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 â€œBlueâ€ on the radio and realized Iâ€™ve always thought of â€œBlueâ€ as a winter album, though itâ€™s far far from festive. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, weâ€™ll be hearing â€œFrosty the Snowman,â€ â€œRudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,â€ â€œLet it snow,â€ â€œIâ€™ll be home for Christmas,â€ â€œHave Yourself a Merry Little Christmasâ€ 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 elseâ€™s tune. Consider her â€œWoodstockâ€ as the best example. Her version is dreamy and moody, almost elegiac. Maybe because she wasnâ€™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. Itâ€™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, heâ€™d be noteworthy for making Mitchellâ€™s â€œWoodstockâ€ a rock classic. Itâ€™s a galaxy away from the composerâ€™s version and, dare I say it, a better tune.
Now consider another tune I heard recently: Paul Simonâ€™sâ€œMrs. Robinson.â€ 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 TVâ€™s â€œDesperate Housewivesâ€ 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 â€œMisty,â€ which was written by pianist Earl Garner in 1954. Stevensâ€™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 canâ€™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, heâ€™d have a Christmas album by now. You know who should do a Christmas album? Cat Stevens. That would be interesting.
Although Bing Crosby didnâ€™t write it, â€œWhite Christmasâ€ seems to belong to the long-gone crooner, and it remains one of the all time favorites, regardless of oneâ€™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. Itâ€™s more about the weather, isnâ€™t it? Snow and sleigh bells and treetops glistening. Nothing about going to midnight mass or eating turkey with irritating relatives. Maybe thatâ€™s why we can listen to these tunes again and again without much complaint: they donâ€™t ask much of us. A little snow, a little sentiment, a little wishful thinking.
Hereâ€™s my wish for you: may you hear music that makes you want to jump in a car and drive across America singing till youâ€™re hoarse and dopy with hope.
One more tune:Happy Xmas