John Kelly looks at life from both sides now

by Robert Sokol

Bay Area Reporter

Thursday July 30, 2009

In today's career-driven culture and market-niche mentality, living the life of a true renaissance artist is a balancing act of personal satisfaction pitted against public misconceptions. John Kelly knows this well. An actor who has appeared both in avant-garde performance art and on Broadway, he is, among other disciplines, a visual artist, a songwriter, an author and a dancer. This week he draws on many of those gifts to represent Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise Redux at the Rrazz Room.

"The thought that we are all meant to make up our minds about what we want to be is totally subjective," he says in his softly-toned cadence. "What does that mean? That you do just one thing? American culture seems to subscribe to that notion. I think people have a hard time fathoming ambiguity and just accepting things as they are. It has to do with the culture having a short attention span and being unable to look at something that is complex. So people like me tend to either be lauded or just disappear, and my career has been a combination of the two."

In Mitchell's work, he has found what he calls his bolero. "It's Joni's music," he says simply. "I grew up hearing a lot it through my older sisters, and it really got into my bones. When I started singing, I was singing countertenor, and I knew that I would eventually sing Joni's music. Then the question comes: 'Well, why portray the character of Joni?' It's a polite way of asking why do I 'do' Joni or do Joni in drag, which is usually what they mean. My answer is that I work out of a character, and so my response as an actor is that if I am going to sing

her music, do I want to take this to the next level and provide the visual and dramatic effect? I created the character based on her public persona. When Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, she was considered to be acting. So I'm really functioning as an actor."

The show is designed "to honor her music, which remains my credo. Anything based on some public presence is going to be scrutinized through people's existing perceptions of that person or event, and perhaps judged through their experience of it. With Joni, we're dealing with a very specific cultural icon. My approach always comes from a place of respect and integrity. And playfulness. She loved it the first time she saw it."

Mitchell has seen Kelly's performance on more that one occasion, and her official website promotes his upcoming engagements. The two have forged something of a friendship - she gifted him with a dulcimer - and stay connected though phone calls and occasional meetings when their schedules mesh.

With roots in the New York drag scene - he began performing as Mitchell in the early days of Wigstock - Kelly acknowledges the ambiguity with which Paradise can be perceived. "Wigstock had a very irreverent sense of fun. Drag had not yet been watered down by the mass culture, so it was still a potentially potent theatrical tool - a socially annoying phenomenon - at that point. The first year was a combination of rock-and-roll bands, drag performers, performance artists and poetry readings. It was really a reflection of the East Village at that time. Then it became more commercialized - more of a drag-fest. I completely respect that, but I always sang 'Woodstock' as 'Wigstock' in total seriousness, usually closing the festival with it. The dovetail with the AIDS epidemic turned it into a moment where people were able to commune and, in a way, send up a prayer."

Kelly, looking at 50, has been taking stock. "I am working on a strategic plan for my career. This wasn't something they taught when I went to art school. In the 1980s, it was not careerist. It was about making work that you felt compelled to make. Now everyone is jockeying for fame. AIDS decimated my generation, and that has had a huge effect on culture, and we have no way of knowing what it would have been like otherwise. There would be great artists in their absolute prime now, making their greatest work conceivably."

He says the plan is "really about galvanizing the different aspects of what I do. Performing takes a lot of energy, but I'm also focusing on my art, on gallery exhibitions of my work, and also publishing CDs and DVDs. It's about allowing the whole of what I do to register with the public as opposed to having it so segregated between the art and music worlds. There's really no person like me that I can think of right now. I'm trying to make that an asset rather than a liability."

John Kelly in Paved Paradise Redux: The Music of Joni Mitchell at the Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko, July 30-Aug. 1 at 9 p.m., Aug. 2 at 4 p.m. Tickets ($27.50-$30): (866) 468-3399 or

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