Have you noticed that it is often songwriters themselves who perform the greatest cover versions of great songs? Songwriters know great songs the same way chefs know great food – as serious connoisseurs. The chosen cover by a songwriter is always informative, and often quite inspired, whether it’s John Prine singing Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Dylan singing “Learning To Fly,” in honor of Tom Petty, or Lennon singing “Stand By Me,” by Leiber, Stoller and Ben E. King . They are tributes to the song itself and to the joy of inhabiting it, and to the brilliance of the songwriters who wrote them.
Harry Nilsson, remarkably, did an entire album of covers all by one songwriter: Randy Newman. The great – and unprecedented – Nilsson Sings Newman. Who does that?
Elvis Costello has been known to record and perform many great covers, such as his great take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” But of all the covers of his own songs which have been recorded, his favorite is Fiona Apple’s extraordinary live rendition of his song “I Want You.” It took it to a whole other realm right there in real-time, with Elvis on guitar. It was a place he referred to as “Lady Macbeth territory” for its fevered dramatics.
Fiona Apple is an astounding songwriter herself, and has already written a great songbook of gems which reflect that singular, soulful realm. She knows a lot about how to inhabit a song fully in the moment, as if she’s lived inside of it, the way a songwriter feels about their own song. To a songwriter, their own song – and every song – is more than words and music randomly wed. It is an expedition of discovery and expression, shaped by modern times and all that is, as Dylan wrote, blowing in the wind.
“Across The Universe,” despite its mystic dimensions, was borne out of mundane reality. Lennon admitted to Peter Scheff in the 1980 Playboy interview that it was triggered by frustration with his then-wife, Cynthia.
“I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, ” he said, “and I was irritated, and I was thinking. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream.
“I went downstairs,” he said, “and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than an irritated song. Rather than a `Why are you always mouthing off at me?’ [The words] were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don’t own it, you know; it came through like that.”
He recorded it twice. The first was for the World Wildlife Fun, recorded with The Beatles, and then reinvented during the Let It Be filming and included on Let It Be. As he told David Scheff, Lennon had no love for this recording of the song.
“The Beatles didn’t make a good record of ‘Across the Universe,’” he said. “I thought Paul subconsciously tried to destroy my great songs. We would play experimental games with my great pieces, like ‘Strawberry Fields,’ which I always felt was badly recorded. It worked, but it wasn’t what it could have been. I allowed it, though.
“We would spend hours doing little, detailed cleaning up on Paul’s songs,” Lennon said, “but when it came to mine… somehow an atmosphere of looseness and experimentation would come up… The same thing happened to ‘Across the Universe.’ The song was never done properly. The words stand, luckily.”
Fiona Apple has done it properly, with great fidelity to the original writing, though with a different groove – which is slow and soulful – and a slight melodic variation on one meandering line – as all our fellow Beatlemaniacs will instantly notice. And yet it works. It is beautiful.
She recorded it for the soundtrack to the 1998 film Pleasantville, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also directed the remarkable video for the song.