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11 Jan

Covering the Covers

Lately there have been a lot of artists covering songs and posting them on YouTube or making a full covers album for iTunes consumption. It got me thinking about what should go into making a great cover and what some of my favorites are. Back in the olden days (like pre-1970), multiple vocalists would do “versions” of songs. They were not necessarily covering a song but the same song would go to a couple of artists and be released around the same time. Then it was a battle to see which version radio and record buyers liked best. A song like “Mack the Knife” hit the Top 40 five times in 1956 by five different artists – and that was before Bobby Darrin took it to #1 in 1959! This doesn’t happen anymore. The most recent example I can think of is LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood battling it out on “How Do I Live” in 1997 (Rimes won on the pop charts, but Yearwood won on the country charts and got the Grammy.)

These days, artists now just cover songs that they like, whenever they like. Usually this was done for live shows but with digital media taking over, these covers are all over the place in videos and downloads. For the most part, these covers are fairly typical and boring and don’t do much for the artist or the song. Fans of the artist may enjoy them, but for fans of the actual song, if there is nothing new or interesting about the cover, it’s a snooze-fest. Plus, unlike the 80’s were cover songs were hitting the charts (” Groovy Kind of Love,” “Mony Mony,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” etc.), they are really nowhere to be found now – except if you count those “Glee” songs (which I don’t).

So what make a good cover? For me it is the artist bring something new and fresh to the material. Anyone can take a song and change the tempo or make an “acoustic” version, but it takes some guts, vision, and the love/respect of the material to shine through. When Rick Rubin married Johnny Cash with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” it was moving and magical. It was like hearing the song for the first time and everything behind the song – Cash’s condition, life, experience, etc. – brought new depth and meaning to the lyrics.

One recent makeover I really like is a cover of the hideously wonderful “Afternoon Delight” originally done by the Grammy winning (!) Starland Vocal Band. I used to love this song as a kid (and still have the 45rpm record) and now one of my fave artist, Bleu – who rarely does covers – has created a lazy-day version that fits this song perfectly. Even though the song was about doin’ it in the afternoon, the original song was full of smiles, winks, and long flowery skirts swaying innocently. Bleu made the song much more intimate and really captures the sunny, wonderful feeling of what an afternoon delight should be – and it sounds like something created in the afterglow.

“Afternoon Delight” by Bleu

Here are some other covers where I think the artist got it right:

“Walk Away Renée” by Rickie Lee Jones – The Left Banke’s great pop hit gets transformed into a haunting dream full of emotion. I’ve always thought this was a stunning rendition and one of my favorite covers.

 

“Times Like These” by Glen Campbell – How in the world can you make a Foo Fighters song sound like a long-lost Jimmy Webb tune? Just like this. A perfect homage to Campbell’s past glory with a contemporary rock song.

 

“Thank You” by Tori Amos – She did a couple of other covers for her “Crucify” EP like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Angie,” but it is this Led Zeppelin classic that she takes to a whole other level.

 

“Shine” by Dolly Parton – During her bluegrass resurgence, Parton chose some interesting songs to cover and did them very well. I think the one that sounded most natural was this Collective Soul hit. She emphasizes the spiritual side of the song and got some class-A pickers to back her.

 

More to come…

 

Categories: Commentary, Essay, Music Tags:
11 Sep

Ten Years After

It is difficult not to post something on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It is all over the place – newspaper, magazines, online, conversations, and especially on TV. I find it difficult to even turn on the TV today with all the coverage going on. About every 5 minutes I see or hear something that just makes me want to cry. I guess that is what you are supposed to do today as it is set aside as a national day of mourning. Lots of folks have stories about where they were on 9/11. I don’t really have any story at all, but I can remember exactly where I was at the time. I had left that morning to go to work at The Common Grill where I was a server. In between the time I left for work and when I got there the first plane hit. I remember walking into the restaurant and it was really quiet and no one was around, which I thought odd. It is typically a bustling place in the a.m. getting ready for the lunch crowd. I walked in the dining area and saw everyone standing around. There were two TVs above the bar and all eyes were focused on them. When I got in and started looking, I saw the first tower engulfed in smoke. Before I even said anything, someone spoke up and said “a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers.” No one really knew at the time what was going on. Then soon after I arrived, the second plane hit. At that point, everyone knew that something bad was happening. It was truly hard to absorb. More details started to come in and everyone was in shock. But still, we had a restaurant to run and everyone started to get back to work and check the TV on occasion to see the latest news. It wasn’t long before the towers fell. Gasps, crying, expletives, bewilderment, horror.

Regardless of what was happening, we still had to open for business. Chef kept us going and the bartender and others would announce any news that came in while we prepared for the day. We opened and had a fairly light lunch crowd. The TVs stayed on and we tried to keep up with the news. Then one of the guests complained about the TVs being on saying something like “turn those off – I can’t eat my lunch with all that depressing stuff going on.” We were kind of shocked that someone could be so uncaring and callous at that time, but I guess everyone reacts in their own way. I like to think that the person just couldn’t deal with it at all and refused to accept what was happening.

I actually can’t remember if the TVs were turned off or not – I think they were because someone had a radio in the kitchen and news was being relayed from there. I know that after my shift I bolted home. I had just moved back to Jackson and was staying at my parents at the time. I walked in and they were just sitting at the kitchen table. My folks never turned on the TV in the morning and a lot of the time didn’t even turn on the radio. I had asked them if they had heard the news. They had not. All morning and early afternoon they were oblivious to the events. I took them into the living room and turned on the TV and they watched astonished. We were pretty much glued to the TV that day.

I sometimes wonder how future generations will view 9/11. This is our generation’s Pearl Harbor and I imagine that some 40 years on or so, the day will be marked on wall calenders we buy and there will be some news coverage. But it will most likely get less and less each year as it has with Pearl Harbor. Most times now, folks don’t even realize when Pearl Harbor Day is or even know of the events – except for what was taught in history class. Of course since the recent tragedy is titled “9/11,” I doubt folks will forget the date, but its impact will gradually decrease with time and will become know to students in their classes. It is the nature and course of things. But for those who existed during that dreadful day, and especially for the families and friends who lost someone, it is a day that will not soon be forgotten and will always be prominent in our lives for as long as we exist.

Categories: Commentary, Essay Tags:
21 Aug

The Real Life: Don’t You Love Theatre People?, Pt. 2

Working at the theatre was one of the best experiences ever. But even great jobs have their down days. Probably one of the worst (or at least one of the most memorable) was when Andy took a summer break and we brought in an ice show. The cast of the show stayed the same for the run but every two weeks we got a new headliner for the show – popular World and Olympic champions.
One particular week in the run I was basically left “in charge” as the boss was out of town. So it was up to me to make sure all was well and running fine. The main part of my job was taking care of our celebs, which happened to be a recent Olympic champ. The day started very early attending to the skater who had to be driven to a real rink two hours away each day for practice, then brought back for a matinee and evening show. While the practice was going on I got a frantic call from a box office person at the theatre. Apparently they heard on the news that the skating show was failing and the theatre was on the verge of closing. If you know anything about the tourism business, a rumor like this can panic tour operators and kill business alike.
So I got into action and called out publicist trying to get damage control going. Oh, and performers are sensitive to these rumors as well so I was trying to work on the down-low. I was hours away from the theatre, the skater wanted to go to the mall and shop, and I’m quietly trying to get control over a bad situation. Then, of course, on the way back to Branson through all the hills I loose cell reception and I’m flying in the dark for the ride.
Then upon arriving back and after getting my charge settled in I’m greeted with the news that there is a water leak in the theatre. Not just a little drip on an aisle or a seat, but a constant drip on the stage – which is an ice rink. It had been dripping all night leaving a gaping hole in the ice at center stage where everyone skates. Patching would not help as the drip would just dig it out again. The skate captain is saying the show has to be cancelled because it was too dangerous to skate. For me that was not an option as it would be my head on the chopping block. So the thing to do was stop the leak and get the ice fixed. Did I mention this was two hours before the doors were to open for seating?
The leak was at the ceiling and we had to get the lift out as this was way up top. A stage hand road the lift up as far as we could extend it. He had a broom with him and he reached up to tap on the ceiling tile. As soon as he touched it, the tile exploded and a huge gush of water came flying down. It was like watching Angel Falls. In an instant the entire stage, first few rows of seats, and some of the employees were drenched. We were all in shock.
The good thing is that it was not a pipe or anything. It was collected water from a roof leak – a very large pool of it. Bad news was that everything was wet. We called the ice guy to get here and see if the ice could be saved for the show. Then we had everyone grab extension cords and hair dryers from the dressing rooms and began blow drying the seats. In the meantime, I was taking calls from the publicist and talking to news folks trying to iron out the rumor mess. It was crazy.
Somehow, we got the theatre back in order, the ice settled, and opened the doors to the auditorium barely a few minutes late. The news and papers did a nice report on the show and that PR nightmare came to an end. I finally made it to bed after the skater’s post-show massage appointment and passed out a frazzled mess. As they say in this business called show, the show must go on. And it did. And I aged about 5 years in a single day!
BTW – when I told the boss everything when he got back, he thought it was hysterical and said “welcome to my world!” Thanks…

05 Jul

The Real Life: Scenes from a Restaurant, Pt. 1

My days of being a waiter were short-lived. I did 2 years worth and have no plans to return to that profession. For me it consisted of long hours and hard work that put me on a financial rollercoaster. Plus, you have to serve the random public and rely on them for your income. It is a ghastly job and I applaud anyone who can make a career as a server.

I had been told that I was a very good server. Still, no matter how fast, friendly, or attentive I was there were always people who tipped like crap. It is really deflating to connect with a table of people who had a good dining experience and then on a $100 tab they leave a paltry few buck. My advice to people? If you are going to a place where the entrees are $25+, don’t tip like you are at the Coney Island. If you don’t have the extra money or don’t want to spend it, then I heartily suggest you find the nearest chain restaurant and enjoy your chili cheese fries and endless pasta for $5.99. You can leave your $2 tip there.

So who are the good and bad tippers?  It can be random, but there are certain folks that when they sat in our sections at the restaurant, we looked on them either with joy or as a lost cause. I always got my best tips from tables of women, aged 30+, having a girls night out. I just paid attention to them, chatted with them, complimented them, made them laugh, and flirted a little.  It added to their night and they usually rewarded me for it. Sure, they knew I was out to make money but they didn’t care. They were having a good time and it was a win-win for both sides. Also good tippers are the drinkers. When someone at a table said “another round,” it filled me with glee. It was amazing how looser wallets became after a couple of martinis.

The worst?  Most people would think the retiree crowd would top the list, but actually in the upscale restaurant I worked at they were usually quite good. Older folks with a good nest egg are always appreciative of good service and tip accordingly. The “fixed income” crowd tended to stay away due to the prices. But the ultimate worst tippers for me were middle aged, snobby pseudo-rich folk. You could be the best server in the world and they would still look down on you and give you nothing. I could spot them coming in the door and would say to myself “please, not my section…not my section…” You know the ones – the women are skinny as rails, coiffed to perfection, and designer labels from head to toe with the guys extra tan, slightly paunched, big gold rings and slick hair pulling up in their midlife crisis sports car. Awful people, awful tippers. There are other groups of people who are notoriously bad tippers and any server can tell you who they are, but this particular sect of people would just irritate me more than any other.

I guess what I’m trying to say is tip your servers, ladies and gents. If someone is working hard and taking good care of you, then do the same for them. They are just trying to make a living the same as you.

26 Jun

A Stack o’ Fun at 45RPMs

My original 45 that started it all.

I miss vinyl. No matter how great the remastering, music originally put out on vinyl just sounds better on that format. Yes, the digital transfer can clean up the sound to near perfection, but the results are like covering beautiful furniture in plastic – kinda pretty and shiny, but not really comfortable and homey. I miss the pristine sound of a brand new record right out of the sleeve, or the pops and crackles of something played over and over again. And while I loved albums, my favorite format was always the 45RPM single.

When I was a kid I had a portable record player. I loved getting 45’s together, stacking them on the player and letting them go. Every 3 minutes or so a 45 would drop and a new song would start. It was bliss. And the trick was to sequence the songs so that there was a flow to the music or even a theme. I bought singles consistently beginning in 1974 with Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” and continued collecting them through the late 80s. The collection also includes older singles from the 60s that were later purchased or inherited. I still have them all.

Some of my 45’s are songs that have yet to be reissued on any CD. These were usually minor hits by forgotten artists, but I remember them well. There are even popular singles where the mix sounds so much better than what was transferred digitally – believe me, if you listen to a song 50 times, you know what it is supposed to sound like. Every once in a great while I’ll dig out the box and give them a spin. Decades later they still sound great.

It’s funny how music has come a bit full circle with the digital world. Singles were originally king in the 50s and 60s, but then albums began to rule the market followed by the CD. Now, single songs can be downloaded in an instant allowing you to create your own collection of songs – the digital equivalent of the 45 stack. I enjoy my iPod and creating fun playlists, but it is nothing like holding a song in your hand, setting a needle on the lead, and the anticipation of music beginning within a second or two. Maybe I’m just an old fart now starting to say “back in my day…” Or perhaps the younger generation, in this case, is really missing out on something truly wonderful.

Anyone out there still have their 45’s?

Categories: Essay, Music Tags: