Monday, November 26, 2007

I Know, I Know, It's Really Serious:
Girlfriend In A Coma, revisited

Hi, folks! Boyhowdy here, host of folk coverblog Cover Lay Down. Since I showed up at the door bearing some rather insistent covergifts, the Fong-ster has graciously invited me in to write a short follow-up piece to last week's post on The Smiths. It was either that or slam the door in my face, if you know what I mean.

(Meanwhile, Fong isn't slacking -- he's spending the day over at Disney coverblog Covering the Mouse, while Kurtis, who usually hosts the Disney covers, is over at my place. It's a game of musical coverblogs, and everybody wins!)

Now I can't claim to be an expert on the subject of The Smiths -- not by a long shot. But though my tastes these days run towards folk and indie, once upon a time I was a child of the eighties, with a prized vinyl copy of The Smiths' Strangeaways, Here We Come. And there was a week or seven there when, trapped in my own adolescent relationship angst, perhaps even longing for a convenient medical excuse to break up with someone, I played Girlfriend in a Coma incessantly.

Girlfriend in a Coma may be standard Morrissey emopop, but lyrically speaking, it takes on a fairly complex conceit: the ambivalence one might feel if someone close but not THAT close ended up in a comatose state. Notably, this is a girlfriend, not a spouse -- and, as the lyrics tell, this is a girl with which the narrator has had some ups and downs, enough that "there were times when I could have murdered her". Sure, our narrator is a nice guy -- he "would hate anything to happen to her." But does he truly care? How much? And if he cares at all, why does he need to keep reassuring us that he knows this is serious? Methinks he doth protest too much.

There are multiple ways to interpret these lyrics, mostly because Morrissey leaves lots of room to do so: here's one close reading, which I'd give a halfhearted two out of five for both literary merit and basic accuracy. To be fair, though, I'd give any close reading of these lyrics which claims to be able to "solve" its meaning a low score. That's because, in my opinion, since the story asks questions, we must look to the tonality of the music -- the instrumentation, the pace, the level of angst in the voice -- to help us understand the answers.

And here's where covers of the song get interesting.

In the original, the poppy emo-tone of lead singer (and now solo artist) Morrissey speaks well of the narrator's intention, if not his commitment to the comatose girlfriend. His hopeful narrator seems to really think she'll pull through, and really want her to. As if he regrets his homicidal tendencies, and longs for the second chance that an awakened girlfriend would bring. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to leave open the possibility that the coma is in fact the boyfriend's fault, but we feel like, even if it is, the narrator is genuinely concerned about it, at least a little.

But changing the narrative approach changes the way we see the boyfriend, which in turn changes the way we see the relationship.

Mojo Nixon's rockabilly cover, for example, really ignores the ominous possibility of even the slightest hint of ambivalence. It's as if the narrator here is just telling a story of a hurt girlfriend, which makes little sense given the back-and-forth of the lyrics as written. Is he bemoaning her comatose state? Possibly; it's hard to tell. But beyond that, not much in the way of emotional tone interferes with the rockin'.

Nixon's cover also complicates matters by adding extra lyrics imagining the narrator at the girlfriend's bedside before the song devolves into an long, lame joke about Nixon being a kind of anti-Morrisey. But the truth is, Nixon loses us long before we can realize that the real narrator of this song is too concerned about himself to really visit a hospital bed. This version is about the singer, not the narrator. By totally misunderstanding the song's meaning, Nixon doesn't make much of a case for himself as an artist with the chops to compete with Morrisey at all.

On the other hand, comedian Tony Hawks' radio gameshow challenge to sing Girlfriend in a Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through the Tulips reveals a surprising greatness. Hawks' masterstroke here -- for which he shares credit with his wry accompanyist -- is to apply the ridiculously giddy psychotic bounce of Tiny Tim, whose Tiptoe is known well by his listeners, to the challenge. To this, he adds a hint of bawdy lust found in the original of neither song.

Though it was intended to be a joke, the utter insanity of putting this song to the tune of Tiptoe Through the Tulips turns out to be a unique opportunity to reveal the potential of a coversong to truly bring new meaning to an existing song. Questioning the sanity, rather than just the emotional stability, of the narrator in this song brings a whole new light to its meaning. Most significantly, it raises much more ominous questions about the origin of the coma itself -- is the girlfriend actually dead? Was she intended to be? Is the girl in question not actually a girlfriend at all, but the victim of some psycho stalker who only imagines that this girl cares?

In the end, Girlfriend in a Coma is a song which is long overdue for some real, earnest covers. It's hard to figure out the appropriate tone for this -- the balance Morrissey originally wrote into the lyrics is, admittedly, a hard one to recreate without wandering into the maudlin, or losing too much of the subtle meaning. But I'd love to hear anyone with a sense of literary flair and a good set of musical chops give it a shot. If you think you've got one, feel free to send it our way, and I'll tack it on to the list below.

The Smiths, Girlfriend in a Coma (the original)
Mojo Nixon, Girlfriend in a Coma
Tony Hawks, Girlfriend in a Coma
*Joshua Radin, Girlfriend in a Coma*

Afterthought (Updated 8:14 pm): Thanks to long-time reader and fellow coverfan Jeff, who unearthed the Joshua Radin cover above just a few hours after our original post; "It's a fantastic cover that adds a whole new level of "moody" to the song", says Jeff, and he's right on the money.

According to Wikipedia, there are still at least two more covers out there, including something by Bleach, and one by the Jack Palance Band. Anyone got 'em?

Still here? Over at Cover Lay Down, we like to end a post with bonus covers -- songs which are related to the post topic, but weren't close enough to include in our main post. So here's some other great covers of Smiths/Morrissey songs worthy of your attention, as a reward for making it this far.

Ether Aura, Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me
The Thrills, Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me

I'm especially fond of the vastly different covers of Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me, originally played by The Smiths as a majestic emo ballad; you can hear the same evidence of Morrissey's genius for open yet poetic narrative in the way each artist manages to bring different yet stilldeep meaning to a deceptively simple song.

The Karelia, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Muse, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Weezer, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

A languid, resigned plea with tense undertones of strings in this cover by The Karelia (with apologies for the full minute of dead air at the end of the track) strongly contrasts the grungy guitar of Muse's glamrock take and Weezer's feedback-laden throwback to rockstar days.

Ben Lee, Shoplifters of the World Unite
The Decemberists, I've Changed My Plea To Guilty

Indie artists love The Smiths, too! Ben Lee's in-studio cover pays a mixed acoustic/electric tribute to Shoplifters. And it's hard not to love The Decemberists, who know what to do with a Morrissey song in concert.


Fongolia said...

...and here I was mistakenly awaiting a cover by skateboarder extraordinaire Tony Hawk!

boyhowdy said...

Yeah, I thought that at first, too. But I've met Tony Hawk -- he's a nice guy, but his sense of humor runs more to Jackass: The Movie.

Craig said...

A band called Million Dead also covered "Girlfriend in a Coma." I think they did a fine job of preserving it's dismal, anguished sound.

Tom said...

2 out of 5 is bloody generous for a site that is essentially taking the piss, surely?