Oh, a post about cover songs, that’ll be fun, I say. I’ll have to think about it, I say, but then I’ll whoop something up.
Whatever. America, I am a moron. Writing about cover songs, in general, is nearly impossible, because there’s so much of who we are–you and I, America–caught up in the history of the cover song and, I suspect, if I write “love and theft” one more time without having read the book or having finally dug the CD out from under the seat of my car, I’ll make myself sick.
So, let’s talk about Elvis, instead.
Like most pop artists, Elvis didn’t write his own songs. When he walked into Sun Studios over to Memphis, he didn’t have a grubby notebook filled with heart-felt lyrics about love and loss and other things we all think we know about at 19, but really don’t. What Elvis had was a head full of songs that he loved and wanted to sing.
You can’t really talk about Elvis without talking about African American music, about the things one community has been saying for decades that another community was surprised to hear–“Elvis was a hero to most/ But he he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain.”
I’m not going to defend Elvis. I don’t know. I’m not a fan of his. I am going to say this, though. I’ve lived above and below the Ohio, and, while there is virulent racism both places, only above the Ohio can white people live their lives, even in the cities, without ever having to interact with black people. Only above the Ohio can black people live their lives, especially in the cities, without ever having to interact with white people.
I’m just saying that Chuck D and I both know a lot of shit and both feel compelled to comment on what we see around us, but anyone who listens to either of us ought to be wise enough to know that we’re both products of our upbringing above that river–we might not always know what we’re seeing south of it.
Was Elvis racist? Fuck if I know.
But here’s what I’m sure of, to move back to firmer footing, Elvis was a real fan of music, of all types of music. And, lucky for him, he had that something so that when he heard a song and loved a song and sung it, it became–for better or worse–his song.
Gillian Welch has this complicated ode to Elvis–“Elvis Presley Blues”–that gets at so much about him: how “he shook it like a chorus girl/ and he shook it like a Harlem queen” and how he “took it all out of black and white,/ Grabbing one in the other hand and he held on tight.” She gets right at it: the border crossing, the gender bending, the race mixing, the trip from poverty to silver and gold. Welch says more about Elvis than I could.
And she’s singing it while plucking out her own take on “John Henry“–a song she stole from . . . who exactly?
That’s the most genius part of the song, that she’s singing about Elvis while playing about John Henry, that her lyrics about a white man singing songs by black people link up with a melody about a black man 100 years earlier who also died young, in his prime, also a legend. I don’t know what it means, but it means something.
Speaking of Johns, let’s talk, just for a minute, about Johnny Cash. Everyone talks about his cover of “One” and his cover of “Hurt” and all for good reason. But I want to draw your attention to his cover of David Allen Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” which was one of Tanya Tucker’s most controversial songs. People thought she was singing about sex. Coe thought he’d written some wedding vows for his brother.
But Cash knew it was a song about death.
And so he sings it like he’s going to a lonely grave and needs the assurance of his loved one that she’d follow him that far. It’s tremendous.
About the only cover song Johnny Cash fails at is “Redemption Song.” If you understand how important his religious convictions were to him, you can see why “Redemption Song” appealed to him. God, it’s hard to hear Bob Marley sing, “How long will they kill our prophets while we stand around and look?” and remain unconvinced that this is the question on everyone in this hemisphere’s lips since, say, oh, 1492.
I’ve heard a lot of covers of “Redemption Song,” and never heard a good one. This is strange, really, because usually a deep love for a good song–and this is a good song–is enough to insure that most artists can do a passable cover. I think it speaks to Marley’s talent that he wrote a song that hits people’s emotional core and that is too difficult for anyone but him to sing.
Last night I heard Six Feet Under doing a cover of ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Six Feet Under, for those of you not into death metal is fronted by the lead singer from Cannibal Corpse, I believe. If you don’t know who Cannibal Corpse is, then you must have never been me at 17, sitting hunched over the quarterback’s math homework, trying not to watch him–shirtless and golden, so tempting–throwing around CD cases and tape covers, trying to find yet another song about raping dead women or eating dead babies or gutting dead grandmas that would prove to me the talent of that band.
He had this line–“you’re the only person who understands me”–that I bought and bought and bought and bought, every time he tried to sell it to me. And this cute smile and a golden brown car with heavy doors that he drove to see me on weekends when we were both in college.
I thought, he’s such a great guy, with his easy smile and his curly hair and his church-going ways, and how lucky am I that he drives all this way on Saturday to see me?
I should have known that any clean-cut guy that loves a band called Cannibal Corpse, who thinks that lyrics about dead baby raping and eating speak to him in some real way, any guy like that was probably driving up all that way on Friday to see that fucked-up girl who did whippits and pretended to be so burdened by life because she’d been to France and then driving only three blocks to see me on Saturday.
He kept telling me he’d be dead before he was 30. I hear he’s a minister now. I can’t decide if that’s justice or not.
Aw, fuck that, fuck him. It’s always the shit you’ve forgotten about–the quarterback, for example–that comes out of nowhere and gets you right in the gut.
The Contrarian pulled me aside, drunk off his butt, at the Shill’s wedding, put his arm around me, and said to me, “You know what your problem is? You look around this room…” and he throws his right hand wide open to indicate all of the Shill’s people and all of the Legal Eagle’s people “and you don’t think you’re better than these people.”
“What?” I ask. I was already upset about old shit that didn’t matter–some of the wedding guests I wasn’t talking to and some of them I shouldn’t have been. And here was this guy, going to tell me what my problem was.
Go ahead, Contrarian, tell me what my problem is. He says, “You think everyone in this room is just as good as you are. But it’s just not true.”
Shit. I don’t know what that has to do with cover songs, but I reread the post and it all seems to lead inevitably there, so I’m going to leave it.
Maybe it’s this: songs have this way of stirring up shit. The right voice or the right lyric can evoke the past so clearly that, for that moment, it’s right there with you. I think of my grandpa singing “Goodnight Irene” and I can almost smell his cigars. I remember learning “The Rock Island Line” in music class in grade school and feeling compelled to bring my other grandpa, who worked for the Rock Island railroad, in to meet my music teacher. I can still remember holding his hand and dragging him into the classroom.
(Hmm. I wonder what it means that both of my grandfathers are associated in my mind with songs Leadbelly made famous?)
Cover songs might be a more gentle way of dealing with the past, evoking it without invoking it. Maybe. But what do I know?