Musical Remakes and Johnny Cash  

OcelotScratch 49M
112 posts
7/3/2006 3:31 am

Last Read:
7/4/2006 12:27 pm

Musical Remakes and Johnny Cash

One of the things that I think has been lost in today's hit driven world of pop music is the value of the cover, or remake.

One thing that has been buried is the distinction between the singer and the songwriter. There are some folks that excel at both roles; I will, of course, mention Mark Knopfler once again. Howver, there are many great performers that never wrote their own songs. This isn't a knock against them; there is no reason that we should hold an individual's talents hostage to the fact that they don't have some other skill.

What is disappointing is that, in some circles, doing a cover of someone else's song has become a negative. Either it's just like the original (which in my view is pointless), and it is said that they are unoriginal, or they depart from the original, and it is said that they do not respect their source material.

The latter is easily mistaken for criticizing what is really just a crappy song. I remember, from about a decade ago, a country cover of Janis Joplin's "Take a Little Piece of My Heart." It was just godawful bad. It took the same lyrics, and matched them with an upbeat, peppy melody. The whole thing was an oxymoron, and just dumb.

A lot of remakes, or covers, or whatever you want to call them are like that. You listen to them, and ask yourself what the hell the singer, the arranger, the producer and the company executive were thinking. You just want to shove the sheet music up where the sun don't shine on someone.

However, maybe it's just because my musical memory extends back to people like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, to say nothing of the thousands of orchestras that have reinterpreted Beethoven over the years, but a really good remake is a revelation. There are some renditions of Jean Sibelius' Second Symphony that are unlistenable, and some that reveal it as the utter masterpiece of the end of the romantic era. I'm also sure that some of you out there think the same thing, and will disagree with me as to which performance is which.

Which brings me to Johnny Cash. His last four albums, the American Recordings, are fucking brilliant. I'm not a particularly big fan of country music, but these records are giants not just within the genre, but as monuments of late 20th Century popular music. (Some of them were actually recorded in the 21st Century, but the late 20th is where they belong in memory.)

The thing is, about half of the songs on the four albums are covers. Every one of them is completely rethought from the original, even "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," which Cash sings as a duet with recordings of the long dead Hank Williams. (Not the loathsome Hank Williams, Jr.) Cash pours his soul as a very old man, staring death in the face, into each of these songs.

His last album alone, American IV: The Man Comes Around, features covers of Trent Reznor's "Hurt," Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," Sting's "I Hung My Head," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and The Eagles' "Desperado," each of which is more powerful than the original. The Beatles' version of "In My Life" runs a close heat with Cash's version.

"Hurt" stands out in particular. Johnny Cash takes a quality song that is an expression of the rage of someone who needs to grow out of adolescence, and turns it into the lament of someone nearing death through age. You may have seen the video of Cash's version, which is nothing short of mindblowing. That it won Best Video at the MTV Music Awards was fitting; that it won Best Single at the Country Music Awards was a well deserved thumb in the eye of the country music establishment. That it had the whole Hip-Hop community singing its praises was just a pleasant bonus.

Other than that, he also took the rather lamely satirical "Personal Jesus" and played it absolutely straight, and powerful. I'm not a Christian, but you can feel the power of Cash's beliefs oozing out of this song.

For those of you that like pop music but won't listen to country, I can't recommend Cash's last four albums highly enough. They won't change your mind, and get you to like the genre of country music, but they will stand on their own and expand your mind to the possibilities that all music has to reinterpretation. And, they kick ass.

8337 posts
7/3/2006 12:45 pm

I own the "Hurt" DVD and I have to say it's a perfect encapsulation of Cash's life. The highs, the lows, the regrets, the laments...

His cover is better than Trent Reznor's original.

Somehow Johnny Cash gives the song meaning and the kind of reverence and credibility that Reznor never could.

He took the song and made it more than what it was and only the great performers can do that.

The cinemotagraphy was great, the old clips, Cash at the table for the last supper, his final scene playing the piano....

It's genius.

I don't consider Cash "country" persay, to me he's more rock with a country vibe....similiar to me not considering NIN as industrial, but rock with a goth/industrial feel.

It's shades of gray, I know.

Few artists can transcend their genre.......Cash, 2Pac, Sting to name a few...


"My every move is a calculated step, to bring me closer to embrace an early death." -Tupac Shakur

OcelotScratch replies on 7/4/2006 12:09 am:
Johnny Cash is absolutely country music. It's in the bass line (the rhythm section is where the distinction between genres is usually found), it's in the guitar work and it's in the choice of lyrics. That's certainly where his roots are, and he never really left it. What he did is, as you say, transcend his genre and show how it connects to others. That doesn't mean that he left it in any way.

PrincessKarma 45F
6188 posts
7/3/2006 9:09 pm

Don't forget Tom Jones... I never took an interest in him until he started covering relatively recent music, and in most case he does it better than the original artists (Prince's "Kiss" is the first that comes to mind).

The Big Bang was the mother of all orgasms.PrincessKarma

OcelotScratch replies on 7/4/2006 12:06 am:
Jones' remake of "Kiss" was done with The Art of Noise. Given that I have always loved The Art of Noise, and only been so-so on Jones, I tend to credit them rather than him. YMMV, of course.

I love their twang version of The Peter Gunn Theme and their take on The James Bond Theme as well. They also did a song with Max Headroom (to the extent that anyone can do a song with a bit of computer animation) and the theme to the movie version of Dragnet. They are a wonderfully weird, delightful group, even if some of their stuff betrays their Communist ideology, which I don't have a lot of use for.

If anyone can find a copy of In Visible Silence somewhere, I'd really like to replace my lost copy.

8337 posts
7/4/2006 2:27 am

I don't consider Cash as least what I consider country.

Putting him in the same category as the Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain just seems indefensible.

Perhaps he is what country music WAS, but not what it IS today.

Same for Patsy Cline.

That's my opinion, and no, you're not going to change it.


"My every move is a calculated step, to bring me closer to embrace an early death." -Tupac Shakur

OcelotScratch replies on 7/4/2006 12:48 pm:
He certainly isn't rock, though. You seem to be using "rock" as a catchall for all music that you don't want to define. I mean, is Chuck Berry a rock artist? Putting him in the same category with Metallica or or Blink 182 just seems indefensible. Perhaps he is what rock MUSIC was but not what it IS today.

And yet, Berry has much more in common with those groups than Johnny Cash does. One can see the musical development that led from Berry to Blink 182, and how the former has influenced the latter.

This has always been true in music. Wagner's Ring Cycle sounds very different from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but the signs of Romanticism are quite evident in both. Neither is like the Classical style of Mozart.

Country music is also a much broader category than you are giving it credit for. You are taking the poppiest elements of it, and hanging the label of "Country" on them despite those artists having much more pop elements in them. If you are going to redefine anything, it is the Shania Twains that aren't really country.

Old style country music is still alive. You had Cash until he died. Dwight Yoakam revived the California honky tonk of Glen Campbell. Alison Krause and Union Station have revived and updated bluegrass. Merle Haggard is still making music.

There is a set of musicians that are rock musicians with a heavy dose of country. Lynard Skynard and Mark Knopfler are two, very different, examples. The Eagles were another. They make some fine music. At least, some of them do; I've never been able to stand Skynard. Johnny Cash just isn't one of them.

fortunaswm 63M/53F

7/12/2006 9:05 am

My first visit - and I was rewarded for doing so - excellant post.
I too am a music fanatic and listen to everything from Beatles to Beethoven. But, like you - I too could never wrap a warmth for country - with exception of Johnny and a couple of others.

I do like listening to covers - especially when it is a favorite I have heard a hundred times. It's refreshing to hear a song I love with a different twist.

Ever listen to Vanessa Mae? She's a young violinist (recorded her first CD [The Violin Player]at 14). If not - give her a try - I love her renditions. The Violin Player has a remake of Classical Gas that originally drew me to listen to more. And The Classical Album 1 is also favorite - give a listen - fortuna

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