Liz Smith: Is a Joni Mitchell Comeback in the Works?

Cover art for Joni Mitchell's 1969 Clouds

“I’VE LOOKED at love from both sides now, from give and take and

still somehow/It’s love’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all.”

Those are the famous lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s 1969 classic, “Both Sides Now.” (The meaning of the song, with its ice cream castles, flows of angel hair, moons, Junes and Ferris wheels, has been endlessly analyzed.)

Miss Mitchell, held up as the high priestess of folk/pop music by millions, has been out of sight in recent years.

Cover art for Both Sides Now, released in 2000

She has concentrated on her painting. Less pleasantly she suffers from something called “Morgellons Syndrome” which she has described as “a slow, unpredictable killer.”

However, we might have some good news for fans of this great artist. Joni’s old friend David Geffen is reportedly “wooing” her to perform a series of shows at his Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Those in the know and/or of a certain age, recall that Joni’s celebrated “Free Man in Paris” song was written with Geffen in mind.

Another old pal of Joni’s Herbie Hancock, is also supposedly encouraging this venture, which could include some of the musicians who worked with Joni back in the day. If all that is planned and hoped for comes about, there will be a concert highlight sure to send Mitchell’s fans into delirium — a track by track recreation of the legendary Court and Spark album, which spawned such hits as “Help Me (I Think I’m Falling”) and “Raised on Robbery.”

Joni Mitchell’s last album was 2007’s Shine, but many devotees recall 2000’s Both Sides Now with particular fondness. On that one she did jazzy covers of classics such as “Stormy Weather” and “You’re My Thrill.” She also included a new version of “Both Sides Now” which was not instantly welcomed. The purity of her young voice had roughened, some complained. Admirers not wallowing unrealistically in the past insisted her deeper tones made the lyrics — however you wish to interpret them — more powerful. And, having lived longer, she really has seen love from all sides now.

I’M NOT great at conceptualizing. It’s hard for me to read a draft, or look at first version of a script or attend the reading of a show coming together, and say, “Eureka! I got it — this is what you should do!” Or “It’s gonna be a smash, just open it up a bit.”

But if anything has a chance to fly, I’d venture it could be the curiously touching musical titled The Pigeon Boys. This, with book and lyrics by my friend, the wonderfully talented Anne Berlin, and music by Andrew Bleckner, tells a tale of World War II’s forgotten pigeoneers — three men from disparate backgrounds who fight, also tend to, and bond with, the pigeons that were used to deliver vital messages between the troops.

Anne Berlin

I attended a reading of The Pigeon Boys early this week at The York

Theater on E. 54th Street. What at first seems somewhat silly — bird puppets are used to fly around and are often held by the three actors — turns into an intimate, tear-inducing, history and life lesson. (Right off I have to applaud the remarkable puppeteer Fergus J. Walsh, who handled the birds so beautifully and managed to gracefully fade into the background, though he was onstage throughout; he has an impassive but wonderfully compassionate face.)

It’s simply too early to fully review The Pigeon Birds It was a bare bones. But, I see the possibilities. Ms. Berlin has written an excellent story, provides sharp lyrics and has cast her show brilliantly.

Puppeteer Fergus J. Walsh. Photo: Richard Terminereading, though directed with smarts and precision by Joe Barros.

Oh, the actors! David Perlman plays Sandy, the regular guy from Brooklyn, who is inexperienced with women, but knows exactly what his dream girl will look like …. Adam J. MacDonald plays Julian, the reserved Brit soldier, who writes daily to his fiancé, and sends her sketches of his favorite white pigeon. They inhabit their characters to a T. Marvelous actors, beautiful voices.

But I have to make give singular shout-out to Leo Ash Evens. He portrays, Gunter, the German soldier, struggling with issues of his sexuality, his disapproving father, and of course — his pigeons. This role is an actor’s dream — funny, malevolent, sexy, bitterly unhappy. And Mr. Evens bites into his opportunity like a prime steak at Peter Luger’s. This guy has that “little something extra” that James Mason spoke about in A Star in Born. He’s going places.

Like I said, I’m no show biz seer. You’d never get rich betting on my opinion. So I don’t know if Anne Berlin can set her pigeons free on Broadway. I know she’ll try her best — and her best is damned impressive.

David Perlman / Adam J. MacDonald / Leo Ash Evens

The Pigeon Boys. Remember that title. If there’s another reading I’ll let you know.

Oh, before the show started, James Morgan, the artistic director for the York, said a few amusing words about The Pigeon Boys and upcoming events. What a great vibe this man has. You can tell he has lived and loved the theater all his life. I bet he has a story to tell!

One P.S. and note for producer James Morgan and his York Theater Company at Saint Peters on Lex and 54th. He should next let Anne Berlin re-work and re-present her musical farce, Charlie Chang and the Mysterious Salami, which won the prize several years ago at another festival that now has changed its name. Never mind! That was off-Broadway striving for Broadway at its best — one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.

Incidentally, let’s note that The Dorothy Strelsin Foundation made the current York offerings possible and I wrote all about that magical philanthropist in my memoir Natural Blonde.

Today, her Foundation is overseen by the terrific Enid Nemy who is a secret master-mind and backer who once toiled for the New York Times.

Peeking into Veau d’Or on 60th Street

ABOUT 100 people asked me the other night after my charity Q & A with Bette Midler, where we had gone to dinner? Well, I didn’t go to dinner with Bette and her hubby Martin von Haselberg; I figured they’d had enough of me.

I segued off with some pals to my regular stomping grounds, the famous bistro Veau d’Or on 60th between Park and Lex. There, the beautiful owner, Cathy Treboux, coddled us with vichyssoise and sole amandine and floating island. The Veau has been flourishing here under only two owners since about 1935. In 2011, it won a James Beard Award as the best French bistro in the U.S.

As for Bette and Martin, I understand they went to Café Boulud on 76th street with those dynamic concert promoters, brother and sister — Harriet and Ron Delsener.

This column originally appeared on on 4/20/12

3 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Morgellon’s is much debated and not many doctors recognize it as a “real” disease.  Most just put it down to a psychological cause.  There is some evidence that something is really (physically) going on in at least some of the patients, but whatever it is – they haven’t figured it out yet.

    • avatar Anais P says:

      Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences says Morgellons is only now beginning to be researched. Most cases have been reported in California, Texas and Florida, though all 50 states have reported cases. Doctors have pooh-poohed many diseases over the years which were later found to be actual physical ailments. And they have yet to find cures for many diseases. Doctors are certainly not gods, though some think they are.

  2. avatar Anais P says:

    So glad to hear Joni may perform again soon! Thanks for this bit of great news for us Joni Mitchell fans, Liz!