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Thursday, March 24, 2005

It's called culture, dammit!

Posted by: Hammer / 2:31 PM

South Dakota's Next Native Son sends us more on the new The Office. This is from Slate:
Remember that scene near the end of Annie Hall, when Woody Allen (as Alvy Singer) tries to recreate a fun date he once shared with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton), chasing live lobsters around the kitchen in an attempt to catch them and boil them for dinner? He gamely tells the same jokes that made Annie giddy with laughter, but his new girlfriend just leans against the counter, smoking and staring with deadpan incomprehension. That's sort of how fans of the BBC series The Office will feel about the new American remake premiering tonight on NBC. The harder it tries (and even, at times, succeeds) in amusing us, the more melancholic we'll feel, remembering how magical things used to be.

I don't think this is just snobbery, the "one-upmanship of memory" that Alessandra Stanley speaks of in today's New York Times review of the American Office. It's love. ...

No living human could reproduce the precise blend of vanity, pathos and smarm that Ricky Gervais, the co-creator and star of the British series, brought to the character of David Brent, but Carell wisely re-imagines the role from the ground up; his version is less a buffoon than a dickhead, with the knitted brow and aggressive physicality of Ben Stiller. He also wears his self-loathing closer to the surface than his predecessor did; where Gervais was wrapped in a cocoon of self-regard, Carell seems constantly on the verge of a temper tantrum, or possibly tears. Carell understands the needy, unlovable Michael Scott from the inside out. But some characters belong to the actor that created them; stepping into such a role, any other performer is as doomed as a singer covering a Bob Dylan song.

Like Jimi Hendrix covering Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. That sucked so bad Rolling Stone called it the 48th greatest rock song ever. Guns 'n Roses did pretty well with Knockin' On Heaven's Door. So did Eric Clapton. Didn't The Doors sell some copies of the House of the Risin' Sun? How about Johnny Cash's It Ain't Me Babe? The Byrds covered Mr. Tambourine Man to some acclaim.

Look, there's this whole web page devoted to covers of Dylan songs. It's gotta be the most popular "doomed" practice ever.

If any Microsoft Passport holders want to post any of this over at Slate, please do. I'm not inclined to share my personal information with the Gates clan. It's a pretty ridiculous error for someone who writes about popular culture.

9 Comments:

Hammer, I know you are pumped up about Wisconsin's "I can't believe it is the Sweet 16" appearance tomorrow night, but you must take it easy on the author of those comments. I don't believe she meant "doomed" in a commercial sense. Certainly, the Dylan covers you mentioned were more commercially successful and accessible than the Dylan originals. However, and this is where I think she is correct, if you are a fan of Dylan and how he performs his songs, any other performance of those songs , regardless of the quality or commercial success of those performances, will always be a Dylan cover, and will not surpass the original. In the same sense, The Office USA, will always be a "cover" of the original and doomed to unfavorable comparison to those of us fond of the original. It may ultimately be more popular or commercially successful, but it will never replace the original.

If Steven Spielberg directed Tom Hanks in a remake of "Shakes The Clown" and that was box office and Oscars champ (and even ended up on a Rolling Stone list!), I doubt it would be anything but doomed to Hammer.

A few quibbles before I leave. The House of the Rising Sun was a big hit for The Animals (it is very Doors sounding recording), and I believe that song is a traditional folk song, and not authored by Mr. Dylan.

SD dignity!

By Anonymous D, at 4:12 PM  

I respectfully disagree (just to prove it's possible for me). If you're right on the Dylan thing, then the Dylan thing doesn't matter. You could pick any artist at all -- Bobcat, Wilco, or Tiffany . I'm sure Tiffany fans like the Tiffany version of Tiffany songs best. And, if that's true, then all covers are doomed, aren't they? As we, as a society are doomed, as well.
But, I don't think that reflects the state of music or art, generally. I'm a fan of Prince, but I like the Gear Daddies' cover of Little Red Corvette very much. Aretha Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" surpasses the original by any reasonable measure, as well.
As I read the article, then, either the author means that a Dylan cover is subjectively doomed (in the eyes and ears of fans), which applies to all covers and therefore provides no new information. Or it means that Dylan covers are objectively doomed, which is objectively false.
I googled the House of the Rising Sun thing and came up with a lot of sites that say the Doors covered it. Over 1,000,000 in fact. That doesn't make it true, of course. I can't find a Doors album with that song.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:35 PM  

The Dylan thing does matter, and her use of Dylan gets to the point she is trying to make. Songs (and songwriters) are not interchangeable widgets (except in Nashville). Bob Dylan songs, like Ricky Gervais' creation of David Brent, are of such a singular and unique nature, and so closely tied to their creator, that the definitive performances for both belong to the respective creators. I would guess, in addition to being a fan of the original Office (she refers to it as "My Office" in the title to the article), she is a Dylan fan, and his name in that sentence is not interchangeable with any other artist.

I think Steve Carell is a funny man and look forward to seeing him in the Brent role (or whatever the character is named), but also think the definitive performance for that character has already occurred, which, in a sense, makes him doomed, i.e. his fate to be at best second in that role, has been sealed.

I don't think this is an absolute rule that applies to all cover songs or subsequent performances, nor do I think that creators or the first person to do something automatically gives the definitive performance. I also don't think that, even with a definitive performance, variations and subsequent interpretations can't be quite good. But, as all of you Highlander fans know, there can be only one. Dylan gives the definitive performance to Dylan songs (for the most part, who can keep track), and Ricky Gervais is, and forever will be, David Brent (or whatever the character's name is now).

I guess the Doors/House of The Rising Sun is another example of just because it is on the internet doesn't make it so (is that Swift Boat website still up?). I think it is a common mistake because it sounds like the Doors, even though it is The Animals. I don't know if The Doors ever recorded or performed the song, but it is not on any of their studio albums, greatest hits albums, or the soundtrack to that sweet Oliver Stone movie (maybe Val Kilmer performed it?). It is, however, on The Animals greatest hits album, and the lead singer of the Animals, Eric Burdon, still tours the country performing that very song (it was the subject of a particularly sad Behind the Music).

By Anonymous D, at 8:30 PM  

It seems to me that you're using a subjective standard -- Dylan fans think Dylan's versions of Dylan songs are the best ("Bob Dylan songs, like Ricky Gervais' creation of David Brent, are of such a singular and unique nature, and so closely tied to their creator, that the definitive performances for both belong to the respective creators."). That's fine, but I don't think you can then turn around and apply an objective standard to every other artist. ("I don't think this is an absolute rule that applies to all cover songs or subsequent performances...")
I believe that art is objectively good or objectively bad. I further believe that you can objectively rank art: this Picasso painting is better than that Modigliani. And, of course, I believe "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" is the greatest painting ever, because it has a (nearly life-size) monkey in it.
Thus, objectively, I think that there are a number of Dylan covers that are better than Dylan performances. Objectively, he's not a strong singer.
Let me put it another way. A couple decades ago, most everyone would say that Olivier's Hamlet was the greatest Hamlet. Then along came Mel Gibson.

By Blogger Hammer, at 7:39 AM  

You say Dylan is not a strong singer. If you mean not technically proficient with a laser-like voice, similar to Celine Dion, Josh Groban, or Beyonce, it is hard to disagree with that. I don't think Bob would be a good addition to Ms. Hammer's choir.

This misses the point that Surfergirl was attempting to make in her column. As Johnny Cash wrote in the liner notes for Nashville Skyline:
...
There are those who are beings complete unto themselves
Whole, undaunted--a source
As leaves of grass, as stars,
As mountains, alike, alike, alike,
Yet unalike
Each is complete and contained
...

Dylan's voice may not be pretty, like Michael Bolton's or Axl Rose's, but it, and he, is uniquely qualified to interpret his songs in a way that no other can do.

If you have seen Ricky Gervais interviewed (and I bet you have), you know that a lot of what made the Brent character so compelling, or at least so compulsively watchable, is closely tied to Gervias's personality.

On a side note, if Josh Groban ever comes through town doing a Dylan review, I will buy tickets and babysit so you and Ms. Hammer can enjoy his objectively lovely voice.

I know what you mean regarding Hamlet. People thought Jesus was the best Jesus, and then Willem Dafoe came along and nobody liked him, BUT then Jim Caviezel came along, and oh brother...

By Anonymous D, at 10:07 AM  

Johnny Cash uses a lot of the same words as Walt Whitman.

I think we can agree on this: Carrell shouldn't try to recreate Gervais's David Brent. He should create his own character.

After that, I think we disagree on everything, even what a cover is. I think a cover is a reinvention. Taking a song and doing it in a different way. Innumerable artists have taken Dylan songs and successfully done them in different ways. That's largely a tribute to the quality of Dylan's writing, but it's also because Dylan's singing is not good and his guitar playing is unremarkable.

Allow me to compare Dylan to another great Minnesota songwriter who is not a particularly good singer or guitar player: Paul Westerberg. There are few Replacements covers running around (excepting the Goo Goo Dolls catalog). That's mostly because the Replacements were never popular. But it's also because you have to have a certain credibility in order to cover a Westerberg ballad. It would be hard to do "Skyway" better, but I'd be willing to give it a listen.

Anyone who has been lonely, felt pain, or has been mad at his dad is qualified to sing more than half the Westerberg catalog. But the men who usually sing those songs are Richard Marx-like and lack credibility. That doesn't mean Westerberg is uniquely qualified to perform his songs. He's not. And, in one Hammer's opinion, neither is Dylan.

By Blogger Hammer, at 10:52 AM  

Based soley on my representations of D's argument, the Shiv says that he knows that D is wrong.

By Blogger Hammer, at 11:13 AM  

Could Wilco cover Dylan? Could Dylan cover Wilco? Just ruminating.

By Blogger Hammer, at 11:15 AM  

Very nice blog, hard to come by these days,

If you have a chance, can you visit my how to play guitar site

It has all guitar related stuff.

Thanks

By Blogger NYCGuy12, at 2:41 AM  

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