Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It was an interesting weekend for homage.

On Saturday, a friend invited me to the Barbra Streisand Birthday party at Mbar in Hollywood, which turned out to be a wild mix of performers, from amazing to okay, doing Barbra Streisand songs in honor of her birthday. It wasn’t crazy hero worship, but people had fun stories – some obviously bigger fans than others.

True confession here, I listened to Barbra almost exclusively from the age of 8 to 13. In fact, the first album I bought with my own money was the soundtrack to “A Star is Born”. A song from that was one of my favorite moments of the night, provided by a woman I’d never heard before named Julie GarnyĆ©, who has an incredible voice, and can belt as high as Streisand, which isn’t easy. She sang a song called “Everything” from “A Star is Born”, which I hadn’t heard in over 25 or 30 years, but still remember all the words to. That was kind of a hoot. It’s not a great song, and it’s even interrupted in the movie:

Of course, I’ve had it stuck in my head for days. Not a great song. She, on the other hand, knocked it out of the park. Truly exhilarating to find someone with a great voice you’ve never heard before.

The other great moment for me was provided by Dana Meller, who sang “I’m the Greatest Star” in Russian. It’s hysterical, and a perfect solution to wanting to sing a well-known Streisand song but not be compared with her. I even found it on youtube:

The performers were all game, and it was great to see so many talents – musical directors, musicians, singers, having a great time. It was a long evening – almost three hours, but a great time. I hope they do it next year.

And someone sings “Free Again” in French, which I think is the original language. It’s excellent.

Speaking of excellence, on Sunday I saw John Kelly do Joni Mitchell in his “Paved Paradise; Redux” show. According to his bio, the first time he did Joni was at Wigstock in 1985, which means he’s been performing her for 25 years. He’s brilliant.

What separates his show from homage, and moves it into a whole other realm, is his musicianship. Her songs are not easy to play, with intricate tunings and rhythm. And they’re not easy to sing, either. That he does that with any facility is incredible, but added on to it this kind of mimicry/celebration and it’s a wonder. A rarified wonder, but a wonder nonetheless.

In the first act, he’s wearing a white dress and performing mostly early songs, at one point moving to the side of the stage and picking up a dulcimer for “A Case of You” which he sings beautifully. The dulcimer, we later learn as “Joni” talks to us about John, was given to him as a gift by her. It’s hysterically meta. But underneath is seeing someone that’s gone beyond fan. He’s taken her as a persona and her music and created a complex show that celebrates her while celebrating our love for her – kind of what Rufus Wainwright did with his Judy at Carnegie Hall show. The aim of this, though, is to have Kelly play the character of “Joni Mitchell” with her stage patter, mannerisms, and way of walking (an entertaining kind of apologetic slouch) without at any point making fun of her. Neither does he deify her.

The second act is the later music, from Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Night Ride Home, and Turbulent Indigo. Kelly’s "Joni" voice isn’t as suited to most of this music, as Mitchell’s voice began to change, but it’s still the character he’s playing - I even thought he looks a little more like Meryl Streep than Joni Mitchell, but that's not at all the point. He captures her.

He goes off to a red special, taking off the dress and wig, and re-emerging as himself to play a couple more songs, ending with “Blue”. He’s an interesting performer on his own, and it’s that assertion of his individuality, of being an actor playing a role, that makes the show so strong. Apparently, from the patter, he’s become friends with Joni Mitchell, so they speak and he has her mannerisms down, especially the way she’ll tell a joke, then look up shyly and smile, and then become serious again. The character is somewhat awkward, smiling, unsure, talkative and hyper-intelligent, then giving way to explosively intimate awe-inspiring music. That Kelly can bring us both these worlds is astounding. I've never seen her in concert, and I'm sure it's very different, but you end up with great affection for her. It's apparent he's a visual artist as well, so it feels closer to performance art, with meticulous detail and thoughtful touches. It feels constructed in a way to bring out meaning and dialogue in a way that a straightforward tribute wouldn't. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. It's certainly not a version of "Jersey Boys" about Joni Mitchell, or a revue. And I love even more that he changes the songs, like an actual show, so if you saw it again you would see a different concert.

It brings to mind a bit the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who not only dance the ballets they spoof brilliantly, but manage to make fun of them affectionately at the same time - it's twice the work, and requires an ability to jump from sincerity to sarcasm in the twinkle of an eye. I dont think he's making fun, though ther are laughs, but he pulls us in to where the lines blur. It’s smart, surprising, complex stuff. I was amazed for much of the show. I’m glad I had the luck to see it.

This is from that article I linked to above. It says alot about what it is:

Joni sees 'Joni'

No less a critic than Joni Mitchell herself has been surprised by the impact of Kelly's cabaret tribute. "I was braced for a lampooning," she told The New York Times after seeing "Paved Paradise" in Manhattan in 1997. "I didn't expect to be so touched. I cried in two places." Mitchell, who took her own foray into cross-dressing as a black man on the cover of her 1977 album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," is now one of Kelly's biggest fans.

Indeed, Mitchell and Kelly have become friends, too. She has seen his show three times and presented him with a dulcimer, and they've had much conversation over the years. "She does most of the talking," Kelly says, smiling. "We talk about painting, and politics a little bit, and Miles Davis. She talks about her dreams a lot. She can be goofy. And very warm."

That first time Mitchell saw Kelly perform, Kelly knew she was in the audience. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he says. "I saw myself getting scared. And I said to myself, Don't do that, just do your job. Don't change anything. That would have been the dangerous thing, to feel like I had to adjust. . . . And she loved it."

Mitchell watched the show from the back of the house. "Every time a cigarette would light up," he says, "I could see her."

After the show, he saw her walking down the hall backstage and had a moment of panic, taking off his wig and then putting it back on. "And she said, 'Let me take off my jacket so I can hug you,' and we held each other. . . . That night, it was us checking each other out. And her trusting that I wasn't making fun of her or dishonoring her in any way. Especially with all the stuff surrounding the gender thing - there's such a history of people making fun, or parodying, or spoofing."

Mitchell told Kelly that seeing such a heartfelt reflection of herself was an emotional experience. "She really got it," he says. "During 'Shadows and Light,' she was standing up yelling 'Bravo!' During 'The Circle Game,' she was sobbing and swaying and holding the hands of her friends. She said it was like Huck Finn in the choir loft watching his own funeral."

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Red Book

I read about Jung's Red Book last September, and have been intrigued on and off. Not intrigued enough to pay $126 for a copy of it, but still fascinated. It's a journal of his hallucinations, thoughts, and delvings into the unconscious.

Well, lo and behold, I see that it's at the Hammer from April to June. Exciting.

Must run and see very soon. Since I won't be buying my own copy anytime soon, this may be my only chance to see it. Exciting!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

In honor of earth day, here are some photos I took at the Getty a couple of years ago. I still cannot believe how the sun's rays pointed directly into the center of the maze of the garden, no matter how many pictures I took, as if some Aztec rite was about to be performed. It's as if the gardeners knew that the correct configuration would be pierced by the sun at evening every day to look like a key was about to be unlocked, a la Raiders of the lost arc. I suppose we are sun-worshipers out here to a point.

I also love the 70s Western way the sun comes from behind the cactus. An opening of a 'getty western.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Secret of Kells

I saw The Secret of Kells this weekend, an animated film about the Book of Kells, ostensibly, or a young boy being raised by monks and illuminators who will go to any length to protect it.

Brendan, a boy of 12 being raised by his Uncle, the Abbot of Kells, is fascinated with the manuscripts being illuminated by the monks. His Uncle, meanwhile, is more concerned with saving Kells from advancing marauders from the North (Vikings)

who have pillaged and destroyed other communities by building a wall and gates to keep them out, and anything that distracts from that is frivolous.

Brendan’s fancy is captured when he is told the story of the master illuminator Aidan of Iona, who supposedly has such power that sinners are destroyed by the light that pours forth from his book. Brendan has a vision of Iona being destroyed, and soon after Aidan shows up at the door with his cat, Pangur Ban (which is a great callout to a famous poem written by a ninth century monk that I only know from Barber’s wonderful “The Monk and His Cat” from the Hermit Songs that you can listen to here - you gotta love how the piano sounds like a cat is tromping up the keys).

Anyhow, Brendan and Pangur venture to a forest that he is forbidden to go into to gather some oak berries for green ink.

They are set upon by wolves, and narrowly saved by Aisling (sounds like Ashley), a fairy of the woods. In a beautiful sequence, she shows Brendan the woods and all their wonders.

Aidan thinks his drawing is talented enough to be the keystone middle page of the manuscript, and he goes to find a crystal that is needed to see the world in a way to create the beauty of the illustration.

Eventually he is discovered, and his Uncle locks him in the tower until he learns what’s important, and keeps him from the scriptorium. The Vikings attack, Brendan and Aidan escape, and continue work on the book. There’s more, but you get the idea.

That’s quite a lot of it actually.

Kudos for simply the design of the movie. It’s gorgeously designed, fanstasically using the Celtic design and the design of the book to illustrate the story. The directors did not stop themselves from using imagination to tell the story, or to illustrate the feeling of something, rather than the literal illustration of it. The Abbot’s room, for instance, is dark and covered in drawings and architectural plans.

(Beautiful, huh?)

The people themselves are curved, and in groups fit into Romanesque arches.

Celtic knots are used frequently, and are prominent in Brendan’s struggle with the monster he must battle for the crystal. Imagination and concrete reality mix back and forth in a sometimes breathtaking pace, so the viewer is in-between fantasy and reality, impression and observation.

Besides my one main story issue, it’s actually the way the story is told that was somewhat responsible for my lack of emotional involvement. The script is good, and the voice talent is great (though the choice to have a girl with a thick Irish accent whisper at the beginning was weirdly off-putting). What happened for me, though, was that I was so taken with admiring the design and the imagination in telling that the story began to take a backseat. It was a standard boy-who-is-not-listened-to-but-must-save-everyone tale: he has an animal familiar, a guiding older voice who is an artist/sage, and a magical friend who no one else can see but who saves him. It’s all gorgeously done, but I was kept from being completely transported because of the prominence of the design, which felt at times overpowering to the story it was trying to tell. It called itself out a bit.

Looming larger is that though this happens in an Abbey, and among the religious, no one mentions that this “book” Brendan needs to work on and that will save civilization is The Gospels. Nowhere is it mentioned that it’s the story of Christ. Even stranger is that none of the characters, though religious, mention Christ, prayer or devotion. The Abbot is concerned with attack, and the illuminators with “the book”, but seemingly to its own ends - there is no discussion of faith, which seemingly would be at the base of all these actions and beliefs. We are never told why the book is so great, or why eventually it glows when it’s opened and can cause sinners to choke or die. The creators seem to want to glide over that most important fact. And even though I’m not calling for a religious story, it seems to flatten it out when that aspect is missing. It feels like a copout. I guess the big secret of Kells is that this entire community of monks is Christian and trying to save the bible.

I couldn’t help but think that this book they were trying so hard to save became the religion that eventually erased Aisling and her like from Ireland. So the magic in the film, the magic that saves Brendan’s life at least 3 times, is what followers of “the book” did their best to destroy. Brendan even says that the Abbot says she doesn’t exist and the other things are Pagan fantasy. The movie certainly doesn't think so, but doesn't ever deal with it. I guess if they opened that can of worms it would have been a completely different film. But not mentioning what "the book" was and what it’s done seems to be a disservice as well.

Beautiful animation, though, I will say that. Truly a gorgeous design. I'm glad I saw it.

Friday, April 16, 2010


John Kelly is bringing his Joni Mitchell homage "Paved Paradise" to LA. I saw him several years ago when I lived in NY with a guitar at a bar singing a couple of songs of hers - he's amazing. It's mimicry, but homage, and I think she's appreciative. He played at Fez in NY and she brought him a dulcimer.

I'm excited to see it, but it also reminds me of how much I love her music.

Here's he:

And here's she, singing "Sweet Bird", one of my faves:

This marks the move into "Hejira" at the end of "Hissing of Summer Lawns" to be critical about it, and "Hejira" has some of her best poetry - it's kind of emerged as my favorite of hers probably - if only because of Coyote and Hejira - that song blows me away. Her lyrics are always a knock-out, so here they are for Sweet Bird:

Out on some borderline
Some mark of inbetween
I lay down golden-in time
And woke up vanishing

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Up on your feathers laughing

Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power, ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone's hand

Give me some time
I feel like I'm losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing
No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

Gorgeous, right? Since we're stream of consciousness, and I have youtube open, here' Hejira, and the lyrics, which lay me flat everytime. With the music, it's just perfection. Never fails.

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tribute to finality to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lists, part ?

Sometimes, when I feel like I haven't had the time to write or haven't been in the frame of mind, I write lists to just get things out of my head - lists of what I would write about or want to. So here's one, hoping I get to:

My trip to New York, including
Next Fall (play)
Sondheim on Sondheim (musical)
God of Carnage (play) and the amazingness of Janet McTeer on stage. Honestly.
Marina Abramovic at MoMA and the self-directedness of performance art
Tim Burton at MoMA
Why Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World is hanging in a hallway (!) at MoMA.
Russian Art history doc that I saw on the plane, that made me think of War and Peace (which is most everything lately)
Recent meditation at Against the Stream in East Hollywood
The experience of doing a show at a small theater in East Hollywood and the insanity of walking into somebody else's club