From "Blister in the Sun" to "Who'll Stop the Rain": A Tale of Altered-Lyric Covers
Updated: Nov 2
(We also love Andrio Abero's album cover design, though I wish we had made it easier to read the album's title, especially when it is presented in the smaller versions used so much today online. As late as 2006, we still thought of the cover art as ... the art on a CD cover ... and not as a small icon used on a streaming service.)
Track #1, "Big World Abide," was used in both the extremely popular Dutch TV show, Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden, and the Courtney Cox TV series, Dirt. Track #10, "So Wrong," was used in the 2007 Michael Schroeder film, Man in the Chair, starring Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer. It was also Track #2 on the film's soundtrack.
Track #5 on Tethered to the Ground, "Blister in the Sun," is an altered-lyric cover approved for release by the original composer, Gordon Gano. Prior to 2017's anti-Trump album, Eleven Nine, "Blister in the Sun" was the only cover I had released. VF's Gano approved the altered lyrics and my adding "additional lyrics by Eric Anders" to the credits because he liked our version so much.
Gano wasn't the only one who liked our version:
"The absolute highlight ... is Anders' "cover" of The Violent Femmes' “Blister in the Sun" ... He makes it his own haunting version, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece."
-Rachel Freitas, Music Existence
Whatever success I had with this solo release was largely due to the brilliance of my fellow collaborators: our producer, Matthew Emerson Brown, and my co-writer on many of the songs, Mark O'Bitz. Mark's ability to do great covers, especially slowed-down versions, was channeled into the beautiful music of this cover's demo, and Matt's amazing artistic vision took that raw demo and made this amazing record.
The demo was initially a straightforward cover that was just slowed down a lot:
I don't remember exactly how it evolved into its altered-lyric form (it was almost twenty years ago).
I think part of the success of this cover was that it didn't sound like the original very much at all. When I was presented with the radically slowed-down and much more serious version of "Blister in the Sun" music found on the record, the original lyrics just didn't work at all (note: no "big hands you're the one"). The more serious music required more serious lyrics. This radical lyric change required us to get permission from the songwriter and publisher.
My success with "Blister in the Sun" would later give me an unrealistic idea of how likely it would be to get permission from big artists to release a cover of a well-known song with altered lyrics.
In 2016, when Matt, Mark, and I reunited to do my 2017 anti-Trump album, Eleven Nine, I had lined up several covers to do for the album, almost all of them with altered lyrics (our Rawlings-Welch mash-up of Old Crow Medecine Show's "I Hear Them All" and Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"--which is also an altered-lyric cover of sorts).
My strategy for the actualization of my grandiose plans was to present our cover of "Blister in the Sun" to the "big artists" as an example of our altered-lyric-cover prowess and then ask these artists--all known for not liking Trump--for permission to make anti-Trump changes to their songs' lyrics.
I asked "their people" for permission months before we went into the studio. I waited a while before I had some interesting and educational conversations with various lawyers and managers. On a couple of the covers, I got a definitive no. On the others, I either got no response or no definitive response.
I waited some more but then had to get into the studio. With the covers I hadn't heard a definitive "no" on, I decided to go ahead and record the music. I knew that the artists in question--REM, Neil Young, John Fogerty, and Taylor Swift (as I said, "grandiose")--would back an anti-Trump album. I am now confident that the political leanings of these huge artists didn't seem to matter because I doubt any of them were ever even presented with my requests.
We finished recording the music and still hadn't heard anything. I was the only one in the studio who held out hope--while the others were kind enough not to roll their eyes in front of me. I think I was blinded by my hatred and fear of Trump ... and my past success with "Blister in the Sun."
We had completed the music for a total of five covers and only one was not intended as an altered-lyric cover: "I Hear Them All" (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", Taylor Swift's "Out of the Woods," REM's "Leave," Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," and CCR's "Who'll Stop the Rain."
I decided to put our "Who'll Stop the Rain" cover as track number 2 because I had so much admiration for the song and I felt it worked well with the Trump era (more on this below). We closed out the album with our version of the "I Hear Them All" - "This Land Is Your Land" mash-up--which means we closed the album with "This Land Is Your Land," our nod to the great Woody Guthrie and his fascist killing machine.
I didn't need to change anything about "I Hear Them All" or "This Land Is Your Land" because they are both classic lefty songs--perfect for countering the right and racist populism (a.k.a. fascism) of Trump and his followers.
I didn't use the same verses from "This Land Is Your Land" that Rawlings and Welch used. Instead, I chose the verses I thought best represented the problems of our times. The first Guthrie verse I used is probably the most anti-capitalist of them all, but it also expands on the basic anti-private-property idea of the song's title:
Was a big high wall there
Tried to stop me.
The sign was painted,
said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside,
it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
The second Guthrie verse that I used contrasts the wealth of the Christian church with the poverty of the hungry:
There in the shadow, Of the ornate steeple,
By the relief office, I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Guthrie wrote his classic in 1940, a time when there were still millions enduring hunger due to the Great Depression. It was also a time when the success of the New Deal was acknowledged by everyone except for the most hardened capitalists and right-wingers. As cultural historian Will Kaufman puts it in his mini-documentary--"This Land is Your Land: The Story of an American Anthem"--"This Land is Your Land" is "essentially Woody Guthrie's socialist ballad":
It is clear that Guthrie is doing more than just putting out an altered-lyric cover of the Carter Family's "When the World's On Fire," but his goals are very much the same as mine were in 2016: to write a political protest using a very popular and greatly loved song.
Guthrie wanted to write a song that would essentially criticize Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" for what he considered to be its myopic jingoism. Guthrie's song is a masterpiece because the simple beauty of the song matches the simple beauty of the message--a beauty that might have been even more poignant after enduring years of economic depression.
The same is mostly true with Fogerty's "Who'll Stop the Rain." The fable of American exceptionalism was a disgusting lie told as a rationalization for why the U.S. was sending troops to Vietnam. As with Guthrie, Fogerty's simple song conveys this message with a combination of powerful poetry and stirring music.
I write "mostly true" because Fogerty mars his song with the line "Five-Year Plans and New Deals, wrapped in golden chains," which I read as a false equivalence between the murderous and disastrous Five-Year plans of the Soviet Union and the left-populism of Roosevelt's highly successful New Deal, the very New Deal that "This Land is Your Land" celebrates.
I liked "Who'll Stop the Rain." for the beginning of the Trump era because I thought the rain in the song could be understood as representing the ideology of Trumpian right-wing populism that was falling like rain via Putin-tainted social media--much like the right-wing and racist pro-Vietnam-war rain that fell so hard in the late sixties and early seventies, around the time the song was written (and when our nation was drowning in this rain's delusions enough to elect a crook like Nixon twice).
Both right-wing rains spread benighted "confusion on the ground" and this right-wing confusion--in both 1968 and 2016--would lead to the election of two of the worst and most dangerous presidents in U.S. history: Nixon and Trump.
"Good people through the ages" try to find the sun (enlightenment) but can't because of the "clouds of mystery" that consistently let loose a deluge of delusion:
Long as I remember the rain's been comin' down Clouds of mystery pourin' confusion on the ground Good men through the ages tryin' to find the sun And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?
I went down Virginia, seekin' shelter from the storm Caught up in the fable, I watched the tower grow Five-Year Plans and New Deals, wrapped in golden chains And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?
Heard the singers playin', how we cheered for more The crowd had rushed together, tryin' to keep warm Still the rain kept pourin', fallin' on my ears And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?
I also love the second line of the second verse--"Caught up in the fable, I watched the tower grow"--which I read as an expression of Fogerty's populism: the fable being the traditional (and white) American Dream and the tower being the classic metaphor for the aristocracy in their castles with towers and, less anachronistically, the more modern aristocracy in their gilded Trump towers.
(It is less clear to me how the New Deal could be "wrapped in golden chains," which seems to be an expression of Fogarty's admirable anti-elitism, as with "Fortunate Son" and other songs.)
So while you sit and whistle Dixie with your money and your power
I can hear the flowers growing in the rubble of the towers
I hear leaders quit their lying
I hear babies quit their crying
I hear soldiers quit their dying, one and all
I read Ketch Secor's second line as an image of a utopian future where the towers fall and, in their place, grow a common boomer symbol for counter-culture. The rest of the stanza is rather dark and makes it clear that what the singer hears is a utopian fantasy that will never happen.
With "Blister in the Sun," we developed a kind of covers credo: when we did covers, we would do them in a very different style than the original. We went against this credo with "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "After the Goldrush" because we wanted to pay tribute to these great songs and, as Guthrie did with his socialist message and the Carter Family's song, we wanted our anti-Trump message to ride these great song's familiarity and popularity into the hearts of listeners.
My Taylor Swift cover of "Out of the Woods" is, admittedly, a cover of Ryan Adams' cover of "Out of the Woods"--so it also betrays our credo. Adams' cover is, for me, the most beautiful version of this song, if not the most familiar. I was intensely focused on creating the most moving and effective vehicle for my anti-Trump messages, so I didn't feel like it was all that significant to stay true to my credo from a decade before.
(I hope Ryan Adams will hear my cover as recognition of his amazing talent for doing covers, as evidenced by his version of "Wonderwall." These two covers of his are truly moving and wonderful--and, for me, they decenter the originals somewhat, as Cash's cover of "Hurt" did for Trent Reznor's song.)
I put out my 2017 Recoveries EP with most of the unpolitical covers we worked on in the studio. While I was in the studio back in early 2017, I myopically and naively waited for permission to change the lyrics. I released Recoveries because I was left with all this music I loved for songs I loved and I wanted others to hear it. Simple as that.