The Great Joni Mitchell Cover-up

A rant, a rant and a rave tonight.

And to get to those items faster, I'll dispense quickly with the obligatory apologies for taking so long to blog. As I said last time, this is crazy time in the life of any photographer, the holidays just around the corner, and I've been a tad busy. This past weekend, for instance, I shot seven portrait jobs. Like I said, a tad busy.

Now that's we're clear on that, on to rant number one.

Many of you know that I'm a bit of a Joni Mitchell nut. To say that I consider Joni to be a part of my family--as odd as that sounds--would not be a stretch. I've listened to Blue so many thousands of times in the past 25 years that I sometimes think I'm the one who needs a river to skate away on. Like a security blanket, Joni is always there for me. From Hejira's Coyote (love that Bay of Fundy) to Turbulent Indigo's Magdalene Laundries, I've stayed true. None of this fair weather stuff. (That great scene in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, where the space aliens tell him that they love his films--"especially," says the martian, "the early funny ones.") Nope. I've been with Joni for the long haul.

Now, friends can be hard on a lifelong Joni fan. You get teased in ways that, say, a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan might not. One friend who shall remain nameless, unless, of course, you've read my last blog entry, has accused me of listening to "mopey chick music." Fair enough. Coupled with my love for Aimee Mann and Nanci Griffith and Gillian Welch (the mopiest of them all--Maya once attempted to throw herself from the car when Gillian started singing The Revelator) I guess I can see the argument. But Joni isn't really mopey at all. I mean, how could you not love someone who can write like this:

I met a redneck on a Grecian Isle/ He did the goat dance very well/ He gave me back my smile/ But he kept my camera to sell.

When I read in the New York Times recently that Joni was set to release a new album, Shine, as well as lend her songs to a new work by the Alberta Ballet, I was excited. I wasn't too thrilled to learn that the album was being marketed exclusively on Starbuck's Hear Music label, as corporate synergy has worn me down of late, but excited nonetheless.

So a week or so ago, as I waited for my venti hot chocolate at the Macarthur Blvd. Starbucks, a joint where the baristas work so damn hard and still get your order wrong all the time, I noticed the album for the first time. I scooped it up, knowing I had a nine hour drive to Savannah in front of me, and hit the road.

That's when Maya noticed the cover. Or should I say cover-up?

The cover of Shine is a beautiful photograph of dancers with the Alberta Ballet engaged in a lunar leap of sorts. It's evocative, it's moody, and it's a noticeable departure from many of Joni's albums that feature her own artwork. I feel ridiculous stating this, but for the record, the muscular male dancers are all wearing tights. There is not a nude body to be found.

But in the spirit of John Ashcroft, who was so offended by the sight of a woman's breast that he ordered a new set of drapes, someone at Starbucks clearly has some issues. How else can one explain the hideous band of blue paper that covers, quite neatly, every single tush in the photograph? It's as if buying a Joni Mitchell album has suddenly become akin to leaving an adult bookstore with a paper-clad girlie magazine.

Would someone wake me when this all ends? Have we become so absurdly prudish as a society that the bodies of male dancers--clothed!!!--can't be shown on an album cover? Is someone worried that a child might see these dancers and, god forbid, dream about going into the arts? Nigel Tufnel couldn't understand why the "Smell the Glove" cover was censored in This is Spinal Tap. But that was a movie farce--this is real life.

I went back into Starbucks to see if any other album they sold had an added "wrapper," but couldn't find one. And to head off any explanation that the wrap was added to give more visual clarity for sales purposes, Joni's own Blue, which features one of the hardest to read titles of any album--blue on blue type--is also sold at Starbucks, sans wrapper.

That someone in the corporate world would actually worry that ballet dancers' derrieres might be offensive--only in America, right?--is not surprising. But I am very surprised that Joni would go along with such a harebrained scheme. We're talking about a woman who, by her own admission, didn't go near a piano for the last ten years because she so despised the record industry. Et tu, Joni?

Back in the late 1970's, when I was attending Mattlin Junior High School on Long Island, a music teacher named Miss Sparrow was trying her best to be hip. She was teaching a lesson about "modern" music and was about to play Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner. (Other favorites included overly deep analysis of the Beatles' incredibly simple "Michelle.") But before she let the needle drop onto the record player (record player!), Miss sparrow cautioned our class that the music we were about to hear was so powerful that we could be potentially be harmed. As if she was about to give us all LSD, she dutifully asked if anyone wanted to leave the room. One of my classmates, David L., sheepishly raised his hand and left.

Jimi Hendrix would no doubt get a kick to learn that ballet dancers have joined his club.

Rant #2.

Last night Maya and I went to see Bruce Springsteen, courtesy of my friend and former bride, Laura Gonzalez. Laura knows that I'm as big a Bruce fan as I am a Joni Mitchell nut. I won't forget her kindness very soon.

The concert was sublime. I first saw Bruce at the Carrier Dome in 1985, on the Born in the USA tour, and it's hard to think that almost 22 years have past since that show. And even if I factor in the handful of times I've seen Bruce since that first show, none of them can top last night. Sure, the Verizon Center felt a tad geriatric, as middle aged bald guys maneuvered down the stairs clutching their beers, but big deal. The true believers showed a little faith and there truly was magic in the night. As Jon Stewart said last night, a Springsteen concert is about nothing but pure joy.

(Alexandra's great parlor trick, as four-year-old parlor tricks go, has always been her rendition of Thunder Road. I love the way she blissfully skips past lines like "Lying out there like a killer in the sun...")

As the show progressed, Backstreets morphed into Thunder Road. Thunder Road into Born to Run. All the anthems you could have asked for, and all framed by the incredibly powerful songs off the new album. I'm not sure what constitutes an instant classic, but I was almost moved to tears by Devil's Arcade, a heartbreaking song told from the perspective of an Iraqi war widow.

Remember the morning we dug up your gun
The worms in the barrel, the hanging sun
Those first nervous evenings of perfume and gin
The lost smell on your breath as I helped you get it in
The rush of your lips, the feel of your name
The beat in your heart, the devil's arcade

So, if everything was as great as you describe, Matt, what's to rant about?

Cell phones. And for a laugh, not because of their noise.

As if I didn't have to deal with enough dopes and their ever-ringing cellphones at weddings each week, I now can't go see a live music event without seven hundred people holding up their phones for the entire event, all of them trying to not-so-secretly record some absurdly low-res video to post on YouTube. Do these people know how incredibly distracting this is? (Or do they even care?) For the record, I don't want to watch Bruce Springsteen as he is illuminated by the ever-present glow of your cell phone's LED display. I want to watch Bruce Springsteen, live and in front of me, not reduced to some minuscule mpeg movie.

I know, just forget it, Matt, watch the show. But it's really hard to watch the show when the guy in front of you is holding up a lit phone for two hours. And for what? Is there really so much of a rush posting a grainy, inaudible video clip for one's cell phone on the internet? And this was in a huge arena. I've seen the same thing happen at the Birchmere, an intimate music hall that seats only a couple of hundred. The room is dark, the mood is electric, and there's that damn glow of a cell phone being held aloft. Argh.

I always made fun of the tourists who arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and descended from their tour buses with cameras in front of their faces. Didn't they want to just look at the canyon for a minute before they started snapping? It's not like it's going anywhere. But there's an odd obsession with capturing something, with taking something back with you. It makes no difference that the video is jerky and pixelated and garbled. You've got a little bit of Bruce in a bottle, and if it means pissing off the hundreds of people around you for a few hours, well, by god, it's worth it.

The old commercial used to go, is it live or is it Memorex? The implication was that the tape was so good it practically felt like you were there. These days I'm convinced that more people would just rather have the tape.


And now, finally, a couple of raves.

Yesterday, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (or Les Disparus, as it's known in Paris), by my brother, Daniel Mendelsohn, was awarded the Prix Médicis étranger, France's most prestigious award for a work by a foreign author. To give you an idea of the company Daniel is now in, previous winners of this prize include Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Philip Roth and Doris Lessing (who just won the Nobel Prize for literature a few weeks back). Not bad.

In a country that takes reading quite seriously, Daniel was treated like royalty. He dined last night across form the former prime minister, who insisted that he be seated next to Daniel, as well as greeted by microphones and cameras the minute he steeped into the hotel. If you're going to have your fifteen minutes, you might as well have them in Paris.

Congratulations, Daniel.


We've all been working hard here at Matt Mendelsohn World Headquarters. We have two new employees, Katie Persons and Ashley Dally, whom we hope will speed up our workflow a bit. Ashley hails from Defiance, Ohio and will tell you the entire history of that town if you ask her. So don't get her started. Katie has only been with us a short time and she's already chchangedur lives by introducing us to, a site that instantly creates a personalized radio station based on your musical preferences. Really neat.

But without a doubt, the hardest worker has been Maya. She has the tough job of making every image look as good as it can. And I can say that our images have never looked better. Most people don't understand the digital process very much, their only point of reference being the old days of dropping film at a lab. But these days there frequently is no lab. We're the lab. And all of the care that a lab once gave to making images look beautiful has now fallen back to the photographer.

It's counter intuitive, I know, but most digital images require more, not less, work than their film cousins. Every image we process gets intensive individual care to bring out contrast, tonality and vibrance. There are no quick fixes.

So I'll leave you tonight, as the clock here strikes 2:00 a.m., with some of our fall portraits.

Take care. (And, as always, double-click the images for better viewing.)



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