What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call

You should know I'm a music snob. Having listened to, played, created, toted, and roadied music for most of my life, I find it difficult not to love all kinds of music.

So you should know that covers, to me, are the bane of existence. For the most part.

There are notable exceptions, mostly transformational retakes of the song which exploits a good song's universality. Tim O'Brian's take on Norwegian Wood which converts an excellent Beatles song into Irish ballad. Or Fountains of Wayne's take on "Can't get it out of my head." Or TMBG's group sex version of "Tubthumper." But I typically shy away from covers that cleave close to the original.

This weekend, on the road, we heard a Fresh Air interview of Gillian Welch (and David Rawlings). At the end, Terry Gross asked them to play a song which isn't theirs, but that they love. Then they played "White Rabbit." Wow.

Here's their take at Telluride. They really play up the "spanish guitar" vibe (even without the "Bolero" drum riff). And their reverse, close harmony really cranks to the song. You can buy the version they played on Fresh Air. It's even better.


Phiala said...

Johnny Cash covering "Hurt."

Nathan said...

Wow. That's really amazing.

And not to throw negatives, but it's a huge reminder of why I so despised everything "Jefferson" that came after "Airplane" was done.

Steve Buchheit said...

Phiala, well, I was trying to be contemporary, but yes. There are lots of covers in the 50s-60s which defined the songs (more than their originals).

Nathan, yeah they quickly went towards flash instead of musicianship.

Phiala said...

"Hurt"? It's a 2002 cover of a 1994 NIN song. That's not contemporary, exactly, but not part of the 50s/60s "everyone doing everyone else's songs" era. Being dead does reduce contemporaneity over time.

Cash also did a fabulous Depeche Mode cover.

Steve Buchheit said...

Phiala, my bad for commenting to quickly before checking.

Phiala said...

I only brought it up in the first place because it's such an unlikely juxtaposition, and such a phenomenal cover.

If you haven't heard it, it's on YouTube, and the video is also excellent.

Steve Buchheit said...

Just went and listened. I think I like JC's take better (and he only changed a few of the words).

There's something about his hands shaking as he pours the wine compared to the assurity with which he plays at the beginning. I know the real cause of that, but there's something about how his hands on the guitar are divine, and his hands to the wine are those of an old man.

I also like how Johnny's rendition metas the song from a tale of drug use to a tale of life's journey.

Eric said...

I saw Welch and Rawlings live several years ago; Rawlings is one of the best guitar players I've ever seen live, and I've been privileged to see some pretty damn good guitarists over the years. And Welch, of course, is phenomenal.


One of the worst pieces of fallout from '60s musical pop culture was that the emphasis on "authenticity" and "originality" led to a discarding of the idea of the Popular Songbook and a general disparagement of the idea of performing covers to the point that the idea of "standards" went out the window. We lost more than we gained with that, when it became the norm for musicians to play their own songs.

There's an irony to that transition, because bands who focused on originals and turned their backs on music history were largely trying to emulate three of the greatest cover acts in rock/pop history: Dylan, The Beatles and The Stones. The Beatles, in particular, became avatars of novelty despite the fact that they cut their teeth rendering covers of Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and the Isley Brothers that ranged from excellent to simply transformative. Dylan, meanwhile, spent a chunk of his early career as Woody Guthrie's unofficial apprentice and The Stones, of course, were nearly entirely a cover band until Jagger/Richards displaced Brian Jones' leadership position (and even then, they continued to raid the Blues for material).

There's further irony in that notwithstanding the worship of Dylan as an icon of the new originality and new authenticity of the '60s, he quickly and justifiably became one of the most-covered artists of his generation, and in several cases it's the cover versions of Dylan's material that are better-known and more-acclaimed (often justly) than the originals. The obvious illustration, of course, is "All Along The Watchtower", a song written by Dylan but defined by Jimi Hendrix, and every cover that's followed (whether awesome, like Michael Hedges', or merely adequate, like U2's) has been judged in comparison to Hendrix's take--Dylan might as well not even be the author of it.

There are a lot of reasons this has been a net loss to rock and roll. Probably the biggest is that there seem to be few artists who show the interpretive finesse that's a hallmark, for instance, of jazz and classical musicians, where performers aren't just judged by their originals, but also by what they can bring to one of the standards (or any existing piece, for that matter). Covers remain the way most musicians learn to play, and they remain something of a goof to be trotted out for live shows, but relatively few rockers seem willing (or able) to show off their taste, knowledge and appreciation of history the way a classical conductor, jazz bandleader or hip-hop producer is willing and able to.

For perspective on what can be gained: one of the things that makes David Bowie magnificent and not merely great is that he isn't just a talented songwriter (those are a dime a dozen), but that throughout his career he's been willing to show off his chops and versatile tastes by recording an often eccentric catalogue of music he obviously digs and making those songs sound like David Bowie songs (in much the same way we think of a song as a Frank Sinatra song although he wasn't a writer): Bowie's catalogue thankfully includes songs by Springsteen, Syd Barrett, The Pixies, Jonathan Richman, and others, in moods ranging from jazz to post-punk.

I imagine I could go on quite a bit like this. I used to hew to the cult of originality myself (possibly because I can't play worth a shit, heh). These days, I wish there were more of them; 90% would suck, no doubt, but bless the 10% for keeping pop culture vital.

Steve Buchheit said...

Eric, it used to be a sign of skill as to both how well or faithfully you could render a song, and then do the same song in your own style. When I was playing the song of choice was "Stairway to Heaven". I could probably still play that song in my sleep.