Sunday morning came down like a mournful song, dreary, Thanksgiving rain threatening. Our window blinds were up but our lights were on. Ann was in the kitchen making batter for a pumpkin cake and I was trying to be helpful by getting in her way. Public radio was broadcasting a show called "Play It Again" which features Billboard hits from the 1920s through to the 1950s, a fascinating and engaging hour of radio. Times being as angry and yet delicate as they are, the show now comes with a pre-recorded waiver - some lyrics may no longer be considered appropriate. Baby, it’s getting weird outside.
Just as Ann turned the mixer on, the host spun Lefty Frizzell’s utterly glorious and gloomy “The Long Black Veil.” Lefty did not write it, but it's his. The song, narrated from beyond the grave, is a tragedy in three verses. An innocent man elects to be hanged for a murder he did not commit rather than besmirch his lover’s reputation with the scarlet letter. “There were few at the scene, but they all did agree, the slayer who ran looked a lot like me.” His honest alibi is almost in flagrante delicto as he was actually elsewhere “in the arms of my best friend’s wife,” but he chose to speak not a word in his own defense. It’s a grim view of life: trespasses exact a terrible toll, atonement is impossible.
“The Long Black Veil” with all its dread and doom reminds me of a much later song, Kate Bush’s eerily ethereal “Wuthering Heights,” gothic and hopelessly haunting.
When Ann was squeegeeing the metal mixing bowl with a rubber spatula, I said, “I think, considering all the music in our collection, ‘The Long Black Veil’ might be the song we have the most versions of, I mean by various artists.”
Johnny Cash covered it and so did his daughter Roseanne. We’ve got a heartbreaker version by Gregg Allman; The Band of course, and the Chieftains featuring Mick Jagger. That’s five and I’m forgetting a couple, maybe Emmylou? Somebody else too. And I can hear something that never was: Rod Stewart rasping “The Long Black Veil” during his An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down – Never a Dull Moment prime.
“I’m not going to do up a spreadsheet or anything.”
“You don’t know how,” Ann replied.
Yeah. Does anybody out there still operate with MS –DOS and an adorable Commodore 64? How could I ever configure rows and columns for all the triplicates in the Crooked 9’s music library? Consider Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” quirkily agitated by Talking Heads or Bryan Ferry. Ann and I sometimes daydream about visiting Memphis, Tennessee: Beale Street and barbecue, Stax and Sun; in the meantime we’re only able to travel there with Chuck Berry, Johnny Rivers and the Faces.
“Tumbling Dice” is my all-time favourite song ever. If I count the Stones’ own proto-version “Good Time Women” from the expanded Exile reissue, we have four versions of it. Linda Ronstadt recorded a very sexy cover for her Simple Dreams album. No surprise then her guitarist Waddy Wachtel is also one of Keith’s X-pensive Winos. However, the stunner is courtesy of the late bluesman Johnny Copeland who enlisted guitarists Eric Ambel (Del-Lords) and Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites) to really fatten up the song’s slinky, hypnotic rhythm. Ann is eternally grateful she shares the Crooked 9 with a sad sack middle-aged Stones fan because she knows we have every live version of “Tumbling Dice” the Stones have ever released.
In a somewhat similar vein, Ann and I possess three versions of “Darling Be Home Soon.” Apologies to The Lovin’ Spoonful, each one is performed by Joe Cocker. Each one makes me misty eyed.
We have a finite number of LPs and CDs at this moment and that total will grow before the end of 2021. It’s impossible for me to calculate the number of songs we have two versions of, especially when I contemplate the Tin Pan Alley tradition of factory songwriting before His Bobness and the Beatles changed everything by composing their own material. The Lieber-Stoller world was no more. So long, Doc Pomus. Ann’s musical tastes and my own intersect more often than not. So, I can hazard a big label data scoop: most of the songs we have alternative versions of likely originated as Chess or Motown releases, blues and “the sound of young America.”
Our headliners here at home, those performing artists whose works are scattered throughout the catalogues of rival artists, are probably Berry and Dylan, maybe Willie Dixon, maybe Willie Nelson and maybe Smokey Robinson. Contemplating our collection, I’m a little surprised that interpretations of Jagger-Richards, Lennon-McCartney, John-Taupin, Carole King, Leon Russell and Tom Waits aren’t as prevalent as I would’ve assumed. Then again, I suspect it requires vast amounts of swagger and verve to wax a track when its primary writer and performer is able to listen and judge.
Great covers bring something else to the stereo. The incomparable Otis Redding replaced Keith’s iconic fuzztone riff with horns when he went strictly Memphis with “Satisfaction.” I can only imagine Joni Mitchell’s reaction the first time she heard Scottish hard rock band Nazareth absolutely bludgeon her incredibly delicate “This Flight Tonight.” It's not her song any more. Perhaps the royalty cheques still elicit a smile.
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of musical musings since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is available. Visit www.megeoff.com to find your preferred format and retailer.