Friday Afternoon Jukebox: A Cover That Improves The Original
Covers are a tricky thing. They’re often nightmarish visions of the original work, twisting and diluting what had been perfectly fine to begin with in some vague attempt to pay tribute. All you have to do is hear one cover go horribly wrong (try to think Duran Duran’s cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke” without actually listening to it) to get seriously suspicious about the entire subgenre.
On odd occasions however, some songs just aren’t meant for the performers who originally had them. This creates a paradox. Performers usually choose to cover beloved songs. Beloved songs are usually of some quality. So how then is it possible that other performers can improve upon the original? The easiest explanaton is perhaps the most obvious. As the famous scholar Robert Goulet once said, “When a professional gets his mitts on a song, that’s when it really takes off.”
As evidence I offer you a song that probably means nothing to you: John Denver’s “Country Roads.” This is one of Denver’s many throwaway songs and almost everywhere, it is recognized as a trifling thing. However, if you’re blessed enough to be from West Virginia, you have this song hanging around your neck, simultaneously an anthem and an annoyance. When I find myself far away from my hometown, I’ll proudly sing the song at the top of my lungs while everybody nearby rolls their eyes. When I find myself in local bars listening to the song for the fifth time in two hours, I quickly tire of its cadences and inaccuracies (two quick examples: the Shenandoah River is barely in West Virginia and moonshine tastes misty my ass). But around here, this song is everywhere, at all times, constantly.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across Ray Charles’s cover. Released first on his Live From Japan album, it has never received serious fanfare. Regardless of its lack of adulation, it’s better, maybe because it is live and imperfect (he botches the lyrics halfway through the song, skipping ahead and then doubling back to fix the mistake), maybe because it actually performed with a hint of what might be described as genuine, bonafide soul. And before anybody argues that this is the function of the song being performed live, you’re welcome to listen to John Denver’s stilted take on his own song. Charles is the realization of Goulet’s theory that allowing a professional get his mitts on a song allows for it to take off. Denver, by comparison, is the answer to the following question – if you could scientifically create bland and inoffensive in a way that would still sell millions, what would it look like?
Undermining Goulet’s theory though is this: Charles’s version has never taken off. We’re still stuck with Denver’s original. And although another writer might use this particular example to launch into a larger discussion of the ways in which markets clearly fail, I will simply resign myself to the knowledge that I’ve finally, after years of enduring Denver’s, found a recorded improvement that meets my every need.
(It should be noted that Ray Charles’s version is not the only cover that is superior to the original. They’re out there, albeit rare, and the discussion of them is always a hugely contentious thing. I offer, as a possible jumping off point, Cat Power’s cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall.”)