If you're a songwriter, and you're talented/fortunate enough, from time to time, others will feel compelled to learn your songs. If you're visited by grace (which happens when hard work meets hard work), every once in a while you'll hit something, you'll find a vein, and musicians -hobbyists and professionals alike- will pick up their guitars and cover you.
Which some say is the highest compliment a songwriter can receive. I remember Leonard Cohen being asked in an interview what he thought of all the various versions of his songs and whether he had any favourites, and he put it very diplomatically, but truthfully, when he said that as a songwriter being covered, the flattery is so powerful that it clouds your critical faculty.
I'm a songwriter who's been in the charmed position of being informed from time to time that someone has covered one of my songs, which never fails to turn me into a little kid. I always ask, 'Which one?' and it makes my day, every time, no matter who's doing the covering. Conversely, I've had the chance to inform a couple of my heroes that I cover their songs. It made my heart laugh out loud when Jesse Winchester's eyes lit up and he asked, 'Which ones?' when I told him that my band covered three of his songs (this man has been covered by Wilson Pickett). I told him which ones, and he said to me, in his gentlemanly, southern-porch, mint-julep voice: 'Why thank you. Thank you, for that honour'. He pronounced honour 'honah'. And he meant it. I made his day. Little ol' me, who he didn't know at all.
It is an honour when someone chooses to hang your song in the air.
But there's a further plateau, where the air is too thin for flattery to breathe- an uppermost echelon, the highest strata to which compliments can climb. It's what happens when the ones doing the covering are in such command of their craft that they can imbue the song with power it didn't have until they arrived.
I'm offering five examples of this, five covers- of hits, by legendary artists- which leave flattery, even honour, in the dust. Not to say these songs weren't already brilliant. They were, in every case- but brilliant the way that a screenplay might be brilliant before the producers managed to hire John Hurt (or Anthony Hopkins or Ian McKellen, or any diamond-cutting, bronco-riding, gravitas-bringin' heavyweight you can name), and the screenwriter is suddenly in the position of seeing his/her writing embodied in a way they'd only dreamed about.
I guarantee you're already well-familiar with at least four of the five tunes, but listen, it doesn't matter how many times you've heard them or how well you know them, you're about to hear them like it's the first time. If you're familiar with the covers themselves, then you already know- and you know it'll never be the wrong time to hear them again. These five covers are what happens when great artists meet great art.
Johnny Cash singing 'One', by U2.
My new friend Teppei and I were talking outside tonight here in Toronto, when the nighttime was finally cool enough to take the dirty oven that was the daytime out of the air. We were talking cover songs, which led to Johnny Cash. Teppei said that no original of any song was as good as Johnny Cash's version. 'If Johnny Cash sang your song, he sang it better than you. Sorry, that's how it is.' Oh man, I'd found a friend. I told Teppei that I've often wished I owned a copy of Johnny Cash singing... everything. Every song I love! Every song I grew up with! Songs I've known forever, songs I take for granted- I wanna hear Johnny Cash do 'em.
And what does Johnny Cash have that could make me want that? Well, authority, for one. Johnny Cash means everything he says, and he means it from somewhere deep. I trust Johnny Cash. He brings a knowledge that can't be faked. I was saying to Teppei on the porch, when I heard Johnny Cash's cover of Gordon Lightfoot's song 'If You Could Read My Mind,' when Johnny Cash sang the words 'in a castle dark or a fortress strong/ with chains around my feet,' tears rolled from my eyes, fell straight down my face. Something in his voice when he said the words 'with chains around my feet' caused a window to open through which I could feel an army of ghosts- I felt connected to a vastness of human suffering- of slaves and prisoners and every kind of people. Anyone who'd been burned, or broken, locked down or locked up. I'd heard that Lightfoot tune so many times, by so many people, but those words had never hit me like that, or carried so much, until I heard them from Johnny Cash.
He does the same thing here to U2.
The Holmes Brothers performing 'I Want You To Want Me', by Cheap Trick.
I became obsessed with Wendell Holmes, Sherman Holmes, and 'Pops' Dixon almost twenty years ago when I picked up a cassette of theirs (1991's Where It's At) on spec at Turk's Music in Kingston. On that cassette was a cover of a Paul Kelly song called 'Been To The Well Before', which I've been covering myself, with my band now, for years. And speaking of covers, The Holmes Brothers do the greatest version of 'Beast Of Burden' by The Stones that I've ever heard. It's on a tribute album called Paint It Blue, which features blues and R&B artists covering Stones tunes.
'I Want You To Want Me', in this case, reminds me of something my buddy Sean Cotton said when we were teenagers. I was playing DJ at his place and I played him Ray Charles' cover of Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday'. Sean said, 'Wow. 'Yesterday''s a love song. I never knew that 'til now'.
That's how I feel about this Holmes Brothers version of the party-time classic by Cheap Trick:
Chet Baker sings 'Almost Blue', by Elvis Costello.
I first heard this song from Chet Baker, in 1997, on a trip to Brasil. I didn't even know that Elvis Costello had written it. All I knew was, it was as perfect a torch song as Lorenz Hart ever supplied a lyric to (Lorenz Hart wrote the lyric for 'My Funny Valentine', famously covered by Chet Baker).
'Almost blue/ Almost doing things we used to do/ There's a girl here and she's almost you/ Almost'. The inner rhymes blew me away: 'Flirting with this disaster became me/ It named me as a fool who only aimed to be/ Almost blue...' I had a mixed tape with me on that trip that a buddy made and this song was on it. Chet Baker recorded it several times and a performance of it was included in the documentary Let's Get Lost (1988). Jennifer Jason Leigh sang it in the 1995 movie Georgia. Diana Krall covered it. But you don't need to know any of this. Because no one ever did, or ever will, sing it like Chet Baker does right here. When Elvis Costello plays it, it's a great song by a great songwriter with a great voice. When Chet Baker plays it, it's part of the lonely fabric of American music itself. What a song.
Antony & The Johnsons sing Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'.
This song has been covered, famously, many times. Murdered by Axl Rose. Elevated by Warren Zevon, who recorded it after being told he had less than two months to live. I've heard this song countless times, yet there's no way I could've prepared myself for the emotional reading it gets here, by Antony & The Johnsons, who I first heard sing it when the credits were rising on I'm Not There, the brilliant 2007 film about Bob Dylan- which is every bit as compelling, poetical, and mercurially elusive as the personalities of Dylan himself- and I couldn't believe how much this man (Antony Hegarty) could emote with his voice. He pulls something I've never heard before in this song out of every line he sings.
If you like this, you'll love the other covers of Dylan's stuff that accompany the film I'm Not There, and there are 21 bonus songs available on iTunes which aren't included in the film- and they're all beautiful! 37 Dylan covers all together. Among them Willie Nelson, joined by Calexico (practically a house band on the soundtrack), singing 'Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)'. I'm including that one here, because, as my new friend Teppei and I further agreed earlier tonight, Willie Nelson is another one we'd be happy to hear sing anything at all. If you're curious, you'll find the motherlode here.
But I'm jumping the gun. First, here's 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' as you've never heard it, by Antony & The Johnsons:
Tom Jones sings 'Tower Of Song', by Leonard Cohen.
A perfect example of a song being cast into new relief by the context of the performance, Tom Jones included this song on his new album Spirit In The Room, and although I haven't heard the record, I can't imagine there's a better track on it than this one- or a better match. 'I was born with the gift of a golden voice', the song confesses. Leonard Cohen loves golden voices- I think he always loved the idea of possessing one- of being a crooner, like Frankie Laine. And of course, Cohen was born with the gift of a golden voice, which is why his material has attracted every species of songbird, from Jennifer Warnes to Aaron Neville to k.d. lang. But rarely has the material felt as impeccably matched with its singer as 'Tower Of Song' does here, to 72-year old showbiz giant Tom Jones. When Jones sings 'I was born like this, I had no choice/ Born with the gift of a golden voice', it not only gives us a chance to reevaluate a song we thought we knew, it's also an opportunity to reassess our idea of the singer. Which is what makes this particular pairing so exciting. Oh, and the video's great too:
Some covers become the songs themselves. As in, they erase the originals. I love hearing Otis Redding sing his song 'Respect,' but as we all know, there's only one version of that song tattooed in our collective psyche. Other covers remain obscure. Otis Redding's Live At Whiskey A Go Go version of 'Satisfaction' doesn't come close to eclipsing The Stones in our minds, despite the fact that in some ways it might be closer to the spirit of the original composition than the Stones' version (Keith Richards has said that he first heard the riff to Satisfaction as a horn line, which is how it's played by Redding's band on that explosive live album).
None of the examples I've offered will ever shadow the original recordings in the public consciousness, but I'm grateful for them because they've offered me a fresh relationship with each of the songs, a deeper respect for the craftsmanship of the writing itself, and provided me with versions (especially in the case of Johnny Cash and Chet Baker) which I'll return to whenever I want that song. Sorry, Bono, but when Johnny Cash sang your song, he sang it better than you, and that's just how it is.