Monday, February 25, 2008

(Don't) Cover Me

So I was thinking about doing an entry for "B" songs on my Ipod and what with the return of American Idol and all I got to thinking about how much it would suck if someone did a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

For the most part I don't have as strong feelings about music as I do about film, but I do think there are some works that are so strongly identified with certain artists that I just think that they should not be covered. I once saw the Kingston Trio in concert and the lead singer reported a story (perhaps apocryphal, but who cares?) that someone suggested to Frank Sinatra that he do a cover of "Scotch and Soda" and when Sinatra demurred and was asked why he wouldn't want to cover the song gave a response roughly equivalent to saying he Bob Shay had made song his own and he would have to be an idiot to try to top him.

We have a concept in athletics--retiring a number. It's not the same as the Hall of Fame. Rather, it means that out of respect for the accomplishments of a player (or his contributions to the team) the team will not let someone else play with that number. Major League baseball has even universally retired one number--42--in honor of Jackie Robinson.

So, what songs would you "retire" if you could? That is, if you could wave a magic wand and make it so that five songs would never be covered by a different artist, which five would you choose?

After thinking about it, here would be five I might place a "no cover" charge on:

1) "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen. Legend had it that former president Ronald Reagan wanted to use it as a campaign song until Springsteen objected. The song is simultaneously a celebration of America and a critique of it. I wouldn't trust just anyone to not try to coopt it for a less bilateral purpose.

2) "Imagine" by John Lennon. I'm not even a Lennon (or Beatles) fanatic, but given his contributions to music and his untimely death, I think Lennon has earned the right to have his signature song untouched by subsequent karaoke shills.

3) "Cats in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin. Chapin played many benefits for world hunger. I suppose, were he alive, he would be happy if his songs could continue to raise money for the "least of these." He said once in his liner notes that he played one night for himself and the next night for the other guy. Until we can say the same, I don't think we should try to benefit ourselves from his songs.

4) "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2. Okay, I get as annoyed by U2dolatry as the next guy, but why on earth would anyone try to cover this song?

5) "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. This is a hard call because Cash covered his fair share of songs near the end, sometimes putting his signature on someone else's work ("Hurt") sometimes sounding himself like he was doing a bad cover ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"). I just think, like with Chapin, this song is associated with him for a reason beyond the fact that he sang it.

I don't say these are the best songs or even my favorites, but they are ones that I would hope would not be covered. I'm sure they all have been and will be some day, but I hope whoever does fails miserably.


Kenneth R. Morefield said...

So of course someone on American Idol goes ahead and sings "Imagine" the same week I post this. Weird coincidence. He got good feedback, but as far as I'm concerned, nobody but John Lennon should sing that song.

peter waldron said...

Yes, Ken, I'm afraid you're a little too late when it comes to defending "Imagine"--the covers of that one number in the double digits these days.
However, there still may be hope for a few signature pieces. Willie Nelson should be able to retire "Always On My Mind." I think it would be silly for anyone to try Tom Waits's "Tom Traubert's Blues." And as far as I'm concerned, only B.B. King knows "The Thrill Is Gone."
Having said that, I think song retirement should be even more rare than number retirement in sports. Every now and then, someone surprises by nailing a new interpretation of even a signature song. It would be a shame if Blood, Sweat & Tears had never attempted Billy Holiday's "God Bless the Child." Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and made it his own. And Frank Sinatra will always be linked with "My Way," but it perfectly fit the punk aesthetic when Sid Vicious stole it and kicked it in the ass. Maybe this calls for a post on the most successful covers of all time.

Laura said...

Tough question, Ken. I agree with "Imagine" and raise you "My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison.

Other than that I only have two songs to propose as "cover-free"-- "Sinner Man" by Nina Simone. And "Jack and Diane" by John Mellencamp.

You also triggered the idea in me of songs I'd LIKE to see someone else cover. Topping my list is "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice" by the Dixie Chicks. There's personal history tied in there, but it could be done better musically, imho.

Anonymous said...

Peter's right about Cohen's "Hallelujah," but I'd still be happy if I never again heard it played over or behind some TV show saccharine epiphany.