In praise of the Song

“Sing me a song, you’re a singer …….do me a wrong, you’re a bringer of evil….”

Ronnie James Dio wrote that in 1979, for a Black Sabbath album that came out in 1980. It’s called “Heaven and Hell” and it’s one of his favourite songs. Mine too, although I didn’t know it until 2010, when I first heard it. I realize that for many rock and metal fans, that’s weird, like someone telling me they’d somehow not heard “She’s Lost Control” for 30 years. But that’s how I believe people discover music, not all at once on new release day but over time, for different reasons. So why do so many music fans then turn around and get so angry when someone younger, falls in love with a song they have long cherished. Especially when that person is a singer too, and decides to cover a classic. Why so much hate?

This is on my mind because of the Olympic closing ceremony. Poor Jesse J. I don’t really know who she is, but I’m guessing she’s a big star in the UK because she kept popping up like a bad blackhead all over the face of the broadcast. I’m not suggesting she’s a blight, far from it. I thought she was pretty and a perfectly fine pop star – who had the guts to tackle singing Queen’’s “We Will Rock You” in front of millions of people, people who would have been just as happy – neigh, happier! – with a backing track and a hologram of Queen’s late singer Freddie Mercury doing it. Because how blasphemous this was! This girl! This young pop tart! How dare she! Fans of classic rock hurled snark and vitriol through the internet. Many of these same people also freaked out over hearing Pink Floyd and The Who songs sung by young people they don’t know. They weren’t too happy about “Wonderwall” being performed by Liam Gallaghar without Oasis either, but the true horror seems to come when the voice changes. I think they’re being foolish. Hell, I bet many of these whiners regularly destroy the sanctity of their favourite songs at karaoke bars…

Cover versions have brought me to some of my favourite music in the world. In 1984, when perhaps you were listening to Black Sabbath, I was enthralled with the output of 4AD records. And so I bought an album called It’ll End in Tears by something called This Mortal Coil. Not a band, but a collective collaboration between the label’s boss and his various artists. I bought it because it had Elizabeth Frazer on it, one of my favourite singers, she of the Cocteau Twins. And then had my socks knocked off, my mind blown out, my heart exploded by track 2, “Song to the Siren.”  I’m listening to it as a type this and it still gives me the literal shivers. My fingers shake, as does my breath. It’s a perfect song. And it wasn’t hers. I learned from the liner notes it was Tim Buckley’s. It would be years before I heard his original version (on the This Mortal Coil box-set actually). It’s beautiful too. But I didn’t need it. However, it was because of knowing that Tim Buckley wrote “Song to the Siren” that, ten years later, I went to the Supper Club in NYC to see another singer. Jeff Buckley.

Buckley was promoting his debut Grace at CMJ, which is full of glorious originals of his own that immediately had me in their thrall that night. But it was when he opened his mouth and warbled “I first saw you…. you had on blue jeans….”that I fell in love. He was singing “Kanga-Roo,” another song from It’ll End in Tears. I had worn the grooves of my vinyl copy of it out by then, playing that record. And here it was, alive. I remember that I cried. I then saw every Jeff Buckley gig I could get to, until he died. And I still hadn’t bothered to go listen to the original “Kanga-roo,” by Big Star. I didn’t need it.

I’m guessing there are fans of Tim Buckley and Big Star who hate that This Mortal Coil album. And that’s fine. They have their versions of those songs to love. And I have mine. There’s no blasphemy in that.

Next month, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I hope to get a ticket to see Greetings from Tim Buckley, a dramatized telling of Jeff Buckley’s relationship with his father – who had abandoned him as a child then died of a drug overdose—and the emotional journey Jeff took that led him to perform at a Tim Buckley tribute concert in 1991, a public debut that ended up launching his own career. What if he had been too worried about his father’s legacy to stand up and cover his “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain” that night? And if it were today, what would the twitterverse say? Would he have been virtually booed off the stage?

The song is the thing. It is meant to outlast the singer. That’s why Black Sabbath kept playing “Heaven and Hell” after Ronnie James Dio left the band, with other vocalists And it’s OK. More than OK, it’s the right thing to do. The original is still there for all to discover, whenever they need it. The song itself, well, it goes on and on and on…..

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