I was listening to The Welcome Wagon’s cover of The Smiths’ “Half a Person,” and the question of covers started to resonate with me. When you learn that a beloved song has been covered, a strange brew of contradictory feelings hits. There is a sort of nostalgic excitement, as if the song had just been given to you for the first time, as if you could hear it again with fresh ears. There is (at least with me) also a little flash of anger: How dare they? By God, that’s The Smiths, damn it! But right after that is the sense that you have met a new friend: if The Welcome Wagon loves this song, too, then maybe they and I should have a drink. Lastly, there’s a strange sort of parental benediction, as the music of your youth is transmitted to someone else’s youth through a new version.
The music of my twenties (and, coincidentally, the music that came out of Manchester, England, in my twenties) continues to haunt me, continues to claim status as the best music ever made, but I think that’s a pretty common notion. There must be some neuroscience that shows the brain is perfectly impressionable to new music at a certain age (23?) and that music repeatedly heard at that time (especially if combined with some heightened experience—religious, flirtatious, narcotic) will permanently carve a path through the neurons that will light up on demand forever more.
As I age with those musicians who captured me in those fast-receding years, and (in the cases where they continue to make music) watch them evolve from moody or druggy kids into some middle-aged version of themselves, I feel like I’m given a new understanding about how artists develop. The ones who become cover-material (not the respectful Xerox-efforts of a frat-party band, but covers by musicians inspired to make something new), have really gone through something of a purge. They have been deemed, tentatively, to be worthy of the future. They’re entering some new phase of musical existence. Go, Morrissey, go!
He’s an interesting example. The kid with the flower in his jeans has become a slightly tubby crooner. That’s the way it goes; I understand. But he’s still an artist, with the same wit. He’s still making important music. And the music he left behind twenty-two years ago—time enough to create a whole other person with indelible musical prejudices—is impressing new listeners. I admit that all this makes me feel old, but old in a very nice way.Arthur Phillips’ new novel about music, memory, obsession, and iPods is called THE SONG IS YOU. It comes out in April. arthurphillips.info