While celebrating the coming of 2008 just a few short days ago in Nashville I heard a pretty unimpressive but certainly adequate cover band bang out some old standards for a crowd of drunken 20-somethings. I imagine that all across the country on that given night there were tens of thousands of other bars, bands and Beta Phi Whatevers doing the exact same thing as my friends and I were doing in Nashville: getting drunk, looking for someone to make-out with and singing loud and obnoxiously to songs to which we are more than slightly embarrassed to know the words. This got me thinking about cover bands in general, but more importantly about cover songs. Often people, especially pop music obsessed nerds like myself, seem to associate cover bands, and even cover songs to some degree, with a sort of lesser degree of importance than the "original" or "real" versions of songs even though often times it is a cover that introduces us to the song for the first time and in many cases is much better than the "original." OK not in all cases. I'm still just as pissed as everyone else at Uncle Kraker (or however he spells his goddamn name) for ruining the perfectly good pop song "Drift Away" by Dobie Grey, and Limp Bizkit (God I am so happy that whole thing is behind us) for massacring "Behind Blue Eyes," a song I had at least a passing interest in at one time, but does this mean that pop cover songs are all evil and generic? I would hate to think so. This would mean that the last 10 years of Johnny Cash's career were worthless and that Elvis was nothing more than a thief who ripped off the music of talented black people. OK, you got me on the last one, but Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, the Faces, these guys had the uncanny ability to take a song recorded by someone else and make it completely their own. That is what makes a truly great cover song and what really got me thinking about some of my all-time favorite covers. I came up with a list of 12 songs of which I have either heard recordings or heard live that were covers and why they mean something to me. As a note, this is not intended to be a best of list, nor is it intended to start any great debate about the importance or lack thereof of cover songs in general. It's just something I thought about and that made me think and remember some really great songs or really great memories. If you don't like my list, I don't really give a shit. It's my list and if you don't like it, don't bitch at me, make your own. So here it is, my list of 12 covers that for some reason mean something to me:
Originally performed by Prince
Covered by every cover band since the song's release
This is actually the very song I heard in the bar the other night that lead me to this post. Now I am usually very skeptical of cover bands not named The Velcro Pygmies and the songs they choose to cover, but I must admit that I cannot think of a single time when I heard a band play Purple Rain that it did not put a smile on my face. It's the perfect storm for any cover band. Everyone knows the song and likes it, but I doubt that many people consider it to be their favorite song in the world (always the kiss of death for a cover song. Never, EVER cover your favorite song or a standard favorite unless you absolutely kill it). Everyone knows the words or at least the chorus, and will undoubtedly sings along. And if you suck it up, the song as a sort of tongue in cheek factor that makes it almost OK and endearing to mess up. Plus, I love any song that both black people and white people can sing along with together and be perfectly sincere in their delivery always makes me smile. Oh yeah, and everyone always loves doing that "HONEY IKNOWIKNOWIKNOW TIMES ARE CHANGING" part, so if you even make an honest attempt at that, no matter how good or shitty it is, people will blow up when they hear it. That's why "Purple Rain" makes the cut. The safest bet for a cover song of all time.
Originally recorded by the Rolling Stones
Covered by the Drive-By Truckers live in Nashville June 27, 2006
This was a first for me as far as the Drive-By Truckers go. They are most likely my favorite band (if I were forced to come up with such a title for any band) and for the most part they stray away from cover tunes. Before this show I think I had heard them play two in the 15 or so times I had seen them up to that point: An impromptu cover of Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" in Nashville, and "People Who Died" by the Jim Carroll Band (yes, that Jim Carroll) which I've heard several times live and was recorded on the Trucker's live release "Alabama Ass Whuppin'." But at this show, opening for the Black Crowes, Jason Isbell (now enjoying a modest but hopefully promising solo career) sang an absolutely lovely version of this Stones song, and really put the song on my radar screen. It has since become a favorite on mine in the Stones catalog, but it seemed so beautiful and unexpected and refreshing to hear it there that I have never forgotten it. Seeing your favorite band, one you had seen countless times in bars and dives and festivals finally playing a huge venue and playing this lonely, lovely song that you have never heard them play before is a special thing. Almost like what I would imagine seeing your child graduate high school must be like. OK it's not like that at all, but I couldn't help but be proud of them for "making it" and having the balls to spend a couple of precious minutes that opening bands have playing a song that wasn't even theirs, but might as well have been for that 4 minutes.
Originally recorded by Elvis Presley
Covered by Dwight Yoakam
I'm not really sure why I love this cover so much. I'm not really a big Elvis fan at all. In fact, I used to torture my best friend, you may know him as "Hollywood" in suggesting that the Hound Dog himself was gay, and that certain lines in "Jailhouse Rock" proved it to be so. Not that I really think Elvis was gay, nor would I care if he was, but it used to piss him off so I did it. But this was one Elvis song that I enjoyed and I think that Dwight Yoakam does a great job of covering it. He keeps all of the elements alive, the pace of the song, the drive that it has and even the horn part that he manages to turn into a really cool country swing riff. And then there is the fact that Dwight Yoakam is undeniably cool. The country music folk love him, but he's one of those rare guys that even the hipsters, rockers, punks, hip-hoppers and everyone in between seem to dig as well. I think perhaps it's that very cowboy country cool that makes this song so great, and makes me wish I could pull off tight faded jeans and a cowboy hat pulled down over my face. Let's all be thankful that I cannot pull that off, or at least happy that I don't try.
"Keep Your Hands to Yourself"
Originally recorded by the Georgia Satellites
Covered by WaitAMinute Chester in Knoxville 2001-2002
OK I know it's completely unfair and self-indulgent and pretentious to list your own shitty cover band's version of some shitty Southern Rock song on a list of favorite cover songs, but just hear me out. Yes, our band pretty much sucked, but it also represented one of the most fun times in my life, a time where all I did was drink and eat and party and play music and talk about music and try to meet girls. We practiced in the bottom floor of the greatest college apartment in the history of college apartments, and we were half drunk before we started. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" was the perfect song for us. You didn't have to be good to play it, you just had to have the right attitude and the right amount of dirt and filth to pull it off. If there was one thing we had, it was filth. And that was also the one song that you could play at a University of (insert any Southern state) party and the guys would dig it and think you were cool, but the girls would also know it and sing along and move their hips seductively. And that's essentially the point of any college buddy/cover band, to get the dudes to think you were cool (which meant they would pay you and provide you with beer) and to get the girls to move their hips seductively. For at least 3 minutes every show, we accomplished that very thing.
"In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
Originally recorded by Leadbelly
Covered by Nirvana
I debated long and hard about whether to include anything off of Nirvana's "Unplugged in New York" album on this list. There are any number of songs that could make it on this list ("The Man Who Sold the World" was a top 10 hit on the US charts), but I'm always cautious about including Nirvana on any list because they've almost reached that level where you're not really allowed to talk about them as a favorite. They're entering into that Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, Hendrix arena where it's perfectly acceptable (and almost mandatory) to like or at least appreciate them, but to say that they are your favorite band or that one of their songs is your favorite is like saying that Shakespeare is your favorite writer Steven Spielberg is your favorite filmmaker. It just seems a little lazy. But when I think about that concert and I think about Kurt Cobain singing that song I always get the same mental image: at the very end of the song when he is screaming the final words of the song, his voice drops, almost cracks, and in between the words "last" and "night" he pauses and glances up. His blue eyes look like glass as he is looking at, presumably, nothing in particular. But there is both torture and peace in his eyes, like he almost knows this will be the last time most of us will see him alive, and there is both anguish and calm relief in his voice and face. Is there a better image to have of our generation's genius poet laureate than that?
"When I Paint My Masterpiece"
Originally recorded by Bob Dylan
Covered by The Band
I have spoken before of my near indifference toward Bob Dylan. While I like him and certainly appreciate him, I hesitate in calling myself a fan for the simple fact that there are so many Dylan "fans" that to call myself a fan without praising him as the Apostle Paul of pop music seems disingenuous, and I'm just not ready to go there. But I do love many of his songs, only generally when they are performed by other artists. "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is a song about...well quite frankly I have no goddamn idea what it's about. But I like it a lot especially when it's performed by Levon Helm and the rest of The Band. So many of the lyrics just seem right coming from Levon. "Dodging lions and wasting time," "Train wheels a-runnin' through the back of my memory," and probably my personal favorite "Sailin' round the world in a dirty gondola, oh to be back in the land of Coca-Cola." The lyrics are almost absurd, but they sound like home coming from Levon. Maybe that's the whole point of the song, just to make the words and the notes sound good together no matter what they mean. Maybe that the whole ever-loving point of everything in general, to make the words and notes sound right together and stop worrying about what they mean. Probably not, but damn Levon makes it sound nice.