I have to confess that singer/songwriter John Prine’s voice never moved me. I got to know his songs through other people–but there were a lot of them and a lot of singers did them justice: Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, Swamp Dogg, Bette Midler, to name just a few. Everybody got up for a John Prine song.
No one who follows along here will be surprised that my favorite Prine cover was by Jackie DeShannon on her wondrous Atlantic LP, Jackie from 1972. In its double-length CD version (only half was released initially), it’s one of the great concept albums, tied together by spiritual, rather than philosophical or lyrical themes. In any version, the first cut, a rendition of Prine’s “Paradise,” set the tone–game recognizing game on a song that probably struck an even deeper autobiographical chord for her than for him.
I’ve always been fascinated by acts who have exactly one great rock and roll record in them. It happened a lot in rock’s first two decades, when amateurs or quasi-pros or wannabes often caught lightning in a bottle. Of such things were doo wop, girl groups and surf and garage band legends made.
Then there were the pros. Barbra Streisand singing “Stoney End” comes to mind. It really was just the one studio moment, as she’s camped up every performance of the song since the day she cut it.
In some ways even stranger is Bette Midler’s take on “Beast of Burden.” She recorded it as a replacement for Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” when he blocked her from releasing her version because it “wasn’t a girl’s song” and it doesn’t so much smoke the Rolling Stones as stomp a hole through their rotting carcass.
Stranger still because, unlike Streisand, rock and roll seemed like it should have been Midler’s forte. But, except for this, it wasn’t. I can see how the Stones never quite recovered from the shock. It’s one thing if Linda Ronstadt goes toe-to-toe with you. It’s another thing when someone whose entire career has careened from camp to sentiment and back again (sometimes, as on “The Rose” or her cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” earned sentiment, more often not quite), just flat out kicks you to the curb like it’s all in a day’s work.
Based on “Beast of Burden” you’d have thought she could be a better Pat Benetar without breaking a sweat.
I thought I had covered all this a few years back when I posted the MTV video of Midler and Jagger having a ball with it. There’s a cleaner version of the video available now–still the only proof I’ve seen that Mick has a sense of humor (as opposed to recognizing the uses of appearing to have one–that came with the Lucifer Lessons).
Even here, though, the Spirit of Camp is hovering nearby. Elsewhere, when Midler performed the song, live or synched, that Spirit always moved in and took over.
Except for once.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether its angry dispersal here–and Midler’s total immersion in a synched performance, as if she and the song had fused into something no recording studio could contain–had anything at all to do with a nice Jewish girl refusing to camp it up in the home of Weimar decadence, a stone’s throw from the death camps.
Given that dynamic, it’s not impossible to imagine “I’ll never be your beast of burden” took on a whole new meaning. She didn’t do anything like this in Sweden.
**A few years later Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac” scorched up the charts and no one was heard to complain. Midler’s live version on YouTube suggests she was better off with “Beast of Burden” but, given what she did with other live versions of “Beast” who knows? Maybe she had two great rock and roll records in her after all. Hope I get to hear her studio version some day, just in case.
“The Jamestown Ferry” Tanya Tucker (1972) B-side of “Love’s the Answer” Did not make the American Pop Chart Recommended source: Greatest Hits (Columbia)
“Horseshoe Bend” Tanya Tucker (1973) Album cut from What’s Your Mama’s Name Did not make the American Pop Chart Recommended source: What’s Your Mama’s Name
“Greener Than the Grass We Laid On” Tanya Tucker (1975) #23 Billboard Country Did not make the American Pop Chart Recommended source: Best of (Gusto/TeeVee)…as far as I know the only source released on CD
Tanya Tucker hit Nashville as a force of nature and a challenge.She had a hundred-year-old voice in a thirteen-year-old body. What to do, what to do? Fortunately, Bette Midler (who had sung a song on television after hearing it from Tracy Nelson, who had heard it from the song’s co-writer Alex Harvey) was not available to be signed to Billy Sherrill’s label, Columbia (she had just signed with Atlantic) and Tanya was handed the song Sherrill definitely wanted to record on somebody, which was “Delta Dawn.” Turned out she knew just what to do.
But the road to figuring out how to follow it up was not entirely smooth. At least not artistically speaking. Since the teenager could sell anything–and would become, and remain, the youngest singer to ever be truly accepted by country radio (which had stacked the deck against Brenda Lee in the early days of rock and roll threatening Nashville’s hegemony)–the powers that be decided the rather mundane “Love’s the Answer” would be the followup.
It did fine, reaching #5 country.
In the world I lived in, though, nobody talked about “Love’s the Answer.” They talked about (and requested) the B-side.
The grassroots reaction to the song opened a vein of sorts and re-raised the central question. What to do, what to do?
Go with it.
Nashville was conservative but it wasn’t stupid. If the dirtiest voice in town was coming from a teenage girl, so be it. The audience wanted more. They got more: “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” “Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “The Man That Turned My Mama On.” One smash after another. Whatever those titles promised, the songs delivered. Whatever those songs promised, the voice delivered even more.
And it all happened in such a rush that quite a bit was left laying in between the cracks. A B-side here, an album cut there, a semi-hit that would have been much bigger if it hadn’t been caught up in a label change and gone unpromoted back over here.
Out of an album’s worth, these three end up forming a theme: lost girl, left girl, burned girl who may or may not be left standing because the voice never gives away the ending. It just stays right on the edge between the hurt (I want to die) and the defiance (no way in hell will I give in).
A lot of critics sniggered (and a lot still do). How could she know? Sadder days? Lying in the Alabama sun? Walking through a kingdom of honky tonks and bars? Grow up girl! We know you don’t know!
Mostly, over the years, Tanya has played along. That’s how you survive a wild child reputation in Nashville for forty years. I never bought her reticence myself. I knew plenty of girls who knew exactly what she meant back when–knew exactly how the protagonists she represented in these particular half-hidden stories felt. Pretty hard to believe that she struck exactly the right note, again and again, without also knowing exactly what each song meant.
Well, if she weren’t a wild child female hillbilly who made it big at thirteen and lived it up in everybody’s face instead of learning to write bland, happy songs that fit on everybody’s bland, happy albums, we’d probably just call it art…
Okay, I didn’t so much “find” this as I went looking for it for the first time in a while and it counts as found anyway in my book since it is the only proof I’ve ever seen, anywhere, that Mick Jagger has a sense of humor…about anything.