By the time he got to Wigstock

by Paul Power
Irish Times
June 12, 2001

You might expect to hear John Kelly playing Joni Mitchell on Mystery Train on RTÉ Radio 1. But you wouldn't expect to see him on stage in a long blond wig and navy 1970s gown, singing the songs of Joni Mitchell. Meet the other John Kelly, a New York-based artist who performs Mitchell's songs in Paved Paradise, a show that involves an uncanny impersonation of the legendary singer-songwriter.

The songs he performs, which will stir the folk embers of those who still have the albums at home, are taken from Mitchell's first eight LPs,albums, covering the period from 1968 to 1975, and include Night In The City from her eponymous debut album, Circle Game and Conversation from Ladies Of The Canyon, Little Green and This Flight Tonight from Blue and Shadows And Light from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.

But Paved Paradise is more than a curio piece, and much more than the dime-a-dozen drag and lip-synching shows that have become almost a performance sub-genre in New York. What Kelly does isn't parody but what he describes as a performance, straddling pathos and irony. His playing, intonation and vocal nuances are so remarkably assured that you have to remind yourself that you're listening to a 46-year-old man in drag.

"When people see a 'drag' show, which to me is a theatre piece, I don't think they expect the level of craft that's involved."

Mitchell has seen Kelly perform three times. A couple of years ago, when she turned up at Fez, an eclectic venue beneath the trendy Time Cafe, she laughed, she cried, she clapped, she sang. She would have bought the T-shirt had Kelly been selling them.

"The whole place knew she was there at the back, so the electricity that night was palpable. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. My hands were shaking. It was very trippy and very difficult and, ultimately, a great success."

Mitchell was full of admiration and encouragement for Kelly, giving him a dulcimer that he now uses on A Case Of You.

Although Kelly has an Irish passport - his grandparents are from Mayo - this is his first trip to Ireland. He took the name of his show from the lyrics of the 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi - "They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot/with a pink hotel, a boutique/and a swinging hot spot" - which lamented the loss of one of Mitchell's cherished quarters in Los Angeles. "Like Temple Bar," jokes Kelly.

Kelly grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, which even then was a cultural wasteland, with precious little exposure to the voluminous artistic references that underpin his work.

He spent a while at art school before dropping out, enrolled in ballet academies, moved in the late 1970s to the East Village - the crucible of artistic activity in New York - and, still painting and sketching, started performing at venues such as the Anvil, the Pyramid and the Mud Club.

So what was New York like back then? "Drugs and madness and drag and punk. It was still quite irreverent to do drag then. It was punk drag, it wasn't out of the closet, and generally the clubs were at that time the most fascinating, because there was a genuine bohemian culture that hadn't been co-opted by things like Rent or the mass media. The artistic East Village had a short shelf life, although for a while it was an amazing place.

"But it's a typical thing: it happened on the Left Bank in Paris. Artists move in there, do their thing, make it interesting, then the real-estate people look at it and say, "Aha, let's clean it up a bit," and then it's safe, so all the people with money - and those people who want to dabble in it but not get their hands too dirty - can live there and be a part of it without the responsibilities that go with it."

Paved Paradise is one of several shows that Kelly has performed based on cultural figures; the others centred on Mona Lisa, Maria Callas, Egon Schiele and Barbette, the transvestite, trapeze-artist muse of Jean Cocteau.

"When I started doing performance work, I did a piece on Schiele, and for me that was a way of merging my past as a dancer with my past as a visual artist," he says.

"Callas for me represented opera, and she and Schiele were probably the two main influences in my life: his draftsmanship and her artistry. Also, in the early days drag was a way for me to vent a lot of rage and to be irreverent, but also to inhabit another character, the most extreme type of character I can imagine inhabiting - the opposite sex."

Kelly invented a character for one of his shows, Dagmar Onassis - Callas's daughter. He also sports an old-fashioned tattoo on his right arm, the kind sailors would come home with from Manila: "Dagmar" in a scroll unfurled across a faded red heart.

What drew Kelly to Mitchell wasn't the singer's tragic life or lifestyle, which is often the case for drag performers - think Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, even Patsy Cline. This was about the words and music, which he first heard when his older sister played the records at home.

"It was my first exposure to poetry, to a certain kind of lyricism: exotic, sexy songs about travelling, soliloquy and internal dialogue, relationships. It was about loving that music and wanting to sing it."

Kelly first performed Mitchell's songs in drag in 1984 at Wigstock, an East Village riposte to Woodstock and the perfect launch pad for his renamed rendition of Mitchell's lovefest anthem Woodstock.

There's a simple reason for Kelly's concentration on Mitchell's early years: she worked in different guitar tunings, the "weird chords" that some of her contemporaries found indecipherable, and the tunings became more layered and complicated with each album.

So Kelly, who plays guitar and dulcimer, has two differently tuned guitars on stage - one for the hippy Joni, the other for the Los Angeles glam Joni - and gets much mileage from them.

The one costume change, from a "hippyish frock" to "a dark-blue, more glam, shimmery dress", reflects the progression, too. Zecca Esquibel, a pianist dressed as the Mitchell idol Georgia O'Keeffe, accompanies Kelly for the performance.

Kelly has also performed as Bartel D'Arcy in the recent Broadway version of The Dead, and done other physical-theatre performances, but is working on a show of Mitchell's 1970s and 1980s music that he may have ready later in the year. Although he's wary of being pigeonholed as the Joni Mitchell guy, the shows sell out and he still enjoys them.

"I really do try to sing and play the music as well as I can and, obviously, there are some funny moments in there. But to get people to forget that it happens to be a dude in a dress and focus on the music, and hear the music through a different lens, that's the job I've set for myself."

Paved Paradise is at Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin, tomorrow, Thursday and Friday at 10 p.m., admission free. Tickets from Temple Bar Properties, 18 Eustace Street, Dublin 2

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