Reihan’s Grammy-and-Emmy-and-Oscar-worthy performance reminds me, inevitably perhaps, of one of my favorite pub debate topics: What are the best covers ever? No, not cover art, I mean new performances of old songs. There are probably a hundred sites on the web that offer lists, but most of them kinda miss the point, at least as far as I’m concerned. For instance, two songs you see on a lot of those lists: Cream’s version of “Crossroads” and Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower.” But those are covers of songs that were already great — in the case of Dylan’s song, great in a very different way that the Hendrix version, but still an extraordinary song. Hendrix takes it to another level, but he had a hell of a lot to work with. And Cream is just electrified Robert Johnson, which is not necessarily better than, you know, Robert Johnson.
No, I think a truly great cover is one that takes a mediocre song (or worse) and transforms it into something amazing. This takes the acuity to find something hidden in the song that other people can’t hear, and the imagination to present that hidden thing so the rest of us can hear it. For me the ultimate examples are (1) what The Clash did with The Bobby Fuller Four’s insipid “I Fought the Law,” and (2) Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” which I guess is actually a pretty strong song in the original Nine Inch Nails version — but Trent Reznor was both gracious and right when he said, after seeing the Cash video, “That isn’t my song anymore.”
And then there’s, um, this: