — I was shocked that people were shocked. The madonna-whore thing was very prevalent, though, even in the "Summer of Love." Rolling Stone even called me "Old Lady of the Year," and made a graph of all these hearts I'd theoretically broken — if I did someone's radio show, they had me sleeping with them.

Grace [Slick] and Janis Joplin were [sleeping with] their whole bands and falling down drunk, and nobody came after them! The ad for my first album said, "Joni Mitchell is 100% virgin"; the ad for the second one was "Joni Mitchell takes time," which was also nod-nod, wink-wink in a way my material didn't call for.

LAT: You've come out in the media as a sufferer of a controversial condition known as Morgellons. How is your health currently?

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