The other day while aimlessly scrolling through twitter Nathanial Freedman, of Free Darko fame, posted a link to Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude”. I’d never heard the version before so I clicked on the link and was utterly blown away.
It was one of those moments where I was instantly enthralled by every aspect of a song. Pickett’s voice is in incredible form, and the music is stunning. Pickett is backed by most of the Swampers, the studio musicians at Muscle Shoals, where the song was recorded, and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers.
It starts out slow, like the original Beatles version, except instead of the piano accompaniment it opens with drums and guitar. Pickett doesn’t sing it like McCartney. It’s not a pop ballad here. All the background harmonies are gone. The drums and guitar are much funkier. There’s no ‘Nah nah, nah-nah-nah nah’s. No, Pickett and company infuse a gentle song with a metric ton of soul. Instead of gently swaying, you find yourself bopping your head and tapping your foot. They take the song and make it their own creation. Then you get to the outro.
In the original, it’s the long repeated ‘Nah Nah Nah’s and ‘Hey Jude’s’ with some ‘Jude Jude Judy Judy action’ that goes on for a while. In the Pickett version at around 2:45 he screams. Then he keeps screaming and Duane Allman’s guitar catches on fire. The like minute and a half of the song are the two going back and forth, Pickett screaming and Allman Shredding. It’s intense and electrifying and something more, it’s the truth.
Music writing is largely subjective. Everyone has different tastes and proclivities. We all argue endlessly about what’s good and bad, but really it’s all in the eye of the beholder. That said, I believe we all know the truth when we hear it.
The truth in music is when the musicians go all in, body and soul. They mean every word, every scream, every guitar note, every drum beat. It stops being about skill or talent and they touch something primordial that we all share; a genetic memory, a connection between all living things, God, who knows, but something deep and real. It’s when the music completely takes over and it starts to resonate on a cosmic level. When you hear it, you hear all the joy, sadness, love, anger, fear, and humanity that we all share coming through the speakers, and you know, maybe just for a few minutes, that we’re not alone in the universe because we have each other.
Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, and the Swampers found the truth in Hey Jude and gave it to all of us. It’s like magic.
The Band and the Staples Singers found the truth in the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They perform the Band’s famous song “The Weight” during the Band’s final concert, filmed and released as “The Last Waltz”.
The song “The Weight” already had a toe in the river of truth, but during the famous concert, they turn it into something else, something higher.
Right from the first notes on Robbie Robertson’s goofy double guitar, you know you’re in for something special. Levon Helm begins playing his drums and sings the opening lines, “I pulled into Nazareth, just feeling bout half past dead” and in the film of it, you can see his eyes close and the music flow through him. As he’s singing the camera pans and a light floats behind his head for the briefest of moments it looks like a halo. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but when a song feels holy like this one does, it’s at least a happy accident.
I remember getting chills the first time I heard it as they get to the chorus and all the voices on stage join in with Levon for ‘and you put the load right on me’. It’s the moment when it really becomes something more than just a band playing one of their hits.
And then Mavis Staples sings.
Mavis Staples singing the second verse of “The Weight” sounds like an angel coming down and reading the Gospel. It’s the absolute truth. I’m not sure any singer anywhere has believed the words they were singing more than she believed what she was singing that day. The “mmm hmm” she drops after finishing the lyrics contains multitudes. I truly believe that her verse could heal the world if we just let it.
Pops Staples takes the next verse. His soulful and world-weary voice lends a gravitas to the proceedings. It sounds like wisdom and understanding. It’s different from the other verses, quieter but full of compassion.
Rick Danko, the bassist, sings the next verse in his imperfect voice. He’s not a bad singer by any stretch but it’s a tough ask to follow the Staples. What he brings to this version of the song is rough edges and passion. He believes, maybe more than the rest, in what he is saying and sings it with everything he has.
Everyone sings the final verse and it’s everything. The whole troup puts what they have in it and leaves it all there on the stage and in the recording. You can hear it in their voices that they know that they’ve hooked into something special, and you can see it on their faces. As the camera pans from Levon Helm’s closed eyes, Rick Danko’s bouncing around, Robbie Robertson’s quick smile, and Mavis Staples clapping, it’s gone from just being a rock song to a spiritual of sorts. The whole of Last Waltz is special, but here at the end of the “Weight”, they touch the face of God as the saying goes. Some days when I’m at low points and losing whatever faith I have remaining in humanity, I’ll listen to it and it reminds me that we’re worth a damn.
Bob Dylan found the truth in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. For an artist whose whole career is about seeking and finding truths, it’s the moment where it’s the purest. It’s an infamous concert. The tail end of a tour that saw boos and jeers at Dylan going electric and playing rock and roll.
Famously after finishing up “Ballad of a Thin Man” someone shouts something at Dylan. Dylan responds with “I don’t believe you,” and after a pause, “You’re a liar.” He then turns to his band, who happens to be The Band, and says “Play it fucking loud.”
And they do.
What follows is the most incredible version of “Like a Rolling Stone” on record. Just after he tells the band to play, they crash into the song like they’re driving 90 miles an hour. There’s a huge drum hit and then they’re going full tilt. The music is forceful, intense, and most of all, loud.
It’s Dylan’s singing that finds the truth. He lets loose all of the rage that had been building over the years. He sings the song FEROCIOUSLY. You can hear the fury in every syllable and the way he draws out the end of each line, “How does it feeeeeeeeeeeeel, to be on your ooooowwwwwwwn” is incredible.
There’s no space between Bob Dylan the musician and Bob Dylan the person for a brief moment. Everything that makes Dylan Dylan is in that song and projected out to the audience with a thunder and passion. It’s a legitimately stunning performance filled with all the truth of the world spread over seven minutes and fourteen seconds.
Warren Zevon’s brush with the truth is a little different. I wrote about it a little while back. On his album “Life’ll Kill Ya” he performed a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again”. The song came out about two years before he was diagnosed with cancer, but if I didn’t know better when listening to the song I would swear he knew.
Zevon slows the song down and sings it accompanied by an acoustic guitar. His voice is half shot from a lifetime of abuse, he hasn’t really been a star for years, his money is mostly gone. You’d think if you never heard it that the cover would be somewhat sarcastic, especially from an artist known for his humor. Except it isn’t.
The song was originally a somewhat disposable piece of 80’s pop, but in the hands of Zevon, it turns into something incredible. Somehow he manages to turn the cover into a hymn to regret and gratitude. Several times during the song his voice cracks, and in those cracks, you can hear all his hard years, all his joys, his sadness, and an understanding that life isn’t perfect. Life is hard. It’s daunting on a day to day basis. But we still strive on, and that’s what Zevon is singing about. He knows better than most about the peaks and valleys, and over the course of three minutes and eleven seconds, all his wisdom and humanity come pouring out.
When I wrote about it before I compared it to Johnny Cash’s famous cover of Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”. That cover is certainly more well known, but of the two I’ll always prefer Zevon’s. Johnny Cash takes something that was originally personal and hard and gives it the kind of authenticity that his aged and gravelly voice can impart. It’s a slow and mournful song, which Cash’s voice is ideal for. When you listen to other songs on the album like “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode, it’s more awkward. It’s good music, but it never feels personal. Zevon takes a fluffy pop song and changes it to something new and honest and vulnerable. It feels deeply personal and confessional.
Zevon’s cover is true, in the same way, that Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” is. Sometimes artists play great covers, and sometimes they take songs and lose themselves in them and create something profound and wonderful and human.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen starts with the lines “Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord That David played and it pleased the Lord.” I think that lyric is the best description of what I’m talking about. It’s a truth we can’t really describe, or understand totally, but when we hear it, we know. There’s no real formula to repeat it. I think it just happens sometimes when artists give themselves over completely to their art. Cohen’s original is wonderful but never gets at the heart of it. Jeff Buckley’s cover begins with a quiet exhalation and then a performance that is nothing but deep and quietly human. Every breath he draws IS “Hallelujah”.
Music is subjective. We all like different things. We all fall in love with different songs and artists. Some songs are different. Some performances are different. They say math is the universal language, but I think that’s wrong, I think it’s music, and these songs don’t need any translation because deep down we can all understand them. Go and take a listen, because, in a time when we’re surrounded by lies, we could all use something true.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.
– Henry David Thoreau