“What’s your favourite cover song?” That’s the question fabulous writer and editor, May More, asked me in her story When I Thought Lee Marvin Owned My Local Store.
Hundreds of songs began streaming through my head. I thought about it and knew I could never just list one song. There were too many extenuating factors. Maybe this deserves its own story, I wondered.
One thing I know as a musician and songwriter myself is that a good cover song can only be excellent if the original song is also excellent. You need to start with excellence to make something magnificent and you can’t cover something that sucks and make it into something that doesn’t.
Then, I remembered what marvelous writer and editor, Aimée Gramblin, had suggested I write about: My 16 at 16. A writing prompt about your 16 favorite songs at the age of 16.
I never wrote about my 16 favorite songs at 16 because, honestly, my favorite age for music was 15. That was a year that coincided with a lot of trauma for me but also a lot of musical positivity. That year, I won my fifth statewide classical piano competition, became the lead singer of my first garage rock band, and got the opportunity to buy 300 records in one day.
After having kidney surgery, losing everything in a fire, and breaking my leg, I was given the opportunity to crutch (literally) into Northern Lights Record Store in Minneapolis, and then pick out and purchase 300 cassettes (yes, cassettes). My parents used some of the fire insurance money to give to let me go wild in the best record store in the city. It was like entering a toy shop for teenagers.
15 was a big year for me and that’s what inspired me to write this story about My 15 Favorite Cover Songs.
Knowing music tastes change, I will add the caveat that these are my subjectively favorite songs today, as I write this. They could and probably will change. Do you have the same list of favorite songs now as you did when you were five, 15, or 25?!
I’ll begin with the very first song that entered my head when I considered the question, which is a classic:
Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley. Originally written by Leonard Cohen.
This is sometimes considered the most covered song of all time. So much so, that Leonard Cohen famously asked people to stop covering it before his death in 2016. He had written the song over a period of many years and finally released it on his Various Positions album in 1984, but the production was very 80s in style and few recognized the brilliance of the song at that time.
After John Cale recorded the song on his live album Fragments of a Rainy Season, Jeff Buckley discovered it. Buckley recorded and released it on his only album released during his lifetime, Grace, and the world first heard it in 1994.
Cohen’s song is one of the best-written songs in the last 60 years. If you begin with brilliance, making a cover good is easier but it’s still difficult. An essential aspect of producing a great cover song is to make it yours. As an artist, it’s important to inhabit the song and make it yours by using your own voice and style.
Buckley made his version sound effortless and recorded a song that is completely his, improving but never taking away from Cohen’s version. His song has been making people cry for almost 30 years and will be for at least another 30 years. It’s ethereal, angelic, melancholic, and otherworldly.
Third Uncle by Bauhaus. Originally written by Brian Eno.
Bauhaus is the quintessential goth rock band, arguably the godfathers of goth in many ways (though Joy Division and The Cure are strong contenders). I first heard this song when I was 15 and it destroyed me in a very good way.
A good cover song will make you believe the band wrote it if you’ve never heard the original, and for several years, I thought Bauhaus wrote this tune. A friend turned me on to Brian Eno a couple of years later and I got to hear the original on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) album.
Eno is like the Wizard behind the curtain of Oz to all modern music, and I revere him. But forever, this angry post-punk version of the song, released on Bauhaus’ The Sky’s Gone Out in 1982, will be the version I jam out to….really fucking loud.
Heroes by Peter Gabriel. Originally written by David Bowie.
Two of the greatest artists of all time are Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. I discovered Gabriel when I was 14 and he is my biggest influence as an artist myself. Bowie, I discovered a year later and he was a musical god.
Bowie co-wrote the song Heroes with Brian Eno while they were working together in East Berlin in the 1970s. It was a groundbreaking time when they produced Bowie records Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger.
Years later, Gabriel decided to create Scratch My Back. The project was one where Gabriel recorded a song by an artist and then they would record one of his, each using their own distinct style and taking the song in the direction they chose. The list of artists who collaborated is astonishing and included Bowie, Eno, David Byrne, Radiohead, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Arcade Fire. But the standout song is “Heroes”.
What began as a phenomenal Bowie song released in 1977, ended up as a miraculous Gabriel cover released in 2010. If you’re feeling down, play this song. You’ll go from down to rising up with goose bumps on your arms and your soul infused with hope.
Back Door Man by The Doors. Originally written by Willie Dixon
I discovered The Doors when I asked my first girlfriend, LuAnne, who the guy was on the poster on her bedroom wall. It was Jim Morrison, and like many teenage boys who discover The Doors, I wanted to be Jim.
I read No One Here Gets Alive and tried to determine if I was the reincarnated version of him. When I started singing in my first band, Morrison was my first model (though I never tried on the tight leather pants).
What I didn’t recognize then was that Ray Manzarek’s amazing keyboard playing was embedding itself in my brain cortex and my own musical style. The left hand bass and circus-fueled organ were totally new, original, and hugely influential. I had the great opportunity to open for Ray with my band in 2011 just 18 months before he died and it’s the greatest rock ’n’ roll experience of my life so far. That’s a story I may publish one day.
There are two covers on The Doors’ eponymous first album released in 1967 that are fantabulous. The first is Willie Dixon’s Back Door Man. The Doors were a blues band at their roots and the song is a deep-down-dirty, highly sexual, straight-up blues number. Impossibly irresistible with its swagger and a wink like so many of their songs.
Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) by The Doors. Originally written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
In addition to the blues, The Doors had theater and macabre sensibilities at their roots. That came through wonderfully with Alabama Song (Whisky Bar), the second of my favorite covers from their 1967 debut album.
The song was originally written in German by playwright Bertolt Brecht and translated by his collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann in 1925, then set to music by Kurt Weill for the play Little Mahagonny in 1927.
The song dances with dark whimsy like a scene from Cabaret, taking you to the depths of a dank whiskey bar in 1920s Berlin.
Pancho and Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Original by Townes Van Zandt.
I’m a country boy at heart, and Willie Nelson can do no wrong. When you add Merle Haggard in a duet with Willie and they choose to sing a song by one of the greatest country songwriters of all time, Townes Van Zandt, then you have pure musical magic.
As a songwriter, you know when you have something. You know when you’ve discovered the diamond under the shit. When lyrics and music collide in the most perfect way, it’s like you’ve turned lead into gold. I believe that’s how Townes felt after he finished writing this song.
Originally recorded and released in 1972 by the songwriter, this version came out in 1983 and has become the definitive version. Willie and Merle’s voices bring the story of the two buddies the song to life and the story gets told in just a few perfect Van Zandt stanzas.
Tarantula by This Mortal Coil. Originally written by Colourbox.
I have a number of favorite covers by This Mortal Coil, a British super-combo of artists from the 4AD record label. In the 80s and early 90s, 4AD was the record label to turn to for wonderful, melancholic, goth music. Filigree and Shadow from 1986 is my favorite of the few This Mortal Coil albums that were released. All staggering musical feats.
I first heard this in Key West in the bed of a red-headed girlfriend who lived in a makeshift bedroom made out of toolshed along a canal. When I heard this song, I felt love like I never had before. It was a carnal musical love and it dripped down the walls covering them in music, humidity, sex, and youth.
Every time I hear the song, I’m transported to being that 19-year-old vagabond at the edge of North America, searching, finding, losing, and basking in all of it.
Be Thankful For What You’ve Got by Massive Attack. Originally written by William Devaughn.
Massive Attack is one of the greatest and most innovative artist collectives of all time. They’re not a band. They’re not an artist. They exist in their own category of brilliance.
On their first album, Blue Lines, released in 1991, they took William Devaughn’s song and added their own musical vibe to it. It fit into the album’s concept with precision, slicing through the musical landscape at that time and opening doors to an entirely new world that would become Trip Hop and EDM.
I hear this song and it takes me to Prague in 1995 when I was DJing at The Roxy. Many of Massive Attack’s songs were go-tos for me then. This song was one of those laid-back, in-the-groove, chill dance songs. I sometimes played it at 4:30 am when the club was getting ready to close but there were still a few dancers on the floor.
What’s your favorite cover song? Send me a message and let me know!