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Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Paging through the Tori section of this (via Largehearted Boy, via Kinja), I was gratified, I think, to be able to look at file names and have a pretty good idea of which bootleg they were from, provided they're pre-2001. And I found a few good new ones: a "Purple Rain" cover! Which is awesome! Listening to it, I was reminded, first, of that particular mood she's able to conjure with just the piano: a particular kind of quiet, soothing stillness, sort of isolating, but sort of enveloping, too, although maybe this is just me picturing what it's like to be at a concert. And then the first verse, and I got a few chills, and then she botched the pre-chorus (ease into it, sweetie!), and then the second verse had a few nice bits. And the whole thing is good because it's Tori doing a friggin' song instead of just wanking on the piano, which is one of the reasons why her covers[1] are so good--they really harness her skills and tie them to something like a coherent structure, plus she makes great picks of stuff that works with her style.[2]

Which brings us to the other thing the page reminded me of: that during the '96 Dew Drop Inn tour (done with just her and a guitarist), she would preface a song sometimes with a little a capella improv that would incorporate the chorus of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." The obvious parallel here, of course, is to Johnny Cash's cover of it, from his final album. Cash's version feels resigned and settled, very mid-volume vocally, taking the song and making it into a combination of a country-blues lament and a Biblical tale of negative destiny. The hurt in question isn't particularly deliberate, but is almost accidental. Cash turns Reznor's iconography into specific reality: "the needle" isn't some half-assed heroin metaphor, but a very specific, medical needle, used to keep him alive. "I remember everything" because there is, in fact, a lot to remember; it's not some overstatement about a bad relationship, it's a true thing, the piled-up regret and sorrow and loss of a whole life. "Everyone I know goes away in the end" not because your friends are fickle or because you chase them away with your gothic moodiness, but because they're friggin' dead. Reznor's original take on it (which I still love, incidentally) is perfect for teenagers, full of melodrama and romantic darkness; Cash's is the perfect representation of someone who has aged into respect, who does not need to speak loudly to be heard.

Tori's version, on the other hand, is characterized first and foremost by its almost extreme quietness, not just intimate like Cash's, but seeming totally unaware of any listener at all. Lying there in the air of a theater without anything to go along with it, it has the feeling of someone singing to themselves who suddenly makes a connection between what they're saying and what has come before, and the fact that Tori and Trent are friends just adds another layer to it. The '96 version that precedes "Caught a Lite Sneeze" is the best from that page, but the one before another cover, of the Cure's "Love Song"[3] is the best representation of what she can do with an audience--it's a rare musician who can do a capella without inviting cheers and whoops, and so here we have, first, an unaccompanied voice doing something like improv, swooping into a tidbit of a song the audience knows very well, and then actually whispering the last half of it, so quiet as to be inaudible on the recording, and then into this whole other cover, all without any disturbance. And she did this all the time, but it's still sort of breathtaking.

But what the hell is going on here? Of the four versions here, they each have entirely different vocal improvs preceding the snippet of "Hurt," and like all Tori vocal improvs, they don't seem to make a whole lot of sense. They're notable mainly for uniting a lot of Tori keywords ("girl", "stop," "boys," "everywhere," "sweet," etc.) with a bunch of other words that sort of cohere but mostly don't. As far as I know, she didn't do this again, but clearly she felt compelled to do so on certain nights on this tour, and what came out was just whatever was running through her mind at the time, which I like, although I do wish it was a bit more coherent. And so we have something that's almost like automatic speaking, speaking in tongues, connected--bing!--to something that already exists, and the way it feels, especially in the CALS version, where she transitions from the improv to the cover with a series of rhythmic gasps, is that it's all being torn out of her, like there was nothing else to do at that point except sing the chorus of "Hurt," which makes no sense, but it's certainly the impression I'm getting and have always gotten from hearing this. What in Trent's hands felt constructed and in Johnny's hands felt old now feels entirely present and maybe a little crazy, in some versions less like it's a cover and more like it's something she's making up on the spot that just happens to be exactly like another existing song (just like Cash's version feels like something's he's discovered from seventy years ago instead of ten). It does feel kind of psychotic to me, like the rantings of a crazy person that suddenly happens to coincide with aspects of your own life, but which you know can't be referring to that.

And that's how a great song--and I do think these two covers prove that "Hurt" is a great song--can function. It feels like it knows you, like it's a secret fact about your own life that's being sung out loud but which remains secret. Different covers are just external reflections of the different internal interpretations we have of a song as open and accessible as "Hurt." Tori turns it into something that honestly feels like it's being wrenched directly from her subconscious, and Johnny turns it into something that honestly feels like he wrote it about himself and his own body. More importantly, Tori's cover shows the endless mutability of pop, not just musically but semantically--you can drop a quotation from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" into a jazz improv, and you can sample "Tom Sawyer," but you can also thread together different things by closing your eyes and just making noise with your mouth and unconsciously making those connections, because they are already there, because they are just as much a part of you as your memories, and this is one of the reasons why art matters. It is written inside each of us--different works, and in different ways, but it is there nonetheless.

[1] With, sigh, the notable exception of almost everything on her covers album except maybe "Enjoy the Silence," "Time," and "Heart of Gold"--"'97 Bonnie & Clyde" is particularly odious, an Eminem cover for people who don't get Eminem, whereas I think all her other covers, from Nirvana to Steely Dan to Springsteen, could all be just as easily embraced by her fans and fans of the original.
[2] In "Purple Rain," for instance, around about 4:25 when she starts hitting the "oohs" it sounds exactly like another Tori song, although I can't for the life of me remember which one. Maybe "Hey Jupiter."
[3] She ends "Love Song" by basically yelling the last word of the chorus, and it works so friggin' well it's incredible one one's done it already.