Everyone who knows me knows I make lists… Of lists… On decision trees… With color-coding… It’s efficient. Insofar as it keeps me from actually doing anything, when everybody knows doing things leads to making mistakes.
So in my ongoing efforts to be a better public artist, as opposed to writing and painting out of my backpack qua magic art tree, I decided to make a list of ten original songs and ten covers to learn to performance level and play out already. Imperfectly. (Don’t even get me started on the list of reasons why this list is a terrible idea.)
Here’s my must-learn covers list. Which is sort-of a list of my favorite songs… Except it’s really a list of my favorite songs—that other people probably know and like, too. (No Les Nubians.) Cos hearing something you know and can at least kinda sing along with gets the warm fuzzies flowing better than hearing something new—even if it’s amazing.
1. “All Along the Watchtower.” Often attributed to Hendrix but penned by Dylan, this song is a peculiar choice for someone who doesn’t play the guitar (except when a neighbor brings me a child-sized one and random magic shit happens—I miss you, Tim). Criticized as incoherent (e.g., a watchtower ain’t a thing you go along) but widely covered, it’s a canonical example of how poetry that goes 20th century mainstream finds its way there largely through music. There was basically one highly paid female performing poet in 20th century America, and she started out reciting her work to piano…
2. “99 Luftballons.” Better known to Anglophones by its English name, “99 Red Balloons,” Nena’s anti-war protest ballad playfully imagines a world in which decentralized crazy shit freaks out defense ministers so badly they blow everything up. Basically, it prefigures the “cybercrime” craze as a facet of post-9/11 security theater, and with it the almost-criminalization of Anonymous. Also, it will help me learn German.
3. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Freddie Mercury’s accidental for-the-album masterpiece.
4. “Hey Jude.” McCartney-Lennon’s ode to ending one thing without too much unnecessary sadness, in favor of moving on into the future with a smiling if not stiff upper lip.
5. “Killing in the Name.” Rage Against the Machine’s anthem of opposition to the military-industrial complex and my best opportunity to maximize the number of times I say “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
6. “The Times They Are a-Changin.” Dylan again. A song about how the hippies and blacks were gonna win, before the Nixon administration fabricated a drug war to criminalize them.
7. “Respect.” Originally by Otis Redding but best known as Aretha’s calling card, what started out as a euphemism for male rights to sex on demand became an anthem for black and women’s rights activists. The things that happen when you let ideas out to play…
8. “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Pink Floyd’s anthem against formalized inculcation into submission, banned by the South African apartheid regime for its explicit rejection of thought control qua conservative educational institutions. If it was banned by those assholes, it’s good enough for me.
9. “For What It’s Worth.” Buffalo Springfield’s witness-bearing account of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in which police used discretionary enforcement of curfew laws to tell noisy singing hippies to be quiet. That worked well. (Not.) Counter-culture was public, art-infused, and criminalized. I wonder if that could be important to learn from in historical terms. But what do you learn from it when history rhymes? Tom Lehrer answered that art as protest is a joke. (He still sang that very criticism.)
10. “American Pie.” Don McLean’s dirge for post-World War II America.
11. “Whistle.” Flo Rida’s pop-rap request for oral sex, begging to be remade with its political double-entendre underscored: Tell me the truth from the inside, and baby, you’ll get yours.
Now if I could only remake for piano/vocals and learn one of these to performance level in one day a week every week for the next three months, while doing the same for my originals, making a new painting oeuvre this side of the big pond immediately but after getting some composition training, remaking a proper artist website and online store months ago, writing all the things, rewriting and performing my new stand-up material, getting stronger at core and cardio, being a better European denizen in all possible ways at the beginning of the time of climate change refugee waves, listening attentively to and playing with all my friends without distraction, and re-learning how to make gluten and dairy-free healthy tasty things… in German. (Oh. And stop distracting myself long enough to do my taxes.)