In an earlier conversation about the Counting Crows cover of The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You,” I said that a cover version should do these things: “…present an alternative viewpoint, invoke the sensibility of the original, and leave you with a newfound appreciation for the genius of song.” And, I suppose, that’s pretty much how I feel about it. Cover songs are remarkably tricky animals, as the best you can hope for is to distinguish yourself from the original artist in a way that is both interesting and insightful, and, yet, avoids being truly ignoble. Which is to say that there’s a fairly long distance on the continuum between Flying Lizard’s cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Nirvana’s version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Occasionally, if a band is quite lucky, they find a way to truly make another artist’s art their own. In this category, you might place Pearl Jam’s rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” or “Winterlong” by the Pixies. (Seems Neil Young gets all the love, tonight.)
Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl” is a song that my father introduced me to when I was still very young. In fact, it’s on the Live set he put out in the 80s, and I’ve heard it literally hundreds of times. (I’ve heard all ten sides of that album about a thousand times, I think.) It used to be that I loved that song for the sing-along. I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again, I’m a sucker for a truly-involved crowd. Can’t be helped. The recording, naturally, is from a concert in Jersey, and the crowd erupts at each mention of the word. It’s really quite sweet, and it underscores, if nothing else, that a person really can still be a “local boy done good.” There’s something beautiful in that, I think. I can’t imagine there’s any better way to know that you’ve really done something special as an artist than to have those you’ve grown up with respond to your art with love.
Later in life, I became fascinated by this song for different reasons. I’ve never been a simple sort of guy who takes his “baby to the carnival,” or felt that “down that shore, everything’s all right.” I often wish I were less complicated, and that these sorts of visceral, human experiences could make me well-and-truly happy. Even so, I can sense the poignancy in the song, and I have a profound respect for anyone that can really find so much meaning in all the simple things that make life work. Especially by the time we get to the lyric: “…don’t you know that all my dreams come true, when I’m walkin’ down the street with you.” I get there, sometimes, and this is the only lyric I feel like I can really approach from a sense of familiarity. But where I have to fight off all the intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) baggage that gets into my emotional filters, this sentiment just seems to come as natural as breath in this song. It’s an odd thing to say, but I find this sort of casualness (or, “casualty” as the best selling American poet of the last fifty years – Jewel – puts it) eerily powerful. If only my mind and heart would just get to the point the way this song does. (Then again, the song’s true genius might very well be that it shows you how that stuff works – and it guards you while you swim in its deep end for a while…)
As a bit of an aside, there was a two week period during the time I was in Cambridge that I thought I might actually be developing a crush on a “Jersey Girl.” After a night out to see one of the worst renditions of “Pirates of Penzance” ever, we went for a walk along one of the many cobbled avenues in Cambridge, and we got on the subject of music. Somewhere along the way, she asked me to sing her a song. I think I chickened out, and chose something Irish and traditional (don’t wince – it’s already happened, and, besides, I’ve turned out fine), but I’ve since thought a lot about why I didn’t choose “Jersey Girl.” I think it’s for a lot of the reasons I’ve mentioned above – it might have seemed inauthentic, and then there’s the problem of singing “I’m in love with a Jersey Girl” to a girl that you really only kinda like. (Mixtapes present a similar problem.)
It’s an awesome date move, if you’re on a date and you can sing in a really un-ironic way… but I’m not that guy. (To be honest, Waits is a tough act to follow. His voice has been described by one critic as being “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.”) I’m the guy who brought you the worst demo tape in history (which might suggest, at least in respect of vocalization, that I have more in common with Waits than I thought…). I’m also the guy who never stops singing in his car. (Which might prove the former parenthetical assumption for those of you who may have encountered it.) For this, at least, I do not feel the need to apologize.
Anyway, I’m listening to a bootleg of Jersey Girl, and I can’t help but be amazed at the love of the audience. There are thousands of people singing that song because they know it casually, like they know their phone numbers and their kids’ birthdays, and they’re really giving it back to Bruce. (You’re going to have to turn it up, but it’s worth it. Honestly, what are you doing not turning it up, anyway?) Still, to illustrate my point about cover versions, I’m going to link to the Tom Waits version, too. Bruce invents some lyrics, and Tom ignores a bunch (this version is two minutes shorter than the original), but they do share a certain something. You’ve got two guys who certainly know authenticity, and self-made poetry, and they’re talking about experiences they’ve clearly had. If I could do anything in the world, I’d find the strength to do exactly that. But, until then, (or, perhaps, until I learn to do it in a more straightforward way), I give you these: