A few days ago, my father and I were discussing cover versions. He was thinking of putting together audio playlists for bar trivia at a newly opened restaurant – a staple of NYC trivia that he was exporting to our small town in Kentucky – and he floated the idea of a list made entirely of songs that are more famous as covers than originals. We both immediately thought of the same song: “Hurt,” as rendered by Johnny Cash.
The history of “Hurt”
When Trent Reznor (aka Nine Inch Nails) recorded “Hurt,” he was in his late 20s. Over 6 minutes long, mostly quiet, but packed with dynamics changes, “Hurt” is atypical of its parent album, The Downward Spiral. Anyone who lived through the 1990s likely associates that LP with the creepy video for “Closer,” which features both an infamous “scene deleted” card (in a video full of undeleted distrubing images) and a bleep-out on the lyric “I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside.”
After an hour of grunting and quasi-rocking out (NIN always had a certain shambling quality to them, with their drum machines and gloomy 80s synths always sapping a bit of their rocking vitality out of even their loudest songs), “Hurt” is the big Dylanesque finish – both a brief respite from the preceding violence and a bleak prelude to what happens when the music is over (to borrow a Doors lyric). It begins with a windy swirl and ends in a grind of listless noise that fades to black.
In between, Reznor spins a tale of impending suicide. “Everyone I know goes away in the end,” he says, with the pseudo-profunity of a 20-something who knows death exists, but doesn’t realize yet – because of lack of age – how close it is to you at any given moment. “You could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.” There’s grandiosity here, from someone who has already achieved a lot before turning 30 (“my empire”), but also resignation (“you could have it all”), a subtle change in voice that shows the speaker finally acceeding to the power of what he once controlled. That is, the “you” seems to be heroin, which elsewhere in the song Reznor addressed memorably as “my sweetest friend;” the “I” seems to be the drug personified, talking about it simply making him hurt.
The striking thing about “Hurt” overall is how the cover version illuminates the strengths of the original, not weakening it or showing it up in any way, while also introducing an entirely new reading of its lyrics’ meaning. Somehow, there is a perspective that only a 70-something could bring to these words; we just didn’t know it until Cash brought it into the open.
No cover version has been so thoroughly changed simply by dint of the covering artist’s age difference from the original performer. Cash was old enough to have been Reznor’s father; by the time “Hurt” was recorded, he was already in his 70s.
“What have I become?” is perhaps the most touching lyric from “Hurt,” and it has a markedly different meaning coming from the mouth of 71 year-old compared to that of a 28 year-old. For the latter, “What have I become?” seems like generalized Gen-X angst about not having changed the world by age 30, a subtle prelude to wishes of suicide driven not just by loneliness (Reznor’s version of “Hurt” is notable for how it seems to unfold in a vast room in which he is the only occupant; he was the sole performer on many of The Downward Spiral‘s songs, albeit not “Hurt,” on which he relied on an outside human drummer) but by Julius Caesar-grade inadequacy. Caesar apaprently wept at a bust of Alexander the Great, despairing at what the conqueror had achieved at an age the would-be Roman emperor had already passed.
But for someone in their 70s, and with the backstory of Cash, “What have I become?” is not a preemptive justification of suicide. It’s a confessional, and one with an unmistakable physicality: Cash’s voice, always gruff, was shredded by this stage of his life, with the natural smokiness and grit that everyone from Nick Cave to Death Grips have tried to achieve instead by affectation. In uttering “what have I become?” in that voice, he answers his own question.
For Cash reading “Hurt,” it is too late for suicide, but too early for death. He truly has seen “everyone I know” go away in the end, unlike Reznor, who in 1994 could only hypothesize about such in rationalizing his hypothetical drug-induced death. Cash, ravaged by years of his own drug use, has already let his demons “have it all,” the “empire of dirt” that indeed looks increasingly indistinct as his natural death approaches.
Cash shortened “Hurt” to barely more than 3 minutes, stripping out the lead-in and noisy outro and rearranging it with only guitars, his voice (he also replaced “crown of shit” with “crown of thorns,” which presents him as a Christ-like figure bleeding out from the years of needle sticks and painkiller highs), and a lone piano that thuds in and out like an insistent church bell. The original dynamics still shine through, though, especially as Cash gives a distored “If I could start again…” near the end that never fails to raise the hairs on my neck as I imagine what it must be like to be imagine starting all over again despite the shackles of advanced age.
There are plenty of startling cover versions out there, but no one so dramatically seized the opportunity the way Cash did in turning “Hurt” into his deathbed autobiography.
Its aggressive guitar riff stirs up the scattered pixie-dust grains of 1990s grunge; its documentary voice-overs, the grainy echoes of 1960s psychedelia. Then the song gives up, goes out, becomes nothing but musical atmosphere as a Welshman melodically sings “Self worth scatters, self esteem’s a bore /I long since moved to a higher plateau /This discipline’s so rare so please applaud /Just look at the fat scum who pamper me so.”
I had heard all about “4st 7lb” by the Manic Street Preachers long before I actually heard it. From 2001-2003, I was an obsessive reader of Pitchfork Media (now Pitchfork), NME, Stylus Magazine (RIP), and other zines; we even had a print subscription to SPIN. Every now and then I would see the Manics mentioned in passing, and it usually wasn’t but a few lines before That Song was talked about.
The story of “4st 7lb” is impossible to separate from its writer, the departed Richey Edwards. He disappeared more than 20 years ago after having become quasi famous as the lyricist and rhythm guitarist for the Manics. As a writer, he opened a window on issues such as depression, anorexia, and 20th century fascism that is tenuous ground for nearly any rock band, especially ones whose main stylistic reference points are Guns N’ Roses and The Clash.
But he had a literary edge. My favorite art inevitably leaves me with a sentiment or image that I cannot really forget. I’ll never get over the “words in boxes” of Aristophanes’ “Frogs,” the bemoaning of knowing too much about others in Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye,” the orchestral surges in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” “4st 7lb,” in addition to the shocking key change in the middle of the song, has one of these moments, with the lyric:
“I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.”
Gulp. It’s a devastating image: Someone so light as to not exist. Someone who has surrendered to the earth; even if I could make footprints, they would be snowed-over or erased once everything melted, anyway. The song is full of sharp, stunning imagery; my second favorite after the “snow” is the conclusion: “I’ve finally come to understand life by blankly staring at my navel,” which injects real venom into the usual “navel-gazing” cliche leveled as criticism against 1990s grunge in particular and people born during Generation X in general
One of the magic tricks of the Manics’ early music was their unorthodox approach to songwriting. Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire would write the lyrics, while guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore wrote all the music; they did not seem to consult each other along the way. This ended up producing uncanny results, such as the song “Yes,” which is one of the catchiest rock songs I’ve ever heard, chock-full of guitar hooks and soaring vocals, all the while somehow staying remarkably tuneful even with lyrics such as:
“Power produces desire, the weak have none
There’s no lust in this coma even for a fifty
Solitude, solitude, the 11th commandment
The only certain thing that is left about me
There’s no part of my body that has not been used
Pity or pain, to show displeasure’s shame”
It’s as if someone tried to set the writings of Lenin to glam metal – and succeeded! I first cued up “Yes” on a red Sony Discman back in 2003, and it was a special experience – one of those floating moments when you first hear a song that you like, but didn’t expect to, perhaps; it all goes by, intangible but irresistible, and you have to play it again and again to keep teasing out why you liked it, and finding that it’s, well, everything.
But it was “4st 7lb” that stuck with me most then, and in 2006 when I was walking along a snowy sidewalk in Rhode Island, and in 2016 when I was weirdly prompted to listen to “The Holy Bible” (the parent album of both “Yes” and “4st 7lb”) when I was reading about Scott Speicher, the American pilot who disappeared in Iraq in 1991 and was alternately presumed dead and capture for the next 18 years, and thinking that his tragic story (his remains were found by Bedouins in 2009) reminded me of Edwards’, too (Richey was not declared dead until well after anyone had had any contact with him). It calls attention to itself in every way: The lyrics on their own would be eminently memorable, but that tune – not just full of riffs and that crazy transition, but also insane hooks like the “I-I-I-I-I-I” refrain that starts off Bradfield’s reading of the “snow phrase, that would seem silly in theory but somehow work in practice – is also an all-timer, the airy outdo unleashing the minimalistic that the band deserved after its maximalist intro.
I don’t listen to much rock anymore – “Layla,” the odd Beatles or Hendrix album – but I will always have time for the Manics’ incomparable “The Holy Bible” songs.
Last year, I acquired a copy of Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel “Cat’s Eye” from the Myopic Books in Wicker Park, Chicago. The front jacket had a handwritten inscription; the book was apparently a gift to someone, delivered July 19, 1990. The writer tells “Dearest Marya” that fiction is hard to select but that “none the less I hope you enjoy this selection.”
There’s also a sticker in the front: “From the library of Marya.”
I don’t know if Marya enjoyed the book, but I did. I also added my own pen markups to the book. Some of my favorites:
“I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.” <- I love this since it gets at how paintings are sort of like mini children
“It’s the eyes I look at now. I used to think these were self-righteous eyes, piggy and smug insider their wire frames, and they are. But they are also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty. The eyes of someone for whom God was an sadistic old man; the eyes of a small town threadbare decency.” <- it always amazed me that the alleged greatest power in the universe was supposed to be a grumpy, jealous old man
“The past isn’t quaint while you’re in it. Only at a safe distance, later when you can see it as décor, not the shape your life’s been squeezed into.” <- I have tried various frameworks for writing about/understanding the past, but this is one of my favorites (and better than I’ve ever been able to do)
“The world is being run by people my age … When the leaders were older than me I could believe in their wisdom, I could believe they had transcended rage and malice and the need to be loved. Now I know better. I look at the faces in the newspaper, in magazines, and wonder: What greeds, what furies drive them on?” <- it’s almost like most politicians don’t know what they’re doing
“Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.” <- This is the best distillation I’ve ever read of why things like Facebook are uniquely depressing
“Fainting is like stepping sideways, out of your own body, out of time or into another time. When you wake up it’s later. Time has gone on without you.” <- as a chronic fainter, this is exactly right
What is Friday Afternoon? Is it an open bar, or leaving the workplace at 4:30 (instead of 5:00) to jet off to Florida or Michigan or wherever the hell people leave cities like Chicago for when the weather starts to go gray? Is it #TGIF and “working for the weekend”? It’s all this bullshit, if you have a certain center to your life.
Throughout the second half of 2009 and most of 2010, Friday afternoon was just another day for me. Between freelancing and adjuncting at a community college, there was neither dread at Monday arriving (I rarely did anything on that day) nor relief at Friday descending from the heavens. TGIF? I would be writing more “Top 5 Schools for a Psy.D in the Midwest” mini dissertations then, just like I had been on Tuesday.
The weekend is a bookkeeping trick; you need a “week” that is somehow less than ideal for the “end” of it to be in any way distinct. As we know it in 2016, the weekend was crafted by the organized labor movement and it is being undone by the long reach of email, the iPhone with Good or Slack on it, and – for a far larger audience than the white-collar Twitter power users who have succumbed (in many cases seemingly with glee) to the last two – the unpredictable service industry schedule, under which Starbucks cashiers, for example, hurry to the mall at the last minute to fill a newly assigned shift.
“Lack of entertainment…”
Superpitcher’s second album, Kilimanjaro, was released in 2010, following up 2004’s “Here Comes Love.” Superpitcher is the artist name of one Aksel Schaufler and a mainstay of the German house music record label Kompakt.
Kilimanjaro plays out like two halves of a Friday night; it even has a song called “Friday Night” that concludes the album’s upbeat first half. This half is filled with images of being “too drunk,” with Schaufler insisting in the song (and first album single) “Rabbits in a Hurry” that with so much alcohol “you’ll get used to the confusion,” but at the same time “too drunk to fuck.” Elsewhere, in “Friday Night” he unspools a tale of it being “Friday night, and I’m not dancing,” which gives him free reign to imagine a potential acquaintance doing cocaine without him, leaving him with a “lack of entertainment.”
On top of these hedonistic hypotheticals, he tells a tale of being a “country boy with blood on my teeth” (“Country Boy”) and asks an unnamed second person “why do you why do you why do you voodoo?” (“Voodoo”). There is an intersection here between a mythology that Schaufler’s character has bought into in the album’s first five songs, and the banality of”Friday night” in particular and weekend culture in general. The voodoo-curious, superhuman “country boy” with a taste for blood ends up walking down to the beach all on his own, with the orgiastic scenes of “Rabbits in a Hurry” lamely playing out (replaying?) in his head as he wrestles with the idea of his own confusion, imagining that everyone else will be just as misguided if they drink as much as he does.
The “Friday afternoon” of Kilimanjaro is a burst of glory that is imagined, played out, and rejected in rapid succession. It is Friday afternoon as conceived by someone without any of the social structures – a white-collar job with “professional” colleagues, more than anything – that could make it a predictable, enjoyable respite from the stupid-ass 9-5 grind. The Kilimanjaro narrator is grinding all the time, weekend or not. Even the album’s first track, “Prelude,” provides the context of church bells, suggesting that the images of a weekend escape – the romps of “Rabbits in a Hurry,” the drug-fueled ecstasy of a song actually entitle “Friday Night” – are not being entertained on a dreary Tuesday evening, but in the heart of the weekend proper.
I remember sitting around my dusty Pulaski Rd. apartment in 2010 around the time Kilimanjaro came out, and having similar fantasies of an “escape” from my part-time jobs and precarious situation at all times. It wasn’t the precise structure of the weekend I looked forward to, but the possible, sudden arrival on any day – a sunny Wednesday afternoon, or a Monday morning – of news of some new opportunity that would end the doldrums. But with everyone else working on those weekdays in particular (which were meaninglessly different from weekend days to me, but not to them, I imagined), the counter-narrative of me continuing to miss out would rise up right away as an antithesis to my magical thoughts.
“Had a rough time, had a tough time…”
The middle song of Kilimanjaro is “Moon Fever,” an instrumental that uses vibes to create a wintery vibe. It is also a transitional number, marking the end of the energetic delusions of the first half and the start of the empowered depression of the second half.
Once it finishes, we get “Give Me My Heart Back,” a song that would seem to be doomed by its ridiculous title, but which manages to split the difference between country and house somehow, with plenty of guitar to go with Superpitcher’s typically lush sounds. From there, the album wanders off to a shadowy hookah bar, a studio apartment lighted by a single pole lamp, a dance hall on the cusp of closing – any place to which someone might flee to escape from the archetypal weekday grind, in “Who Stole the Sun?”
This song is effectively the album’s title track, with its bewitching whispers of “Kilimanjaro” throughout the intro. The samples and subtle guitar – again – seem dark and smoky to me, making me think vaguely of the venues I cited above, but even more so of a rundown Providence apartment I visited in 2008 while on a tryst worthy of the first half of Kilimanjaro. The front door was a broken screen, the steps the same colors as the walls, the room on the second floor a sunless box with black curtains.
Schaufler’s character is now reduced to wandering around such a space, with his thoughts in tow, wondering where everyone is while he has been through “a rough time….a tough time.” Yet the sinister confidence of the vocals here and across the songs in the second half, as compared to the more skittish and impressionistic takes of the first half, reveals someone who has in effect seen through the weekend myths long ago and has been keeping up the edifice of a normal 9-5er/weekender only with difficulty and at no real benefit to anyone.
The comfort of the “darker” second half persona is obvious in the epic “Black Magic.” Schaufler unfurls a thick, dancey baseline and and adds a Spanish language vocal from the great Mexican techno artist Rebolledo about black magic. The myth making of the first half – “Voodoo,” “Country Boy,” “Rabbits in a Hurry” – is made more inscrutable here (to an English speaker at least) and yet much more aggressively sensual, with the words oozing and dripping. It’s one of my favorite Superpitcher vocal performances.
“Joanna” brings back some upbeat tunefulness, although its words – here highly specific, as compared to the nameless abstractions who populated the scenes imagined throughout the first 5 songs – are not uplifting. “Holiday Hearts” has a jarring beginning and then proceeds to end the album with an echoey, bizarro Beach Boys outro.
I listened to it this album all the way through many times in 2010 and 2011 while I was winding down the nightmare of my immediate post college years. The two-faced structure and the vocals are its calling card, but the way it tackles ideas of the weekend is what has kept me returning to it, especially as work-related burnout sets in and makes me alsmot nostalgic for the times when all 7 days of the week “had no feel” to them.
Two weeks ago, a website I write for recently decided to “pivot” (to steal another unbearable term) to being more “data-driven.” I asked the editor for the site what this shift would mean for the writers, and he explained that we should include more stats, mostly, and presumably fewer sentences of innumerate rambling. My first attempt in the new mode was a two-part series written in the voice of a Carl Diggler-esque character who likes to reference H.P. Lovecraft alongside stats from the U.S. Green Building Council.
When talking about being “data-driven,” whether in regard to marketing, writing, political forecasting, or running a startup, it is important to think about what proponents of such an approach are ostensibly pushing back against. There seems to be this widely shared notion that in fields as diverse as politics, sportswriting, art criticism, and business, there are vast hordes of people who can’t understand math and science and are finding their paths instead through intuition and personal experience (indeed, the Diggler character was willfully created as a parody of pundits who trust in “gut” and “personal experience”). It is a sentiment that dovetails nicely with the widespread myth that there is a “STEM shortage” (easily disproven) and that the best use of young people’s intellects is in helping organizations work on basically finished products that require little more than basic Excel skills and 8th grade algebra.
This attitude takes many forms. There is the lieutenant governor of Kentucky telling students not to major in history (the governor said something similar about French literature), and there’s the website FiveThirtyEight repeating slogans such as “I believe in Math” to push back against people skeptical of the site’s opaque (but “data-driven”!) statistical modeling that somehow failed to predict Donald Trump’s dominance or the breadth of Bernie Sanders’ support.
OK, so I’m one such skeptic, not just of FiveThirtyEight in particular (and its absurdly wrong predictions about the results of the Michigan and Indiana primaries in the Democratic Primary in 2016) but of the “data-driven” cult in general. To give them a fair hearing, though, let’s look at what the proposed benefits of this approach are. Here’s a sentence from a Forbes piece about Uber:
“In today’s data-driven sharing economy, pricing, tasking and hiring decisions are all based on the cold hard logic of computer models and data.”
What is “data,” though? Data is the result of what you have chosen to measure. For Uber, germane “data” might include the price of a discounted Uber ride versus a standard taxi fare, but not the amount of car insurance paid by its drivers or how much of its clout comes not from the free market “innovation” principles it cherishes but from the cold, hard logic of deep-pocketed venture capitalists (Google among them). Data is manmade.
The assumed infallibility and rationality of computers is a quaint idea, held by the same sorts of New Economy types that would be simultaneously dismissive of a sincere belief in God, despite such faith being almost indistinguishable from blind trust in Data, The Market, Algorithms, or any number of manmade institutions. Not only are computers of any type manmade (with particular baggage in the Cold War era) and capable of being stuck halfway between their binaries, but the way they work isn’t even an accurate approximation of human consciousness, i.e., the way that we experience anything. The brain is not a CPU running algorithms on data.
Yet you get the likes of John Gruber writing stuff like the following, about Facebook’s news curation efforts:
“The irony is that machines don’t have a point of view — they are ‘objective.’ Over the last half century or so, mainstream U.S. journalism has evolved in a way that has writers and editors acting like machines. They’ve made it easier for themselves to be replaced by algorithms. Most readers won’t even notice.
I do two things here at DF most days: find interesting things to link to, and comment on them. An algorithm may well beat me at finding interesting links. My job then, is to be a better writer — smarter, funnier, keener, more surprising — than an algorithm could be. When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard.”
“Machines” are whatever you make them; they follow their creators’ rulers. They don’t merit special authority for the particular way they solve problems, not any more than the the Old Testament did because it was written right to left in Hebrew instead of left to right in English. Being “better” than an algorithm is a meaningless statement; the human brain is not running algorithms itself, and the ones that it comes up with for other contexts depend entirely on intent. An algorithm has no sense of whether anything is “funnier, keener, more surprising” – it’s a fucking set of numbers! The impression it leaves is all in the interpretation.
The cult of data-drivenness has created both unbearable resignation (“time to hang up the keyboard,” gag) and equally off-putting arrogance. For the latter, look at the prima facie absurdness such as Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob saying that a team had never been built “around the 3-pointer ” before Silicon Valley VCs got involved in the NBA via the Warriors franchise (however, his statement did produce this amazing parody piece about the Cleveland Browns’ algorithm-driven approach to winning a future Super Bowl).
Like anything, obsession with “objective” “data” is not new. I recently re-read Aristophanes’ Frogs, a play about Dionysus descending into Hades to witness a debate on literature between Aeschylus and Euripides; it’s sometimes cited as the first major work of literary criticism. In Paul Roche’s translation, there is this passage about how Euripides analyzes drama:
“OLD SERVANT: We’re going to see something great:
Poetry sold by measurement and weight.”
XANTHIAS: What, tragedy on the scales like pork chops?
OLD SERVANT: Yeah, with yardsticks and measuring tapes,
Words’ll be fitted into little boxes an’ …
XANTHIAS: You mean, like making bricks?
OLD SERVANT: Sure thing, with rulers and setsquares,
Cuz Euripides says ‘e’s going to analyze
Poetic tragedy syllable by syllable.”
Data-driven analysis! No matter how much I rail against the arrogance of the data-first crowd, I could never come up with an image as striking as Euripides putting words into “little boxes” for analysis. Were those boxes determining what was the “smarter, funnier, keener” #content placed before Dionysus? That’s for humans to decide.