In ‘Autoluminescent’, a documentary about the late musician Rowland S. Howard, there’s some great live footage of The Birthday Party, with a young Nick Cave writhing on the ground and Rowland, bent over his guitar with the sweat dripping from his face, sending out enough feedback to beach a pod of whales.
When I watch that scene, I can almost smell the testosterone funk of Australian rock in the 80s.
The more delicate parts of the doco involved Rowland talking about singing and songwriting. It’s interesting the language people use when they talk about singing. People talk about ‘delivery’, as if a singer is a midwife bringing songs into the world.
At only 16 – remarkably – Rowland wrote the song ‘Shivers’ and he says in ‘Autoluminescent’ that he intended it to be a wry commentary on teenage love-angst. Its beginning, ‘I’ve been contemplating suicide but it doesn’t really suit my style” is a pretty strong hint that at the time of writing, Rowland’s tongue was firmly in cheek. Yet the chorus, “And my baby’s so vain, she is almost a mirror and the sound of her name, it sends another shiver, down my spine” is just too sophisticated, tender and anthemic to sit quietly with irony – especially when Nick Cave bears down on it with all the drama of youth. When Rowland sings ‘Shivers’ and when Nick sings it, their delivery is so different the song takes on completely different qualities. So it’s no wonder that Rowland, as the song’s writer, thought that Nick Cave’s rendition was somewhat amiss and that Nick, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks that Rowland should have recorded it.
Here are the two different versions. See what you think.
In ‘Autoluminescent’, Rowland talked about his delight on forming his own band and being able to deliver his own material, rather than write songs for Nick Cave’s voice and sensibility. Warming to the theme of how a song’s intention can get distorted, he mentioned Bryan Ferry’s version of ‘You are my sunshine’ and how Bryan had restored that song’s lyrical intent as a song of mourning. ‘Please don’t take my sunshine away.’ It’s about a person’s lover dying but somehow along the way the song’s sadness had been lost. In the repetition of the word ‘sunshine’ it had acquired a nasty veneer of campfire chirpiness. Here’s the Bryan Ferry version of the song:
And the beautiful version by that master of delivery, Johnny Cash. If you’re feeling particularly mawkish, search out the YouTube clip of Johnny and June Carter performing the song together.
Rowland’s mention of Bryan Ferry and song delivery made me remember a gem I discovered somehow a while back (let’s face it, I was probably cyber stalking Bryan Ferry). This clip is from a 70s TV show in the days of Bryan’s flirtation with jazz standards. Upon seeing this, I wanted to cover this song with my band, chiefly on account of the way Bryan Ferry sings the line ‘Oh how the ghost of you clings’…but luckily a fellow band member considered the song too sentimental for words and vetoed the idea.
The song, ‘These Foolish Things’ was written in 1936 by Eric Maschwitz, under his pen name Holt Marvell. Supposedly Eric wrote it over the course of one Sunday morning, when he was pining for his lover, a Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong, who had gone to England. As my friend S. pointed out, this may well be the only video clip in which an ashtray has a starring role.
Compare Bryan Ferry’s delivery with that of Billie Holiday. With the softly swinging instrumentation, I think Lady Day manages to make this song sound like she’s missing her lover while enjoying taking up every inch of the bed she finally has all to herself:
And one last comparison to shed some light on the fine art of song delivery. It’s another big, melancholic love song sung by two of my favourite musicians. Which do I prefer? Don’t make me choose between the children. Oh, alright then, I prefer the more restrained and rhythmic instrumentation of the David Bowie version. I give you Nina Simone and David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’. (Ironically, if Nina Simone sang ‘Don’t you know you’re life itself?’ to you directly, it might just kill you.)