Song #1: The Deep Six: “Paint It Black”

Presentation by Ian Balfour

1966. SoCal. This is the lead track on the only album by The Deep Six: “six” for the number of band members and “deep” likely means “not just another surfer band.” Maybe the name signals a presentiment that if anyone listened to the band for long, it would be deep sixed. It should have turned out better, with crème de la crème session players like Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and the legendary Carol Kaye. And who knew that, before his stint in Buffalo Springfield, Jim Messina was a member of The Deep Six? But it all went horribly wrong, like The Mamas and Papas on acid, and a bad batch at that.

Slowing tempos down can conduce to melancholia, as we saw with Dump’s “1999” and “Paint It Black” seems tailor-made for just that strategy. Isn’t the original rather too fast for its downbeat lyrics: black this, black that, all of it so depressed and depressing. Maybe The Deep Six understood the song better than the Stones? But after the first languid verses by the female lead, the tune takes a fatal turn with a cheery chorus of “Hey-Hey-Hey”s bearing no conceivable or organic relation to the original or, worse, the first part of the cover. Usually to be manic-depressive is to oscillate between those two poles. Here it’s both, incoherently, at the same time.

Still, slowing down the tempo had potential, as realized, say, in Cat Power’s cover of “Satisfaction”. But in also retarding the words The Deep Six proffer some parsing out fit for an atrocity exhibition. Bad phrasing is one of my pet peeve in covers, as here in the enunciation of the slow, doubly stressed “HAP-PENS in “it just happens every day”. It was already a bit of a problem that Jagger had to say “I could not FORE-SEE this thing happening to you.” It’s not as if anybody does or can expect song phrasing to line up one-for-one with regular speech. One marvels at how great singers dilate on a single note or syllable. Small and large variations in phrasing are prominent in covers because there’s a tendency not simply to reproduce the original at that level, unlike chord changes or lyrics with which one rarely messes. The Deep Six’s downbeat strategy breaks down words usually light in their combination of stressed and unstressed syllables into sequences of clunkier monosyllables (for which the extreme example is Alexander Pope’s “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line”). This and other travesties make one long for the brilliance of The Feelies’ unnerving version of “Paint It Black” where they took a fast song and made it faster.

Song #2: Dump: “1999”

This is a cover by James McNew, the bass player and much more for Yo La Tengo. Less famously, he records by himself under the name “Dump”. Yo La Tengo is not one band among others in terms of cover songs, having done countless ones, from the Kinks to Cat Stevens, not least on their aptly named album Fakebook. Their multiple styles are self-consciously eclectic and the cover is only the most extreme and extensive of their citational modes. In one song the singer says to a friend: “maybe it’s just like you, one day I’ll forget every hit song America ever had,” as if there’s an imperative to remember them all. Or better: to be able to cover them all. Yo La Tengo often participates in a fund-raising drive for one of their local radio stations by gamely attempting to cover off the cuff any song a caller-donor wants to hear. The results are not too shabby and sometimes dazzling.

The version of “1999” you’re half-listening to responds to the original first recorded in 1982 by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The original is a remarkably upbeat dance number – literally a party song – that became a signature hit for him. Then along comes James McNew, a decade and a half later in 1998, recording (in his basement, they say) his delirious rendition of “1999” to be the lead track on an entire album of Prince covers called “That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?,” a phrase from a song off The Black Album referring to Prince himself.

“Sue me if I go too fast …” Prince challenges his audience. But you can already tell there’s little chance that James McNew would be sued even by Prince’s litigious lawyers. The original features a more or less forced euphoria, a carpe diem scenario, where, sensing the eve of destruction, Prince figures: Why not party like it’s 1999? The world is ending anyway. But when these words and sounds pass from the hip, black rising superstar in 1982 to the unglamorous, not-so-slim, average white guy in 1998 and the tempo is slowed down drastically, euphoria turns to melancholy. The instrumental parts are dragged out and skewed sonically, adopting a far more apocalyptic, if depressed, tone than its source. It’s the end of the world as we know it and Dump doesn’t feel nearly as fine as Prince did. Dump takes an anxious song and makes it sadder: life is just a party, parties weren’t meant to last, and this party of the millennium will have been a bust. It’s not so clear Dump was even invited to the party.

The sense of time and history in both versions of the song is bound up with certain complications of “tempo-rality” figured in the elusive date 1999. Dates are enigmatic enough to begin with and then all the more so when enunciated in a song, a song that is designed to be repeated and could in principle be repeated infinitely, like a broken record. The work of art both dates and un-dates itself: Adorno chides narrow historicism for thinking a work of art can be consigned to the moment of its production. It never has just one date – it has two at a minimum. “To write history,” Benjamin said, “means giving dates their physiognomy.” Prince certainly does that with “1999” and so too does James McNew but differently. The cover comes along and “dates,” in effect and retroactively, the source. You might notice that McNew slightly alters Prince’s lyrics from “we’re going to party like it’s 1999” to “we’re going to party: 1999”. No longer just like it, in the song it’s now suddenly 1999. A literature professor of mine used to ask, helpfully, in class: “What time is it in the poem?” Morris Day in 1982 also asked on his album of that year “What Time Is It?” Cover songs make you ask and try to answer just this question.
So what is this 1999? In 1982 the date 1999 sounds like a figure for the end, on the cusp of 2 thousand zero zero, the millennium as end-time. Then, shockingly, for Dump, it’s literally 1999. But it’s hard to keep this 1999 in its historical place. 1999 is on “repeat”. Is it the same 1999 in Dump’s re-working the moment of the song? What is the force of this “1999” in 1982, 1998, 1999, 2001 (when Dump’s version was released on CD). Is it 1999 when listened to now? I don’t really know the answer to these questions but we can say at least that we’re dealing with “the long 1999,” whatever that year or figure portends. It’s certainly not something confined to the circumscribed year we first tend to imagine. Dump’s “1999” shakes up our sense of what that time is.

Like all good covers, Dump’s rendition of “1999”destabilizes retroactively the original. A strong cover makes you think—this is the effect of Nina Simone so often—that the original could have been otherwise. The good cover certainly helps canonize the original—it was worth repeating, worth covering, after all–but at the same time it makes the original tremble, all of a sudden less etched in stone or vinyl or electrons than before. It’s not like every cover song, if structured like a revolution, is going to party like it’s 1789 but it does arrest history momentarily, jolting us momentarily into a moment of the past. At the same time, it is a leap, not a series of steps, forward, rendering history mobile and precarious.

Dump’s 7-minute recasting of “1999” leaves off of any of singing Prince’s words half way through the song. The extended outré outro, lasting a full three minutes, begins with a kind of crazed organ-synth fantasia, with lots of interference, noise, and feedback and then the small number of instruments gradually gets smaller and the sounds sparer until we are left with only the drum-machine-like loop, even now as we approach the end of the world and the song. More with a whimper than a bang. It’s not clear that anyone is playing anything.

Still, it has been Prince and the revolution, from the start and then once again. Can we not say with confidence that if there is a prince, sooner or later there will be a revolution?

Party almost over. Oops. Out of time.

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