The Time (Everybody) Cried At Joni Mitchell’s Birthday Party

Photo courtesy of Dana Gorab
I was a late blooming Joni fan. I picked up Blue in the mid-90s to see what all the fuss was about, and was stricken with instant, gut-searing remorse that I had taken so long to come to her music. I bought three more records, and then two more, and now have way too many Joni records, and no regrets about it.
Being so late to the party, I never thought I’d ever hear her perform live. She’d “past her prime” they said, and never seemed to tour. In later years, there were rumours swirling around that Joni couldn’t sing anymore— that she’d killed her voice with cigarettes and only a husk remained. Or, even worse, that she COULD sing, but wouldn’t, because she hated the industry so much that she’d vowed to never perform for an audience again. Whatever the reason, I tried to be ok with knowing I’d never see her in concert. Besides, after all the repeat listenings, I had an intimate knowledge of her voice. I could mark every note, every change, from album to album, her voice growing lower and raspier as the years passed, but never losing its ability to devastate. Perhaps it was for the best, I thought. How could she ever live up to the Joni on these albums?

In 2013, I heard there was going to be a 70th birthday party for Joni at Massey Hall, featuring performances of her music by some of my favourite musicians (Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard, Herbie Hancock, and more), and that she would be there in person to celebrate. I knew I had to go, and I was going to have to call in a huge favour to get a seat to the already sold-out, two-night event. My ex’s cousin worked at Massey Hall, so I steeled up my courage, called her, and asked if she could get me in. With amazing kindness, since the break up was fresh and mostly my fault, she told me to come to the stage door just before the performance. If there was an empty seat, she might be able to get me in, but no promises. I couldn’t believe it when she appeared, ushered me past security and took me to buy my ticket for a single remaining seat, about halfway back on the ground floor, stage left.

I wish I could remember who sang what that night, but I know it was a mix of the hits like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”, “Clouds” and some lesser known songs, which were lovely and surprising. My first tears that evening were of frustration, aimed at the two women sitting in front of me, who sang discordantly over any song they knew the words to, including the breathtaking Esperanza Spalding and Herbie Hancock’s version of “Both Sides Now”. They went on to chat loudly over any song they didn’t know, including my personal favourite: “All I Want” performed by Rufus Wainwright. It felt like musical blasphemy. Fortunately, I was eventually able to tune them out, and lose myself in the beauty of the music.

Throughout the concert, Joni sat at far stage-left, lounging on a cozy looking couch, chatting between songs with the various guests, smoking and visibly enjoying the performances. At the end of the concert, she came to the centre of the stage to say thank you, and told us she would read a poem she’d recently written. It was more than we had expected, as we’d all heard tales of how ravaged her voice had become. As soon as she took the mic, my heart swelled huge in my chest, just at the wonder of hearing her speak. The poem, of course, was pure Joni magic. Even without a tune, it still felt like a Joni song, because it came from her mouth.

She stood at the microphone looking like an elegant, otherworldly visitor; hair upswept over a long grey tunic, the band at ease behind her. She began recounting her trip to Memphis’ Beale Street, on a pilgrimage to discover the blues; a journey that resulted in the writing of “Furry Sings The Blues”. The band, knowingly, perked up, and then, the unimaginable happened. They started playing, and her voice swooped into song. Darker, rougher, wiser than she had ever sounded; her voice was wrinkled like the face of someone who’d lived a long life and had many stories to tell. I looked at the audience around me, and every face, including mine, was frozen in rapt wonder, eyes wide and shining. I think I held my breath for fear I’d miss a note.

When she finished, the crowd roared, and jumped to their feet. The guest performers joined her on stage and they sang one last song together that I can’t remember because I was stuck processing what had just happened. I looked closely at the faces of the musicians circled around her, and they too had tears in their eyes, and a look of disbelief that they were sharing a stage with this legend. Glen Hansard, a star himself, was crying openly, like a beautiful baby, and it struck me that the occasion was as momentous to him as it was to us. My tears were real because I knew this was the first and last time I’d ever hear Joni sing. One song was all I needed to know that no matter what she sounded like, she would always be as incomparable as she was in her prime, because she would always be Joni Mitchell.

- Katey Morley, singer/songwriter