Friday, February 7, 2014

Covering Our Bases: "I Wanna Be Your Dog" - Uncle Tupelo

Great music doesn't transcend genre boundaries so much as it devours them. The Beatles knew that "Twist & Shout" wasn't just an R&B barnburner, it was a garage-rock classic waiting to happen. Similarly, Al Green looked at the guitar pop bliss of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and knew that it had an organ-drenched soul treatment hiding in its DNA. Perhaps the band best at illustrating this principle was the Clash who looked at rockabillyreggaeR&Bskaclassic rock and infused them with a leftist snarl and turned them punk.

In its conception, Uncle Tupelo was all about smashing genres together. Throughout the late '80s Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and their bandmates were taking the rebellious, defiant loserdom of punk, combining it with the drunken sorrow of country and seeing what stuck. Indeed, their 1990 debut album No Depression was generally credited as kickstarting the very idea of "alt-country". But as much as Uncle Tupelo reveled in the dynamics of Black Flag and the Carter Family, most of their early work sees them playing an either/or game with indie rock and traditional country and folk.

"I Wanna Be Your Dog" is a prototypical Stooges song. Released on their debut album, it's clearly just the skeleton of far more expansive onstage freakout with Ron Asheton pounding the living hell out of three fizzling chords, John Cale plunking along on piano and two basic verses. The lyrics mix Iggy's typical nihilism with that tiny sliver of sweetness and grovels before the girl he loves, begging to be treated like a mere pet.

Uncle Tupelo's version is perhaps their first true marriage of the souls of punk and country as they take all the original's self-loathing and anger while filling it out with a weepy, last-call twanginess, While the original relied on Asheton's hammered bar chords and cheap, sizzling distortion for atmosphere, Tupelo adds some flourishes around the basic chord structure, giving the song the air of a tipsy countryside ramble.

Over this Tweedy croaks his lines with a sweet, defeated lonesomeness entirely missing from Iggy's sneer. The song's resigned imagery of wanting to "close my mind" and "lose my heart on the burning sands" sound tailor-made for his delivery. In fact, it's this bone-tired attitude mixed with the band's twangy-yet-distorted gallop that makes the cover truly great, carving out a perfect little niche where country and punk aren't just being combined, they're being revealed as two sides of the same coin.

Just like great literature, great music makes us feel alive and connected with others, able to surrender to common pleasure. Uncle Tupleo's cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is an clinic on how that it accomplished. The presentation drills down to the core of two seemingly disparate genres and reveals them to be essentially the same thing in different clothes. It tells the cowboys it's OK to get loud and the punks that it's OK to get weepy. In fact, a later demo from the March 16-20, 1992 sessions shows that the band was able to turn it into a full-on banjo lament shows just how rootsy the song could get.

From the very beginning Uncle Tupelo and Jeff Tweedy showed themselves to both richly immersed in musical history while still being able to turn that reverence into something both innovative and refreshing. I've been on a bit of a Tweedy kick lately so expect more on that in the days to come.


I Wanna Be Your Dog [Acoustic Demo] - Uncle Tupelo  Buy 89/93: An Anthology

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