Preparing to record a cover song is like climbing the ladder up to the diving board. I ascend to the platform, I see the pool. At the point of execution, I command my moment of performance with total commitment to what follows, without distraction. Uncertainty be damned; to hell with the rules. Dance, fly, turn, whatever you can pull off, but just make a good landing.
In the spring of 1996, Gary Frenay asked me to build a track behind a guide of him singing and playing guitar. He planned a cover version of “Blue Moon” from the Big Star Third album, and it had a place reserved on his next CD. Gary is from Syracuse, and his band The Flashcubes are legendary power pop kings of the late 1970s and beyond. I remember at 14 years old having an ice cream with my Dad. Outside the Baskin-Robbins, I looked up to to see a Flashcubes flyer stapled to a pole, and though I’d never been to a club, I knew then that I wanted to see or play in bands. There was no way I was going to that particular show, but within a year or two I was using a fake ID and getting into clubs. This was when a NY driver’s license was just a piece of paper that didn’t have a picture on it. We could have printed counterfeit money back in those days.
Gary said I could do whatever I wanted to the track, just as long as we could mix his vocal back in and have a track on the album before it was sent to the manufacturer. Paying tribute to Big Star, and with the best in mind for Gary, I set out with my enthusiasm for the original version but had to try something new with my arrangement. Plus, a good song should carry me through no matter what, right?
I reminded myself to be creative, trust my muse, but then I paused to question if I’m bound to be merely following in musical footsteps. I’m covering a song by an influence of mine; how far can the fruit fall from the tree?
Thankfully, all that thinking goes a bit out the door once I start making the music. I put my trusty 12-string on, played drums (I don’t play drums) along to it, overdubbed bass and a bed of lush backing vocals, and Chuck Prophet was around to put on a lead guitar. Since November ‘95, his band and I had been making a series of recordings together called “Electric.” Excerpts of dialog from A Star Is Born were inserted between songs. The second batch I dubbed “Selectric II.” Out of the ashes of that demo project came his album Homemade Blood.
Listening to this recording of “Blue Moon,” I realize how long I’ve known Chuck and yet how little music we’ve recorded together despite our mutual lack of day jobs over the years.
Of course this recording was meant for Gary Frenay, not for my own release, so I made a mix for his CD, and sent it just in time to actually be on the record. Then I sang it again and mixed my own version, which rested in my archive. Comparing my vocal to Gary’s, I think I was copping Gary’s delivery more than Alex Chilton’s, in an attempt to get further from the original in whatever way I could.
I recently saw Big Star drummer Jody Stephens sing “Blue Moon” at a movie premiere. It was beautiful for many reasons, and it was not necessarily better than Alex singing it. My cover is in the spirit (and key signature) of the original, although the instrumentation is altogether another vibe. In the grand scheme of things, however, the acorn has not been chucked across the field. That’s okay. In the case of diving into a pool, you don’t want to land too far from where you started.