So another couple of months pass, and it’s August in NYC. It’s muggy and hot; it rains every now and then; we go to the beach when we are able. When you go to swim practice you don’t have to wedge eighty-leven pounds of overcoat boots hats gloves sweater flannel-lined trousers into the locker, rumpling your work shirt beyond redemption.
Life here is good. The job proceeds apace, and there are even suggestions that I might get my contract extended by a couple of months to work on another project. We go to the beach when we are able, and find ways to amuse ourselves when we are not. I have been taking in more theater and crazy performance stuff than is typical, too — a side effect of hanging out with the charming D.
Take a recent evening, for instance. D and I went to go see John Kelly perform the entirety of Joni Mitchell’s album “Court and Spark” down in the open-air performance space of Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Kelly, for those of you at home, has had a long and varied career as an artist, but has found a weird sort of fame performing as Joni Mitchell. The hair, the clothes, the mannerisms. Or what I’m assured are the mannerisms. Before this summer my file on Joni Mitchell was mighty thin. Actually, lacking familiarity with the template does make your mind go looking for some other something to compare it with on first exposure. I ended up at a cross between Janice from the Muppet show and Hedwig, which was totally wrong and made me laugh inappropriately. But that’s the mindblowing thing about his performance: it’s not camp, it’s not drag, it’s not parody. Even if you wouldn’t know Joni Mitchel if she asked you for directions on 63rd Street, you can tell after about 30 seconds that Kelly is totally committed to what he’s doing. There’s nothing arch or ironic about it. Which makes it a whole ‘nother flavor of awesome. And the crowd plugs right into it.
In fact, it was the strength of that commitment that made the next thing that happened such a stunning moment of theatre. We sat in the VIP section, which had a great side-on view of the stage, and everybody’s grooving right along and we’ve hit the album’s fifth track, “Down to You.” And everyone’s having a fine time, and Kelly’s band is crazy tight, and one of the backup singers, who’s decked out like she’s been a dedicated flower child since back in the day, keeps looking over toward someone in the VIP section with this smile on her face like it’s the craziest gig she’s ever done, or the best, or possibly both. And we hit the long instrumental part that makes up most of the second half of the song and Kelly starts to pick his way back through the band toward the back of the stage, and crouches down to root through a duffel bag. He’s vanished from the view of the audience, except for some of us in the VIP section.
He drops the shawl he’s been wearing, folds it up. He slips the velvety green dress from over his head: there’s a black one beneath it. Hey, costume change! But after a moment’s thought he pulls that one off as well, and the silvery one that had been beneath that. And then the wig. He takes a cloth from the bag and wipes off his makeup as best he can. He stands, slowly, returning to view: he faces the back of the stage and the walkway running behind it and turns his face to the sky, a 49-year-old guy in a pair of black Calvin Klein underwear. He stretches, breathes deep. He returns to the bag, pulls on jeans and a T-shirt, and goes back to the mic. The band has been playing the whole time, and the song reaches the end, and they go into “Just Like This Train,” the sixth track. And he looks like Alan Cumming, but drained of that faint undercurrent of malice; he looks a little like Terrence Stamp. And the music goes on.
Not a new thing, the transformation. It has been done in any number of other acts. But for some reason, in this instance, it is profound. It hits you like a delivery van. D is crying. But there’s no time to linger, because Kelly doesn’t need the wig to sing the hell out of the material. There’s a woman in the second row: flowered pants, coral-to-pink-grapefruit blouse, curly dark hair, big sunglassess; someone’s Jewish grandmother from Staten Island. She’s been rocking out from the start, she knows all the words, and the exultant smile on her face stays exactly where it has been and like everyone else in the audience she stays right with Kelly and the band right through to the end of the show, having a fine time as the sun sets over the harbor and gleams off the silver towers of the Financial District. And I think: I fucking love this town.