Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Cover versioning - Skip James versus John Martyn

 for The Wire cover versions mega-feature issue, November 2005

“Devil Got My Woman” (Skip James, rec. 1931)

Blues might be the most worn-out (through over-use and abuse), hard-to-hear-fresh music on the planet, but James’ original “Devil” --just his piteous keening voice and acoustic guitar--still cuts right through to chill your marrow. The lyric surpasses “Love Like Anthrax” with its anti-romantic imagery of love as toxic affliction, a  dis-ease of the spirit (James tries to rest, to switch off his lovesick thoughts for a while,  but “my mind starts a-rambling like a wild geese from the west”). Most singers would flinch from taking on this unheimlich tune. But John Martyn, reworking (and renaming) it as “I’d Rather Be The Devil” on Solid Air (Island, 1973) not only equals the original’s intensity but enriches and expands the song, stretching its form to the limit. It starts as a sickening plunge, a dive into seductive but treacherous waters. Roiling with congas and clavinet, the band’s surging aquafunk rivals anything contemporaneous by Sly Stone or P-Funk; Martyn moves through the music like a shark. Lyric shards come into focus now and then--“so much evil”, “stole her from my best friend… know he’ll get lucky, steal her back”--but mostly Martyn’s murky rasp fills your head like this black gas of amorphous malevolence. Then suddenly the bitches-brew  turbulence dissipates; ocean-as-killing-floor transforms into a barrier reef-cocooned idyll. Danny Thompson’s bass injects pure intravenous calm, keyboards flicker and undulate like anemones, Martyn’s needlepoint fingerpicking spirals in Echoplexed loops of rising rapture. Sonically traversing the distance from the Mississippi levee work-camps in which the young James toiled to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, “I’d Rather Be The Devil” captures the ambivalence of “blue”: the colour of orphan-in-this-world desolation, but also of back-to-the-womb bliss. The two halves of Martyn’s drastic remake also correspond to a battle in the singer’s soul--between monster and water baby, danger and grace.

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