When I was learning how to play guitar, I played a lot of Nirvana. Part of that was the timing — I was born in 1983 and picked up the instrument in middle school. The other part was the songs’ simplicity. Power chords, power chords, and more power chords. Three notes at a time? I could handle that. In fact, my first band was a duo that played pretty much nothing but Nirvana and Foo Fighters (we never made it out of my friend’s basement, but some glorious noise was made).
The irony is that while Nirvana may be perfect fodder for beginner guitarists, they’re an incredibly difficult band to cover. People do it, and some do it well, but it’s a tall order. That’s because both ends of the faithful-inventive cover continuum are boobytrapped. If you try to perform “Scentless Apprentice” exactly like Nirvana did, chances are you’re never going to match the throat-tearing, cymbal-smashing, strangely disaffected intensity of the original. Missing by just a little — not giving enough or screaming like an unhinged maniac — holds dire consequences (“dire” may be a bit overdramatic — you’d just be stuck with a smattering of awkward, tepid applause). Just as perilous is the idea of tinkering with a Nirvana song to put your own stamp on it. There’s a paradoxical quality to the emotional impact Cobain’s songs had. While the feelings he expressed were nuanced, with shades of depression, alienation, sarcasm and anger, his delivery was extremely visceral. Primal. Hovering just north of the human-subhuman dividing line. So jazzing up a Nirvana song — pouring intellect into something that’s nearly bestial — risks overcomplicating beauty that originated in a more basic place.
It’s a tiny sweet spot to hit, which is why Charles Bradley’s cover of “Stay Away” strikes me as so special.
I heard it for the first time this weekend after a picture of the 45 popped up on my Instagram feed. In truth, I had a hard time recognizing the song, given that the bass line that serves as its melodic fingerprint was missing. But as I played cover tennis with it — listening to the original, then the cover, then the original, then the cover — what became clear was how perfectly Bradley’s vocals thread the needle. I’m not sure I’ve heard someone match Cobain’s intensity like this, and he does it without sounding the slightest bit like an impersonator. When he screeches his way through the chorus (they don’t call him the Screaming Eagle for nothin’), it’s like he’s hitting the same mark from another angle — the pain may be coming from a different place, and some of the notes may be different, but the result is remarkably on-point.
It’s really great stuff. I bet he and the band could give “Scentless Apprentice” a run for its money, too. Maybe they’ll bust “Stay Away” out when they play at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on Saturday.