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The Globe and Mail

Joni Mitchell excerpt: Woman? Man? Both?

Joni Mitchell in 1975

Ken Regan/Camera5

This distrust of other women is proof of Mitchell's gender alienation. She doesn't feel like she belongs to either camp, and although this no doubt amped up her existential angst, it freed her from a singular perspective calibrated to the status quo. She could dress up as a pimp in blackface. She could wear a Roy Rogers shirt. And she could own her sexual power, sharing her body with the men she wanted, and at times even objectifying them sexually. When she dated percussionist Don Alias, she painted his portrait. This isn't such a big surprise, considering Mitchell painted a lot of her partners – as well as her cats. What made the Alias painting so unique was the decision to paint him wearing a bathrobe, with a full erection. "It was me, with my bathrobe open with – bang! – like this hard-on sticking out," Alias told Sheila Weller, author of Girls Like Us, before his death in 2006. The musician was embarrassed, especially when Mitchell hung the portrait in the middle of the living room. He must have felt a little used, maybe even a little exposed and dirty, because he demanded Mitchell perform an artistic castration: he wanted his genitals removed from the canvas. Mitchell refused, eventually compromising on a semi-excited schlong. While this may the only documented case of Mitchell compromising her artistic integrity, it proves once more how willing she is to step outside the box of expectation.

"I believe that I am male and I am female," she once told [Rolling Stone writer Cameron] Crowe. In 1987, Bob Dylan echoed this take on Mitchell. When asked by Rolling Stone reporter Kurt Loder what he thought of women onstage, Dylan said: "I hate to see chicks perform. Hate it … because they whore themselves." When asked if he thought the same thing about Joni Mitchell, Dylan replied: "Well, no. But then, Joni Mitchell is almost like a man. I mean, I love Joni, too. But Joni's got a strange sense of rhythm that's all her own and she lives on that timetable. Joni Mitchell is in her own world all by herself."

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Mitchell transcends gender because she's become a creative force unbound by thick black borders. [Stuart] Henderson's essay is undeniably thorough, but it only covers 1966 to 1974, and so omits Mitchell's truly adventurous gender explorations, such as the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and, more recently, her support and appreciation for John Kelly, the Obie-winning performer who's earned fame playing Mitchell in a one-man show. Kelly tried on Mitchell's identity for size at the Wigstock drag festival in the late 1990s, donning a long blond wig, flowing dresses, and an acoustic guitar. "Really, it's the idea of [Joni] that I present on stage," he told Brian Jewell of Bay Windows in 2007. "The clever, sometimes seemingly spacey goddess. She tells crazy, outrageous stories that have you wondering where she's going with it. She's a riot."

In one of her last published interviews Mitchell granted with Matt Diehl for the Los Angeles Times in April, 2010, she shared the spotlight with Kelly, and described herself as a big fan of the show. A friend of hers had told her she might not like it, but when she decided to check it out for herself at New York's Fez, she was pleasantly surprised. "It was really a fun, unique experience – more homage than a normal drag show. It was like being a ghost at your own funeral," she said. "The audience responded to John as if he were me."

Excerpted from Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell, by Katherine Monk (Greystone). All rights reserved

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