Saturday, January 3, 2009

Getting Mugged at the End of Lonely Street

John Cale knows the power of a good dirge.

Cover songs are tricky. A good song (or even a bad, but well-known song) embeds itself deep into your memory. You may not remember all the words, you might not be able to sing it or know how it starts, but your memories kick in whenever the song is played. Neurologists will tell you that memories of music are different from other memories -- each time we hear a song we know (especially one we know well), our brains activate the memory of how the song sounded before. And our experience hearing each time we hear the song is colored by how what we're hearing in the present compares to our memories.

Musicians know this instinctively. And they know there's no real point in doing a cover that sounds like the original with a different singer. Successful covers almost always rearrange the song (which then creates an interesting experience for listeners whose memory of the original colors how they hear the cover).

Take "Heartbreak Hotel." The original version was a joyful rockabilly song, with Elvis Presley's mumbled singing more of an inviting come-on than an expression of sorrow. Despite the lyrics, it's clear this was a song from someone looking for a new love (and anxious to find it -- the song's over in 2 minutes and 16 seconds). (Youtube link for email subscribers.)

Give that song to John Cale (legendary singer, songwriter, producer, and former member of the Velvet Underground) and it turns into something completely different. Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel seemed like a fun place to visit, a waystation you pass through before you find true love (or at least great sex). But John Cale's Heartbreak Hotel is slower and more threatening -- a dark night of the soul from which you might never escape with your sanity intact. Head down to the end of Cale's Lonely Street and you're liable to get mugged, beaten, and left for dead. It's scary, middle-of-the-night stuff that creates an entirely different mood (and one that is a much better match for the lyrics).

But what makes Cale's version more effective is our memories of the Elvis Presley version. If Elvis never existed, Cale's "Heartbreak Hotel" would still be moody and memorable. But when John Cale sings and our brains activate the memory of Elvis Presley's version, the difference amplifies the desperation, changing the song and turning it into something new and wondrous. (Youtube link for email subscribers.)
(And yes, that is Andy Summers from the Police on guitar -- and if anyone knows how the hell that happened, I'd love to hear about it.)

Update: Apparently, this version of "Heartbreak Hotel" is powerful enough to be fatal to chickens. Details from the Fragments of a Cale Season blog.


Anonymous said...

Peter Tork used to play horrible metal versions of old Monkees songs... guess he figured the only way to triumph over his old fans was to drive them batshit crazy!

Inverarity said...

To be fair, his piano versions (see/hear a couple here) are much more emotionally wrenching. The BFBS one in particular (the MP3) is a heart-stopping performance. YMMV, as always.