Deirdre Kelly

Annoying Miranda Richardson


Miranda Richardson is having a bad day. Her big round baby-blues are red and scratchy, her fine strawberry blond hair is ruffled, and her pink eye shadow looks as if it were smeared on in a hurry. Whatever could be the matter? We are thinking of how to politely inquire when Richardson, a Camels Light in pale thin hand, gives us a basilisk stare.

Oh, god. We are the matter.


It is well known that Richardson hates us, the press that is. Even though she (apparently) has come willingly to Toronto to promote Swann,she has so far cancelled every scheduled interview but five.

She answers questions with terse one-word answers that begin and end with very long pauses.

She lights another cigarette and curls cat-like into an arm chair. Wearing slightly flared black pants, a fuzzy tangerine sweater and a pale-green ring, she wiggles the toes on her bare feet with the absent-minded look of a school girl.

Her delicate doll-like features belie a woman with a certain edge.

You don’t just have to meet her in the flesh to figure it out. Check out the wide range of projects in her film career: big budget (Steven Speilberg’s Empire of the Sun), low budget (Stephen Poliakoff’s Century)and just about everything in between (Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Brian Gilbert’s Tom & Viv).


Nothing she has done has been predictable. Nothing easy or pat. And don’t think her penchant for off-beat films and quirky roles hasn’t been deliberate.

In Swann,a film in which she flattens her British accent in order to play a Yank (as she has before, in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, and will do in The Apostle,a film that started shooting in Louisiana this month), Richardson plays an uptight academic-careerist who is struggling to complete a book on a Canadian poet.


She says she chose to do the film because: (a) “I know David Young [Swann’sscreenwriter, a Canadian based in Toronto] and like him very much and like his work”; and (b) “I liked the journey of this character, this character who is coming to terms with where her life is, where her career is, what she thinks she needs and what she really does need to feel whole.”


Richardson made her film debut with Mike Newell’s Dance with a Stranger (1985). Cast as Ruth Ellis, the bottle-blond murderess who was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Richardson, who was 27 at the time, caused such a stir that writers in the English-speaking world fell over each other to see who could out-superlative whom.

Born in Lancashire, England, on March 3, 1958, Richardson was trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She still does theatre in between film projects and refers to the stage as a clean drink of water. This past summer at the Edinburgh Arts Festival she performed a one-woman play based on the Virginia Wolfe novel, Orlando.

Right to the end of this interview, Richardson is elusive, refusing to talk about her personal life (“that’s why they call it personal”), except to say she is not married and several times has been unlucky in love. Which is why she prefers the company of cats with whom she lives in her flat in London.


When a photographer asks to take her picture she shows her claws. She doesn’t want to be clicked while talking.

“I don’t want to be munched up like that,” she declares. “I don’t want to be set up for the end of anyone’s suppositions or frustrated ambitions or whatever. That just doesn’t sit well with me.”


Patty Duke Is Gone


I grew up watching The Patty Duke Show, about Patty and Cathy, identical cousins who were “matching book ends, different in every way,” as the catchy theme song described them. One like the Ballets Russes and the other rock and roll.  It was hard to know which one to like better because at heart they were really the same person– both played by Patty Duke using split screen technology.  A study of duality, the sitcom first aired in 1963, and represented teen America before The Beatles and other imported influences shook things up. It represented nostalgia and the new wave all at once. Ironically, Patty Duke was herself two people. Her real name is Anna but when she became a child star at age eight she took the name Patty. She really did feel like two people inside the same body and later in life would suffer from identity issues. She suffered from a bipolar disorder and yet she managed to achieve greatness in her life. She played the blind mute Helen Keller in Broadway’s The Miracle Worker and reprised the role for the film version released in 1962. She won the Academy Award as the best supporting actress when she was 16, the then youngest recipient of an Oscar. But she wanted just to be herself and later in life she renounced Patty and became Anna again, a transformation she wrote about in her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna. I met the actress at this time, and wrote a profile of her for my newspaper, The Globe and Mail, which was based on our close encounter. I reproduce that conversation here in tribute to a woman who found a way to be whole again.


WHEN PATTY Duke was 23 she received a bouquet of green flowers from her boy friend Desi Arnaz Jr. and a note that called her his “special little Irish leprechaun.” Now Patty Duke is 40 and married to her fourth husband, former drill sergeant Michael Pearce. She’s no longer the manic-depressive starlet of Valley of the Dolls. She’s given up pills, controls her alcohol instake and no longer feels suicidal. She’s seen too much to be anyone’s leprechaun, but she’s ready now to weave her own mature magic.

Duke is currently riding a high wave. She just finished writing (with the help of GQ film critic Kenneth Turan) Call Me Anna, her shockingly personal and unsparing autobiography, which Bantam Books will publish in hardcover on Aug. 20. (Excerpts from the book were recently printed in People magazine.) She has just landed a new half-hour sitcom series called Karen’s Song which premiered last Saturday evening on the fledgling Fox network. And though busy, she is continuing her role as president of her industry’s largest trade union, the Screen Actors Guild, at a critical time in its history.

But as in the past, audiences are more interested in Patty Duke the Hollywood personality than Patty Duke the union leader/political activist/author. Duke, who was in Toronto yesterday to promote her book, realizes that to most people she is first a name and a personality. She’s not bothered by that. In fact, with Call Me Anna she has used her public persona as a vehicle to get across an important message.

“I’m someone people feel they know,” she said, curled up on a chair in her hotel room. Although her fans may not recognize the one-time wildspirit, from her newly coiffed coppery hair and long, shapely nails, there’s a new glamor to Patty Duke.

“I’m approachable,” she continues. “Perfect strangers feel comfortable enough to walk up to me in the street and talk. Sometimes someone like me can make an impression on people. So I feel a responsibility to these people, to let them know that the light everyone always told you exists at the end of the tunnel is true. It’s there. It exists.”

Duke has been struggling toward her own light for some time. Call Me Anna is a sad and complex tale of one woman’s quest for self-discovery and self-control. Fundamentally it’s a story of survival and in that way Duke accomplishes her aim – to impart a universal message, one that says even when you hit bottom (and Duke has hit bottom several times, hard) you can always pull yourself up.

Philosophy aside, Call Me Anna is a very personal story. It begins as a story of Anna Marie, the little girl born in 1947 to lower middle class Manhattan parents, who was to become the child star known as Patty Duke. Her mother needed money to support her family in the absence of her alcoholic husband and so sent her 7-year-old daughter to meet her actor brother’s managers, John and Ethel Ross. Writes Duke, “I imagine what they saw was intelligence, a bright shiny little kid who would understand the score and who could be easily controlled.”

Duke became the Rosses’ protege. They manipulated her and molded her; they wanted her to be the next Grace Kelly, a ragamuffin who would make riches and, it was hoped, would marry royalty and become immortal as a star. Duke paints their control of her as tyrannical. They picked her apart, tore her down and then decided her name wasn’t “perky” enough for the business. One day Ethel Ross announced, “Okay, we’ve finally decided, we’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.” Duke was devastated. “Little did they know that over 20 years would be spent on a psychiatrist’s coach because of that phrase alone,” she now writes.

The Rosses effectively tore Duke away from her mother and turned her into a Broadway star. They were fine trainers and with their backing Duke, at 13, landed the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She became an overnight success, but this served to intensify her managers’ hold over her life. They now monitored every word she spoke in public and prevented her from making friends her own age. They introduced her to drugs and alcohol. During filming of The Miracle Worker, for which she later won an Oscar as best supporting actress, she says John Ross even tried to have sex with her.



Duke broke from the Rosses while doing The Patty Duke Show (which they never allowed her to watch on television for fear it might “turn (her) head”). She rebelled by marrying Peter Falk, a man 14 years her senior, and later by taking up cigarets, alcohol and prescription drugs. She became self-destructive and manic and several times was institutionalized in mental hospitals. She divorced, married a man she didn’t know, divorced again, had affairs with Frank Sinatra (she had already dated his son and Desi Arnaz Jr.). She got pregnant by John Astin, then a married man with three children, and led the world to believe the child was Desi’s. She eventually married Astin, had another child by him, adopted his three sons, went on the road as a touring actress, and after years of turmoil, was finally diagnosed as a manic-depressive.

“From that moment on,” she writes, “I wasn’t frightened at all. It was such a relief, almost like a miracle, really, for someone to give what I’d gone through a name and a treatment.”

Duke says it took “alot of bravery and bravado” to write about her life, but is relieved she did it. One reason she wrote the book was a promise to her mother to set the record straight. The other was more personal. “I always get self-conscious when I answer this question; it sounds so self-serving and noble. The truth is I feel better.” The book was a purging. “It was a cathartic experience.”

Duke believes she’s learned a lesson from writing the book, but says she can’t quite figure out what it is. Except this. “This honesty stuff really is the right policy for me. There’s an enormous relief in coming out of the closet, no matter what it is.”

Perhaps the most unexpected discovery for Duke is that the key to her future lies in her past. She says when she’s on a set today and is having difficulty finding the right feeling or meaning for her character, she goes back to the days of The Miracle Worker and uses “the melancholy, the ache, the longing” to what she feels is a better, even higher, purpose. She also calls on her experiences of The Patty Duke Show. In the last few years she says she has made a more concentrated effort to absorb Cathy, one of the identical twins she played on the show, into her life. “I can be the fun-loving, easygoing Patty type, but I also can be conscientious and decisive. Even today as I was combing my hair, I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “Gee, you look like Cathy today.”

Howl! Howl! Stratford’s Brian Bedford Has Died

This undated photo provided by the Stratford Festival of Canada shows Brian Bedford as King Lear in the 2007 festival's production of Shakespeare's "King Lear." The play will run in repertoire through Oct. 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Stratford Festival of Canada, David Hou)

This undated photo provided by the Stratford Festival of Canada shows Brian Bedford as King Lear in the 2007 festival’s production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” 

I had just finished wading through the outpouring of grief on Twitter this morning for the passing of the great Brish actor, Alan Rickman, when I learned, with a shock, of the death of yet another English-born thespian, Brian Bedford, a veteran of Canada’s Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. My morning has indeed become mourning. RADA-trained, Brian Bedford, who died Jan. 13, age 80, in Stratford, Ont., was a brilliant comedic actor and tragedian. I saw him perform many times in recent years, often in stellar productions of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde which he directed himself.


Mr. Bedford was a consummate professional and a real dear who invited me to his home in Stratford, regaling me with tales about the British theatre scene in the 1960s when he was classmates with Albert Finney and, for a brief while, Brian Epstein of  The Beatles fame. I am a due-hard Beatles fan and so relished him telling me about Epstein’s gambling debts and backstage maneuvers before finding his calling as the Fabs’ manager. I also shared with Mr. Bedford a deep love and admiration for Oscar Wilde and sat in rapt attention in his living room as he to,d me about his own connection to the legendary Irish wit. He had, when we met in the summer of 2009, just directed himself in a one-man tribute to Oscar. What a privilege it was to hear him talk about it, in the flesh as it were, his fave bursting with love, pride and enthusiasm. I shall miss him on the stage. I reprint my conversation with him in tribute.


For Brian Bedford the stage is his home, where he has spent the better part of his life performing as a classically trained actor.

But enter his sun-dappled residence in Stratford, Ont., located on a tree-lined street within walking distance to the theatre where he currently stars in his own directed version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and the feeling is that the reverse is also true: The home is his stage.


The 1880s, pale brick Ontario cottage where he has lived since 1985, sharing it with fellow Stratford Shakespeare Festival actor Tim MacDonald, is filled with artifacts reflecting more than 50 years honing a career devoted to live performance. From the framed series of 17th century theatre designs given him by his old friend Peter Glenville, director of the 1964 historic film, Becket, to the piles of books by and about Oscar Wilde, the Irish wit whom Mr. Bedford just finished playing tribute to in his one-man play, Ever Yours, Oscar, his immaculately kept one-storey is a thespian’s showcase.


Every object in it tells a story – mainly the actor’s own.

“It certainly isn’t interior design,” says Mr. Bedford, fastidiously dressed in shirt and tie even on a Saturday morning.

His voice is soft and accented with the plummy cadences of his native England, patrician-sounding, despite the actor’s working-class origins as the son of a West Yorkshire soldier.

He continues, resting his slim frame against an upholstered chair in his archetypically English living room, describing how he came to buy the house that he loved at first sight because it was old but original – “built for those far more higher level members of the railway” that toward the end of the 1800s was one of Stratford’s main industries.

The house came with a cherry orchard – “a thing of great beauty,” as Mr. Bedford describes it – as well as a back garden planted with Japanese maples, wisteria and a weeping willow.

Two years ago, and following an earlier renovation that saw the addition of a new wing to accommodate a large bedroom with a mirrored ensuite for Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Bedford added a pergola over a back deck, accessible through two large French doors.

“I love this garden,” he says. “It’s very natural, and I suppose compared to what was – a mud field that looked straight out of Vietnam – it has become a lovely space, and very tranquil, thanks in large part to my gardener, David Scott.”

The yard’s unfettered beauty stands in contrast to the house’s interior that has been thoroughly overhauled and re-crafted – much like one of his meticulously researched plays.

There, artifice rules in the form of polished surfaces like honed marble, cut glass and gleaming antique wood furniture, some of it locally sourced from Johnny’s Antiques, located just outside the Stratford town limits.

Framed oil portraits of English gentlemen and fishing scenes inspired by his native Yorkshire line the walls, while copies of Trollope fill the pine bookcases.

In the adjoining study, in addition to a David Hockney painting given him for his birthday by the painter himself, is a Constable-esque wall mural of what appears to be the English countryside. Mr. Bedford commissioned it from local artist Mark Fletcher, a resident of nearby St. Mary’s.

The overall feeling is of an English drawing room in Covent Garden, gilt pineapples and bone china and all.

“It’s all radically changed from what it was originally, when I first saw it and fell in love with it,” Mr. Bedford says, in describing the renovation he initiated three years ago.

The house had previously belonged to Polly Bohdanetsky, a Stratford costume designer, and it was composed on the main floor of three small rooms that Mr. Bedford found dim and confining.

He tore down interior walls to open the house up and make it more light-filled, refitting it with new high windows and wide plank pine flooring. he also completely eliminated a second floor, replacing it with a soaring 12-foot ceiling that makes the house seem elegantly spacious, despite having only about 1,200 square feet of living space.

Says Mr. Bedford, “I wanted a place where I could have my own lamps, and stuff.”


Mr. Bedford attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had as classmates Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole esteemed English actors who were part of the modernizing movement that transformed British theatre in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He remembers especially his friendship with the late actor Alan Bates.

“He was my great friend,” says Mr. Bedford, relishing the memory. “And I miss him terribly. It was thanks to Alan that I was cast in The Young and the Beautiful [Mr. Bedford’s London debut]. Peter Brook, [the innovative British stage and film director], saw The Young and the Beautiful and asked me to be in [Arthur Miller’s] A View From the Bridge, and that took me to Stratford-upon-Avon where Sir John Gielgud was Prospero in The Tempest and I was Ariel, at the age of 21.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Mr. Gielgud ended up playing real-life mentor to Mr. Bedford, and today a large framed picture of his likeness hangs inside his home’s foyer, immediately grabbing the attention of anyone entering through Mr. Bedford’s green frame front door.

This pictorial tribute is in acknowledgment of Mr. Gielgud being responsible for first bringing Mr. Bedford to North America after having cast him in his 1959 production of Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise.

The play toured several major cities in the U.S., eventually leading to Mr. Bedford coming to Stratford where, after 27 seasons, he remains one of the leading lights of the town’s annual theatre festival.

The actors’ friendship was such that upon his death, Mr. Gielgud bequeathed Mr. Bedford several of his own prized possessions, among them two hand-drawn costume sketches, dated 1949, and signed by the costume designer.

Detailing armour and weaponry for characters in Much Ado About Nothing, the Shakespeare play in which Mr. Gielgud had performed, they now take pride of place inside Mr. Bedford’s English-inspired living room, sharing space with an extensive collection of painted Staffordshire porcelain and hand-knotted carpets imported from Morocco, where Mr. Bedford also has had homes, often using them to memorize the lines he eventually performs in Stratford:

“I’ve done an awful lot of preparing for parts in Morocco and a couple of years ago, in a tiny village right in the souk overlooking that gardens, I was learning King Lear and shouting, Howl! Howl! The poor people. They had no idea of the things I do, and I could just imagine them, calling me the mad Englishman. Which I might be, exactly.”


And The Stars Look Very Different Today — Farewell David Bowie


David Bowie. Just his name conjures so much — music, movement make-up and more, all wrapped up in memories. As an aesthete-in-training who lived in Toronto in the 1970s, his songs about wayward identities with fabulous closets were like doors that led me into a world where being different was not just okay, it was the only true route to self-expression. Living your life like a work of art.  I slept with his albums under my pillow, absorbing his rebel, rebel spirit as if by osmosis. I felt a sort of kinship with him. David Bowie, with his peacock feathers and mane of hair dyed orangutan orange, was my spirit animal. I was sure it was me he was singing about in “Life on Mars.” Truly, it was uncanny how accurately  he narrated the sad chapters of my existence, as I saw it anyway, at that time:

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks
through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view


David Bowie in 1973

That strong sense of connection made David Bowie not exactly my idol, but more my confidante if not alter ego. I would be weepy at times listening to him sing to me (of course as a tortured 14 year old that is how I imagined it). But, and blame it on the raging hormones, I could just as easily be energized by his rocking beat.. I made up dance routines to “Suffragette City,” which I performed with my best friend and fellow Bowie conspirator Susan Willemsen, at parties held in other people’s parents’ basements.

The chorus, ‘Wham! Bam! Thank-you m’am,’ had us going down first on one knee, then the other before standing and kicking before turning quickly to face each other at either ends of the room. The point was not to engage with others in our midst. It was to mark ourselves as different from the ho-hum crowd, and precisely because we had David Bowie in our camp.


David Bowie was a beacon of individualism in a beige world. He was what helped me survive the stifling boredom of growing up in staid, artless, conformist Toronto, a city I vowed to leave one day but then never did. Bowie and his tribe of glam rock troubadors made bright my  existence when it felt most drab and stultifying. Bowie especially focused my attention on the power of artistic expression to forge an identity that would be its own sense of comfort.



As a young adult, I got my job at Canada’s national newspaper, writing on dance and also for a few years the music that had once sustained me. As part of my job, I had two close encounters with David Bowie. The first was a Toronto press conference (at which Bowie’s old school friend and co-musician, Peter Frampton, was also present) and the second an interview conducted as part of a feature I wrote on Bowie and dance during a break in the 1987 Glass Spider tour.


As luck would have it (or had it all been pre-conditioned from listening and watching him all those years before?) David Bowie shared my love of dance. In the 1980s, he forged a decade-long professional relationship with Montreal choreographer Edouard Lock and Lock’s star dancer, Louise Lecavalier. She danced with Bowie in the 1990 Sound +Vision your and also appeared in the video for “Fame.” I was one of the first to report on their collaboration for The Globe and Mail. I also reviewed the concert tour in which Levacalier performed with the band before millions of screaming fans. Just months ago I asked Louise what that was like and she described it as a “big kick” that gave her “wings on stage.” She also called Bowie one of the sexiest dancers alive.


For this who might not be aware, David Bowie had trained in dance early in his career. His mentor was the great Lindsay Kemp whose flamboyantly theatrical style also influenced Toronto choreographer Robert Desroisiers. The Thin White Duke danced in his own shows and videos. He sought out dancers as partners, both on and off stage. Dance and dancers always held a strong connection for him. It wasn’t a passing fad. Even in the video for his song, “Lazarus,” released just days before his death, Bowie can be seen reverting to the pantomime taught him by Kemp. He also dances, abstractly, before a closet into which he ultimately hides his skeleton.

His first real love was the classically trained dancer Hermione Dennis (later Farthingale) whom he met in 1968 on the set of the British film, The Pistol Shot. They danced a minuet together as part of a group of dancers led by Kemp.


Soon after they became a couple, living together in London, they formed a group, Feathers, which was to set in motion Bowie’s discovery and signing by Mercury Records. Hermione, who later danced with the Welsh Opera Ballet and in such British films as Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend, eventually left David Bowie for another dancer in 1970, leaving him heart-broken. He tried to woo her back through messages in songs like the obviously titled, “Letter to Hermione,” among others. The beautiful dancer is the real girl with the mousy hair alluded to in “Life on Mars.” But she would not return to him. In interviews, Bowie said he was “devastated” by the breakup and the loss of Herminone led him to embark on his  “Space Oddity” persona and subsequent otherworldly artistic voyage.

His next lover, and eventual wife, met him at the time of the breakup. Angela Barnett was not a dancer but a savvy and quite brilliant marketer who knew how to sell her future husband to the masses. Together, they had a son, Zowie Bowie, now a filmmaker who goes by the name of Duncan Jones. But the marriage didn’t last. They divorced in 1980 when Bowie’s unquenchable hunger for drugs and ambi-sexual extra marital affairs grew too much for his wife to handle, or so she says. He once said living with her was hell. Duncan has not spoken to his mother in years.


In his 40s, Bowie became romantically linked with another dancer. I interviewed her in Toronto. Melissa Hurley was then one of several dancers performing in the 1987 Glass Spider tour. She was more than 20 years his junior at the time and frequently photographed with Bowie until his marriage to the Somali-born supermodel, Iman, in 1992.


I spoke with Melissa perched on a lounge chair next to the Four Seasons’ pool. David Bowie had let me know in advance that he would sit the interview out. In a Fax (this was before email), he said he wanted to watch over the discussion from a distance and not be directly involved. He said that he wanted his dancers to get the lion’s share of attention. He would remain in the shadows.

As if.

Even absent he was very present, as I imagine he will continue to be despite having passed on. Some of that ineluctable presence is captured below, in just two of several article I write on Bowie, and which I reprint here in tribute to an artist who meant so much to many — myself included.


Bowie’s new image takes to ‘the streets’
18 March 1987

ON THE EVE of the world-wide release of his newest single, David Bowie surprised a media audience at Toronto’s Diamond Club yesterday afternoon by performing two songs from his forthcoming album, Never Let Me Down. The 40-year-old rock star also held an informal press conference and announced plans for a world tour that will kick off in Rotterdam in May and travel across Canada this summer.

Sporting a black leather jacket, studded jeans, open shirt and shiny gold crucifix at the neck, Bowie looked like the traditional, urbanized rock and roller – a grittier image than the aristocratic persona he presented on his Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983.

The new look apparently is in keeping with the tone and subject matter of his latest album, which Bowie said “deals with the streets . . . and attitudes about an uncaring society.”

After performing his new single, Day In, Day Out (released today) – and before performing his second song, 87 and Cry (also from the new album) – Bowie opened the floor to questions. He introduced his five-piece touring band, which includes bassist Carmine Rojas, long-time collaborator Carlos Alomar and English guitar hero Peter Frampton, then pulled up a stool and relaxed.


Laughing and affable, Bowie signed autographs as he fielded queries from the assembled TV, radio and print journalists. He promised this year’s tour will be “very theatrical,” in contrast to his relatively minimalist 1983 tour. For the first time since his Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, Bowie will use a choreographer, Toni Basil. He said the tour will include “sets, costumes, make-up and . . .” (as a humorous postscript, pointing to his teeth) “floss.”

Bowie said the music on the new album, which was produced in Switzerland and will be released on April 20, was influenced by the production work he did on Iggy Pop’s latest record, Blah, Blah, Blah. Bowie decided to imitate the stripped-down rock and roll sound, composing all the songs ahead of time “instead of my usual method of writing in the studio. It’s a high-energy LP with 11 tracks, all written by me, except for one Iggy Pop song. Other people cover Chuck Berry and The Stones. I cover Iggy Pop.”


Bowie added that the style of the new album was also inspired by some of his biggest musical influences – Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan and Prince.

While Bowie evaded questions about why he chose Toronto for his press conference (“I had the day off . . .”), he was more candid about enquiries about movies (“David Lynch is my favorite director”), music (favorite current groups are Screaming Blue Messiahs and The The), a proposed movie with Mick Jagger (“It’s in the air”) and the first video for the new album, directed by Absolute Beginners’ director Julian Temple.

“It’s a street video, about the homeless situation in Los Angeles. We hired a lot of homeless people from the streets, some of whom had formed themselves as a theatre group. It’s quite strong as far as video goes. I don’t usually do performance videos. I try to use video in certain ways . . . to make fundamental social and artistic statements.”

Bowie’s new band had a rollicking sound that is more guitar-oriented than anything Bowie has done since the early seventies. The presence of Peter Frampton emphasized Bowie’s return to the brighter, street-oriented sound of the early seventies.

Bowie and Frampton were schoolmates in London (Frampton’s father, Opie Frampton, was Bowie’s art teacher) and are long-time friends, though this is the first time they have worked together professionally. Frampton was on tour in Toronto as the opening act for Stevie Nix last year when Bowie telephoned him.

“David called me and asked me if I’d play on the album,” said Frampton, “and I was thrilled about it. Then when were working on the album, he asked me to go on the road.” Bowie said he feels no sense of competition with his 1983 tour, which set audience records in Edmonton and Vancouver.

“I never feel a sense of competition with myself. I finish a tour, and then I say, ‘Why on earth do I do this?’ A year later I say ‘That was sort of fun, wasn’t it?’ Then after another year, I think about it a little more. The next year I’m busy writing songs for the next album and getting ready to go out again.”



Dancing for Bowie tour demands versatility, stamina
29 August 1987

YOU DON’T have to be a fan of David Bowie to dance to his music. Melissa Hurley , 21, and Skeeter Rabbit , 26, are two Los Angeles-based hoofers who found their way into Bowie’s cabaret-styled Glass Spider tour almost by accident.

Hurley, whose mother was a ballerina, is a classically-trained dancer from Burlington, Vt. Her black curls and cherubic face were featured on the hit television series, Fame, for the three years prior to the show’s recent demise.

Until the Glass Spider tour, the only concert she’d ever been to was one by Air Supply. She hardly knew who David Bowie was. “It probably has a lot to do with my age and my dance training. You can be pretty sheltered, you know.”


Hurley’s agent told her about the auditions for the Bowie tour. There had already been a cattle-call in New York for about 250 dancers. Bowie, and his choreographer Toni Basil, saw no one they liked. In Los Angeles, where another 250 auditioned, they came up empty handed again.

Hurley, who was auditioning for another show that day, had left her photograph and resume with Basil who then showed it to Bowie. Basil called her. She didn’t care if Hurley had another show to do, they wanted her to audition. She did a gruelling seven-hour haul that required her to dance in evening gowns a la Pina Bausch, bump and grind her way through selected choreography by Montreal’s Edouard Lock, perform the solo from the nineteenth-century “killer” ballet Raymonda, and do a series of movements based on improvisation.

“The day was long and tedious,” said Hurley. Her performance was recorded on video. Bowie saw it and liked her style. She was then offered a nine-month contract. Hurley decided to forego the other job and go with the tour. She never met Bowie until the show went into rehearsal.

Rabbit’s strapping athletic frame makes him an easy contender for his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. Born in Texas, Davis grew up in Los Angeles where he was a street-gang leader as a boy. Unlike Hurley, Rabbit has next to no formal training. By his own admission, he’s got plenty of personality and charisma. That, more than the ability to gyrate hips on command, is what landed him a position with the tour.

Rabbit, a part-time model and actor, had just come back from a modelling assignment in Japan when Basil phoned him with a proposition. She said she had someone she wanted him to meet. Only when they were in the lobby of Bowie’s hotel did Rabbit learn who he was going to meet.


“I was shocked. I had danced to his music when he switched to more of a black, funk sound, like with Golden Years, Fame, Young Americans – stuff like that,” he drawled. “I talked to him that day for about 45 minutes. He asked me to show him what I could do. He said he wasn’t interested in last year’s style. He wanted something totally new, something of the future, a new direction. I danced; he liked it.”

Bowie wanted to see Rabbit on video and Rabbit, knowing he wanted the job, threw in some rap with his street dance moves. “I think David was more impressed with my character. I gave myself an advantage by letting my natural character come out – the ham, the show-off.”

Hurley and Rabbit, together with three other L.A. dancers – Constance Marie, Viktor Manoel and Spazz Attack – are contracted to do the tour for nine months. They are each paid a weekly salary of approximently $2000 U.S. plus a a daily spending allowance.

The tour, in Montreal tomorrow night, will wend its way back through the United States in the beginning of September with an added engagement at Madison Sqare Gardens Sept. 1 and 2. The tour ends Sept. 19 in Tampa, Fla. It’s exhausting work. The dancers perform an average of three two-hour shows a week. But Hurley and Rabbit say they are used to it. “Only when you crawl into bed at night do you remember you’re tired,” said Rabbit.

The Glass Spider tour is a 350-ton production that brings a fresh twist to the traditional rock music venue. Bowie conceived the idea for the tour about a year ago. He wanted something challenging, said his touring assistant Sara Gabrels. He was looking to create something more along the lines of a rock/theatre piece, she added.

The show, an extension of Bowie’s long association with the theatre (he is a disciple of dance and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, also the former teacher of Toronto’s Robert Desrosiers), could be on Broadway.

Stylized choreography walks hand-in-hand with dramatic vocalization, improvisation, elaborate sets, colorful props and vivid, theatrical lighting. The entire spectacle is captured on screen by five video cameras that shoot the performers throughout the show.

Film clips appear sporadically on a back screen. Images of bombs, protest marches, ailing politicians and police states underscore the show’s message of global disintegration. “It’s purposeful in its fragmentation,” explained Gabrels. “David crafted it after German theatre of the late twenties and early thirties. Its style is meant to reflect the way the world is – you always get things in fragments.”

The choreography in Glass Spider is disjointed. Rabbit and Hurley, after some discussion, finally agree the show is about 70 per cent choreography, 30 per cent improvisation. Only a few numbers are fully choreographed – Fashion, Scary Monsters and Aliens.


Rabbit said Basil created the choreography out of the personalities of the dancers involved. Each plays a character on stage; Hurley’s is known as True Love, Rabbit’s as The Hero. Basil designed who should do what to what song. “But what we are on stage,” said Rabbit, “is what we’re like off-stage. They (Basil and Bowie) just took it to an extreme.”

Rabbit and Hurley don’t think their roles are crucial to the show’s meaning, “As far as the dance is concerned, it’s just dance where all forms of movement are applicable and where all kinds of dancers can relate to each other and interconnect,” said Rabbit. Still, their words suggest that behind it all is a mesage of universality.

“David loves the avant-garde. He has always been ahead of the game, always before his time,” said Hurley, who, since landing the job, has bought every Bowie record she could lay her hands on and become a big fan.

“He’s international and intricate,” added Rabbit. “He goes into people’s garages and finds talent everywhere. We were chosen, not because we are the greatest dancers in the world, though I hate to admit it, but because there was something he saw hidden in us, an innate quality that needed to be personified.” Rabbit takes a deep breath, lowers his eyes and blushes. “I’ve never idolized anyone before, but he’s so broad – he finds something in everything and gives it life.”


Camille Paglia Glad To Meet Me


I miss the days when, as a reporter, I did my stories working alongside a photographer. We would travel to assignments, together, chewing the fat along the way in a Globe car,  and commiserating with each other about the job. We’d each stake the subject in our own way when we got there, giving each other the room respect and space to get our own bits done. A few times I acted as the bait, luring a subject out his front door while the photographer hid inside the car parked across the street, camera aimed at the guy’s head. I’d know to stand aside while asking my questions before having the door shut in my face, to allow my partner to get his shots. Yes, those were the good old days. Now, the expectation is that I report from my desk, using the phone or email, and ask for handouts, or still images, to publish with the story. It’s just not the same. There’s no bite to it anymore. No live action. And so I find myself nostalgic for the time I went with photographer Tibor Kolley, one of my newspaper’s greats, to interview Camille Paglia. The location was the old Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Road in Toronto and the date was November, 1994. I was there to help her promote her new book, Vamps and Tramps, and Tibor was there to take her portrait. This wasn’t to be one of those bushwhack jobs. It was to be tasteful. Except the feminists turned it all upside down she. She launched an unprovoked attack on Tibor, nearly tearing his face off.  It was quite the scene and it made for quite the story, as you can read below:

She came, she bellowed, she almost conquered the patience of a veteran newspaper photographer assigned to shoot her for The Globe.

She is Camille Paglia, pistol-packing feminist, humanist, academic and author, who was in Toronto last week as part of a promotional tour for her new book, a collection of essays called Vamps and Tramps.

I was assigned to interview her, which was lucky for me because I admire her work. My colleague, Tibor Kolley, was assigned to shoot her, which was unlucky for him because in his 23 years on the job he had never met such a battle axe.

With me she was chatty, ebullient, charismatic. With him she was abrasive, aggressive, rude.

As a 47-year-old lesbian, she has a history of liking girls. Yet in her bestselling books she voices support for men, to the chagrin of New Age feminists who claim that men are the enemy.

Did she like me because of my sex? Distrust him because of his?

His mistake, if we need call it that, was twofold: he asked her if he could shoot her in her hotel room (a professional request she misread as something akin to a proposition for sex), and, eventually finding a neutral place in which to work, he aimed to shoot her from the ground up.

“What are you doing? Hey, I said what are you doing down there? Get up. Get up this instant. I don’t let anyone shoot me from that angle. No way. I once got burned that way. Time Magazine. They shot me from that angle and I looked terrible. I showed it to my friend Lauren Hutton, you know, the Vogue model, and she said, ‘Camille, never have your picture taken from that angle again] Not ever!’ And you see on the cover of my new book I am being shot straight on, by Lauren’s friend, now my friend, Luca Babini, and I’m wearing my military-issue jacket and my Emma Peel pose. Hey! Are you listening to me? I said no way are you taking my picture from that angle! I’m now in a position to take control of how I’m photographed, and that’s what I’m doing. Taking control!”

Tibor is on his knees, sweating under the lights he has painstakingly assembled for the shoot. Ms. Paglia, hot on her rant, keeps firing demands at him.

I can see Tibor is distressed. But trouper that he is, he tries to make the commandant happy. He stands up, runs a quick hand across his forehead, and then aims the camera at chest level. He’s about to take the first shot when Ms. Paglia explodes again.

“Hey! I’m not kidding! If you don’t do what I say, I’m walking. See. I’m walking already.”

And she is.

“You asked me not to shoot you from below and I’m not,” Tibor says.

“Ooooh, but you are! Get the camera up! Up, I say!”

The camera is a Hasselblad, with a viewfinder that the photographer has to look through from above.

“I have to aim the camera at chest level to get your head in. Do you want to check for yourself?”

Temporarily subdued, Ms. Paglia grimaces for the picture. But not before admonishing Tibor to make it snappy.

“You have four seconds.”

He aims, he shoots, and with only two seconds remaining he scores: a shot of the warrior queen pointing maniacally at her watch, indicating that the session is over after only six frames are exposed.

She then extends a warm hand to me.

“Isn’t it just chaos?” she says with a smile.

I nod like an idiot. Tibor curses.

She bounds down the stairs, a diva in charge of her own image.



image imageA critic wrote that she is a goddess no more.


A few wrinkles might now frame those hypnotic, blue-green eyes and the skin at the throat has lost its tautness. But time has not diminished Charlotte Rampling nor her legendary beauty.

When the now 69-year old actress glides into a room, willowy, statuesque and effortlessly elegant (despite black pants that have lost a button), people still stare and grow silent.

But the more she is scrutinized, the more she withdraws. Just like a goddess.

Arms folded tightly against her chest, eyes averted, Ms. Rampling speaks so carefully that the cadences of her native England are flattened so that there is almost no accent at all.

“I don’t like to be looked at,” she says.

What kind of joke is that?

In a film career that has spanned decades, Ms. Rampling, the star of  the new film, 45 Years, which opened the first week of December, has long invited scrutiny with appearances in dozens of movies made on both sides of the Atlantic.

She has specialized in raw, flinty performances — often in the nude — which would make ignoring her difficult, if not impossible.

Liliana Cavali’s 1973 erotic thriller, The Night Porter, is her most famous film — the one that helped launch a thousand-and-one fantasies.

In it, Ms. Rampling plays the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, who returns to one of her captors after the war to continue a masochistic sexual relationship.

“Couldn’t you do A Room with a View just once?” her aging mother once lamented.

From there, she went on to make The Damned with Luchino Visconti, Zardoz with John Boorman and Stardust Memories with Woody Allen.

Ms. Rampling estimates that she averages two films a year.

“I’m one of those types,” she says softly, a timid person drawn to acting because it allows her to hide behind a role.

“Actually, the thing that has always frightened me most is to be looked at. The idea of all those eyes looking at me is intolerable to me; it’s what has prevented me from appearing in plays, on the stage, before a waiting audience,” she explains,

“I much prefer film because there you have only the director’s eyes on you. And you have the camera and you can play to that. I have an immense amount of timidity. And so instinctively I try to stay out of the limelight.”

It’s one of the reasons behind her decision to live in self-imposed exile in Paris, where, until her marriage broke up, she was the wife of French pop composer Jean-Michel Jarre.

Until recently, Ms. Rampling had been involved in another relationship she describes as “wonderful.” Longtime partner, the French businessman Jean-Noël Tassez, died earlier this year.

Altogether, she has three children – two sons, one with first husband, Bryan Southcombe, one with Jarre and a stepdaughter from Jarre’s first marriage. The continental life suits her.

England has always been too confining, though she admits to having experienced some “wild, wild, times” in London during the swinging sixties. Ms. Rampling was then the personification of the era’s psychedelic decadence.

“Oh, we were innocent then,” she says, with a grin like the Cheshire cat’s. “It’s not the same any more, is it?”

Hard to say.

The menage a trois she had at the time with a male model and the public relations man who was to become her husband made international headlines.

If it were to happen today, perhaps no one would take notice. That’s because the film world no longer seems to care what an actress does once she passes the age of 30.

And if she were living in Hollywood — which she loathes — or England — where her parents managed to put her down until she was in her 50s — “It’s amazing that people still want you, at your age,” she recalls her censorious father saying to her before he died — she would likely be forgotten.

But in Europe, where des dames d’un certain age still have currency, Ms. Rampling is still much sought after, a hot commodity.

“It suits me,” she says. “It’s nice to be thought about and wanted.”

Age is not an issue.

“In Europe there are most definitely roles for older women. European films are not formula pictures. They do not go out scouting for people to play in them. They hire who is right for the part. In Europe, older women are appreciated. There is not the frenzy there about growing old as in America. People don’t rush out and get their faces lifted, their wrinkles blasted away.”

Her own face is unmade, free of goop and powder. A stain of rose-coloured lipstick draws attention to the sensuality of her mouth. Her ash-blond hair shows wisps of grey.

“All that people say about me is fine,” Ms. Rampling says.

“Who cares about the real me anyway? It’s what you project on the screen that is interesting. So it’s the feedback that matters. Acting is all about that.”

It is also a form of therapy.

A long-time victim of depression — she suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1980s and spent time in a psychiatric ward — Ms. Rampling finds solace in the arts.

She counts photography and writing among her hobbies. Like acting, they help keep her sane.

“I think all creative tasks are forms of self-help. They do liberate. You have direct contact with the unconscious. And you are doing these things for yourself, so who is going to judge? You are never setting yourself up for disapproval.”

So she does care what people think and say about her, then.

Her aloofness, and ambivalence about her profession, appear to be a smokescreen that shields the real woman from our prying gaze.

But that’s a goddess for you. Pure mystery.

“I know I had it a few years ago,” she says. “But I don’t know if I have it still at all.”

Is she kidding?


Dance Misty For Me




A Ballerina’s Tale, the Nelson George documentary about Misty Copeland, has its Toronto premiere at Hot Docs with three screenings spread over November 4 and 5. I am invited to introduce the film at the Bloor Cinema and participate in the post-screening Q and A. More details can be found here:

I appear in the film as a dance critic, putting Misty’s great achievements in historical context. She is the first black ballerina to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Nelson George interviewed me on site at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto where I have been writing on dance since before most of you were born. Some if my past articles are on racial discrimination in ballet; some are cited in the film alongside my book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (2012). I interviewed Misty for the book in 2011, back when no one else was giving her much ink. I am proud to say I spotted her potential as a game changer before anyone did. My reward is this film, a terribly important cultural document about a moment of real artistic change. I hope you will come and see it, wherever it plays.

Adieu La La La Human Steps




Sad news: Montreal choreographer Edouard Lock today announced that he is disbanding La La La La Human Steps, the company he founded 35-years ago, citing financial reasons. This is the company that put contemporary Canadian dance on the international map.  Lock’s muse at the beginning was the powerhouse dance Louise Lecavalier who drew all eyes, including those of David Bowie and Frank Zappa who asked her to perform Lock’s kamikaze choreography as part of their stadium shows. In recent years, and since Lecavalier’s departure from the company 15 years ago, Lock has abandoned the horizontal barrel rolls of his early work for the vertical thrust of ballet. His experiments with pointe work helped push classical dance in a new, raw direction. So his announcement that the dance is now over is an enormous loss. I will write more later but in the meantime I resist the first review I wrote of Lock and La La La Human Steps to remember the fiery spark of  creativity that was always there, right from the beginning:
Features Dance
Lock’s Human Sex succeeds with excess
21 September 1985
The Globe and Mail

This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll; this is genocide. -David Bowie

We are the spiritually tragic. -Edouard Lock


MONTREAL:  At first glance, it might seem that David Bowie and Edouard Lock have much in common: one’s from England; the other from French-speaking Canada by way of Morocco. One is a celebrated rock star; the other a burgeoning choreographer. Yet, if you look closely, there are startling similarities. Both share a mad passion for the here and now; both have melded a diversity of disciplines into their own. Bowie, a former student of Lindsay Kemp injects pantomime and other forms of stylized theatre into his rock shows. Lock, once a film and literature major at Montreal’s Concordia University, envelops his peculiar brand of highly quizzical, idiosyncratic dance with arresting video images and quirky, Joycean text.

On Thursday night, Lock’s company, La La La, opened the first Montreal Festival International de Nouvelle danse with what is undoubtedly his most ambitious work to date, Human Sex. The spectacle (for that’s what it truly was) took place at the Spectrum Theatre on St. Catherine Street. A former movie-house, the Spectrum is currently operating as a licenced club that features live music shows.

It is an appropriate venue for Human Sex, because essentially the piece is dance that has been formulated and packaged like a rock video. The gesturing is fast, slick, spontaneous and mean. And so are the dancers. Louise Lecavalier is a white-blonde, mustachioed time- bomb that explodes every time she tumbles madly into the arms of her ruddy-haired, eye- shadowed partner, Marc Beland. Together, Lecavalier and Beland act out Lock’s central thesis: that “being a boy or a girl is a matter of condition and wistful expectation.” They do so by sharing roles of dominance and submission.

These exchanges of power are what Human Sex is essentially all about. It’s expressed through the manic physical exertion of the dancers and the ear-shattering squeals of an electric guitar.

The point of Lock’s 70-minute exercise is to show how power can ultimately equalize itself. Toward the end, Lock illustrates this by having his entire cast, including musician and vocalist Randall Kay and dancers Carole Courtois and Claude Godin, get together for a quirky ensemble number that is basically devoid of tension.

While Lock may have succeeded in communicating his central idea by way of hard-core dance and technology, he has nonetheless failed to exert his power principle over his own material. Human Sex, which had its premiere last spring in Vancouver, is still in need of some sharper editing. By the halfway mark, the novelty of the piece begins to wear off. Moreover, because Lock uses a limited dance vocabulary, the work looks repetitive in places.

Perhaps Lock himself was aware of this problem, for he suddenly adds a plethora of visual trickery to the already meaty dance. But he goes too far with the result that Human Sex comes to wallow in its own splendid excess.

Maya Plisetskaya: A Tribute

image  imageimage


The great Russian ballerina, Maya Plisteskaya, has died at age 89. Her legacy is of a dancer who rose above the terrible persecutions of the Soviet Union to become an artist whose incredible powers of expression eventually put her beyond reach. She was incomparable, a ballerina in a league of her own.

(Watch this YouTube video of Plisteskaya dancing Bejart’s Bolero to see for yourself:

Behind the poise, however, lay a tormented soul, anguished by the cruelties of her motherland, bent on revenge.

She wrote about her sufferings and triumphs inner in her 2002 memoir, I, Maya Plisetskaya. The eye-opening book describes in heart-wrenching detail what is was like being an artist in Stalin’s time. It’s not at all beautiful at the ballet.

If anyone ever thought Communism was an idealistic ideology, Plisteskaya sets them straight.

As a child of the Soviet era, Plisteskaya  suffered through the terror, murder and oppression inflicted on citizens by a brutal authoritarian regime. Her father was executed by firing squad during the Great Terror.

Her mother, once a famous Russian silent-film star, was imprisoned in a Siberian concentration camp, while pregnant with Maya’s little brother, for being the wife of an enemy of the people. She lingered there for years. The horror of these earlier years shaped the satin-slippered Plisetskaya into a hard-nosed realist:

“Just think how many holy deceits were perpetuated then in our miserable, god-forsaken, blood-covered Russia,” she writes in her book.

Her autobiography is a searing indictment of Soviet Russia, of communism and of the blinding naivete with which the Isadoras of this world have often approached her country. She welcomed any punishment that might follow her telling of the truth. But post-perestroika, she emerged a heroine of the state. Vladimir Putin himself pinned her with the medal of service in 2000, her country’s highest honour. This is her dead father’s sweetest revenge.

Plisetskaya’s memoirs invariably describe a life in dance. But the book’s biggest value lies in being much more than that. I, Maya is social history written by a dancer who transcends the mute language of her art to tell a universal story of suffering and endurance.

The thud of irony continually disrupts the mellifluous strains of Tchaikovsky that sound in the background of a career that spanned 50 years.

“I would like to talk about Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, how I could toss off grands battements, and my handsome partners,” she writes, setting the tone of sarcasm that runs though this deliciously subversive book.

“But no matter what end of my childhood I look at, it all turns to politics, to the Stalin terror.”

Joni Mitchell: A Portrait




With the unfortunate news that Joni Mitchell has been found unconscious in her Bel-Air home on the night of March 31, 2015, I recall being in that very house with that most revered singer/songwriter/musician/artist, listening to her talk about her joys and sorrows, her quest for an identity beyond her early days in folk music. I spent more than a day with Canada’s First Lady of Jazz,  as she would want to be known, watching her chain smoke and eat breakfast at 3 in the afternoon as she gave me an exclusive interview detailing her life’s work. We went to her favourite Los Angeles restaurant then back to her house where there is a piano in a sun room and cats galore. I hope she recovers from her illness. At 71 she is still too young. But in the meantime I share this encounter with the great Joni Mitchell to emphasize how much we need to cherish her.

8 June 2000

Los Angeles — She’s standing in her sitting room — your first clue that nothing she does is according to convention — and, talking a mile a minute, lit cigarette jabbing the air for emphasis, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell makes this declaration: “I am a painter.”

What’s more, she has always thought of herself as one, despite the albums, the accolades, the awards that have showered her like confetti on a bride.

“All through this,” she relates in an exclusive interview, “I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance.”

Of course, it’s her music that has made her rich and famous, and it’s as a musician that the world is most comfortable in describing her. Painting has been a constant companion to the music and songwriting, but that side of her oeuvre is not as well known because, aside from a handful of international exhibitions, Mitchell has rarely shown her work.

True, she hasn’t exactly hidden her painterly side. Fans know that her own illustrations and paintings have adorned most of her albums, beginning in 1968 with her eponymous debut, and continuing through to her latest, Both Sides Now. But she has never exhibited in her native Canada. Until now.

Starting June 30, the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon — the Saskatchewan city to which Mitchell moved when she was 9 and where her parents and boyfriend, singer-songwriter Don Freed, still live — will unveil the first Canadian exhibition of her painting, voices: Joni Mitchell.

Devotees are coming from as far as Australia and South Africa. The New York Times will review the show. Galleries across the country are begging Mendel director Gilles Hebert, who thought up the idea, to let them in on what promises to be a blockbusting affair by offering the show up for tour after it closes in September.

Nothing has been finalized. Mitchell wants to see how the show works in Saskatoon before she even considers letting it go on the road. Before the opening, she’s suffering what resembles stage fright. This spring she has been agonizing over the selection of paintings for the show and demanding a veto on the contents of the limited-edition catalogue to which she has contributed a 1,500-word statement.

“What I think people might find interesting,” Mitchell says, “is that it is not often you find somebody who expresses themselves with regularity in three arts.”

An interview with Mitchell is an event. This one occurs in two locations. The first is at the Daily Grill in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, where Mitchell has her breakfast almost every day around 3 p.m. She typically starts with a bowl of soup (lentil, the day of our chat), followed by eggs, toast and salad — most of which she only half-eats because she always seems to be firing up one of her American Spirit cigarettes. Mitchell is such a regular at this haunt that on occasion “crazy fans” have called her there on the phone.

The second is at twilight, at her $6-million Bel Air mansion. She calls it “the hacienda” because of its tiled Spanish-style roof, interconnecting rooms and salmon-pink exterior. The scent of orange and lemon trees pervade the air. A Mercedes sports car and a Land Cruiser sit in the driveway. Inside one finds a Haida “welcome bear,” solid-wood antique furniture, her own paintings, a cabinet crammed with CDs. Cats with names such as Nietzsche, Mojo and El Cafe are everywhere. On a coffee table, there’s The Portable Oscar Wilde, People magazine, Architectural Digest.

Any understanding of Mitchell’s career is incomplete without an assessment of her visual art, which, while not as celebrated as her music, is nonetheless an integral component of her sensibility. On the one hand, she is a pop diva and music innovator who has sold millions of records worldwide; whose songs have been recorded by talents as diverse as Judy Collins, the Byrds and Nazareth; who, at age 25, wrote the anthem for the Woodstock generation and established herself as a rock poet that many have emulated but few have surpassed. And on the other, she is a self-described devotee of van Gogh and Matisse, who, in a backroom of her mansion, toils nightly developing imagery gleaned from the rural roads and plains of the Prairies.

“Because I’m so busy and because I think of myself as a painter, I desperately guard the time that I have to paint,” she says. “And sometimes I’m irresponsible to my career in order to paint. Because painting is obsessive. I forget to eat. I forget to sleep. And a lot of times, the painting idea will come along at an inappropriate time, like when I’m supposed to be doing interviews or guarding my health. I can’t help it. It’s not like it’s a voluntary thing. I’m driven to paint.”

If it sounds intense — it is. Call it an extension of Mitchell’s own fervent personality. Nothing she does is by half-measures. Even talking — which is akin to her nicotine habit, in that she throws out long rings of sentences that often keep her wired for the night. Which is a good thing, since Mitchell, 56, sleeps most of the day.

She likes her coffee and the more she drinks, the faster her tongue moves. But none of it is idle chatter. Her conversations — monologues is perhaps the more precise term — brim with bits of philosophy, chunks of cultural analysis, swatches of anecdotes about the lives of the great artists whom she has studied intently as part of her own process of growth as a painter. There’s also a great deal of talk about herself, which is to be expected from someone for whom the personal is the essential component of her art. In fact, “no art that isn’t personal has any vitality,” she pronounces.

Painting and music are complementary components of her sensibility. Her songs are born of tribulations both endured and witnessed in the world at large. “I am plagued with involuntary visions of the blight that we are, this species on the planet,” she says. “I’ve been cursed with this vision of scum at the water’s edge, which gets in my music.”

What she has suffered also gets in — broken relationships, “love’s illusions” — and the loss of her only daughter, Kilauren, whom she put up for adoption in 1965 when poor and living in Toronto. “It wasn’t until I gave up this child and made my bad marriage [to American folk singer Chuck Mitchell] that I began to suffer enough, which is the only thing that ever made me write — seriously write, secretly write. And the music kind of joined it.”

Painting, on the other hand, is her sanctuary. Though she has lived in California since 1968, Mitchell has rarely painted scenes from her life in Los Angeles. The images in her painting are of the Canadian landscape and of loved ones, including her cats. Utopian and grime-free, the painting is the direct opposite of the strife-ridden music.

“I sing my sorrow,” she says, “and I paint my joy.”

Just as her lyrics have about them a diary-like intimacy, her painting lays bare the dreams and desires of the woman who created them. Each is a subjective document with a private vocabulary of images and symbols that she has taken pains to evolve. “It’s not just arbitrary imagery,” she continues. “All of it is truly attractive to my spirit, all of it is authentic to my personal history.”

She was born Roberta Joan Anderson on Nov. 7, 1943, in the small town of Fort Macleod in southern Alberta, the only child of a former grocery manager and his teacher-wife. She grew up in rural Canada, lonely and hemmed in by the conventional thinking of her Prairie communities. Her sense of herself as an outsider was heightened by a childhood attack of polio that almost left her crippled for life. “It took away my athletic speed and my ability to compete and also set me back from being chosen for teams early and not being able to participate. It gave me a social handicap in the community that I was growing up in.”

She developed into an introvert who sought refuge in the thicket of her lush imagination. She was thrilled by rich, jewel-like colours, and as a child used to collect the crepe paper left over from parades and dissolve it in water that she stored in decorative shampoo bottles. Art, from an early age, was alchemy. It turned the drabness of her small-town existence into gold.

Writing was also a calling, though she felt no compulsion to develop it. “Winged words flow from her pen,” was what someone wrote in her high-school yearbook. So the talent was there and evident to others, even if she didn’t give it much importance, at least at first.

Music was a moment of rapture. She recalls being enthralled at the age of 7 by a recording of Rachmaninoff playing Variations on a Theme of Paganini. She begged her parents for piano lessons. She was a natural, and could play by ear. But her teachers strapped her hands for straying from the rules. “So pain drove me out of music. I didn’t think it was worth getting beat up, you know? And they didn’t understand my desire to compose either. ‘Why would you want to do that,’ they said, ‘when you could have the Masters under your fingertips?’ ”

Defiantly independent, Mitchell learned early to follow her own path. She retreated frequently into nature, perhaps because it represented the call of the free. Pleasure she found in her own company and a couple of smokes on a sun-dappled Saskatchewan day.

“Oh, it would raise my spirits,” she says, excitement rising in her amber-toned voice. “I’d get three cigarettes and I’d ride my bike on into the country and find a place that made me go, ‘Ooh, pretty,’ and I’d sit down and if it were autumn I’d look at the colours and the light through the leaves hanging over me. It gave me a sense of peace to watch the birds fly in and out.”

The memory of those days on the Prairies has had an enormous impact on all her creative endeavours. She feels compelled to put the landscape into much of her painting. In conversation, she becomes tremulous describing its severe beauty. But it’s not just a matter of the picturesque. Mitchell paints the land because for her, geography is autobiography.

The pull of Canada is enormous. She travels at least twice a year back to Saskatoon, the place she still calls home. And she owns land just outside Vancouver, where she retreats to write. Her daughter, with whom she was famously reunited in 1998, lives in Toronto with two children of her own.

But besides her loved ones, Mitchell returns to Canada because the lure of the familiar inspires in her an urge to create. Picasso felt this way too, she says. “Every time he would go back to Spain he would get a new period. That reacquaintance with where you come from seems to spur something on.”

She travels with a camera and sometimes a Super 8 with which to record the land. Back in Los Angeles, the photographs serve as models for paintings, or sometimes form the basis of collages in which she superimposes self-portraits onto the wheat fields. These latter works, in particular, show how strongly intertwined her sense of identity is with the land.

Saskatchewan’s wide-open spaces have instilled in her a love of poetic exaggeration and exploration, while reinforcing a sense of identity as a trailblazer. “I come from sky-oriented people,” she says. “I come from pioneer stock, developers of the West, people who went out into the wilderness and set up home with nothing but a pair of oxen.” That’s her lineage and she continually pays homage to it by refusing to play to the mainstream: “I’m not a joiner. I’ve never been a joiner.”

This is most evident in her music which, throughout a 35-year career, has taken many unexpected turns. She has known glory and she has experienced isolation for being so willful, self-assured and eclectic. Still, music has been a well-paying vocation that has allowed her to paint without feeling compelled to pander to the politics of art-world commerce. “I enjoy living with it,” she says. “It’s very personal — my friends, my cats, my antiques. Because I don’t have to deal with the art world, I can paint what I want.”

Past exhibitions of her work have had mixed reviews, largely because someone of her celebrity is always assumed to be a dilettante. “It’s very shocking,” she allows. “It’s a love-hate thing. The hate is obvious. People think I get shown just because I’m famous. So there’s natural resentment.”

But Mitchell insists she is “no Sunday painter. I probably spend more of my time painting than most of my friends who are full-time painters.”

Most of that time is spent retouching, reconfiguring and rethinking her imagery. This nitpicky side to the painting process goes hand-in-hand with a mystical dimension that is full of visionary moments in which images appear, uninvited, onto the canvas. These she often crosses out, or colours over, in an attempt to wrestle back control over her painting. The viewer is unaware of the suppressed imagery. But Mitchell says she can’t look at one of her works without recalling the layers of meaning hidden beneath the surface picture.

This stratified approach to art-making is present also in her music. She is not one to write a simple melodic line, or cast her songs in either a major or minor key. There is no either/or in her music; it is all and everything. “Not quite mud,” she says. “But some of those chords when you write them out look like mathematical equations.” Overdubbing in the studio adds more layers to the music. The desired effect is what she calls “internal twisting,” a helix-like structure of sound with its own tornado-like force. But the overall impression is more subtle. The musical colours, like the hues of her palette, are smoky and muted, the result of mixing many different tones at once.

The music, songwriting and painting are linked in other, intricate ways. “In the beginning,” she says, “the music had a lot of grace notes, a lot of curlicues, and the writing had two adjectives where one would do. The art I was doing at the time was very Aubrey Beardsley, a lot of interlocking forms on a page. One day I got sick of that and I said to a sculptor from Montreal, a friend of Leonard Cohen, I am sick of my drawing. It’s too noodley, I said. It’s too ornate and it’s too girlie. ‘Draw me and don’t look at the paper,’ he said. It was a simple art-school trick. But it was just the device I needed to break loose. With that minimalizing of the line, the adjectives fell simultaneously from the writing and the guitar stroke went from less intricate finger-picking to a bolder strumming style, which was less classical and more pop-ish.”

Starting in the early nineties and continuing today, Mitchell has felt a need to return to classicism to reinvigorate her creativity: “I needed to go back and really revisit classicism again, and look for another route out of it, musically and painterly.”

And so she continues to work hard at a time when other artists of her age might allow themselves to rest easy after such a fruitful career. But Mitchell doesn’t know the meaning of quit. Back in her sitting room, it is hours later and she is still standing. Her guests long ago fell into chairs exhausted by her relentless forward drive. And she keeps going. And going.

“That’s what’s interesting,” she says. “I’m growth-oriented. It’s exciting to grow.” voices: Joni Mitchell opens at 8 p.m. on June 30 at the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, and continues to Sept. 17. Admission is free. For information, call 306-975-8053. Web: E-mail:


“I painted it around, I guess, 1993 when I met Don Freed [her boyfriend] — who’s the subject of some of these paintings in the show — for the first time. And he said, ‘How are you?’ And I said, ‘Undervalued.’ [Laughs.] And I was. I was very frustrated at that time because the normal outlets for getting your product marketed in my business, those doors had been closed to me, and no one could give me a reason why. . . .

“So my work was being rejected whereas mediocre work was being accepted and elevated on the basis of newness and youth and, you know, obvious mercantile speculation ran in that direction. So, rather than physically cut my ear off, I did it in effigy. [Huge belly laugh.] I’m not that stupid.”