Matthew Friedberger (the Fiery Furnaces) Talks Various Artists’ And I’ll Scratch Yours

What a tremendous singer Paul Simon is! His rendition of "Biko" ends Scratch My Back... And I'll Scratch Yours, a (now) two-album set of

What a tremendous singer Paul Simon is! His rendition of “Biko” ends Scratch My Back… And I’ll Scratch Yours, a (now) two-album set of Peter Gabriel covers-and-gets-covered-by. I’m not ashamed to admit I was moved by this version of “Biko.” I am ashamed to admit that — previously — I hadn’t thought much about what a tremendous and interesting singer this Paul Simon is! Why is this? Why hadn’t I noticed? And, if I had noticed, why hadn’t I thought about it much? Because, on many of his best-selling numbers, with Garfunkel and on the Graceland record for instance, Simon often saw fit to sing his songs with voices seemingly even more tremendous and interesting than his own? That’s no excuse. Perhaps I was drunk.

I am now. One thinks often of the great Garfunkel in this after-Pop Idol era. These days, I must think of his singing more often than I hear it. They don’t play him in the supermarket ’round here anymore. But I see press reports have the Artful One feeling well again; he’ll be submitting himself to the judgment of the public with a string of theatre engagements. I won’t be able to attend; I certainly hope you might. For despite the decades of acclaim, the years of adulation, I don’t imagine we generally have the measure of how outstanding — say it like the show business depiction of a Marine colonel — and distinctive an artist this fellow has been, and will now continue to be.

But to this Simon person. His overwhelming cultural importance as a songwriter — and it is quite difficult to come to grips with Simon’s importance as a writer; even more exalted names, admittedly and indisputably more significant figures such as Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, are easier to deal with, if only because their greatness tempts one to simply build a pyramid to them and wonder at it, as if that would be sufficient response to the challenge they continue to pose —has obscured his brilliance as a vocalist. As a lead vocalist; as an original and extraordinarily effective male lead singer. Maybe it’s Simon who has given us the most unique, the most unprecedented, the most interesting, the most difficult to fathom, presentation of virility in the entirety of post-war Anglophone music. May be. And this is an everyday virility he has put before us, mind you, an anti-ecstatic manliness, absolutely unchurched, I’m tempted to add: a difficult trick for a commercial musician, for whom pretending the Kwakiutl ceremonialist — i.e., the cannibal dancer, over and over — and vicariously coming out the other side is always the easier option. And Simon was able to do this without resorting to the alternation of suggestiveness and respectability that the crooners and their heirs rely upon. (Of course, a sort of “respectability” was important to — even, perhaps, established by — his work. But I’ll leave that to the side.)

Perhaps a comparison is in order. Two songwriters whose efforts are not unduly embarrassed by juxtaposition with Simon’s? I’ll choose James Taylor and John Prine for my purposes here. The second first. Certainly the author of “Dear Abby,” “Christmas in Prison,” “Sweet Revenge,” “Sam Stone,” and on and on, rarely comes out second-best, song for song. As a singer, Prine remained loyal to a recognizably rusticated — in fact, growing up as he did in the Maywood floodplains of the Des Plaines River, rusticizing— folk style, allowing him, among other things, to work legitimately and therefore subversively in country music. This, however, prevented him from ever being as bizarre as Simon has consistently been. (Bizarre: whether one noticed it or not — I certainly didn’t; but, and I now recall, I was brought up in a culture hugely affected and perhaps even to some degree significantly formed by his interventions.)

James Taylor, who is nowhere near as distinguished a songwriter as the other two, might, on the other hand, be thought to have gone even further than Simon in the creation, indeed perfection, of an urbane, or at least sub-urbane, post-folk and post-crooner, but certainly not post-singing-through-your-nose-up-high International Style. And it’s true: Taylor is unmatched and unsurpassed in this regard. I think — I hope — he continues to be treasured accordingly. But nothing like the sheer variety of material atop which Simon successfully mounted his vocals was ever attempted by the performer with the Beatles endorsement and leading-man looks, who called himself, and was often called, interestingly so in this regard, Sweet Baby. Simon’s achievement therefore stands out as enterprisingly more potent. But can one, or what can one, learn about a songwriter from the way other people sing — I won’t type “his or her,” I’ll type “their” — their songs? Well, and one should be as clear about this as possible, even though rock music has largely but not entirely (Large but not Entire would be a good title for a book dealing with the cultural potency rock music squandered) had to do with, in some sense, writer-performers, that might be a bit like asking: what can one learn about a singer by the way they sing, not other people’s, but simply, songs? One would think: many different things.

Many, many years ago, when Peter Gabriel was still in Genesis, a prominent anthropologist claimed that one could learn a lot about Balinese life generally by examining Balinese cockfights specifically, not only because Balinese men identified with their cocks, but also because they didn’t. In other words, and among other things: pastimes or arts not only produce intensified instances or performances of a given culture’s central conceptions, they also provide amplified incidents or demonstrations of what is imagined as contrary to those conceptions. Of course: artfully or not, pastimes do not merely presume, as this is not a passive procedure, but actively project what’s seminal and allows a given cherished conception to come off, and so live on, be operative, in the given culture. They also alternately, or even somehow simultaneously, function as contraceptive thereto.

By typing “operative” and especially “function,” I’ve misconceived: the cockfight anthropologist was not a functionalist: the cockfight was not about any potential purpose, promoting or presenting societal solidarity or communal agency; it was not exhausted by any supposed benefit, blowing off or pissing away anti-social elements or psychosexual steam. The model, not being organic or mechanical or economic, having to do rather with meaning, lending itself with interest to cheap jokes, worldviews itself in the mirror and contemplates not merely its navel.

Or so I’ve been led to believe. Asserting the prophylactic aspect of cover versions, and certainly cover albums, and especially cover albums that are more than one cover albums, is noncontroversial. Inserting that aspect, however, is a step not beyond. There is a gap between neutralized to good effect and neutered for no purpose — surely.

So back to Scratch My Back… And I’ll Scratch Yours. A lot is at stake in the sort of sheathing, substituting, sitting on another person’s lap in some other person’s spot — ventriloquism plus usurpation — situations cover records can be. Especially can be, if the ritual is made explicitly reciprocal, as this one has. Here, at least everyone assumes from the outset that Gabriel has the blanket boxes and coppers to win the potlatch. (I wonder in whose honor he’s organized it. Well, it could be that a child or trusted lieutenant just got married or gave birth.) The artists he’s invited will no doubt be in his belly, etc. For instance, only Gabriel, and no one else, mysteriously enough, chose to record with a full orchestra. (Though maybe Gabriel would have paid for it if they had elected to do so…) I’m reminded of additional bits of Northwest Coast ethnography. Far from being Cultural Commons types, the classical cultures Vancouver Island on up regarded the right to sing a certain song or dance a particular dance as a form of property, one strictly and jealously held. No karaoke versions of a “Games Without Frontiers” equivalent for them. Covering someone else’s song — if possible in the first place — would have been as aggressive an act as giving them a series of gifts.

I don’t want to unduly emphasize the agony. All this is highly fraught in addition to being irrelevant. On And I’ll Scratch Yours, covering songs written by Gabriel in the style of the individual artists’ choosing, with or without a full orchestra in a beautiful studio, I’m sure, some very famous and much honored singers appear. Or are heard. It seems to me that at least three of them should have been awarded the Nobel Prize by now: Randy Newman, Lou Reed, and Simon. As for the others: I don’t see why it wouldn’t be appropriate to bend the rules a little and give the grey-headed but young-hearted David Byrne a Turner Prize. And certainly Gabriel himself will be knighted soon. Deservedly so. These things are relative. I’m surprised Kate Bush isn’t involved in any of this; they must have thought that too obvious. And I’d guess I’m not the first person to regret Gabriel didn’t sing “Invisible Touch,” for instance. One would have then loved to hear Phil Collins sing, well, any of the songs on And I’ll Scratch Yours. Instead, one gets Bon Iver, Regina Spektor, Stephin Merritt, Joseph Arthur, Arcade Fire, Elbow, Brian Eno, and Feist.

Lou Reed’s version of “Solsbury Hill” is — if you like rock music — certainly the most pleasant track on either album. But I don’t think I should go on about Reed here.

Brian Eno’s contribution is nearly pleasantly unpleasant and opposite to the original in the appropriate fashion, I guess. But his intoning is not nearly as silly as, say, Townshend’s on All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, and the lyrics are both too silly and not nearly ridiculous enough to be deployed in this way. (I won’t say who I think writes lyrics ridiculous enough for this sort of treatment. But you might guess.)

Randy sings “Big Time,” and I like to hear Randy sing anything. I also like that they didn’t bother to “line up” the piano with the drum machine at the end. I especially like the fact that Randy doesn’t sound so young.

David Byrne sings a song called “I Don’t Remember.” Since David knows how music works, he can play all sorts of terrific tricks, like recording a song in a key seemingly unsuited to his vocal range. How this and the (wonderfully) cheap-sounding laptop-type (I am not suggesting David has a cheap laptop) arrangement benefits the listener, the song, and David himself — well, do not doubt that they do. In general and to sum up, the hidden lessons and secret enjoyments therein I leave for you to dream on.

I must admit: I have personal friends who do not appreciate everything David Byrne does. But I, for one, can’t forget all he sacrificed “to keep China British,” as a Sergeant Major says in a Monty Python sketch. I listen with that in mind.

As for the earlier Scratch My Back (it was included in the promotional material, so I feel obligated to comment on it, unlike most of the tracks on the new album) where Gabriel records other people’s songs, with no drums or guitars allowed, with “orchestrated” arrangements, as the Digital Booklet tells us: many of the tracks are more successful than some of the tracks on And I’ll Scratch Yours. Of course the heart of the record, the point of the record, rather, and inevitably, is Gabriel’s singing. It’s wonderful. And though by “wonderful” I might mean something else entirely, it does make me wonder.

I don’t think the potlatch has gone off as well as it might’ve. I suppose some people might be able to take Scratch My Back as a change of pace, as interesting, as needing one’s attention and therefore challenging, what with the no drums or guitars, what with the no harmonic interest/no diverting rhythms/no amusing sounds on purpose orchestral arrangements, and all that Peter Gabriel singing sounding like Peter Gabriel singing, sighing. (I try to make it sound as appealing as possible.) And then, of course, there’s the other album, for diversion or enlightenment, or straw man, or truth in the mirror or through the looking glass — or replace the or’s with and’s.

I might agree with those people. Like knighthoods, these things are relative. But some other people might not take it that way. They might not take it as much to think about. They might be wary of this sort of potlatch in general. (After all, putting out a record these days is giving it away.) They might think the whole project fake-open, disastrously too eager to be sincere, to please and to shoot straight, and so, all too obviously and actually, disingenuously generous; they might even — though this is a bit much — think it’s a typical act of that sort of aesthetic faux-inclusion that actually reinforces social, economic and political exclusion. They might respond to the “Scratch project” with something like this:

“I don’t understand Quality Products such as these. (Of course, perhaps I have it all wrong; perhaps the project is meant to be cheap and nasty and therefore fun; maybe it transgresses the simple-minded categories I apparently presume.) I’d hope the work of people like Gabriel, and those with whom he chooses to collaborate, would attempt to interact critically with the surrounding output. I’m not suggesting one turn one’s back on what whatever one imagines the contemporary sound-world to be. I’d just hope that, when not writing for boy band 9.0 or coffee commercial 10.2 or superhero film part 7, one would try to provide something different. Something that would not, it seems to me, so easily slot into the sort of service-providing most music, for better or worse, imagination not required and details be damned, is destined for these days. The participation of (former?) Liberal Democrat Party supporter Brian Eno in the album makes me think of this in a British context: these records serve to make a popular culture dominated by shows like Benefits Street more progressive about as effectively as Lib Dem participation in the Conservative government has moderated Tory policy. And so really then, how can I not think of Scratch My Back… And I’ll Scratch Yours as anything but Anti-People? And how can I not use a Maoist phrase? The “Scratch” this and the “Scratch” that, the “Scratch Orchestra” mentioned in the credits, positively provoke one with their Cardew resonances.”

I would have thought all the “scratch”-ing would have brought to mind the 1978 Gabriel solo album with the scratches on the cover, if anything. But that’s all too unfortunate to disentangle. I’ll keep reminding myself how much I should appreciate Paul Simon.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Friedberger, a Chicagoan born in 1972, is unemployed. He has no degrees or credentials of any kind.  He is, therefore and however, a songwriter and composer and has released 10 solo records in the last two years. His next work, Again with the Greatest Hits Live in the Studio, will appear shortly. He lives in France.