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Covers Cover Notes by John Wesley Harding

April 22, 2018

Covers Cover Notes by John Wesley Harding.

You can write quite as good and accurate a narrative of a musical career through the covers sung as the songs written. Often, I’ve found people like the covers more, which may speak for itself, but I’ve always found it a compliment: covers are my strong suit.

If You Have Ghosts 
I’d just recorded my first album for Sire/Reprise when they asked me to be on a forthcoming Roky Erickson tribute. The timing was right. Howie Klein suggested this particular song. As I remember, he was very keen on people using songs that had previously been released by Roky on Howie’s own San Francisco-based 415 Records. I remember transcribing the lyrics straight from the vinyl in the studio: there was no definitive version to be found. In fact, I think I wrote them down and sang them wrong.

I recorded the song in London with the Good Liars, with whom I’d recorded my first two studio albums, with the same production team: Andy Paley, with Mark Linett engineering. It was a sensational band—Pete and Bruce from The Attractions, Steve Donelly on ferocious guitar, and the genius Kenny Craddock (RIP) on organ, and they got to cut freer on this Roky Erickson song than they generally did on mine: it had such a solid rock structure. It was a joy to record.

I then got to do some in-stores and whatnot with Roky. I remember him saying to an autograph hunter at Waterloo in Austin: “Yes, but I don’t sign flesh.”

There’s a video for this song

Words Words Words
Appleseed did perhaps two volumes of Pete Seeger tribute albums, and this was on the second, recorded with a preeminent version of The Minus Five on a long afternoon in Seattle.

Pete Seeger once asked me to play harmonica at the Cleveland Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Woody Guthrie on Hobo’s Lullaby, and it was one of the finer moments of my life, though in fact it was pure luck I had the right harmonica in my back pocket.

I later MC’ed, and accompanied, on one of Pete’s very final performances at the Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival concert, a fundraiser for their exhibit. The show took place in NYC on June 20th, 2013. Pete was 94.

Here’s that version of “Goodnight Irene”

Hollywood Records only had one hit single at the time: “The Way” by Fastball, who were signed by a mutual friend, Rob Seidenberg, who also signed me to the label, and later took me to Mammoth with him.

Rob had me make some band demos in Nashville (after an interesting but aborted recording in Memphis with The North Mississippi All Stars), which became the first album, Confessions; so we went back to reprise the trick for the next album which was to be—and in fact was—bigger and better. (It was originally called The Man With No Shadow, but Mammoth was then disbanded by Hollywood, and the album ended up being called Adam’s Apple on DRT, which is no longer around and with good reason.)

On one of these Nashville trips, Rob had the good idea for me to record with Fastball, with whom I’d either just toured or would tour. And we all liked the idea of this song. I think only bass, drums and me were recorded there and then Miles did electric guitars later. It came out only as a promo single, though it may also have been an extra track on some very small edition of the U.K. CD version of The Confessions Of St Ace record.

Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais
I picked a later Serge song for a “French language only” tribute album—a great collection on Emperor Norton—because people don’t tend to cover them and I love them all, even the terrible ones I can hardly understand. I was lucky to meet Joe Gore, whom I’d seen playing with Tom Waits, and I decided that this was the project to do with him. No one has ever made me sound more stylish, French, modern, or like Bryan Ferry. The percussion track was partly a pair of nail clippers, clipping.

Jackson Cage
It was none other than Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski who asked me, all those years ago, to be on this Springsteen tribute album (which more or less paid for the making of an entire album for me, either New Deal or Awake, so I was very grateful). My philosophy with tribute albums at the time was, if everyone else is going to be loud, go soft, and vice versa. So this was my complete folkie deconstruction of “Jackson Cage,” one of my all time favourite Bruce songs, recorded at Chris von Sneidern’s place with Carrie Bradley on violin.

Story Teller
I was a great admirer of Rainer’s songs, to which I was introduced by his friend, Howe Gelb. This wasn’t recorded in time for the original tribute album, but somehow made it on to the U.K. CD as a bonus track. Perhaps they were planning a second that never happened. I’ve never seen a copy of it.

I recorded this when I was on tour in Germany at my friend Ferdy’s studio. It’s such an astonishing song—the way the narrative unfolds: what you think it’s about, what it ends up being about.

Need I Know
Jimmy Silva is one of my favourites, and if I’d met Scott McCaughey a few years earlier, he’d have been a friend too, but sadly I only heard about his work more or less at the end of his life. This was for a Silva tribute album. Unbelievably, for such a simple recording, the song ended up being recorded in Seattle (originally), New Orleans (when Scott was recording with R.E.M. there and made some overdubs) and Portland (where it was finally remixed.). This is a different—and newer and nicer—mix than the version on the Silva tribute CD.

It’s Only Make Believe
I’ve done many duets with Kelly Hogan over the years: she’s my (and everyone’s) favourite person to sing with. We’d done this live at shows over the years and finally recorded it in Chicago on a day off for a Bloodshot compilation, but not (as I remember) the one on which it was released. I could have also included on this CD our version of “I’m A Little Bit Country” (from a fantastic Pravda compilation of ’70s songs) which got me my sole ever review from Rolling Stone: negative.

Old Bourbon
For a little while, when we both lived in Brooklyn, Rick Moody and I had a two-man band called Authros and we actually went to the trouble of recording all the songs we knew, live, in one sitting, across the mic from each other (though we never got round to releasing it: other covers included Matching Mole, X, The Beach Boys (in German), The Watersons, The Zombies, Incredible String Band, and The Tubes).

Alun Davies was Cat Stevens’ right hand man, and may well still be. To my knowledge, he only made one record, the sensational Daydo (produced by Cat), my first vinyl copy given to me by Scott McCaughey as part of a legendary haul of LPs he once handed me on a trip to Seattle. It’s a great song about a dog.

Eric Bazilian and I share a mutual love of Strawbs, and I begged him to let me include this here. I happen to know, in case you’re interested, that Dave Cousins thinks this version is fantastic. What more do you need?

Another Age
I felt that Sliced Bread’s Phil Ochs tribute would probably be quite folky—see above—so I decided to go for a little volume and energy. The trashiest sounding recording on here.

Wah Wah
This was a joyous night at The Bell House. The Universal Thump organized a singing of the whole of All Things Must Pass—they did most of the work, rehearsed the huge band, but I picked the song, learned it, and tried to sing the crap out of it.

There’s also a fantastic video for this, which can be found here

Wreck On The Highway
This was a wonderful and fairly spontaneous happening, filmed on VHS and Super 8 (though the latter is now lost: perhaps it’ll turn up one day.) On the video, I appear to be giving someone the finger as Mr. Springsteen enters. It’s true, I was: the whole audience, who hadn’t believed me when I introduced him. It’s interesting, but not surprising, that both of the Springsteen covers here are from The River, which was my entry level Springsteen and remains my absolute favourite. I used to cover the title song live occasionally with The Deceivers in 1991. When Bruce says “Is this the one with the bad battery?” (on the video), he is joking about the fact that one of my Takamines had crapped out earlier in the show.

Covered Up In Aces
I really loved the first Elizabeth Barraclough album, and when I was first recording in LA in 1989, it turned out someone (maybe Peter Case?) knew her. So I asked her to come and record this, my favourite of her songs, to which I was introduced by John Bauldie, the late great Dylan writer and scholar. It was only ever released on the B-side of a British 12″ single, and this is the first time it’s been on CD.

Think It Over
This is an oddity. Scott McCaughey recently turned it up.

I have no idea why I recorded it; neither he nor I remember recording it, or know when it was done, or why. If I had to swear in a court of law, I wouldn’t have been able to identify this song by title, and didn’t even know I knew it, though it turns out to be from Growing Up In Public, an album nobody will ever claim is their favorite Lou Reed record. Having said all that, it’s such a sweet version and we clearly put our hearts into it—and the fade-out is stately.

Satellite Of Love
This was a crazy night, in which many things happened—some quite weird—and all somehow magically went OK, despite an almost-confrontation at soundcheck.

Here are the two set lists for the early and late show: EARLY: “Hitler’s Tears” / “The Truth” / “Bells Of Madness” / “Mary’s Cameo” / “Election Night” / “One More For The Road” (with with Lou Reed) / “Satellite Of Love” (with Lou Reed) / “Dirty Blvd.” (with Lou Reed) / “That’s Life” (with Steve Wynn); then LATE: “Satisfaction” (Rob Wasserman solo) / “An Elegant Chaos” / “Me Against Me” / “Scared Of Guns” / “Bells Of Madness” / “White Wheel Limousine” / “Mary’s Cameo” / “Another Mother” / “Guest List” / “Election Night” / “That’s Life (with Steve Wynn).

Apart from three Lou songs, and my forgotten songs (like “Guest List”—co-written with Carmaig de Forest, “Mary’s Cameo,” and “Another Mother”), what about the Julian Cope cover? How much do I love that song? Why did I never record that?

I remember calling Lou from Chris von Sneidern’s studio to ask if I could put this on a Fan Club Only single, and he very kindly—after a moment or two of silence—said yes. I liked him a lot: he loved talking about old music, technical guitar things, and stomach ailments.

Like A Prayer
And this was where it all started, though I’d already done a version of Prince’s “Kiss” on my first (live) record. It was my idea rather than Sire’s to record a song by their most famous artiste, for inclusion on that introductory EP God Made Me Do It, though I don’t remember that anyone was particularly enthusiastic about the idea at first, but they liked it when they heard it.

I loved that Madonna album so much, and this song in particular, and I genuinely thought I could play a really beautiful version of it. Of course, I wasn’t blind to the humor of the situation, but I didn’t want to play it up in the performance. Nowadays there are entire Sirius radio channels devoted to acoustic covers of better known songs: it’s a whole genre. But back then, they were less common, and my prototype would have been the Aztec Camera version of “Jump.”