Paved Paradise (1997)

Concept, direction and text by John Kelly
Words and music by Joni Mitchell
Backdrops by Craig Coleman
Version I premiere: with Brian Butterick (Georgia O’Keeffe) and Jesse Hultberg (Neil Young), Wigstock, Tompkins Square Park, New York, Labor Day, 1984
Version II premiere: with Jonathan Bassil (Neil Young) and Kenneth Mellman (Georgia O’Keeffe); produced by Tom Ross and Liz Dunn for John Kelly & Company; Josie’s Juice Joint, San Francisco, California, October 1993
Version III premiere: with Zecca Esquibel (Georgia O’Keeffe) and Mark McCarron (Vincent van Gogh); produced by Kevin Malony of TWEED TheaterWorks, Westbeth Theatre Center and John Kelly Performance; Westbeth Theatre Center, New York, October 1996; Dance Theater Workshop, NY 1997


I’m not alien to stage fright, especially at a premiere or any other significant performance. I long ago realized that it is just energy, which can either remain as fear or be channeled into performance focus. During long waits backstage, especially when the curtain is being held, I often feel the need to shit, throw up or retire, to somehow purge myself of horrible feelings of inadequacy and dread. On this particular night at the downtown club Fez, from my hidden vantage point I could hear that the room was packed, noisy, energized. “PLACES!” It was time to venture into the buzzing den of scrutiny.

Paved Paradise begins with an audio tape of a CBS This Morning program in which audience members ask Joni Mitchell questions, including her feelings about “the performance artist John Kelly’s use of your work,” to which she eventually responds, “I’m honored,” even though at that point she had not yet “been an eye witness” to the show. Well, here was her chance. In the dark, Georgia O’Keeffe (Zecca Esquibel) and Vincent van Gogh (Mark McCarron) found their way to their places by their instruments. I made my way to my Guild, put the guitar strap over my head and stood with my back to the audience, waiting for my cue.

The lights came up, I strummed the first chords of “He Comes For Conversation” and slowly turned to face the audience. My hands were trembling––it was hard to make the fret shapes. Even more difficult, I couldn’t hear the other musicians as the audience broke into a deafening roar. Don’t change a thing, focus, focus. The first few songs were probably too fast from nerves and maybe the unconscious desire to more quickly arrive at our destination. Intermission, costume change, buzz, buzz.

I didn’t see her and didn’t want to. I had asked that she be seated at some undisclosed table in the back, so I was sure she was at one of the banquettes that lined the back wall, really only eighteen feet away. I’m glad some tables were missing candles. Maybe that was intentional. Relax.

Part 2 of the show opens with “Shadows and Light,” a cooler, more savvy faux-Joni, and a calmer and more-determined-to-conquer John. I’ve always regarded this song as an anthem and go out of my way to look into peoples face’s to make contact and put across the words as I sing it, since it is slow and very serious and can make people giggle with nervous laughter. This is the point in the work where I set myself the task of obliterating any lingering prejudice or preconception my audience may have regarding the fact that I happen to be wearing a dress. I want to take them on a ride. With the almost intimidating grandeur in this song, I have the chance to flow and connect and kick some art-song ass. Ten songs later, Zecca, Mark and I were off the stage, laughing and hugging each other.

Back in the dressing room, alone. Zecca and Mark had disappeared. Through the wall I could hear the crowd still screaming and yelling. I thought to myself: I have sung all the possible encores, we’ve nothing else prepared. We’ve already done “Urge for Going.” Maybe we could get through “River.” They still want me. Sheepishly I opened the door to the club, only to find the entire room on its feet, clapping in unison and cheering, their backs to the stage, facing the banquettes in the rear of the house.

Ellen Cavolina, who runs Fez, told me later that at the end of the show she thought she would quietly remove Joni from the room and bring her backstage. But the audience would have none of that. As Joni got up, the entire room turned around and focused on her. I’m sure they’d been eyeballing her all night. My friend and guitar guru Frank Jump said that every time Joni lit up a cigarette, which was often, “her face would light up like a postcard.”

It was no longer for me. They were applauding for Joni, yelling “REAL THING! REAL THING!” And suddenly I became part of this revised equation, joining in the ocean of adulation. She was then led through the dense gauntlet toward my hiding spot backstage. Aghast, I re-entered the safety of the tiny Fez dressing room, glancing down the florescent corridor to see if she was coming. My gut erupted into stage fright #2. I had to decide––wig or not? Not, and off it came.

There I stood in a state of awkward honesty and demi-drag. Then she entered, a woman obviously aware of her power, flanked and followed by her friends and handlers. “Oh, I want to take off my jacket so I can hug you!” she said. The physical contact that followed was sudden, clear and chemically simpatico. We embraced. A moment for my history. I’m in ecstasy, I’m in the arms of Joni Mitchell.

Record people, photographers, friends––all crowded in that tiny room. We sat on the couch, I gave her one of my cigarettes and somehow changed back into a boy. Joni’s friend Melanie Harby, my go-between and pen pal, handed me a long black case, a gift. It was a dulcimer. Sensing a once in a lifetime chance, I handed it to Joni and requested an impromptu lesson. She showed me the strumming/hitting technique and played a few chords of “A Case Of You.” More photos, more handlers saying “Joni, we have to go.” I thought: she is having a blast, let her stay with us. More chatting, photos, the voices of her entourage getting more insistent. Then she was gone. There was quiet. We had been graced.

People in the audience told me later they saw her hooting and hollering, singing along to “The Circle Game.” Julie Larson––Joni’s close friend and A&R person from Reprise Records––told me that while we were performing “Amelia,” Joni turned to her table and said, “What song is this?” Joni’s boyfriend Don Freed at one point screamed out, “I love you, Joni!”

Joni Mitchell exudes a great warmth. She seems part intellectual, part cowgirl, part oracle. An artist who has no choice, who decides to face the inevitable head on, who attempts to honor her muse. She told me that the performance was very strange for her, as it most definitely had been for me, that she was “so impressed by my ability to transcend the material at hand.”

That defines my task in Paved Paradise. I took her stuff and turned it on my heels into something other. I invited her and the audience to see and hear her words and music through a different lens. She told me that during the course of that strange night, she had cried four times. She looked me straight in the eye, regarding me not as a demon or a muse but as a fellow artist. I gave her my best.

© John Kelly 2019/2001

  • photo: Lynn M. Grabowski