17 March, 2009

The Cover Song

How many of my last posts have been about music? As you can see, I am clearly a music junkie. I am obsessed with Sound. So, I figure, I might as well continue in the same vein and return to the almighty soundtrack. It's only about half-burned now, we need to fill this sucker out.


One of my favorite things about music, both recorded and live in concert, is the way in which artists express their respect and appreciation for other artists: The Cover Song.

I have several albums devoted to this genre on my iPod - various artists singing Elton John & Bernie Taupin tunes on the great album Two Rooms, various other artists putting their own voices to the epics from the Grateful Dead on one of the first CDs I ever purchased: Deadicated. I've got an entire album covering Cole Porter as well as a live recording of the Jamband supergroup Brain Damaged Eggmen covering the Beatles and Pink Floyd. It's a win-win situation for me: I get to hear Brendan Bayliss of Umphreys McGee singing Dear Prudence from The Beatles. Buy one, get one free.

As well, it's always interesting to see what spin a band or singer will give to the cover song. Will they play it true to the original artist or will they make it their own frankensteined version that is just as good but not the same?

Phish - I'm sure you've heard of them, perhaps I've mentioned them a time or two in this blog? - has devoted an entire holiday to this genre four times in the 90s (and I can only hope will continue the tradition a fifth time in 2009). They don a "musical costume" on Halloween, paying their deep respect to an entire album for the second set of their typical three-set Halloween shows. And while they attempt to play the album true to the original artist, it isn't ever difficult to hear Phish in the music.

In 1994, the first year of the musical costume, Phish started out at the very top covering The Beatles' White Album. The next year, a couple of my friends attended the Halloween show in Chicago to experience The Who's Quadrophenia after some teasing of Michael Jackson's Thriller. (I know I am a child of the 80s, but I applaud Quadrophenia and the decision to merely tease Thriller. They could not have pulled off Michael Jackson's opus and that is not necessarily meant as a criticism.) In Atlanta, in 1996, they covered The Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense and then the last one, in Las Vegas, the only one I attended, they covered Velvet Underground's Loaded. Many of the fans in the audience were disappointed that they didn't cover Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (they covered it a few days later - tongue-in-cheek, raised eyebrows and all that - at the very under-attended show in Utah), but I felt that I had received a little gift I hadn't expected at all: previous to that show, I didn't know a lick of Velvet Underground but with that particular costume, Phish introduced me to and helped me gain an appreciation for something I likely would not have otherwise heard. That's the very best outcome of The Cover Song.

One of my three favorite cover songs, I heard as a cover song first.

Back in the 90s - oh so long ago - when I lived with three roommates in Chicago, I shared an obsession with a couple of my upstairs neighbors: the Indigo Girls. I had been listening to the Girls since I'd lived in San Francisco and randomly purchased their self-titled album on cassette. I wore that cassette out, I enjoyed their music so much.

When I met and got to know my neighbors, I discovered this about them also. In order to expand my Indigo horizon, one of the neighbors, Missey, loaned me her 1200 Curfews double CD (a mish mosh of many of their best tunes, live, studio, in-studio) and I fell head over heels for one of the songs in particular, a cover of Bob Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue.

I don't know how I hadn't heard this song before. After hearing it that first time, I seemed to hear the Dylan version on the radio at least once or twice a month. It is possible I had heard it but it hadn't registered because I find Dylan's voice worthy of changing the channel? But I consider the first time I heard the song to be credited to the Indigo Girls.

I will give Dylan this: he is by far, the very best troubadour modern America has. Tangled Up in Blue is a sad kind of story about two people who once had great passion but over time drifted apart in time and space. And barely recognize each other when they have a chance run-in later in life. Like many of Dylan's best, it isn't a short song. If he has a story to tell, he needs the time to tell it and this song can linger, but that's a good thing. I want to keep listening to it.

The Girls definitely put their own mark to this song around the fourth refrain when they push the song into an intense, slow blues rhythm and Emily sings the stanza - where the two characters in the song find themselves at the place they left off but older and as different people - with a raw voice not holding back. By the end of the song, I feel like I've been lifting weights for an hour: dog-tired and head-high. Every time I listen to it. Still.

I've heard Tangled Up in Blue covered by another band, another great version. I would choose the Indigo Girls' version for the soundtrack because theirs was the first version I heard, and still my favorite. And this other band sings another of my favorite covers that I will attribute to them even though I mention another band covering this song earlier in the post.

Of course, I had heard Dear Prudence before. I've owned The White Album on CD since high school and if my mom hadn't "stolen" it from me when I went off to college, I probably would have worn it out by now. On the album, Dear Prudence was one of those songs that contributed to the Whole but didn't so much stand out on its own to me.

But when I heard the Jerry Garcia Band play Dear Prudence on their Live album, oh wow. It's a completely different song. Paul and John are the ultimate lyricists. Their music is good, but it exists as a background player to their amazing lyrics in The Beatles' catalog. The Jerry Garcia Band realized this and brought that background to the front in a nearly-twelve minute live version of the song.

I can remember the Where of discovering this song, if not exactly the When: the apartment I shared with three roommates in Chicago. One of them owned this CD and occasionally interrupted the constant stream of Phish to play it. Oh how I wished for many years that I had stolen that CD from him when I moved out but it's never a good idea to get Tim angry so it was probably best I didn't. And after so many years apart from that beautiful song, I found the CD at a Disc Replay and purchased it. That version of Dear Prudence is now safely permanent on my iPod.

One evening not long after the purchase of the long-sought album, I set the iPod to wake me up in the morning with this version. I'm a snoozer - when my alarm goes off, unless I have very exciting reasons to wake up that day, I hit that snooze button four or five (or seven) times till I can finally motivate enough to rise. All the while, waking my husband who doesn't need to get up nearly as early as I do.

That morning, the iPod went off and I heard the first few notes of Dear Prudence, and I just stopped my hand that was reflexively heading for the snooze button. The volume was at a perfect level to enjoy the song without - hopefully - waking my husband as well. I laid there for the nearly-twelve minutes dreaming through the bouncy rhythm and Jerry's perfect voice, smiling and waking gently rather than the usual blare and jump weekday mornings tend to be.

At the end of the song, when my hand softly pushed the Alarm Off button, my husband turned to me and said That was very nice before falling back to sleep.

We went to Jamaica in December, for the Caribbean Holidaze festival put on by Umphrey's McGee and the Disco Biscuits. The best memory from that week comes from the last night, the Brain Damaged Eggmen show. Each night before, we had arrived a little too late to the shows to grab a lounge chair and enjoy the music from a horizontal perspective and my great hope was that we could do just that for this last show which I knew would be heavy on The Beatles and I really just wanted to listen and not be body-conscious as I sometimes am when I am standing or dancing.

We got there a little late this evening as well and would not have found extra lounge chairs if not for the brief downpour that chased off many of those formerly lounging. We chose two chairs a-ways back, nearer to the crashing waves than the stage. I'm a huge fan of ambiance.

Five songs in, the Eggmen play exactly what I was hoping and expecting to hear. I leaned back, closed my eyes, concentrated on the combination of waves and music and let go. They played a shorter version of the song than JGB but with added ambiance, it became a different song to love just as much. A cover of a cover.

When I was a kid, I was allowed to stay up late for only two television events each year. The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. Now, this was back in the day before HBO or even VCR -gasp!- so if you wanted to see either of these movies, you had to wait till ABC or CBS had their yearly television event. I still have a love for each of these movies because of their associations with the good parts of my childhood. I own the CDs of both of these soundtracks. I randomly find Oz and Sound songs in my head throughout the day. I don't mind them there.

Perhaps the best of all these songs, certainly the most famous, is Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It is a sweetly sung melody that captures peoples' hearts even as it annoys them dreadfully. I have always liked it for that ability. Part of me would like to think I have the same qualities.

Watching the television show Scrubs one day, I heard a version of this song that knocks out the annoyance factor and actually makes me want to put this song on a soundtrack. And when it catches in my head, I don't want to bang my head into a doorjamb till it's out. Because I love the song, and I love Judy Garland, but I don't so much love Judy Garland singing that song.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole is the singer of the version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that I love. I don't know who he is, I have never heard anything else by him, but his version pulls the song up off the ground and sends it soaring above the rainbow as the lyrics have been requesting all these years. After listening to this song on my iPod, I have sometimes pushed Back and Play because this is a song I can listen to twice in a row. Even though it is a cover, it isn't faithful to the original and thus stands entirely on its own. I would never listen to Judy Garland's version twice in a row voluntarily.

I think when an artist performs a cover song, s/t/he/y are openly flattering the original artist or writer of the song. And whether they have intentions of being faithful to the original or quite the opposite, there's nothing in the rule book that says the original version must always be the best. Sometimes a person may start a work of art that another person is supposed to finish. It may be the original artists' destiny to simply put the framework out there so that the artist performing the cover can make it beautiful. I have many more examples of this but these three are definitely on the soundtrack as the best.

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