24 Nov Seasonal Concerns: The Perfect Cover

The holiday season upon us, I am bracing myself for the onslaught of too-familiar music. I mention this because, just yesterday, I heard Joni Mitchell singing “Blue” on the radio and realized I’ve always thought of “Blue” as a winter album, though it’s far far from festive. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, we’ll be hearing “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Let it snow,” “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and so on everywhere we turn. These are tunes for which, with few exceptions, there are no original artists. Every tune is a cover.

Hearing Joni Mitchell brought to mind how difficult it is to cover somebody else’s tune. Consider her “Woodstock” as the best example. Her version is dreamy and moody, almost elegiac. Maybe because she wasn’t at Woodstock. Now, compare hers to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash cover Can you tell that CSN were at that concert? Their version churns like a bulldozer through mud. That kind of power. Then it surprises the listener with those sky-high harmonies. It’s the kind of tune that makes teenagers want to jump in a car and drive across America. Full of hope and love and a vague sense of heroism. Yeah, we are stardust. Golden. Had Steven Stills never done anything else in his career, he’d be noteworthy for making Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a rock classic. It’s a galaxy away from the composer’s version and, dare I say it, a better tune.

Now consider another tune I heard recently: Paul Simon’s“Mrs. Robinson.” The original is noteworthy not only for its smart cynicism, which flew in the face of middle-class hypocrisy way back in 1968, but also for its tasteful, cutting-edge mix of acoustic and electric instruments on top of a pronounced conga backbeat. Nobody has come up with a better arrangement. Not long ago, Cake did a predictably mindless version by replicating everything the original does but in post-punk double-time. The Indigo Girls did a ho-hum version for TV’s “Desperate Housewives” that copies the original exactly. And there you have the typical repertoire for artists doing covers: 1) speed up the original, or 2) let a girl sing instead of a guy or a guy instead of girl, or 3) slow down the original, or 4) add a strange instrument, like a sitar, where there was originally a conventional instrument.

In 1975, country artist Ray Stevens surprised everyone, including himself, when he won a Grammy for his cover of “Misty,” which was written by pianist Earl Garner in 1954. Stevens’s version features banjo at the forefront and a seductively catchy half-time beat that almost gives the tune a funky feel. Everybody loved it. Stevens himself happened upon the arrangement when horsing around with his band in the studio.

The question is this: if you can’t improve the original, why are you messing with it? I know, sometimes the fans of a particular artist want to hear their star do a particular song. Nowhere is this more embarrassing than in the case of Rod Stewart. Or Michael Bolton. Or John Bon Jovi. Oh, I could go on. And, of course, everybody has a Christmas album. Had Kurt Cobain lived, he’d have a Christmas album by now. You know who should do a Christmas album? Cat Stevens. That would be interesting.

Although Bing Crosby didn’t write it, “White Christmas” seems to belong to the long-gone crooner, and it remains one of the all time favorites, regardless of one’s religion. I must admit I like it very much. The man sings it with conviction. Also, like most Christmas tunes, it has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s more about the weather, isn’t it? Snow and sleigh bells and treetops glistening. Nothing about going to midnight mass or eating turkey with irritating relatives. Maybe that’s why we can listen to these tunes again and again without much complaint: they don’t ask much of us. A little snow, a little sentiment, a little wishful thinking.

Here’s my wish for you: may you hear music that makes you want to jump in a car and drive across America singing till you’re hoarse and dopy with hope.

One more tune:Happy Xmas