I almost canceled my plans last night after hearing the news about Michael Jackson. I was strangely saddened by it, like if the neighbor's dog died. It's not that I felt much for the dog, but I was used to it hearing it bark all the time. And I think it's safe to say for about half the people in this country, and a good part around the world, Michael Jackson was one of the first musician names they learned. Like it or not, he was always there. Like Joni Mitchell said, you don't know what you got till it's gone.
So I wanted to go home and watch the same four minutes of news repeated ad nauseam, to let the TV tell me over and over something I couldn't figure out whether or not I cared about. But I didn't want to cancel plans, and somehow going to see a female impersonator pay tribute to Joni Mitchell seemed as good a thing to do as any in my strange, maybe sad I guess, frame of mind.
John Kelly is a female impersonator. That's an important word. He's not a drag queen. He's not a satirist. He is a Joni Mitchell impersonator, and Joni Mitchell is a female. And for two hours last night at the Abrons Arts Center, he embodied her all but effortlessly. He reached up to that soprano with almost as much ease as Joni herself. He played guitar and dulcimer, and even recited banter from her live album, actually stumbling on a word at the same point she did. I wondered if the sold-out audience thought they were laughing at John's jokes or Joni's, and I wondered if it mattered.
Kelly rarely broke character. He did change the lyrics of "Woodstock" to say "By the time we got to Wigstock." He did spin a bit on a joke of Mitchell's about fairies. And he acknowledged that when he heard that Jackson had died, he cried a little. "What an amazing talent Michael Jackson was, what a life he led" he said, returning immediately to the character he hadn't really left. "It made me think about this poem I wrote when I was in 10th grade. It's called 'The Fish Bowl.'" And he proceeded as her to read the verse she wrote in high school.
The Fishbowl is a world reversed
Where fishermen with hooks
That dangle from the bottom up
Reel down their catch without a fight
Pike, pickerel bass, the common fish
Ogle through distorting glass
See only glitter, glamour, gaiety
Fog up the bowl with lusty breath
Lunge towards the bait and miss
And weep for fortunes lost
Envy the goldfish? Why?
His bubbles breaking 'round the rim
While silly fishes faint for him
And say, "Look there!
I think he winked his eye at me."
And I thought of Michael's fishbowl. The one he drowned in. And thought that I was glad I went to see a guy dress up in women's clothes and sing hippie songs. And I thought Michael'd maybe like it, too.
John Kelly will play real good for free at Castle Clinton in Manhattan on Aug. 6. Photo by Fadingad.