I truly envy musicians.
A friend of mine from college used to talk about hanging out in the studio while recording music and how it fostered collaboration. One time I expressed my jealousy. “But dude,” he said. “You’re a writer. The world is your studio time.”
Fair point, but landing a gig opening for another writer isn’t really a thing. As John Cragie says on his live album, Opening for Steinbeck:
Music has openers and I’m so grateful for that. No other art form does that. It’s not like you buy Grapes of Wrath and open it up and it’s like “Hey, before your Grapes of Wrath, you’ve gotta read this short story by John Cragie. It’s not as good, but he’s opening for Steinbeck tonight, so check him out.”
But one of the main reasons I envy musicians is their ability to learn from one another by playing each other’s songs. I believe the act of covering another artist reaps all kinds of benefits, allowing a musician to get into the knitty gritty of another person’s songwriting, while also allowing them to express their own ideas.
The best thing about this practice is that so many artists begin covering the artists that made them want to play music in the first place. With the exception of one song, Bob Dylan’s entire first record consisted of covers. The Beatles’ live sets in Hamburg were covers of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Richie Barrett.
As a writer, it’s awfully hard to “cover” Hemingway or Dostoevsky or Bradbury. Best case, I can try to write in their style, which is a step in the right direction, but isn’t quite the same as Kurt Cobain doing Bowie or Bowie doing The Beatles or The Beatles doing Chuck Berry.
We become who we are when we fail to become those we imitate.
With this in mind, here are some covers I love…