A Chronology of Appearances

This work-in-progress lists all currently known appearances, drawn from a variety of sources.
Compiled by Simon Montgomery, © 2001-2018.
Special thanks to Joel Bernstein for his contributions and assistance.
Latest Update: February 16, 2018
Please send comments, corrections or additions to: simon@icu.com

1975.12.07 Joni's next appearance Correctional Correctional Facility for Women Clinton, NJ

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theairburns on

My favorite Joni Mitchell concert is the one I never got to see, in 1975 at Clinton Prison in New Jersey, a concert staged to help support the release of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter from prison.

In 1968 at age 20 I was facing the death penalty for gangster activity that began at age 8 as a street child, going from child prostitute to a fully actualized gangster with my own gang, for I would at age 20 transition into bank robberies, hijackings and homicide, and a host of other activities, the accumulative effect that certainly had me deserving the death penalty, which I had decided firmly to embrace with no appeals once convicted and sentenced. But I came up with an air tight alibi right before my trial started, during jury selection, and I made a last-minute deal with them: they agree to drop all charges against my partner and best friend from childhood, and I get 30 years in the worst prison in America at that time (referenced in Karl Menninger's The Crime of Punishment), Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. For example, one of the easiest things to get away with was killing other prisoners, and why fights hardly ever broke out. But how does this have anything to do with a Joni Mitchell concert?

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was getting an appeal on his murder convictions, and famous artists were involved in helping to free him. But then the unbelievable happened: famous artists would be performing at Trenton State Prison (nothing was allowed in Trenton, including a blade of grass, literally - a prison detail was assigned to daily look for and tear out any life forms, including a blade of grass).

Bob Dylan had already entered the prison, having been granted interview time with Mr. Carter to help prepare the writing of one of his masterpieces, "Hurricane". But it was still unimaginable that the prison administration would allow performers to enter Trenton. But it seemed to be happening, and I would get to see in concert my two favorite artists: Bob and Joni.

I always credited Ms. Mitchell with being the most prophetic of all the great artists in music across all genres of music. And for me, her "Just Like this Train" sits comfortably alongside Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World" in hurling me right back on the rails, which still sing to me like a Siren at 70, which began at age 11, the age I mastered riding rails (including familiarizing myself with all the Hobo camps along the way, and always having a jar of instant coffee with me to gain immediate access). When Ms. Mitchell sings that line about the brakes being applied when a train rolls into town captures the pure essence of riding rails, whether in a coach or a boxcar. It's this sense that all this metal rolling across any landscape is seemingly invincible in allowing those of us that can't settle anywhere to stay in motion, having to keep getting away from ourselves and everything surrounding us, to keep rolling without any serious interruption on a journey that never ends, just one long Iliad.

In any case, I was ecstatic about getting to hear Ms. Mitchell. But it became an issue, a legitimate one: Trenton held the worst of the worst, and why Trenton was nicknamed The Old Dusty [everything dies there, returns to dust], and The Last Stop, the likelihood of dying there real to every prisoner. Why would they even think about allowing celebrities in when we could only see a family member once a month for 30 minutes behind a little bullet-proof glass window?

But transferring the concert to Clinton (one prison housing women and the other male politicians and mafia bosses, with a splattering of regular cons to make it appear to be just another prison holding regular prisoners) worked out for Mr. Carter. To avoid the entire issue, the administration sent him to Rahway State Prison, close to Clinton, and far less hardcore, more juvenile activity available (the prison where they had that stupid program that abuses children, "Scared Straight", that just as stupidly got an Oscar!) And that's where the concert was held, at Clinton, not Trenton as originally planned. And I was later told that some prisoners had actually booed one of the greats of all time in music, Ms. Mitchell, and it broke my heart, and I am still embarrassed for all us cons. We at Trenton would not only have been polite, we would have loved Ms. Mitchell's music. She was just beginning to step more deeply into jazz elements, which the older cons would love, but the sheer originality of her music is what would mezmerize the most (no doubt why Miles Davis secretly absorbed all her music). And at the bare minimum you give a respected musician respect, what every con at Trenton would have done in the very least.

Ms. Mitchell being booed (if it occurred) makes sense. The racial divide during 1975 was wide and deep in prison, deadly sharp lines, and that, with all its complexity, no doubt had a major influence on all that transpired, originating in a constant stewing in racial hatred as a form of protection for the weak who join racially motivated cliques that give many prisoners a sense of being protected as well as keeping their minds off their real existential predicament, where they are now truly alone in the universe at last! But an interesting side-note is that years later a scandal broke out: women prisoners in Clinton Correctional Facility ( those euphemisms!) for Women were getting pregnant, and it turned out they were being prostituted to the high-class prisoners in Clinton prison for men. That's New Jersey, for you. That great Dylan line from Tweeter and the Monkey Man: "In Jersey everythin's legal, as long as you don't get caught."

I retired from all criminal activity, even petty hustles, at age 37, when I got married, had a child, and now have three grandkids, arriving in a continual bliss unknown to me as a criminal. And there is no question that great artists like Joni Mitchell kept me and many other cons interested in seeing through lenses other than the ones we became addicted to for survival and meaning in a meaningless world. No question that the true guides in every age are our artists, and Ms. Mitchell sits at the top, a great artist indeed. The gratitude would have been obvious at Trenton, but slipped into a fear-based negative reaction in a prison void of maturity related to truly appreciating exceptional art, another sign of how prisoners are robbed of their humanity through conformity, much like the rest of society, although with limited masking to give an appearance otherwise.

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