"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.