The Song: Chrissie Hynde’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”
Written by Peter Coviello
We all know the pleasure of trading songs back and forth – especially, I think, cover songs – with new lovers; how they acquire in the exchange something of the bright atmosphere of romance’s beginning; how, later, when you encounter them again, they can seem to shimmer with all that dreaminess and erotic captivation. It makes sense. If you’re not 16, all your love affairs are covers – repetitions, with a difference. And this can make the inclusion of covers in those early mixes especially sweet. Just this summer, at the outset of a steep and sudden and unworkable love, my new friend and I passed back and forth versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You,” and each iteration, from Joni to Prince to Lloyd Cole, seemed to entwine itself around one of those small new discoveries that make the commencing of the affair so intoxicating. You know, before anybody’s love gets lost.
But not all exchanges come from these radiant moments, these scenes of plenty. Sometimes you’re given a song in the midst of a passage of great devastation. And sometimes it’s a cover.
Listen, I can take or leave Radiohead, and I feel a like indifference to this early hit, from before they became the next Only Band That Matters. But if you wanted to hate Radiohead – which, god bless – this song can help you. “Creep” is song of overweaning male narcissism pretending to be abjection. When the singer says “You’re so fucking special,” you can feel the weight of all his bitchy contempt, how much the singer resents this person who, by being hurt by whatever shitty thing the singer’s done, has made him feel so bad. The whole song is a fake mea-culpa, behind which is an aria of extravagant male self-pity.
Chrissie Hynde’s cover fucking demolishes the original. And it does so by leaching out every least suggestion of self-pity, note by harrowing note, so that what you’re left with is a pure and chrystalline and almost unendurable self-contempt. This singer knows the lover she’s hurt is maybe actually special, that she has done genuine harm, that something ugly and raw and maybe incurable in her own intractable self has once more turned love to wretchedness. It’s like Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” but in the first-person. Or Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” tuned to the note of an intimate self-made misery. Think of it as an inside-narrative of the wretched life of a lonely heart: a song of anguished self-horror.
I only know this version because years ago it was sent to me by a person who, after some months of quite ordinary intimate human harm – haphazard cruelty, ruinous deceit, etc. – emailed it to me more or less out of the blue. I’d suffered a lot, over those familiar dark days and nights, this person’s utter inarticulacy, a wholesale incapacity to, as the shrinks say, take responsibility for what aspects of the wreckage were hers to own. It was, as such encounters with obdurate refusal can be, crazy-making. But then from out of that blank wall of speechlessness came this song.
And I know – oh, I know – it might be nothing more than my own wounded male narcissism talking here, my own expansive and impressive capacities for self-pity. But believe me when I tell you: I think it was maybe the best I’m sorry I’ve ever received, or am likely to receive. Not adequate or curative, of course. But something. It helped. It helps.