"Yesterday" / Marvin Gaye
Usually, Beatles covers are disappointing things to me -- the Beatles did those songs up right the first time, and they just can't be topped. True, I'm not very objective on this subject. Those were the songs I lived on throughout my formative musical years; every riff and drumbeat and vocal flutter is engraved on my heart.
Occasionally, however, I'm forced to make an exception--and this is one of them. I found it on an CD called Motown Meets the Beatles, most of which is just as embarrassing as you'd expect. Did the world really need to hear the Supremes murder "A Hard Day's Night," or Smokey Robinson over-emote his way through "And I Love Her"? But there are a couple revelations on there -- like when Gladys Knight frees the gospel that was always lurking inside "Let It Be," and Stevie Wonder takes "We Can Work It Out" all the way to Funkytown and back. Delicious.
The one that really surprised me, though, is this Marvin Gaye rendition of "Yesterday." Now you know I'm a tough audience for "Yesterday" -- my memory of watching Paul McCartney sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar and croon that on the Ed Sullivan Show is . . . ummmm . . . excuse me, what was I saying? Oh, yes. Well, Paulie stole my heart forever with that song, which was (little known fact) written just for me. It's OUR SONG, and nobody else is supposed to touch it. And yet here comes Marvin Gaye, whose outsized talent I've never quite been able to process, and he dug right down into that lovely little folk-rock ballad and re-invented it as a quintessential soul song. And you know what? It works.
First off, he slows down the tempo, gives it some slinky syncopation, and underlays it with a supremely laidback twangy guitar line. Suddenly there's room to slip in interstices of regret between the phrases -- I can just picture Marvin pausing to shake his head, bite his lip, still trying to sort out why today isn't the same as yesterday. At first his voice floats lightly over the lyrics -- " Yesterday / All my troubles seem so far away" -- it still hasn't sunk in. But by verse two, he's flinging his voice ahead of the tempo, and embellishing Paul's simple sincere lyrics: "Suddenly, people, / I ain't half the man I used to be, no, / There's a heavy, heavy shadow hanging over me-e / Yesterday came all too suddenly."
Self-pity? You bet. But it unleashes a falsetto wail on the bridge: "Oh-oh-oh why-y did she have to go? I don't know / I say I don't know, the little girl wouldn't say / I must, I must have said something wrong / Now I long, long, long for yesterday . . ." And in the same vein, on the third verse, he's writhing with pain, "Now I nee-eed, I need a place to hide away." I certainly believe him. This was given the full Motown Important Song treatment, with swelling strings and xylophones, but it never gets overdone, and the passion in Marvin's exquisite supple voice more than lives up to the production values.
Now, I'm not saying it's better than the McCartney version -- that would be sacrilege. But the point of being a great songwriter should be that your songs stand on their own, that other artists can find different depths in them. (Look at how many fantastic Kinks covers are out there, for example.) I guess the Beatles just cast too long a shadow over their songs, even the minor ones. It's hard for other artists to ignore that definitive Beatle rendition and make it their own. But Marvin Gaye was never short of confidence -- he must have known he had the voice to pull this one off. And oh, what a glorious thing it is.