Sunday, September 08, 2013


"I'm Only Sleeping" /
Rosanne Cash

So now we've heard from the folk folks, the soul contingent, and the reggae crew -- what about country artists?  It would seem like an obvious connection. There was a definite rockabilly streak trailing through the mid Beatles' catalog -- "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," "I'm A Loser," "She's A Woman," "What Goes On," "I'm Looking Through You" -- no doubt inspired by all those Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly records the Fabs listened to as boys in Liverpool. Country music even solved the perennial What To Do With Ringo question by providing the Buck Owens song "Act Naturally."

Yet surprisingly few country artists have tried their hand at Beatles covers. Sure, there are some gems -- I'm thinking of Emmylou Harris's doggone woeful "For No One," Dolly Parton's fast-break jig "Help," or Johnny Cash's going-to-meet-my-maker turn on "In My Life." Still, the only Beatles cover that ever hit #1 on the country charts was by Johnny's daughter Rosanne -- "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" (1989) transformed into a brisk little Texas two-step.

But Rosanne Cash recorded another Beatles cover, "I'm Only Sleeping," which was never released until it surfaced on her 1995 compilation Retrospective. And "I'm Only Sleeping" doesn't sound country at all -- reminding me that Rosanne Cash, like her daddy before her, is much more than just a country artist.

The Beatles' version of "I'm Only Sleeping" mesmerized me the minute I first heard it on Revolver back in 1966.  John Lennon claimed he was only writing about his fondness for sleeping (fast-forward a few years to John and Yoko's bed-in for peace) but the narcotized tempo, John's weary vocal, and the distorted backwards guitar blips telegraphed to all of us who were In The Know -- this was a Beatles drug song. I mean, come on! "When I'm in the middle of a dream / Stay in bed, float upstream" . . . "Please don't spoil my day / I'm miles away" . . .  "Lying there and staring at the ceiling / Waiting for a sleepy feeling" -- how could we NOT have thought this was about the hazy escapism of drugs?

In fact, I've thought of this as a druggie song for so many years, hearing Rosanne's version was like a shot of energy. Her robust contralto does not sound enervated or weary -- I get the impression that she's staying in bed because she's pissed off.  Or maybe -- I like this scenario even better -- she's an overworked mom who's finally got a few hours to herself and she does not want to be disturbed. 

Though she dials down the psychedelic effects -- her guitar is a brisk acoustic strum, the drumbeat has a little more kick to it, the background oohs hit their beat instead of oozing in -- Rosanne is clearly not going for a country sound here. She commits herself to that backbeat rhythm, and she doesn't deny the inherent spooky melancholy of Lennon's melody, with its circling chromatics and unresolved minor key. (Dig how the second half of each verse repeats the same melodic phrase three times, while the underlying chords shift restlessly -- "[Am] Please don't wake me / [G] No don't shake me / [Am7] Leave me where I am."). The electric guitar part (I'd love to know who played this for her) reads more as rock distortion than as country twang, adding another element of disorientation.

Staying in bed isn't about laziness, it's about escaping a complicated life, and even sleep doesn't drive away the demons. Members of the Cash family know about demons; I'm betting that Rosanne zeroed right in on this subtext. Whether it was about sleep or drugs, John Lennon's original song always begged the question:  What is there about your life that you so desperately need to escape?  Money, fame, critical acclaim, worldwide fan devotion, none of it made John Lennon any happier with himself.

Rosanne Cash may not answer that question, but she lets this song ask it all over again. If one definition of a good cover is that it makes you hear the original song afresh, then Rosanne scored big with this one.


Anonymous said...

Hi...just a note to let you know that I enjoy yer blog. Great song, btw. But my vote for best Beatles cover evah? Got to Get You Into My Life by Earth Wind and Fire.


NickS said...

Nice choice. Like "Nowhere Man" this is a song I had head before but hadn't paid that much attention to which becomes much more interesting after reading your comparison to the original (though, I admit, Westerberg's "Nowhere Man" is more to my tastes).

Interesting that "Nowhere Man" and "We Can Work It Out" succeed by taking an emotional heart of the song and bringing it to the surface, and letting it take over the mood completely. Whereas, in your description, this cover transforms the song by rescuing the text from the subtext -- making clear that "sleeping" doesn't have to be read as metaphorical in order to be interesting.

(Side note: the Allmusic review of the song splits the difference, "Various accounts of John Lennon circa early 1966 confirm that this picture did actually bear some relation to real life. It should be borne in mind that just having toured the world exhaustively for three years while doing two films and writing and recording when time allowed, it might be understandable that he might not feel too energetic when he had a break that allowed him to stay at home. On another level, it could be inferred that the dream world of sleep was preferable to the hassles of straight, everyday life. Or, perhaps, that being alone with one's thoughts -- or, maybe, drug-induced images -- was preferable to the mundane reality that comprises a good deal of external experience. ")

Two other digressions (I feel slightly bad for always mentioning other songs when I comment on your posts, I don't want to come across as trying to change the subject -- but it's always interesting to me how one song will trigger associations with another so I'll go ahead and do it anyway)

1) After I discovered the Roseanne Cash version of, "And Your Bird Can Sing" last week I listened to it about five times and when went on a bit of a search for other liver performances on youtube. My favorite is this recent performance of "Seven Year Ache." Consider this; Seven Year Ache was released in 1981, when she was 26. She said that she wrote the song when she was 23. That performance was in 2011, 30 years after the album came out. So it was literally written a lifetime ago -- she's more than twice as old.

But she makes it look as comfortable as an old shoe -- her connection to the emotions is different. It's less barbed, and has more perspective, but it doesn't feel like an exercise in nostalgia. Look at the smile when she sings the chorus, "Boys say 'when is going to give us some room'. / Girls say, 'God I hope he comes back soon.'" She looks like she's enjoying the song -- as she should, it's a nice piece of songwriting.

2) Seeing the mention of laziness made me wonder if there's any echo of, "I'm Only Sleeping" in Elastica's "Waking Up" with the opening line, "I'd work very hard, but I'm lazy" and the chorus, "Waking up and getting up has never been easy." I'm not going to link to it now, because it's too different a mood, but I mention the question to revisit at some point.