All of what I admire and find interesting about covers I learned through the Afghan Whigs. In the mid-nineties I was obsessed with the Afghan Whigs. In 1996, I bought the *Honky's Ladder* ep, which included a cover of "If I Only Had a Heart" from the Wizard of Oz. Now, we all know the song: "*I'd be tender, I'd be gentle/ And awful sentimental/ Regarding love and art/ I'd be friends with the sparrows/ And the boy who shoots the arrows/ If I only had a heart..." *It's a pretty silly song from a musical. But oh my God, that song through Greg Dulli's lips! He transformed it, turned it into something dark and sexy. Imagine how, through inflection and discord and intent you could change the lines: "*Just to register emotion/'Jealousy,' 'devotion'/ And really feel the part…" * In the Afghan Whigs version, I don't think there were any lyrical changes other than one: "*I'd be friends with the sparrows/ And the boy who shoots the arrows" *turned into "*I'd be friends with the arrows/ And the boy who shoots the sparrows."* And honestly, I've always heard that "arrows" as "eros." But still, the same words, the same rhythm (different speed, different key): completely different song.
Four years later, Rec Room co-founder, eric cressley, gave me a stack of CD's from the record store where he worked. Someone had traded in their Afghan Whigs singles and eps, and eric knew I would want them. Finally I heard, for the first time, the Greg Dulli version of the Afghan Whig's song, "My Curse." The track on the *Gentleman* CD is sung by Marcy Mays. Her ragged and passionate voice gives the song a sense of desperation, of needing to hide behind one's own façade in order to survive love. I had played that song over and over upon break-ups; for awhile I put it on every mixed tape I ever made. And then years later I finally heard it as sung by the band's vocalist, and I was floored. In both versions, the band is the same. It's the Afghan Whigs on bass, guitar and drums. The tempo is the same, and I think the key is the same. The only difference is in the vocalist. Where Marcy Mays had been more of desperate victim, a sub to the song's subject's dom, Greg Dulli was suddenly perpetrator and instigator. Lines like: *"**Oh, i do not fear you/ And slave I only use/ As a word to describe the special way/ i feel for you…," *which had seemed so sad from the mouth of Mays, suddenly felt insidious and dirty. It was beautiful.
I tell you all of this to lead up to last night's *Once More with Feeling: Covers and Imitations* show at Rec Room, a night of new interpretations, renditions, and revisions. I admit that I'd sort of expected something life-changing at the show. No, that's hyperbolic…more like…inspiring. I'd expected to experience a new version of a known thing and run off so excited by it that I would stay up for the next four nights straight, just writing. This did not happen. It was a tall order. Instead, what I got was a really good time. I don't mean to put that lightly; good times are hard to come by these days. To begin with, Della's shadow puppet version of the death of Frank O'Hara and was beautiful and haunting in a strangely comic way. It made me want to communicate everything through boxes and candlelight. And Meg Barboza's cover of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet made me want to pay more attention to sonnets (this is totally true, as I've been writing them lately, much some people's alarm ((why would you want to write in an old form? Aren't we done with that? Shouldn't we be breaking out of all of that?)), and others' displeasure). I believe Robert Buscemi was next, and I can't imagine not laughing when this man performs. His sketches (covers of his aunt and of a poet) were funny and well-acted. And perhaps the aunt sketch was too nuanced for a comedy-fest, I don't know. It's sad and funny and funny because it's sad and sad because it's funny and many other things that probably don't make sense. But Rec Room, being neither a comedy fest nor a straight-up poetry reading, gives work like that a venue. That's pretty cool.
Later that night we heard Erin covering her own work when she read the revised version of an older poem. She showed us that it's possible to take a crowd pleaser and make it mean something more. See More Perspective crooned appreciatively about the joys of gin and juice, much to the audience's delight. And as uncomfortable as his previous improv may have been, I'm so glad I had the chance to experience Rich's rendition of Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." I mean, really, how did he do that? As a child, did he sit around with a tape recorder for hours at a time, recording himself trying to sound like a trumpet or an upright bass and playing it back to perfect his technique? And that he managed to work a giant roast beef sandwich into his performance was no small feat, either. psychojail ended our evening by rocking out to a couple of tunes made famous by bands far more popular than psychojail. Still, what a performance. So, I'll continue to write my sonnets at night, searching for hidden meanings in inflection and nuance. I'll listen to the Afghan Whigs and marvel over the meaning that comes from voice, wonder how to translate that into writing, try. And then, I'll do it again, maybe a little differently, maybe not: once more, with feeling.