A Tale of Two Versions

This has been on my mind for a few days thanks to a comment on this post about songs that “speak” to you, but I’m just now getting around to fleshing out some thoughts about it while I crush a phenomenal Hummus House pita (guacamole hummus, thou art the bomb) at lunchtime.

Anyway, my esteemed commenter mentioned the song Hallelujah as done by Jeff Buckley. Even though this is the version that most people are familiar with these days, it was of course originally written and recorded by the very great Leonard Cohen. Though I prefer Cohen’s versions of the song (what he performs live often differs from the original recording), Buckley’s is certainly fantastic and a worthy companion to Cohen’s efforts. It’s more than a cover version, it’s a complete re-imaging that produces a song that, while related, takes on it’s own meaning.

Cohen from 2009


To me, the fact that this one song can be reinterpreted by more than one artist and produce equally fantastic results while having different moods and even meanings is a testament to how unbelievably good the song itself actually is. (And there have been other versions, John Cale and Rufus Wainright’s being the most notable). Buckley’s version drips with seduction and sensuality, where as Cohen’s retains more of the originals sense of mystery and spirituality, but not spirituality in the religious sense, but focused more on the spiritual nature of relationships (this forms the bind that ties the two versions together). What does the song actually “mean?” Who knows and who really cares – like any music or art I think the “meaning” is what you take from it, though I doubt Cohen himself actually knows for sure since the song allegedly has had more then 80 versions written. Suffice to say, Rebecca Black’s Friday this is not. It is music that celebrates and revels in nuance, ambiguity, and mysticism, and for my money is lyrically one of the best songs ever written, up there with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks masterpieces and Springsteen’s Born to Run era output.

When I was thinking about this post, I tried to come up with other songs that have more than one compelling version, where the cover equals or even outstrips an already great tune. The list is short. Hendrix’s take on All Along the Watchtower came to mind quickly as did Otis Redding’s reworking of Satisfaction, but the one that I think offers the closest parallel is Because the Night, written originally by Bruce Springsteen but given to Patti Smith to record. Springsteen has never recorded an official version of the song, but has often performed it live. (You can make a strong case for the 10,000 Maniacs to be included here as well, but that’s actually my fourth favorite rendition of the song after these below):

Patti Smith’s “original”:

The Boss:

Ironically, neither of these is my favorite version. Quite frankly I think Michael Stipe NAILED it playing with the E Street Band during the 2004 Vote for Change Tour, ridiculous white suit not withstanding.

Interesting side note from that last video, it’s obvious that Stipe has no idea what to do during an extended guitar solo, as R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck rather famously eschewed soloing. He’s dancing for a while, and then just falls to the ground, apparently overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness the Boss is bringing forth into the world.

The only other song that immediately springs to mind that has produced two radically different, though equally moving versions is Redemption Song, as done originally by Bob Marley but in my mind topped by the late, great Joe Strummer version. Any other songs that spring to mind that fit this category?



Posted on June 22, 2011, in Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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