Monday, September 02, 2013


"Nowhere Man" / Paul Westerberg

A really good cover of a really great song is a rare and wonderful thing, and there's nothing harder than covering a Beatles song. Considering that almost your entire audience already knows the original, you've got to walk a tricky line. On the one hand, if you merely imitate the original, why even bother to record it? But on the other hand, the original was done so right, if you change it too much, you're committing sacrilege.

Still, a few artists have turned the trick, and as a lifelong Fab Four fanatic, when I find a memorable Beatles cover, I snatch it up right away.  I'm always on the hunt for these, so if you're got a favorite, please let me know about it. 

I would never have expected a great Beatles cover from alt-rock pioneer Paul Westerberg, even though I am secretly a fan of his post-Replacements acoustic stuff. (I came to the game late -- Westerberg's solo music was actually my intro to the Replacements, not the other way around.)  Yet as soon as I heard this song -- you'll find it on his best-of album Besterberg or the soundtrack of the movie I Am Sam -- it revolutionized how I hear this song.

John Lennon claimed that "Nowhere Man" came to him like magic at dawn, after hours of desperately trying to crank out a song for the Rubber Soul album, keenly aware no doubt that Paul McCartney had already tossed off several beauties. (Ah, the fruits of that rivalry....) Back in the early days, songs came so easily to John and Paul, they could scribble a new tune in half an hour during a recording break. Writer's block must have terrified John, like a portent that the jig was up, that he would finally be exposed as the fraud he always secretly thought he really was.

And then, out of the blue came this sublime little folk song, aching with loneliness and existential despair. For once, John abandoned his usual clever puns and snarky commentaries and laid his orphaned soul bare. Though the song claims to observe and address the Nowhere Man, John is of course himself the Nowhere Man, a lost soul behind the mask of his biting wit, and he takes himself wistfully to task for "making all his nowhere plans for nobody." The world may be at his command, but he doesn't trust that one bit.

In the Rubber Soul version, however (which by the way we Americans only got on Yesterday . . . And Today), John has a little help from his friends, who chime in harmonies and la-la-lala's on the chorus. There's a gently rocking tempo, Ringo's chipper drumbeat, and George's twangy guitar break to counteract the song's melancholy. When we first heard it we knew it was a sad-dish song, in the same way that "I'll Follow the Sun" and "Things We Said Today" were sad-dish songs. But the Beatles were a pop group, for chrissake.  Producer George Martin was not about to let them go full-on depressive.

But Paul Westerberg?  Sitting in his basement studio in Minneapolis, making his own handmade solo recordings?  Nobody was around to stop him from scuba diving to the heart of melancholy -- and this cover brilliantly adds a new dimension to Lennon's song as a result.

It's just him and his guitar, the tempo dialed down, the guitar gently picking instead of strumming. Even Westerberg's creaky, scratchy voice is an asset to this track. He sounds like an ordinary guy, observing the Nowhere Man from a distance, awed by the fact that "isn't he a bit like you and me." He's critical, but hesitantly so -- "He's as blind as he can be / Just sees what he wants to see / Nowhere man, can you see me at all?" And oh, he wants the Nowhere Man to see him -- he wants Lennon to know he's there, even though the guy is dead by now, mowed down because of his own celebrity. There's an elegiac quality here that Lennon could never have put into this song. It bears a weight of history; it is transformative.

 And yet in the third verse PW can step up to the plate and counsel the guru: "Nowhere Man, don't worry / Take your time, don't hurry / Leave it all, till somebody else / Lends you a hand." You can't tell me that this guy doesn't feel at least a tiny bit the same burden of carrying on a legacy. I love how he falters behind the beat, tentative, testing the waters. The fade-and-repeat ending drifts into a subtle rendition of "Taps" -- nuance, nuance, nuance.

A cover that transforms the original? Turn me on, dead man.          


NickS said...

That is lovely.

I have Besterberg, but I'd never paid that much attention to that track. But I was listening to it in the context of Westerberg's work rather than comparing it to the original, and I can see why that would draw you to it -- and that it rewards the attention.

It is a really impressive performance.

As you might gather, I'm not a good source of recommendations for Beatles covers, but I did like the Matthew Sweet / Susanna Hoffer cover of "And Your Bird Can Sing" which seems well suited to a female vocalist.

Speaking of which, looking it up on youtube, I also see a performance by Roseanne Cash which is very good. It's slightly rougher, since it isn't a studio recording, but watching that performance I'm impressed by just how familiar and comfortable she is being up on stage. It looks like it's really easy for her to enter into the emotional space she wants for the song.

Listening to it, I think it's better than the Susanna Hoffs.

NickS said...

I just remembered another interesting (quirky) Beatles cover -- Bobby McFerin's "Blackbird" (from 1984, before he became famous and was more explicitly jazzy).

Anonymous said...

"I'm always on the hunt for these, so if you're got a favorite, please let me know about it."

Just discovered your blog today! My favourite Beatle's cover is the Carpenters' "Ticket to Ride." Ever so sad; to me, this song IS Karen. Love to know what you think of it ...

Holly A Hughes said...

Wow, she really does add the pathos to that song -- when the Beatles sing it they sound more angry with the girl for taking off. I love how gender switches can change up a song like this.

If you're a Carpenters fan, check out my post on "Superstar" a few months back. Welcome!

Anonymous said...

Exactly: pathos. The Beatles original has disappointment, frustration--and maybe a touch of regret--but its quicker tempo does not permit any of the emotion the time it needs to develop into a rich sadness and longing.

Besides, it's a man singing about a girl, and you just know he's going to be OK; for him, this shall all pass by. The girl that's driving him "mad" (i.e., she's a firecracker in bed, so he's enchanted) will soon be history. And, since she apparently wants more than one lover (if "freedom" really means sex), there's a subtext that she's not really worth it, anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish! I'm so with you on the how the gender switch changes almost everything.

You're right, too, that he's angry: "She ought to think twice / She ought to do right by me." His ego is wounded by her uncaring, bad behaviour, and those lines are almost a threat. When Karen sings it, it's her soul that's wounded, and there's no threat that she may seek revenge. She's simply bewildered that his ethics of love and hers are not mutual. When the He sings, he's struggling to re-establish his dominance, but when the She sings, she's actualizing her submission. And, none of the words, save pronouns, have changed.

I did read your lovely post on "Superstar," not knowing that it's also a cover song, and not a Carpenters original. Something similar going on with both these covers, isn't there? That they can infuse into narratives/lyrics such a very different meaning, emotion, way-of-being-in-the-world, than the original.

- Piquette