By Victor D. Infante
I have – and I doubt this is any great revelation to anyone who knows me – control issues. I’m not particularly interested in controlling anyone else, but I very much like to be in control of myself and my personal environment, and above all, I like to be in control of my work. As a writer, I am not prone to “happy little accidents,” particularly when it comes to poetry. This has its advantages, but it also makes me difficult to workshop or edit, and it’s sometimes paralyzing. I also don’t collaborate well with other writers. As a general rule, I have a hard time “loosening up” in my writing.
Naturally, I find the idea of handing a stack of my poems over to a group of musicians and letting them run riot with them to be absolutely terrifying. Which is exactly why I did it.
For the past year and change, I’ve been overseeing something called The Great Cover Song Challenge. The concept is simple: I challenge musicians to agree to cover a song without knowing in advance what it is or who it’s by. Then, when they’re done, I write about the songs and the process for The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, where I’m entertainment editor, or OC Weekly, where I’ve been a longtime contributing writer. So far, we’ve done the project with the music of Phil Collins, Air Supply and Madonna, and I’ll admit it’s given me some great perspectives on those artists, their work and the reason they endure.
But I’ve often wondered what it’s like on the other side, what it’s like for an artist to see someone claim a song they think of as theirs and transform it into something new. Maybe they don’t find it remarkable. After all, it’s the nature of songs to be written by one artist and recorded by another, perhaps over and over again. Does Bruno Mars think of Fuck You as his own song, or does it belong entirely to CeeLo Green? Nick Lowe wrote (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding, but Elvis Costello made it famous. Otis Redding spent years insisting his version of Respect was the real one, but does anyone own it more than Aretha Franklin? And don’t even get me started on Pat Boone.
It’s not cut and dried – even in the course of songwriting, music is inherently collaborative. Musicians write together, they jam, they meld talents and perspectives into something remarkable. Writing, for the most part, is a solitary pursuit. Even the editors come later, at the end of the process. By the time they show up, the writer’s job is mostly done. On a very real level, both the process of creating music and the process of covering music are endlessly fascinating to me, possibly because I am such a control freak. I couldn’t imagine being on the other side of that process.
So when the musicians involved with The Great Cover Song Challenge lobbied me for a new game and I wasn’t yet prepared for Round Four (which will start in a few weeks), I offered a side challenge: the poetry from one of my own chapbooks, Toxic Waltz.
Toxic Waltz was a series of poems I wrote a few years ago that stemmed from my youthful love of punk rock, about the politics that instilled in me, and friends found and lost along the way. They’re poems about surviving adolescence and remembering its lessons. And it’s about music. Above everything else, it’s about this curious, magical art form that I love as much as breathing, but which I can’t create myself in any competent way.
Of all the poems I’ve written, it seemed the best-suited to hand over to musicians. Seeing as there are only a few poems in the chapbook, I had each musician choose between “adaptation” or “inspiration.” “Adaptation” meant to take the poem as it was, and to somehow turn it into a song. “Inspiration” meant to take the poem, and write something that in some way responded to the poem.
But after that, I stayed out of it. I’m well aware that my natural impulse is to get in the middle of the project, to direct how I think it should be sculpted, and that would have been the worst thing I could possibly do. For everyone else, this was all about interpretation and songwriting. For me, it was an exercise in submission.
The results were amazing.
The artists involved in this challenge took my words, and went places I would have never dreamed of taking them. Techno-electric dance beats, automatic distortion, shifts of genre, perspective and persona – all of them emerged in ways that staggered me, that made me look at these poems as though they were brand-new. Even stranger, though, was how so many of the artists managed to hit in things which I had thought had been deeply buried subtext. Time and time again, I found myself breathless when they caught some small detail, sometimes not even explicitly in the poem, and brought it forward. Sometimes I would find myself playing these songs over and over again. A couple brought me to tears.
I really didn’t expect to find myself so emotionally overwhelmed by this exercise, but here we are. When you create art, you hope that you are holding up some part of yourself to the audience. To see that reflected back at you in ways that you never imagined, to see yourself reflected with both unnerving accuracy and fun-house distortion – that’s an incredible experience, and an honor greater than I realized when this all began.
If I’m honest, I sometimes prefer Lowe’s Peace, Love and Understanding to Costello’s, and always Franklin’s Respect to Redding’s, but the important thing is that the underlying power of those songs shines through in each of those artist’s hands. They become part of the greater conversation of music, each new rendition highlighting some different facet of the song, touching other artists who respond – implicitly or explicitly – with a song of their own, all part of something bigger. An ocean of music in which you can only surrender.
Surrender. Trust that what you have built is strong enough to survive in other people’s hands. Trust that other people can be skilled enough to use what you’ve built to sculpt something you’ve never imagined. It’s easy to say, another thing entirely to do, but the reward is absolutely staggering.
Victor D. Infante is the editor-in-chief of Radius.