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Birthday Suite   Print

by Hilton Als
The New Yorker
December 11, 1995

(From The Talk of the Town)

One recent evening, Joni Mitchell, whose autobiographical lyrics and jazz-inflected acoustic guitar are largely responsible for folk music's staying power, celebrated her fifty-second birthday with what she called "an informal open rehearsal" at Fez, the downtown watering hole. Mitchell's appearance was not announced in the press. Ten hours before she had decided to perform, after a twelve-year absence from touring and just an hour after she informed Ellen Cavolina, who books the acts at Fez, of her decision ("I played for a group of seventy-year old intellectuals at the Waldorf-Astoria last night; tonight I want to do something different," she said), word of Mitchell's impromptu concert spread throughout Manhattan. "When I heard she was performing, my whole BODY filled up with this...Joni feeling," Katherine Dieckmann, a VILLAGE VOICE writer, said as she waited in line. "I almost passed out. Joni's been incredible for thirty years."

Of some two hundred fans who gathered in the dark, cavernous space where Mitchell was to perform, many were women, including the novelist Susan Minot; the Pretenders' lead singer, Chrissie Hynde; Carly Simon; and Natalie Merchant. Hynde, who was sitting in a banquette, raised her hands in the air as Mitchell made her way to the stage. "Let it out, Joni!" she shouted. Mitchell smiled, strapped a green guitar across her chest, and bowed.

She looked like any number of her photographs: long blond hair with bangs, long pallid face, equine mouth. On a stand to Mitchell's right, there was a vase filled with sunflowers, which evoked van Gogh, one of Mitchell's favorite painters; in fact, the cover of her latest album, "Turbulent Indigo," executed in oil, is a self-portrait with a bandaged ear. "I have this little house in Canada," she told the audience, rubbing her right hand against her black-jeaned thigh. "And there's this man who looks after my land. He's a melody man. He hums all the time, like my grandmother did. He thinks Frank Sinatra is an amateur. He said to me, 'Joni, I know you're not sad like you are in your songs all the time. Write me something different,'" Mitchell smiled her muted Stan Laurel-like smile. "I sat on a rock and tried to tune my guitar to the sound of squawking birds near the sea. I tried to write a happy song, but it didn't turn out that way." Mitchell then began to sing "The Magdalene Laundries," which is about discrimination against single women in Ireland in the early part of this century.

During certain songs, Mitchell rocked her hips back and forth, in a modified version of the Elvis swivel. Between songs, the only sound besides Mitchell's voice and the audience's applause was Chrissie Hynde intermittently shouting, "Let it out, Joni!" When Carly Simon, who was seated in the booth beside Hynde's, asked her to stop, Hynde held Simon tightly around the neck, pointed to Mitchell, and stage-whispered, "That's a REAL singer up there."

"Why don't you have another drink, Chrissie?" a male member of the audience yelled to Hynde after Mitchell completed "Turbulent Indigo" and moments before Simon picked up her coat and left. Hynde ignored everyone except Joni Mitchell. She cheered, "Happy birthday, Joni!" Mitchell looked out into the audience and bowed again. The audience began singing "Happy Birthday." Looking pleased and slightly embarrassed, Mitchell said, "The one good thing about this birthday thing is that I don't have to say that I'm fifty-one and a half anymore." She paused and strummed a few chords on her guitar. "Maybe I've made it."

 

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