Sunday 3 February 2008

Cover versions and Wittgenstein on playing trains

Sitting up in front of the fire late last night with Brix and a glass of Oddbins’ modestly priced Domaine de Joy Bas-Armagnac, it seemed exactly the right time to play some of the Johnny Cash late American Recordings. And hence now to return to the notion of cover versions of pop songs.

Here’s the thought. Half the pleasure of Johnny Cash covers is the simultaneous awareness of what the original sounded like. Given the very particular sound (the voice, the basic instrumentation, the very immediate or ‘up front’ sound stage: all of which are characteristic of the American Recordings), whatever the original sound of the song (from Nick Cave and Simon and Garfunkel to U2 and Nine Inch Nails), the final will sound a bit like every other later Johnny Cash song. Unlike, eg, Jeff Buckley’s dreadful pastiche of the Leonard Cohen / John Cale song Hallelujah listening to Cash seems to encourage a kind of constructive dialogue with the original.

What would it be like to listen to them without that; if one had not heard Hurt, The Mercy Seat, or One previously sung? For that matter, I’ve also recently got hold of the Nau Ensemble’s meditations on Joy Division’s Closer using an Arvo Part-like arrangment of strings and choir. This recording makes almost no sense except in relation to the original. (I can’t decide whether its deeply moving but funny or just funny.)

I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s discussion of children playing trains:

“But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!” (Certainly; but it can also talk.)
“But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense.” -- It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense -- poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.)
We do indeed say of an inanimate thing that it is in pain: when playing with dolls for example. But this use of the concept of pain is a secondary one. Imagine a case in which people ascribed pain only to inanimate things; pitied only dolls! (When children play at trains their game is connected with their knowledge of trains. It would nevertheless be possible for the children of a tribe unacquainted with trains to learn this game from others, and to play it without knowing that it was copied from anything. One might say that the game did not make the same sense to them as to us.)
[Wittgenstein 1953 §282]

There would – obviously! – be something to liking the Cash songs or the Nau Ensemble as though they were originals but, at the same time, it would seem rather to miss the point.