Across music history, cover versions have been plentiful. Some are good. Some are decidedly not! Some are earnest and reverential of the source material. Some depart from it in order to shock, or take the piss.
But some stand out from the crowd by completely re-defining the source material. They get us to completely re-assess what we held to be true in our connections to the original version. Sometimes, they get us to seek out an original we didn’t even know existed! Often these cover versions have such impact, they eclipse the original version entirely.
So, what did the Deeper Cuts Trio choose as our favourite re-defining cover versions? Take a look!
I’ve already talked about this on our sixth episode of Deeper Cuts on which I praise Amy Ray’s cover of the Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”, covered on the Indigo Girls’ album Rites of Passage. If I discount that I would have probably gone with Alison Krauss’ cover of “I Will”. Except I already talked about that last week.
So, I’ve decided to cheat and talk about a jazz cover, which hardly seems fair as jazz covers pretty much redefine a song and how we think of them by their very nature. Something even as good as John Coltrane’s cover of “My Favourite Things” is basically the jazz version of breathing. However, this is, in fairness, a jazz cover of a jazz standard so I don’t think I’m breaking the rules so much as bending them a little.
It’s Dave Brubeck’s 1990 cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. Brubeck had covered this song before many times (most notably with Paul Desmond in the 1950s) but what I love about this cover is that it eschews the syncopation of probably the best-known version by Louis Armstrong and plays it even slower than not only that but Carmichael’s own piano version. The result is astounding.
“Stardust” is a song about yearning looking for something insouciant (“Sometimes I wonder how I spend / The lonely nights / Dreaming of a song / The melody / Haunts my reverie”) But Brubeck manages to transform that into something different and unexpected: the melody, already beautiful for decades, shifts into a real sense of yearning and it’s haunting in the best sense of the word. Bill Smith’s clarinet solo really pushes this to the next level.
Basically, what I love about this version is it takes the inherent longing and loneliness in Hoagy Carmichael’s lyrics and transmutes it into the actual melody. That’s real magic.
The first time I heard Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, it was like being socked in the gut, in a good way, or should I say in a very bittersweet way. It should also be said that I was never a huge NIN fan, although that particular song is hard to deny as being a powerful statement about feeling alienated.
Yet for all of its high quality musically and even thematically speaking, the original version of the song always struck me as a shade self-absorbed, like hearing a suburban kid complain about how hard their life is. As such, it never really had much impact on me in an emotional way, as good as it sounds as a recording. I could hear the writing too much, and not really empathize fully with the character in the song as a result.
But, the Cash version is Biblical in scale.
For one thing, it’s suddenly not about the musings of a self-obsessed youth. Instead, it becomes the story of a man at the end of his life and maybe at the end of his rope too, measuring all of his accomplishments and realizing he still comes up short. In Cash’s hands, “Hurt” becomes an unguarded song about regret, the passage of time and its meaning (if any) during the course of a life, and about personal loss that often becomes more frequent and weighs all the more heavily the older one gets.
The existential gravity that is hinted at in the original becomes fully realized in Cash’s version, recorded near the end of his life, and even closer to the end of the life of his wife June Carter to whom he was famously devoted. Cash embodies this song, puts it on like a suit of clothes and walks around in it. He makes it his own story. In his hands, it becomes about the human experience itself, too, all at the same time.
When I saw the video for the first time, it laid me low. Depicted there even more intensely, the song seemed like a grim summing up of a lifetime, with images of a more youthful and swaggering Cash juxtaposed to the man as he was when he sang it; in decline and robbed of what once seemed to be immortal vigour.
Maybe his portrayal in the video and in the recording wasn’t his true to life experience in any note for note sort of way, as sick as he actually was at the time. But his singing, as always, convinces us that it was.
With that, he turned this song into one of his own.
I’m honestly not sure which version of “All Along the Watchtower” I heard first. It could have been Dylan’s original 1967 masterpiece, with his excruciating harmonica and rusty unplugged vocals. Or it could have been Hendrix , Electric Ladyland and a homemade left-handed Stratocaster, wailing like the wind.
Now, like any self-respecting child of hippies I love Dylan and I love his original song. Dylan’s recording is ear-piercing in the best way; it’s almost painful to listen to, and this song more than any other acoustic Dylan song reminds listeners of his deep-seated desire to plug in and rock out. Still, if you’re gonna make me pick a version, nine times out of ten I’m going with Jimi.
Hendrix was known to be self-conscious of his vocal talents. I’ve NEVER understood it because I love Jimi’s voice, but we all have our insecurities. Set to Dylan’s lyrics, with the power of his guitar behind him? There’s no weakness anywhere to be found in those vocals.
But here’s the trick about “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s rebel music. The song positively reeks of it – businessmen can take their wine and move right along. The rest of us jokers and thieves will take comfort in the watchtower, knowing that we’re not alone. And the thing I love the most about this dichotomy of Hendrix and Dylan is that they’re both such ultimate rebels, even for all their differences in styles.
Rebels can be folk heroes OR rock stars with a penchant for lighting instruments on fire. The wind can be a harmonica or a Strat. It’s just down to which style you prefer. And for me, it’s all about those whammy bars and psychedelia.
What about you, Deeper Cuts fans?
What song was completed re-defined in your mind by an undeniable cover version?
Tell us all about it in the comments!