“For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” — Max Beerbohm
The first time I heard the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together performed with flute and acoustic guitar, I was fascinated. My wife and I had just been seated at our usual place in our favorite Thai restaurant and were glancing over the menu, when something caught my attention. Canned music at restaurants is meant to be an unobtrusive soundtrack for conversation, and so this would have been had I not realized with a shock of cognitive dissonance that this was music of the Rolling Stones. You just don’t expect the Stones to show up as Muzak. Not only that, it was the Stones done as bossa nova! The soloist had the kind of breathy voice one hears at high school variety shows where the girls all try to sound like Celine Dion.
No doubt the restaurant owner was sold on the lilting tones of the flute, the gentle thrum of nylon strings, and the pleasingly insipid performance of the soloist. Each song was like the last, resolutely nondescript, a suitable backdrop for dinner guests and the musical equivalent of Gerber’s whipped peas without the tasteful greeniness.
My fascination turned to horror as I realized there was more to come. This was an entire album of Stones’ songs, featuring different bossa nova groups, each one trying to outdo the others in mellowness.
Soon I was straining to hear above the contented lowing of the guests and the clink of plates and glasses. I couldn’t turn away; it was like watching someone trip over a cliff in slow motion. And the hits kept coming: Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Ruby Tuesday, Paint it Black, Tumbling Dice. The producers had left no stone unturned in their zeal to cover the classics. I later discovered that this was actually a 2-CD set, available on Amazon, accompanied by gushing reviews that likened it favorably to “mellow goo.”
My horror here does not arise from instrumental versions of these classics. Jagger and Richards have turned out many tunes that will stand the test of time on their musical hooks alone. But reflection on the phenomenon of Bossa Nova vs Rolling Stones reveals a callous disregard for what we might call the disposition and provenance of the music.
Disposition refers to the attitude of some object, provenance to the origins of a thing or a person. We understand the attitude of a work of art when we sense that the content is consonant with the form. In other words, the way it’s performed either fulfills its purpose or destroys its meaning. The subject matter demands that it be delivered with the appropriate passion. You just can’t sing Satisfaction as if you were complaining ever so delicately about your margarita. That song howled about the maddening itch of advertising, the sharp pang of unrequited lust, and what it feels like to have no place to stand without being hassled. Keith Richard’s brazen riffs perfectly matched Jagger’s bitter shouts.
On the other hand, the provenance of a work of art reveals where it’s coming from. Context carries understanding for those who bother to look. The Stones wrote music that was rooted in the blues, expressed through rock ‘n roll, in an era of jagged social disjunctions. That doesn’t mean their songs are locked in the past, it just means they come from a particular time and place.
Does this leave any room for interpretation by other artists? That depends. In Alan Parker’s film, The Commitments (1991), about a Dublin-based soul band, the veteran session player, Lips Fagan, bristles when one of the younger players adds his own variation to the classic, Mustang Sally. “You can’t do that!” he argues. “You’ve got to play it the way it was written.” Allowing for the fact that you can never play a song the same way twice, this view says that the score is a holy script and you demean the music to play anything but what’s in the original.
But another view says that once a song leaves its composer and makes its way through the world, it stands on its own with new friends in new places. Covers are a staple in music, not just by those starting out, but also by seasoned professionals who honor the muse and the music through their own interpretations.
I think it’s hard to beat Sting at his own game, but one of Washington, D.C.’s own artists, the late Eva Cassidy, came pretty close on her version of Sting’s incomparable Fields of Gold. Recorded live at Blues Alley here in D.C., Cassidy’s version is not an imitation, it’s an interpretation that takes nothing away from the original but can beautifully stand on its own. That’s because she understood the music and the lyrics intimately; she made them alive inside her and what came out was both homage and creation.
Joni Mitchell wrote Woodstock even though she missed it. Her producer, knowing how jammed the roads around the festival were, was afraid she’d never make it back to New York for a performance on the Dick Cavett Show. So one of the iconic figures of her generation never made it to the iconic music festival of the twentieth century. Mitchell’s version is hauntingly slow, almost ominous, lean and spare, a kind of elegy of lost youth. Crosby, Stills, and Nash turned it into a defiant celebration of idealism, throbbing with Still’s guitar licks and CSN’s signature harmonies. Their version soars, Mitchell’s lingers wistfully. Both are authentic, the Yin and Yang of a true classic.
Sometimes an artist’s talents in one area overshadow their ability in another area. I’ve never found the Beach Boys’ lyrics to match the grace and splendor of their music. The musical movements of Good Vibrations are truly astonishing, yet the lyrics are lame.
In 1965 Paul McCartney recorded Yesterday in a London studio with just an acoustic guitar and a string ensemble. In 1999 it was voted the best song of the 20th century by a BBC2 poll and in 2000 it was voted the No. 1 best pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone. It’s been covered in 2,200 versions and remains one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music. I’ve heard numerous versions that are genuine interpretations and others that are tin-plated embarrassments. The difference is palpable.
Sometimes an artist creates a version of another person’s song that is revelatory more of the performer than the song. Bob Dylan’s Christmas album of 2009 was a surprise to many, not simply because he’s Jewish, but because it didn’t fit their view of him. Every Christmas I’m usually done with the songs and hymns long before they’re mothballed for the rest of the year. But when I heard Dylan’s versions of these familiar favorites I was touched. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas comes off as sappy and sentimental after about two weeks in the seasonal rotation on-air, but Dylan’s scratchy, gentle, and poignant version rings true to me, the gathering up of grudging affection from an aging troubadour.
Needless to say, all this is subject to individual judgments. We speak of “having taste” and usually mean not just that someone has preferences but that they have “good” preferences. Can something so subjective, so vulnerable to individual associations and meanings, ever find a standard that everyone could use? David Hume thought such subjective values could be verified by experts over time. Kant believed that we could arrive at a usable standard through reason, and Schopenhauer thought that the truth of the music was in its ability to reveal us to ourselves.
If you’re a music doctor come to heal others through your ability to reveal truths about music, this is your malpractice insurance—the notion that whatever moves us is our truth. It can’t be refuted and doesn’t need to be.
It’s humbling to realize that our standards for quality in music are as varied and numerous as there are people. But it’s also fascinating to see that we make such judgments effortlessly— at the speed of sound. We know what we like and we don’t have to agonize about it. What I hope for myself, however, is a spirit that opens more willingly to the new, cherishes the old, and nurtures creativity.