Impossible Covers: Kurt Cobain and Cole Porter

coleMy brother’s recent post about a fantasy cover describes a conversation we had when I first mentioned our new game–picking an artist and a song for an unsolicited arranged marriage. His version of the conversation is fairly accurate except in the outcome: I think he did a much better job describing the game than I would have and his first proposed cover/artists match-up is better than what I was thinking of.

Let me explain this thing a little bit. As I have made clear before, I am a little obsessed not just with the artistic and philosophical status of a cover but also with the typology of the phenomenon and the criteria that go into song choices. I also suffered a brief obsession with amateurs performing covers on youtube. (Ok, not so brief, I posted three entries about it. Perverse.)

Love this song. It makes me want to sway.

But this idea occurred to me recently while  I was driving and listening to the local jazz station. The Cole Porter standard “Night and Day” was on and it was some kind of a jazz/rock version performed by a male singer whose voice I wanted to be a little more raw (like some jazz singers, he was trying to be too pretty in the Michael Buble or (dare-I-say) Frank Sinatra lounge style. I emphatically did not want the song to be pretty–I wanted to hear some of the depression/prohibition era cynicism/angst/escapism. I wanted the singer to have some gravel, some smoke and to be both earnest and slightly ironic.kurt-cobain

I realized that I what I really wanted was someone like Kurt Cobain to sing “Night and Day”. Now, this may seem to be a little indulgent and wildly out of character (for both the singer and me) but I had in mind the genre-busting and expectation defying performances Cobain gave on MTV’s Unplugged in the early 90s when he performed covers of the Meat Puppets and David Bowie. Say what you want about the limited emotive and musical range of Nirvana, but Cobain’s covers reveal a depth of talent that surprise only those who have listened to the music carelessly.

So, here’s my impossible cover: I would like to hear Kurt Cobain covering Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”–I think the inappositeness of the classic jazzy showtune performed by the poster boy of alt-grunge severity would bring surprising newness to song and artist alike. I don’t know if Cobain knew Cole Porter well (although it would not surprise me if he did) but I think that Porter and Curt might have more in common than one might guess.

Ok, I can’t resurrect Cobain to do some jazz. But I can find some jazz artists performing Nirvana

I haven’t really talked about Nirvana before and this is probably because everyone has to like Nirvana. I have the annoying tendency of resisting things merely because other people like them. I wasn’t too old when Nirvana hit it big–but I was old enough to get in trouble for ‘moshing’ at a school dance when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on (and old enough to have long hair already).

And I don’t want to add too much to this post, but I think that Porter and Cobain are stuck in my head together not by accident. The year that Cobain died, my high school chorus teacher ambitiously had us do a review show of Porter and Gershwin tunes. For a group of kids more accustomed to singing songs from Aladdin and Les Miserables this was a bit of a pain. We hated the strange intervals between notes and the innovative (foreign) harmonies. Porter’s music tends not to repeat melodies or choruses ad nauseam the way many modern musicals do.

I hope you know, brother, that Sublime’s “Summertime” is a riff on George Gershwin’s classic standard. Perhaps the boys in the band learned the song in high school?

But our chorus teacher, I realize now, was actually educating us in the history of music and through different styles. I know an embarrassing selection of musical numbers and jazz standards now. I have a depth of musical knowledge deep down in my stomach, thanks to her. These songs were in my head, I am sure of it, the day that Cobain died.

And this is the story I’ll end with today. As my friends know, I am not a religious person. There was a time in my life, however, when I was trying to be one. The day that Cobain died my sister and I were in a van going to an Episcopal Youth Group retreat at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It was our first trip to New York (and my last trip with any youth group). We slept in the basement of the church; we had a midnight mass by candlelight in the immense sanctuary.

On the way to New York, we pulled over for gas and the minister returned from the gas station suddenly stricken. He addressed the (mostly) adolescents in the van and told us that Kurt Cobain took his own life. He asked if we wanted to talk about it. On the side of the road in Connecticut, separated from the Kurt Loder updates and the endless speculation on life and motives, a dozen of us were asked to contemplate the suicide a a famous musician–one many of us saw as the voice of a generation.

The response? Silence. I don’t know why we didn’t say anything then. But I am not sure I could say anything now. Some events are just so overdetermined with meaning that to reduce them to a single utterance (or even a handful) is to do great injustice.

So. here’s my new addition to the game. my brother: where would you like to hear the performance of your dreams (now it will sound like the answer in a Clue Game: Mr. White, in the kitchen, with the rope!). I’d love to bend time and space and have Cobain play Porter’s “Night and Day” with a jazz trio (spare drums, upright bass and a little piano) in the sanctuary of St. John the Divine by candlelight.


Also called St. John the Unfinished

Also called St. John the Unfinished

8 comments on “Impossible Covers: Kurt Cobain and Cole Porter

  1. kate58 says:

    My BF (jokingly?) refers to me as a “music snob”, because I LOATHE covers. I can’t STAND it when other artists re-do some one else’s often classic tune. The ONLY cover I can bear to listen to was done in the film “Their Eyes Were Watching God” – a cover of the Al Green song “Simply Beautiful.” And the mere thought of anyone covering Porter or Cobain is enough to give me a migraine, though having said that, I must admit that I can almost HEAR Kurt singin’ “Night & Day” – all that angst, which was what I loved most about him. If I’d a been on that bus, I’d a had plenty to say about his death…I’m STILL grieving!

  2. theelderj says:

    Kate58, Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to minimize the loss–what I mean is that I found expressing any idea or response to the loss impossible.

    I kind of understand your music snobbery–my fascination has more to do with learning new things about the song and the artist from the cover experience.

    Of course, this game says far more about me than it does about Porter or Cobain

  3. […] Impossible Covers: Kurt Cobain and Cole Porter ( […]

  4. […] Deal was not just the bassist of a band cited by Nirvana and others as a powerful influence; she also went on to form a musical project with a member of the […]

  5. […] In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers. […]

  6. […] I also love the old Cole Porter tune “Summertime”, here performed in great style by the one and only […]

  7. […] low (Chili Peppers), it manipulates ‘products’ I once respected and thus debases them (Nirvana, Sublime) and, mainly because it signals and confirms the basic truth of our world: everything is […]

  8. […] through an intense period of watching amateurs perform them on youtube, I have fantasized about impossible cover songs and I have objected to particularly bad […]

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