They've been on my mind this week because of, among other things, Boing Boing's link to Jonathan Coulton's hysterical cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back (as Mr. Coulton notes, Sir Mix is not a real knight), my own recent receipt of Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music, someone's question in my own blog regarding a Big Country cover of "Cracked Actor," and misia's recent question regarding favorite cover versions of things.
And it occurred to me, as I wrestle All the Windwracked Stars into a whole new pretzel without, in so many ways, actually changing the story at all--although the POV is different, and the structure is different, and some significant parts of the narrative have changed--that I can use the idea of a cover version of something to illustrate the idea of the story being different than the book.
Specifically, the story is the thing that your pocket Bright Fifth Grader will tell you about in glorious detail, if you pull him out and ask "What's it about?" regarding something he likes. The book is the narrative composed of the choices that the author makes in relating that story.
In the same way as, when a new artist covers an old song, the song doesn't change, but (depending on orchestration and the skill of the musicians) it can sound very different indeed (almost like an entirely new song--if you don't believe me, sit down some time and listen to the ZZ Top, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, and Dead Kennedys versions of "Viva Las Vegas") a writer is capable of taking the same story and twisting it into a myriad shapes--coming up with a completely different book, as it were, that's still the same story.
[Some writers, in fact, only seem to have one story, which they rewrite with varying degrees of creativity over and over again. (I actually think most of us have an ur-story, a central theme, as it were, that we revisit from different angles each time. But that's another essay.)]
The cool thing about covers is the freedom they offer. There's a conversation that goes on. The cover artist, essentially, is saying "I see your point--BUT!"
In a good cover, anyway. A bad cover--and Ozzie Osbourne's cover of "Mississippi Queen" may be the type specimen of bad covers everywhere--not only adds nothing new to the "standard" version, but often seems sort of like a secondhand reflection of it, with all the verve stripped out.
It's not reinvented so much as regurgitated.
Which would also be the problem with the 175th volume of the Interminable Quest Fantasy of your choice. If you're gonna play somebody else's tune, at least jazz it up with a new orchestration and some kicky vocals, would ya?
So the cool thing about rewriting Stars is that I know this song. I can sing it by heart. So as I play it, I am free to play around with it, reinvent, dodge and weave. I'm free to own it. (Which is the thing poor Ozzie manifestly fails to do with that Mountain cover.)
Oh, there I am on about that ownership thing again. Yeah. And it's still really hard to explain. But.
You know it when you hear it. It's the difference between a garage band doing a half-assed mashup of Led Zeppelin tunes, and Led Zeppelin sailing through "Train Kept A-Rollin'" like they just made that sucker up on the spot. It's the difference between Johnny Cash remaking "Hurt" in his own image, and a gothboi with a karaoke mike. It's Richard Thompson taking "Ooops! I Did It Again!" (arguably one of the worst songs in the English language) and taking it apart, throwing in some tricky little fingerpickings, lifting a few bars of "She Twists The Knife Again" and sliding it in there like it belongs, and standing back with a smile. Because it's his now. Uh huh.
You know it when you read it, too. It's that sense of confidence and control that comes when the musician, or the writer, has mastered his tools enough to let go a little and play.
In answer to misia's question... (some of these are actually traditional songs, but in each case, there's a "standard" pop version--often a near trademark song)
Marianne Faithfull - Tower Of Song
David Byrne & Richard Thompson - Dirty Old Town
Marilyn Manson - Suicide is Painless
Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Demolition Man
Peter Mulvey - Elvis Presley Blues
Peter Mulvey - Clap Hands
Rickie Lee Jones - Show Biz Kids
Heart - Long Tall Sally
Queensryche - Scarborough Fair
Rowlf the Dog - Garden Song
Jimmy Buffett - Uncle John's Band
Jimmy Buffett - Mexico
k.d. lang - Hallelujah
Big Country - Cracked Actor
John Hammond - Jockey Full of Bourbon
Elvis Presley - Maybelline
Elvis Presley - King of the Road
Elvis Presley - Hound Dog
Shriekback - Get Down Tonight
Apocalyptica - One
Tom Waits - It's All Right By Me
Willie Nelson - The Rainbow Connection
Willie Nelson - Bird on a Wire
Dr. John & Leon Redbone - Frosty the Snowman
Emmylou Harris - The Boxer
Tina Turner - Addicted to Love
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band & John Bell - Walk On Gilded Splinters
Joe Cocker - She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
Redbird - I Gotta Get Drunk
Oingo Boingo - I Am The Walrus
Richard Thompson - Oops! I Did It Again
Tracy Chapman - House of the Rising Sun
Johnny Cash - Hurt
Johnny Cash - The Mercy Seat
Johnny Cash - Heart of Gold
Joan Osborne - The Man in the Long Black Coat
Tom Waits & Elvis Costello - I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know
Joan Armatrading - Fever
Jethro Tull - John Barleycorn
Dr. John & Ringo Starr - Iko Iko
ZZ Top - Viva Las Vegas
The Dead Kennedies - Viva Las Vegas
Sarah MacLachlan - ol' 55
...you know, I could go on for hours.
In Other News--
I will now subject you to a moment of extreme fangirl squee.
Speaking of "covers"--groan--Bill Schafer at Subterranean emailed to let me know that Tim ("Grimjack") Truman has agreed to do the cover art and interior illustrations for "Lucifugous."
I'm afraid I may have embarrassed myself in my delight.
Mail: one rejection (novel. snif.) and the news that I've been invited to report to Sekrit Locus Headquarters for an interview at World Fantasy Con. If/when it runs, I'll give you all a heads up. And speaking of Locus, my issue finally arrived, and I got to see the review of "Long Cold Day." Nick Gevers says I'm a "major emerging talent."
That sounds dirty if you think about it long enough.