; Tangled Up In Blue: Covering up..

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Covering up..

I believe, unequivocally, that Linda Ronstadts version of Randy Newman's 'Sail Away' is the worst cover version of all times. Not because she can't sing - damn, she CAN sing, but because she just didn't get the song. Newman's voice, dripping with irony like spanish moss hanging from those New Orleans cypruss trees, informs the listener that the sing-along-lilt of the chorus is a cruel device letting us know how happy all those slaves-to-be really were down in the hold of those slaver ships. Ronstadt approaches the song like a six year old might approach Picasso's Guernica - you know it's really something but you can't comprehend exactly what that may be.

Ms. Ronstadt musical path is strewn with mangled misinterpretations: Elvis Costello's 'Allison' and his 'Girl's Talk' (much better covered by Dave Edmonds). Her version of TUIB favorite Warren Zevon's 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me' misses the point of the song by more than the length of the 'double Es' mentioned in the song. Her voice, her pitch, and her enthusiasm are all there, but like the town described by Steve Martin in the movie 'Roxanne' - 'we don't do irony here'.

On a positive note, there are covers that are better than the original. As much as I love the Dylan version, I think Hendrix tops him with his haunting version of 'All Along the Watchtower' . The Boss rocks, but I think that Patty Smith trumped him with her cover of 'Because the Night'.

The Beatles transformed 'Twist and Shout' by the Isley Brothers, while the Stones out-Chuck-Berried the master in their live version of 'Little Queenie'.

My favorite covers belong to latter day legends: Nirvana. The Nirvana Unplugged CD contains a good David Bowie cover, two great covers: Vaselines - Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam and Meat Puppets - Lake of Fire and one abso-freaking-lutely transcendent one: In the Pines - an old Leadbelly number.

The anguish and fear that earmarked Cobain's end days are all in that song. By the time you get through the last chorus, you can really understand what it means when someone says the singer IS the song.

IMO, Nirvana's 'In the Pines' is the greatest cover of all time.


Blogger Glen Dean said...

Great topic John. It is really tempting to start another conversation about the Dead, but I will abstain. Even though they did do some awsome Dylan covers, not to mention Chuck Berry covers, Merle Haggard covers, a great J. Cash cover, and bunches more.

I love the way the Stones did the Bobby Womack song, "Its All Over Now". In fact it may be the Stones tune that I most enjoy listening to.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I refer to her simply as The Caterwaulin' Linda Rondstadt. Every song she sings is devoid of any nuance intended by the writer. Instead, it becomes a platform for her to pitch her Ethel Mermanish-larger than life voice.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Did I ever tell you you're a wonderful writer? Great subject, too.
My favorite cover has got to be Hendrix "All Along The Watchtower."
Normally I don't like it when anyone covers a Beatles song, but Joe Cocker did a good job with "A Little Help From My Friends."
I'm sure I'll think of some others later.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

I refer to her simply as The Caterwaulin' Linda Rondstadt. Every song she sings is devoid of any nuance intended by the writer. Instead, it becomes a platform for her to pitch her Ethel Mermanish-larger than life voice.

Amen. Hated her ever since she ruined "Hasten Down The Wind."

That was unfriggingforgivable.

Then she slept with George Lucas and I KNEW she was crazy.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I see your George Lucas, and raise you a Jerry Brown.

Her version of "Carmelita" makes me question the value of life, particularly hers.

Check out this link for an excellent Zevon article.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Jerry Brown doesn't have a scary goiter.

Then again neither did GL, in flagrante Ronstadt. But still.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Raizor's Edge said...

>>Sarcastro: Her version of "Carmelita" makes me question the value of life, particularly hers.<<

LOL. Her version of "Mohammed's Radio" does that for me, as does her cover of "Alison". Someone mentioned her missing the point of the lyrics of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Well, I think the same about her rendition of "Alison." If there are two artists she should have just stayed a fan of and never covered their songs, it's Zevon and Costello.

As for favorite covers, that would go to the album A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers by the Louvin Brothers. As a friend of mine says of that spectacular recording, "They out-Delmored the Delmores on that album!"

4:57 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...


Right friggin on!

Cobain, the legend, was empathetic of a song's purpose and true emotional weight to the point of clarvoyancy. He only allowed himself to cover the songs for which his own affect could handle the load. That's why all of his covers were so powerful. He was introspective to a tragic fault.

Although this same introspection most likely allowed him to channel the spirit of the original writer, ironically this beautiful “gift” may have been so consuming that it ended up destroying the Legend in the end.

6:41 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...

A side note...

His cover of Lake of Fire is what turned me onto the Meat Puppets.

I can't believe I never took notice of them before then...

6:44 PM  
Blogger Karlo said...

I'm surprised at the covers coming out these days that are so similar to the original that they're indistinguishable. For this reason, I like Stevie Wonder's cover of the Beatles song We Can Work It Out (did I get the title right?) He really reinvents the song in an interesting way.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

My favorite at the moment would have to be a reinvented instrumental version of Sabbath's "Iron Man" by the jazz trio The Bad PLus on their album Give. They have done some great jazz versions of songs by Nirvana, the Pixies, ABBA, Blondie, and other non-jazz entities, but their take on "Iron Man" is amazing.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Okay, I love Nirvana, but I'm going to have to argue that, as good as "In the Pines" is, the greatest cover of all time is Elvis's cover of "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

First, there's the fact that he's obviously horsing around with a song he loves--not looking to make some great hit--which I find charming. And then there's the fact that when Monroe heard it, he changed how he performed the song from then on out!

I mean, has that ever happened again? Has any other artist ever said, "You know what, young upstart, you get my song better than me. That is how it should be done. Now, sit back and let me show you."?

10:06 AM  
Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Karen's post about Johnny Cash reminded me I forgot to mention "Hurt." When Trent Reznor sang it, it was self indulgent and bordering on camp. When Johnny Cash sang it, it became all too real; you could hear the pain in every note. So, "Hurt" by Cash is a cover I like better than the original.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Well said, Sharon.

8:17 AM  
Blogger HUCK said...

You've got to respect Cash's version of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". It's been kickin me right in the heart almost everytime I turn on the TV.

I would normally never give praise of anyone's attempt to cover a Simon and Garfunkle tune, but in this case, Cash pulls it off easily as the better rendition.

Thought I'd share my all time favorite covers:

"Me and My Bobbie McGee", by Janice Joplin

"Angel From Montgomery", by Bonnie Rait

"Hallelujah", by Jeff Buckley

4:42 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...

"I wouldn't normally" -- that is...

6:54 PM  
Blogger John H said...

Buckley's version of 'Hallelujah' is definitely the most beautiful..the note he hits at the end with the sustain is beyond amazing, but I still like John Cale's version a bit better because of the world-weariness of his voice matching the subject matter of the song better..separation of God and man is an ominous subject.

Both versions are great..much much better than the Dylan or U2 versions which just don't get it.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Oh, John you have no idea. I think I have every cover of Hallelujah ever laid to tape but the Dylan version just skeeves me. It's complete garbage.

I am definitely with you on prefering Cale over Buckley. Wainright isn't too bad, and K.D. Lang's got an interesting take on Hymns from the 49th Parallel , but it is surprisingly restrained.

Oddly, I think that the version LC has on his Greatest Hits album has to tie with Dylan for worst, IMHO.

12:06 AM  

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