Last week’s blog post on Tina Turner got me thinking more about cover songs. Specifically, cover songs recorded by women and originally written by men. How do these songs change? Are they any different in composition, instrumentation? The questions go on.
Before I ever saw her play live, what I knew of Cat Power—singer and songwriter Chan Marshall—had little to do with her music. There were rumors of panic attacks during performances, where she sometimes forgot, or misremembered, her own lyrics; there were stories of her weeping into the microphone mid-song, running offstage as she abandoned her set, her guitar, her audience.
At the time I had only one record of hers, 1998’s Moon Pix, an album of slow-burning emotion laid bare by simple acoustic guitarwork, piano, and a voice that sounded like a somber sexpot on her fifth glass of gin. When she came to town and was the opening act for a band whose name I can’t even remember, I wondered if I would bear witness to a catastrophe. Thankfully, no—cigarette in hand, Marshall seemed relaxed, in good spirits.
As is the case for opening acts, she was mostly ignored by patrons who sipped on beers and smoked and talked while she sat on a cheap folding chair, face beginning to freeze in fear. Under shit-venue lighting, she mumbled something incoherent, placed a few fingers (that looked like they had been run through the garbage disposal) onto the fretboard, and began to play a song I knew but could not place: “When I’m driving in my car / And that man comes on the radio..”
I remember smiling, not because I figured out she was covering the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” but because not once had she sung the chorus—that famous and familiar line we all know, and is also the song’s title. This omission felt revelatory, almost illegal.
In 2000 she released The Covers Record, an album full of, you guessed it, covers. Marshall’s selections are solid and logical given her range, including folk tracks you’d expect of her (“Kingsport Town,” “Salty Dog,” Dylan’s “Paths of Victory”), late 60s-era rock (Moby Grape’s “Naked, If I Want To,” The Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason”), indie-folk from her own contemporaries (Smog’s “Red Apples”), a Louisiana-born love song (Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love”). She even covers herself with a piano-laden re-recording of “In This Hole,” from her 1996 album, What Would the Community Think.
The Stones cover opens the album, situates the listener. It seems too obvious a choice for why it’s my favorite, considering the track has been covered to death. (And it reminds me of a Snickers ad from my youth, for God’s sake.)
Adding no supplemental instrumentation, Marshall doesn’t really give us anything new on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” There are no background vocals courtesy of an up-and-coming chanteuse, no accompanying music video to be found on MTV. Just Marshall, her voice, and her guitar.
For it’s not just the simplicity, in and of itself, that makes Marshall’s rendition so remarkable. It’s the way she strips it bare, castrates the swagger and buries it beneath the floorboards. Just like the live performance I heard, Marshall’s recorded version omits the immortalized chorus, instead plucks a melancholy variation of that famed fuzz riff from her acoustic guitar, patient for the next verse. And that voice. It’s viscous in its sorrow, pensive in its pleading. “Can’t you see?” she sings, dejection and misery detectable, “I’m on a losing streak.” While Jagger is singing about dissatisfaction, Marshall is feeling it.
Stark and sad and soft and tender, it’s easy to fall into the trap that Cat Power’s rendition is somehow made feminine. With the male bravado of the original gone, Marshall’s innovation lies in deconstructing one of the best-known rock and roll songs of the twentieth century, and reshapes it into her own folk melody. For a song that supposedly moans of sexual frustration, Marshall’s take is as intimate as ever.