Though writing may be my calling, music is my passion, and I often turn to music for lessons about writing. Just now, for example, through my earbuds iTunes shuffled from Big Sean to the opening adagio of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Babi Yar symphony. The lesson? Transitions are for those who need everything explained to them.
They Might Be Giants and Robyn Hitchcock, using lyrics that sound like they come straight from textbooks, teach me music is not genetic to language but grown in context and usage (see “Mammal” and “Uncorrected Personality Traits,” respectively). J.S. Bach exemplifies the paradigm that depth is not a measure of length, as that bastard could build a rich chasm of counterpoint in under two minutes. A single sentence can tell a whole story.
And revision, that tool as necessary to a writer as breathable air and wine, exemplifies itself in a great cover song.
There are four grades of cover versions worth talking about: the cover that is nothing less than homage to a musical mensch
that also gives you insight into the performer’s roots (who knew The Red Hot
Chili Peppers were such Stevie Wonder fans?). There is also the parallel universe cover, a version that takes such ownership of the original it’s hard to see them both as having the same birth mother. In the linked-to example, Gloria is such a babe she is lusted for by women and men. Thus, both versions exist as matter and anti-matter in the same universe, and woe to us if they wind up on the same playlist. Third is the cover version SO weird its existence is as inexplicable to us as that of the octopus or platypus. Where did such sounds come from? And how did these performers ever come to target this song to mold by their musical predilections? (Melt-Banana, by the way, is one of my personal fav bands of all time.)
Cover versions that best exemplify the nature of revision are those you might not even recognize as covers at first, as the lyrics have been thoroughly reinterpreted, despite remaining literally unchanged. Writers need to mistrust their words, or at least not be so naive to think that a word will only ever have one meaning. Thus, when we revise, we need to look for the other quantum realities our words generate, even if we don’t mean for them to do so. And if our words aren’t creating other levels of meaning, we need to find words that will, even if that means scrapping that draft and rebuilding on the decimated foundation of our initial intentions.
But we don’t always have to go that far. These revisionary cover versions remind us that our original words may have new species of life hidden in their underbrush:
The original was a silly musical piece to give Tin Man a motive to accompany Dorothy to the Emerald City--oh, and to give him a dance number too. Harry Connick takes the same lyrics, slows down the tempo, and with solo piano turns this ditty into a plea for love from someone who may find himself unlovable. Silly turns to sadly heartfelt, all without jarring a single lyric out of place.
Tom Waits probably saw this as the cover he couldn’t believe hadn’t been done before. Seven dwarves, slaving away in a mine “the whole day through,” digging up diamonds and rubies like Tolkien's dwarves of Erebor...except in the Disney movie they sing about their toil as merrily as can be. Tom Waits drums up some mechanical clinks and clanks, growls like a miner huffing carbon monoxide, and the marching song becomes a kind of slave dirge, holding out hope for relief.
Trent Reznor worked hard to place himself in the Cocytus of goth culture. Dark themes, synthesized beats. But sometimes he worked a little too hard, as the original “Hurt” always came across as self-pitying rather than penitent. Give it instead to the Man in Black in his final years, weary and wizened, and the depth of pain and regret in this mea culpa strikes true.
Did Sid Vicious know he had an express ticket to murder/suicide when he took up this Sinatra manifesto? Punk rock deifiers profess the Goofy of the Sex Pistols as nothing less than a bodhisattva. Maybe poor Sid did live a life of instinct over intellectuality, but only out of necessity, the smack having severed most of higher brain functions. But Vicious’ “My Way” chews up a standard for the Perry Como crowd and spits it out at the slamdancers. Granted, Sid makes a couple of key lyrical changes to profess no-homo and confess to feline homicide but otherwise shows us how to take the same old lines and drive new life into them.
Artists: JP Valderrama an artist from New York, NY supplies us with his vision of Red Hot Chili Pepper's fourth album cover Mother's milk. You can view more of his amazing artwork on his Behance page: Freshdoodle