Silhouette of a group of six musicians performing to an audience

Photo by Rod Long

Welcome back to the last seven songs on the list of my 15 favorite covers. I’m writing part two of this story after seeing the new Elvis movie in the theater, which was absolutely spectacular and packed with magnificent versions of Elvis Presley’s songs.

I will honestly admit that m15 favorite covers were thrown into a tailspin by the Elvis soundtrack album because of the marvelous reworkings and arrangements that were done for the film. (Like many people, my favorite music changes constantly.)

I’ve been streaming the movie soundtrack and I just listened to Måneskin’s cover version of If I Can Dream written by Walter Earl Brown for the Elvis TV “Comeback” special in 1968 and it’s just fantastic. But I’ve Got a Feelin’ In My Body, a song written by Dennis Linde, is my current favorite Elvis cover on the soundtrack. It’s performed with astonishing electricity by Lenesha Randolph, and the gospel deliciousness of this powerhouse song will make you want to fall to your knees in salvation and get up to dance in total freedom at the same time.

If you want a unique and modern covers experience, one that embraces the music of Elvis — go listen to ELVIS: The Enhanced Album. It has clips and commentary by the filmmaker: Baz Luhrmann. If 2022 has a musical and cinematic accomplishment, it’s this movie and soundtrack.

But…I digress!

I’m going back to my list of songs that impacted me and have meant a lot for many years…rather than succumbing to songs from 2022 that could very well become my favorite cover songs.

I’ll start with this gem…

Superman by R.E.M. Originally written by The Clique.

I first heard this song when I was 14 years old hanging out with a pack of beautiful punk rock girls in a basement apartment during a freezing Minnesota winter. I spent the afternoon fooling around with my girlfriend and listening to the Life’s Rich Pageant albumEvery time this song came on — the final song on side two — I saw the future.

Like many people who first heard this version of Superman, I thought it was a song written by R.E.M., but it was originally written and recorded by Texas act The Clique in 1969. R.E.M.’s 1986 version was totally unique, packed with succulent vocal harmonies, and an overall country twang that made us teen punks dance around the room like delighted fools.

R.E.M. is one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve gone entire weeks listening to nothing but their records and this was the anthem that started it all for me. Later, I covered Begin the Begin in my first band and also did a solo version of Swan Swan H myself, both songs from Life’s Rich Pageant album. But Superman sits in a sweet place for me, exploding between cotton candy innocence and raucous punk rock adulthood.

The Moonshiner by Uncle Tupelo. Traditional song with an unknown songwriter.

I’m so very grateful to have discovered Uncle Tupelo before they broke up. This is a band that later became Wilco and Son Volt, but their four albums together were instrumental in creating the Alt-Country and Americana music movements in the 90s that have, thankfully, never gone away.

This song, and the album that it’s from called March 16–20, 1992, was produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. The Moonshiner sounded like the music of my roots, up where my grandparents lived in Northern Minnesota and where my Great Grandfather had played fiddle at barn dances on Saturday nights. Blue-collar, soulful, twangy, truly American music.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I had the March 16–20, 1992 album on one side of a cassette and the other side had their album No Depression. That summer of 1994, I wandered the hills of the Western Addition, the Fillmore, and the Lower Haight with a Walkman on, feeling like I had no friends other than Uncle Tupelo band members Tweedy, Farrar, and Heidorn. And I could have had no greater friends than them during that time.

Nina Simone was cosmic, a goddess, and a shape-shifting chimera of musical power.

I remember the afternoon I first heard this song clearly. Four of us were driving in a convertible from North Beach to the Presidio on Memorial Day weekend. I had just finished a photo shoot for an album cover and was wearing a vintage suit, wingtips, and a fedora. I was sweating and hot, we were drunk, and Simone’s song came on full blast as we blew through the streets of San Francisco. I thought with great curious excitement, who is this?

Sadly, at the age of 27, I had not heard Nina Simone yet, but that day, I would not forget her as she sang, “Power!” over and over. I was writing a lot of songs then — three a week — and I bought a Simone album with the song on it immediately, hoping for inspiration. I wanted so badly to write and perform with her ferocity, purity, and energy.

The way she repeats the piano line and the lyrics transfixes, taking listeners to a place of spiritual yearning. Beating her instrument like a primal force, the band pressing her on, her voice stretching out like a shaman for more than ten minutes, and we stay with her all the way to the bombastic end.

Flyin’ Shoes by Lyle Lovett. Originally written by Townes Van Zandt.

Flyin’ Shoes is the second song in my list of favorite covers by Townes Van Zandt. This song sounds like the end, the perfect final last days of us all. A reminder that Townes is no longer with us.

It comes from another of the greatest cover albums ever recorded, which is Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House. A double album of songs all originally written by different Texan songwriters. I could write an entire story about just that album and its wonders.

Flyin’ Shoes begins with the opening strains of a pedal steel guitar followed by an arpeggiated piano. Then it washes over your ears like dust on a southern breeze, rising and falling, dancing in sadness. I love the melancholy of it and can listen to this song ten times in a row and never grow tired. I listened four times while I wrote these three simple paragraphs.

Stairway to Heaven by Heart. Originally written by Led Zeppelin.

I love Led Zeppelin and Heart, but I’m not a massive fan. That said, to not love these two bands is to not love rock ’n’ roll. They’re foundational.

Led Zeppelin II was an album I listened to a lot in my teens. In college, I heard most of their discography because the band was always playing on some huge stack of speakers in a musty bedroom. Today, those British rockers are always playing somewhere, heard overhead in grocery stores, and showing up in Shrek movies.

Stairway to Heaven is, arguably, Led Zep’s most recognized song and it’s so ubiquitous that it could be on somewhere as you read this. It’s like the hard rock version of The Eagles’ Hotel California.

When Heart played the song live, they embraced it as the classic it is, made it totally their own, and turned it into a mythological gospel experience.

I’ve always appreciated Heart because they were a women-led band at a time that was incredibly hard for women musicians. Except for Patti Smith, Suzie Quatro, and The Runaways, the 1970s were not a time known for women rocking out. And the Heart sisters rocked hard.

Ann and Nancy Wilson told the world that women could burn on guitar, tear up the stage, and lead bands in a male-dominated industry. And they did so without being based in New York or Los Angeles. They’re from Seattle and helped create the Seattle music scene. That sits in a warm and tender place for me as a former Seattleite myself…plus, I’ve had a crush on Ann since I was a teen.

What makes this song one of my favorite covers is that it is a really difficult song to perform in general. Add to that, Heart performs this version in front of Led Zeppelin themselves. That’s not all….they perform it at the Kennedy Center Honors, a stuffy event known for tuxedos and gowns. They take on all of that, perform the song and make Robert Plant cry.

I get shivers hearing and watching them perform the song to this day. It’s awe-inspiring.

This is a heartbreakingly gorgeous song recorded at the very end of Johnny Cash’s life. He was making this album after his wife, June Carter Cash, had died, and his voice cracks in the most beautiful way. To me, he’s singing directly to his late wife.

It was posthumously released after his death on the album American V: A Hundred Highways. Producer Rick Rubin captured something indescribable with the way he approached all of Johnny Cash’s American series records. They have a rawness, purity, and resonance that is deeply truthful, barebones yet sonorous.

The song is from Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and the lyrics are extraordinary. I remember listening to this as I left in a blizzard to finish the second half of a solo tour. What was ahead was a series of show dates in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and I felt a sense of love and loss at once.

Lightfoot’s song had words that echoed inside me, but it was the way Cash sings in sad desperation that made the song so sweet and wonderful then and now.

Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today) by Love and Rockets. Originally written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and performed by The Temptations.

This final song of my 15 favorite covers is a fun one because I thought it was by post-punk, post-Bauhaus, goth-pop champions Love and Rockets for a long time. To find out it was a Temptations song made me laugh at myself.

I first heard the song on the U.S. release of their album Express. Love and Rockets were an incarnation of the glorious goth band, Bauhaus, after lead singer Peter Murphy left the band. In place of Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash and bassist David J traded off on vocals and drummer Kevin Haskins filled out the trio.

Together, they released seven studio albums and nearly burned down Rick Rubins’ house recording one of them. When Peter Murphy returned, numerous Bauhaus reunions and break-ups began. I loved every manifestation of them in all of their silly, dark, post-punk fantastic-ness.

I got to see Love and Rockets live in the autumn of 1989 and this song was a part of that marvelous show. The Pixies opened for them. I went to see Peter Murphy a few months later at First Avenue in Minneapolis where the classic Prince movie Purple Rain was filmed. Nine Inch Nails opened and Murphy closed the show performing his cover of the title song Purple Rain. If he had recorded and released it, it might be on this list of favorite covers.

Honorable mention: Avond by Gentry Bronson and Jesse Brewster. Originally written by Boudewijn de Groot and Lennaert Nijgh.

I’m throwing one final song into this story. #16 is, yes, my own cover and I’m adding it because it had more impact on me, my life, and my music career than any other song on this list.

I was the first artist to record one of the most famous Dutch songs of all time in English. The song is called Avond and it was written by Boudewijn de Groot and Lennaert Nijgh. The original is regularly number one on the annual Top 2000 song list in The Netherlands.

I consider Boudewijn the Dutch version of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon combined as he’s one of the most famous, successful, and talented songwriters in Holland with a career lasting more than 50 years. I had the honor of recording his song, receiving his blessing, and becoming friends. Sadly, Lennaert died before I had the chance to meet him.

I adapted Avond from Dutch into English with the great help of my friend, promoter, tour manager, and European booking agent, Sacco Koster. (I don’t speak Dutch, so Sacco’s collaboration was essential.) My original recording of the song was done in the studio as a duet with Jesse Brewster though we never performed it live together. I played the song solo and with bands more times than I can count though.

One day, I plan to write the story of my first time playing the song at De Waag in the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands and what came afterward. Meeting Boudewijn, being on Dutch Radio 2, having a minor hit, and then performing on live TV in Amsterdam with Pride ambassador Dolly Bellefleur.

Covers can lead to miraculous things!

What’s your favorite cover song? Send me a message and let me know!