Gotcha Covered: “These Days”

Gotcha Covered: “These Days”

We’ve only hit the second installment of Gotcha Covered, and we’re already dealing with one of those classic “who covered who” conundrums: an instance of the first version of a song arguably acting as the definitive version, only for the original songwriter to record their own version years later. In the arbitrary terms defined by this phenomenon, we could call this the “self-cover,” where the singer part of the singer-songwriter equation belatedly kicks in and goes, “Hell, if someone else can get noticed with my words, why not me?” Sometimes, the self-cover completely eclipses the earlier version — George Clinton did this a lot, notably when he reworked “I’ll Bet You” as a thousand-pound cornerstone of Funkadelic’s heavy psych-soul self-titled debut three years after Billy Butler recorded his own Northern Soul-friendly take. And sometimes, things are a bit more tangled.

Jackson Browne wrote the song that would eventually become “These Days” between 1964 and 1965, when he was [double-checks lyrics of “Running On Empty”] around 16 or 17, and recorded a demo in January ’67. At that point, he was on his way to taking root in the Greenwich Village music scene, which is where he met, collaborated with, and became romantically involved with Nico, therefore ensuring that the line separating “Doctor My Eyes” and “Sister Ray” would be a lot thinner than anyone would ever want to consider. Browne had three songwriting credits on Nico’s Chelsea Girl — as many as John Cale — and played guitar on five songs, with his glimmering fingerpicking on “These Days” doing the most to complement the hauntingly detached qualities of Nico’s voice.

Considering the circumstances of the original song — the doomed relationship, the retroactively unlikely collaboration between an art-scene icon and a future West Coast superstar, and the whole atmosphere of otherworldly sorrow in the recording — it’s almost surprising that it became a popular cover. At least, surprising until you find out the path it took to get there.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1968)

In case you’re wondering whether a Long Beach country-folk-rock band really was tuned in to the various activities of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and company, let’s make this simple enough right off the bat: Browne was in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for a few months, and the band repaid his time by covering songs of his on their first three albums. Their version of “These Days” appeared on 1968’s Rare Junk, which was an attempt to semi-update their established bluegrass-adjacent sound for a more pop-radio-friendly feint. And it turfed out commercially, but that didn’t keep them from making an appearance in 1969’s notorious exact-opposite-of-the Wild Bunch Western musical Paint Your Wagon — which wound up doing more for Lee Marvin’s singing career anyways. That makes this one of the more obscure versions of “These Days,” while the dopey tootling horn arrangements and point-missing upbeatness make it one of the more cloying versions, too.

Tom Rush (1970)

If you’ve ever wanted to hear “These Days” as a more straightforward folk-rock song, you could do far worse, and not much better, than the one by Tom Rush. Rush is one of those artist’s artists, more well-known among the singer-songwriters that he’s influenced rather than the audience those influencees went platinum with. But for a man who helped usher in the era of the singer-songwriter in the early ’60s, he’s just as able to inhabit the songs of other songwriters; his 1968 album The Circle Game leaned heavily on interpretations of songs written by Browne, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, and became one of his most beloved works. His self-titled 1970 follow-up consisted entirely of covers, with his take on “These Days” finding its own route through the composition’s ennui. The string arrangements are subtler, the backbeat adds a bump of restlessness, and Rush’s voice seems just light enough to feel like he’s got some better days ahead to trade these ones in for.

Johnny Darrell (1970)

At the beginning of the ’70s, Johnny Darrell was a singer who charted high on the country charts with songs that would become more well-known by crossover audiences in the hands of another act shortly afterwards. And it happened with his two biggest country hits: his 1967 rendition of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” (#9 on the Billboard Hot Country chart) and the following year’s Bobby Goldsboro cover “With Pen In Hand” (#3 on the Billboard Hot Country chart) were made more famous by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition and Vikki Carr, respectively. So, it only makes sense that Darrell would do his part to try and score a reversal on that trend, and “These Days” was already close enough to country to qualify as a top candidate. Darrell’s version led off his 1970 LP California Stop-Over, and the title’s a-Georgian-in-Los Angeles implications carry through the album, even if the sound is a bit more Bakersfield. “These Days” isn’t the most striking cover; There’s a staggering version of Lowell George’s “Willin’,” recorded and released months before the first Little Feat album had even hit shelves. Yet with lead guitar by Clarence White (then, concurrently a member of the Byrds at their country-rock peak), it’s still a fantastic kickoff for an album any self-respecting Gram Parsons fan looking into more traditional proto-outlaw country should check out.

Jackson Browne (1973)

And now, back to the source. If this is how Jackson Browne really wanted the song to sound, there’s a lot of implications to mull over. It’s not just the paring down of some of the lyrics, the lack of strings, or easing down of the tempo — it’s the baggage of re-recording a song so inextricable with an old relationship. Granted, it was still Browne’s song years before anyone else’s — a continuous work in progress as long as it was in anyone else’s hands — and it had changed hands plenty of times from ’67 through ’73. But pairing the history of the song with this personal culmination of it: slowed down significantly, stripped of any excess decor, and sung in his own plaintive voice, it’s hard not to think of this as a strange, layered series of reminiscences; like a song written by an ambitious kid, first recorded by a lovestruck young man, and followed up more than five years later by a supposed “newcomer” who’d already been through a dizzying songwriting life already. And it’s not like he changed it to “Those Days,” either. He sounds like he’s got deeper reasons to avoid doing that much talking or being afraid to live the life he’s made than he did at 16, and his alterations to the final verse — including the more optimistic couplet, “Well I’ll keep on moving, moving on/ Things are bound to be improving these days” — reclaim some glimmer of hope.

Gregg Allman (1973)

By 1973, Browne had started gaining significant notice, riding the top 10 success of “Doctor My Eyes” and the co-written “Take It Easy” with the Eagles’ Glenn Frye into a reputation as one of SoCal’s top singer-songwriters. And by the time he was working on his follow-up, For Everyman, he’d found himself a crucial inspiration — Gregg Allman, who was himself escaping the intra-personal strife of the Allman Brothers Band in the midst of recording his solo debut, Laid Back. In a strange bit of mutual influence disguised as a game of one-upsmanship, both artists wound up recording their separate versions of “These Days” for albums that were released the same month, October ’73, and both wound up the fifth tracks on their respective albums. (This being the LP era, Browne’s concluded his Side A, and Allman’s kicked off his Side B, thus providing an easy comparison metric for anyone with a record changer.) Allman wound up significantly inspiring Browne’s arrangement, as the two were already familiar with each other during their pre-fame years and were still in communication during their respective albums’ recordings. Browne himself stated that Allman’s version is played “better than it was written,” and given both the growing acrimony in his band and the still-fresh memories of the losses of his brother Duane and bandmate Berry Oakley, it’s not hard to picture why.

Cher (1975)

If “These Days” is a signal of a life in personal turmoil, Cher picked a hell of a year to release her version: 1975 was hard going for the star — it’s when she finalized her divorce from Sonny Bono, struggled going solo with her own variety show (that was cancelled a week into 1976), and married the aforementioned Gregg Allman, only to almost immediately file for divorce because of his substance abuse. (They made up a month later, subsequently leading to a series of events that would result in Deadsy, before splitting for good in 1979.) On top of all that, Cher recorded and released a Jimmy Webb-produced covers album, Stars, that attempted to steer her in a more classic-rock direction, but to complete commercial apathy. Cher’s relationship with Allman might have had something to do with her choice of including “These Days” to join the likes of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and Derek & the Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues” on the track listing — she didn’t just pick a recent hit of his, rather, she gravitated straight towards one of the more mournful ones. The subtle pop-country-rock arrangement on her version of “These Days,” which leans heavy on syrupy strings, still steps back just far enough to let Cher’s voice stand out as something genuinely longing above the haze of schmaltz.

The Golden Palominos (1993)

Whether or not there really was some Gen-X antipathy toward SoCal singer-songwritery rock in general or Jackson Browne in particular, “These Days” wasn’t given too much cover-version attention between the late ’70s and the late ’90s, and if anyone felt like making an exception, it had to be a deconstructive one. Anton Fier’s experimental alt-rock group the Golden Palominos included a version of “These Days” as the only non-original composition on their 1993 album, This Is How It Feels. And in a typical 1993 move, it takes the sensibility (and tempo and strings and original lyrics) of the Nico version and shines it up until it’s got a blue-fluorescent-lit chilliness to it, sans guitars but with a post-industrial, trip-hop-anticipating sort of slinky thump rolling it down the tracks. Its aloof, casual wistfulness is made clear by Lydia Kavanagh’s floaty lead vocal; her voice is less despairing than uncaring, as though she’s singing it with more of Browne’s “things are bound to be improving” perspective than the original third verse’s “I stopped my dreaming.”

Elliott Smith (1999)

You could pinpoint a very specific generational divide between those who knew the Browne and Allman versions of “These Days” first, and those that came to the song through Nico’s version — a divide that relies heavily on its usage in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. That music cue, more than nearly any other, seems to define a certain stylish-yet-wistful piece of Anderson’s style, and the sequence of Gwyneth Paltrow stepping off that old Green Line bus to Nico’s version managed to waylay Browne himself when he saw it in theaters. He often told an anecdote about how he thought, “I used to play the guitar just like that,” before Nico’s voice came in and he finally recognized the song. (It soon rejoined his live setlist, and became a more prominent concert fixture than it had ever been at any point before.) Luke Wilson’s Richie Tenenbaum — the other side of that deep character moment in the “These Days” scene — had his own pivotal scene set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay,” and this is where things get strange: Smith himself actually included “These Days” in his live setlist in 1999… two years before Tenenbaums was released. The most widely circulated recording of this comes from a much-bootlegged Portland concert on 10/14, which (at least according to the exhaustive database) is the only time he performed it live. It sounds like you’d hope it would — solo acoustic, with Smith’s plaintive voice beautifully cutting through the lo-fi recording — and the fact that he closes with the more pessimistic Nico-popularized third verse fits, sadly, all too well.

St. Vincent (2007)

Annie Clark sure didn’t waste any time. Her own version of “These Days” — following the post-Tenenbaum flood of indie-friendly covers by Paul Westerberg, Mates Of State, and Denison Witmer (all 2003) — was featured on St. Vincent’s 2006 debut EP, Paris Is Burning, and appended as a bonus track to her first full-length album Marry Me the following year. In some ways, it’s an afterthought to the beginning of a career that would make her one of rock’s greatest current tradition-challengers. Going back to listen to the pretty faithful solo acoustic rendition while still having that fuzzed-out, acerbic dance-pulse snarl of her 2014 self-titled fresh on the brain only highlights the last 10 years’ worth of development in her music even more. But given the way her voice itself sounds when it’s reverently paying homage — a moment of introspective vulnerability from a singer who’s usually too defiant to take the time to reflect like this — it’s a rare pleasure in itself.

Drake (2016)

It’s easy to be cynical about Drake right now, especially since he’s in a nigh-inescapable imperial phase, and depending on how you feel about his patois-lifting, a colonial phase, too, though someone somewhere should ask around about the history of reggae in Toronto (word to Jackie Mittoo). And given his super-Drakeoid revisions — added lyrics like “I’ve met some women I wish I had resisted/ These days” and an uncanny valley AutoTune-but-not treatment to his voice — it’s not like he’s making that cynicism difficult. But let’s step back for a moment and take Danny Fields’ word into account. As related to Simon Reynolds in a 2007 Guardian article, Fields recalled how the “Nazi-esque” Nico had the tendency to let slip some anti-Semitic remark or another (with a “Well, you’re one of the good ones”-style rejoinder when Fields protested), and once smashed a mixed-race singer in the eye socket with a wine glass after stating, “I hate black people.” And then there’s Lester Bangs, who called her out in his ur-text on hipster racism, the 1979 article the White Noise Supremacists: “[she] was just naive enough to explain to Mary Harron, in a recent interview in New Wave Rock, why she was dropped by Island Records: ‘”I made a mistake. I said in Melody Maker to some interviewer that I didn’t like negroes. That’s all. They took it so personally… although it’s a whole different race. I mean, Bob Marley doesn’t resemble a negro, does he?… He’s an archetype of Jamaican… but with the features like white people. I don’t like the features. They’re so much like animals…. it’s cannibals, no?'” So… yeah. We’ve all got Problematic Faves to deal with, and while those problems aren’t always solved, it can at least allow for some top-tier ironic karma.

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