THE SCHLANSKY FILES: Gleaming the Tube

Evan Schlansky

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

If you’re a music lover, there’s nothing quite like YouTube. It’s like a giant supermarket warehouse of rare footage, captured concerts and forgotten music videos. There’s so much content that if you’re not on there 24/7, you feel like you’re not using it enough. And how much do you pay for this fantastic service, Barry?  Why, it’s absolutely free, Janet!  That’s right-what collectors once spent their collective wad on is now yours for free…all you have to do is click.

If you’re a music lover, there’s nothing quite like YouTube. It’s like a giant supermarket warehouse of rare footage, captured concerts and forgotten music videos. There’s so much content that if you’re not on there 24/7, you feel like you’re not using it enough. And how much do you pay for this fantastic service, Barry?  Why, it’s absolutely free, Janet!  That’s right-what collectors once spent their collective wad on is now yours for free…all you have to do is click.

Sure, YouTube is also the place we go to watch cats do cute things (some of these cats can play piano), but it’s more than that. While the Internet can leave us in a state of perpetual isolation, YouTube has the ability to make us feel connected, part of one great hive-mind and global community.

The site abounds with amateur musicians covering the songs of others, offering performances that range from brilliant to painful. There’s something undeniably great about watching others playing covers in their bedroom-you can even jam along if you want. Constructive comments like “Great job! You sound just like Chris Martin!” give us hope for this generation, even if it’s untrue. Seeing people performing these works of love or lust or disappointment in their bedrooms or kitchens or laundry rooms or dens can be about the most intimate thing you will ever see. Just think of the bravery it takes for teenagers to put their performance out there for the entire world to judge. At my age, I don’t know if I’d have the courage to put my shitty Bright Eyes cover up in cyberspace.

In one of my favorite YouTube vids, a young father sits down to play an acoustic version of The Lemonhead’s “Ride with Me,” which he performs quite well. First he has to get his four-year-old son away from standing in front of the camera. The son then proceeds to act in what we will diplomatically call a less than mature manner throughout the rest of the video, as his father does his best to remain in the moment. Can kids read the darkness and irony embedded in the E minors of this mildly twisted tune?  It’s entirely possible, as he breaks into tears halfway into it. But magically he stops after daddy sings “Jesus rides with me,” evoking the name of Jesus.  But then Satan intervenes and the kid goes back to crying again. The auteur leaves it all in there, bringing new meaning to the term “warts and all.” Dad gets to redeem himself with his lovely, uninterrupted cover of the obscure Coldplay B-side “See You Soon.” Although a different user, Sprinter1089, has totally got the guitar part down.

There are currently two “Ride With Me” covers on YouTube, and seven versions from The Lemonheads themselves. I find this fascinating, because it’s not like this was one of the band’s “hits.”  One video sets the song to scenes from the 2004 New Zealand film In My Father’s Den, trying to exploit the synchronicities between the two. Clicking around its margins led me to a rediscover a forgotten classic, a Kristen Hersh/Michael Stipe duet from 1994 called “Your Ghost” that I used to love to death, back when I owned a cassette copy.

When the Arcade Fire joined Bruce Springsteen on stage in Ontario last year to sing “Keep the Car Running” and “State Trooper,” YouTube was there with the footage (complete with comedic, I-can’t-believe-this-is-really- happening audience profanity). I’ve found alternate takes of tracks from the Rolling Stones’ high watermark, Beggar’s Banquet, and distorted live performances of my new favorite band, the Research (who’ve also posted legitimate, brilliant videos). And when I needed to do research on the Stone Poney’s “Different Drum” featuring Linda Ronstadt, someone on YouTube was spinning the vinyl. Sesame Street’s star-studded masterpiece “Put Down the Duckie” lives on the site. There’s footage of artists I dig like Melanie, Richie Havens, Vic Chesnutt and Dan Bern. You can find stuff like Bob Dylan’s 1976 Hard Rain TV Special, and unused footage from George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and The Beatle’s Let it Be.

But the greatest thing I’ve seen on the site is probably Bono singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with Bob Dylan, where Bono makes up his own lines. “You know the time has come for the wicked world to start changing,” he sings, then explains, “you know I usually make up my own words to Bob Dylan songs.  He says he doesn’t mind.” And then Bob Dylan’s voice chimes out, with perfect comic timing, “No, I kinda do!” God bless YouTube.

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