Covering Books

I’ve been thinking about musical covers lately. Since Imani’s comment in an earlier post. A cover is when a band takes an older, usually popular, sometimes obscure, song and records it for themselves, adding their own personal touch. For some reason this seems to be happening in the world of fiction. A few examples, recent and not-so-recent:

The 1992 sequel to Gone with the Wind, Scarlett “word-processed” (in the words of J.O. Tate) by Alexandra Ripley.

Peter Pan in Scarlett by Geraldine McCaughrean. No, not that Scarlett. He grew up, yes, but not that much.

And the apocalyptic tale of Huck’s pop, Finn by Jon Clinch. I actually want to read this one. I suppose I should actually read Huck Finn first, though.

Two sequels and a prequel. But all essentially reinterpretations of an original work, playing off them. Now, I’ve never read these books. And, realistically, I probably never will. But if you’re planning on reading any of these or any similar project I’ll offer up my two cents on what makes a good cover.

There’s really only two paths one can take here:

  1. Make the song better. Or
  2. Make the song different to great effect. Be it humorous, serious, sexy, dangerous or whatever.

In the first category The Wailin’ Jennys are a fine example. The addition of killer three person harmonies to Neil Young’s original Old Man is a big improvement. The crossing of gender adds something too. I’ll always prefer the original but I’ll still turn up the Jennys when they come on the radio. Like most good covers it makes me want to hear the original again. I suppose when trying to judge a fictional cover you may want to look for something similar. A feeling of meaningful dialogue between the two works would be a good sign.

In the second category I’ll suggest my favorite cover of any song ever: Jimmy Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. How can I explain the brilliance of this interpretation? Jimmy Hendrix’s cover is to Dylan’s original as the moonshot is to Dedalus’ wings. Reviews seem to suggest Jon Clinch is trying to make his home in this category. Whether he succeeds or not is another matter. Sometimes you have to pick the right song to cover. Starting out your career with an old standard isn’t always the best idea.

For your amusement:

Jimi Hendrix rocking socks off vs. Dylan frightening them off

3 responses to “Covering Books”

  1. I always thought Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was exceptional. Everyone drools over Jeff Buckley’s but on some days I find it a bit much. (Burn the heretic!)There seems to be an entire industry of Austen “covers”. Lately there was the high profile case surrounding a Les Miserables sequel. (Descendants of literary giants get a little stupid about their heritage sometimes, understandably.)I treat fictional “covers” like the plague. I cannot justify this inconsistency.

  2. Hallelujah is such a weird, weird song. Jeff Buckley’s version is the highlight of his debut album. And I love it. It’s a truly exceptional recording. But it is a bit much. A little bit of the weirdness got shorn off it maybe.Fictional covers: I read Star Wars books in High School so I have no credibility, really, when it comes to criticizing these things.

  3. I didn’t know about the debut album factor. I can certainly see how that would heighten its impact. Maybe I need to stop by a used music store and see if I can find it.I love Wainwright’s cover because he plays it straight. It is a weird song and Wainwright can be a very weird singer but he doesn’t tap into that for “Hallelujah”. He does it for “Everybody Knows” which is funny, because Cohen didn’t do weird for that song while I find his various renditions of “Hallelujah”…pretty melodramatic.Hahahahaha, you read Star Wars! No, I’m kidding, I’m (failing) to read a sleazy vampire romance, I can throw no stones.

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