Yesterday I stood atop a 30′ ladder and listened to a folksinger entertaining some crazies at a halfway-nuthouse across the street. She sang covers of Tom Petty, CCR, Johnny Cash and others, in a completely derivate kind of smoke-and-whiskey scratched voice, a fourth-rate Melissa Etheridge impersonator. If I were one of the crazies, I’d have probably tried to snatch the guitar and smash it to pieces and then fashioned a noose with the strings, for her or for me or for the both of us. Getting sent to time-out would have been worth it.
Why do covers mostly suck? Sure it can be a matter of musicianship. That’s why one should steer one’s axe away from Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Ravi Shankar. But often enough one is confronted with a technically proficient performer who still sucks, whose accomplished musicianship actually accentuates the suckiness of the cover all the more. In this case, the cover brings out the hidden mediocrity of the performer’s soul, a thing perhaps not even amenable to remedy. How many Kurtzes have fled an open mic night muttering under their breath about just this particular horror?
Occasionally, though, a cover works. It seems Johnny Cash could always pull them off. Why? Well, partly because he was the man in black and his soul was tricked out in ways that nobody will ever fully be able to trace. But he also didn’t try to copy the original. Some other principle is at work in the successful cover other than the mimetic. The mimetic principle is the principle of cannibalistic envy. Love also doesn’t suffice to save the day. In this respect, the coverer should never trust her heart. More precisely, as she is both producer and consumer, she should never let the consuming side of her make her artistic choices for her, even if these choices arise from love. The producer should be the one in charge of selecting what to cover, what has to be covered by virtue of a principle other than the mimetic. Let’s call this antimimetic principle the principle of becoming.
But rub on this: it is not just the becoming of your inner producer that must concern you. You must also concern yourself with the becoming of the producer of the one who generated the piece that you’re covering. Because that becoming is not finished yet either.
Musicians aren’t the only ones who cover each other. Philosophers do too. Doing a cover in philosophy is called doing the history of philosophy. Doing the history of philosophy amounts to covering another philosopher. Is it significant that Plato called philosophy the highest form of music? Well, in thinking this, I’m thinking more of Gilles Deleuze, who had interesting and important things to say about what it means to cover another philosopher, to do philosophy’s history. Deleuze wrote that a commentary on another philosopher should act as a double and “bear the maximal modification appropriate to a double.” One should thus present a bearded Hegel or a clean-shaven (and presumably zit free) Marx. But in no way does this mean one should “misrepresent” them. One should repeat precisely that which is to be covered, but with the maximum difference, the way Pierre Menard repeats the writing of the Quixote, every word the same yet somehow richer…
So, gentle musicians, there’s a double that’s been waiting to wail. Cover that one and no other.