When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week NOFX takes on Billie Holiday’s “All Of Me.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Vocal jazz purists take heed: I’m one step ahead of you. Yes, we at MAGNET know that Billie Holiday didn’t write “All Of Me.” Additionally, punk-rock purists, we know that NOFX’s cover-of-a-cover was titled “Olive Me,” but only after the song appeared as “All of Me” on the “ice cream”-colored seven-inch of same name.
Is this disclaimer necessary? Perhaps not when you consider the context. In the early-to-mid 20th century, vocal artists arguably did more covering than writing, competing with each other for the best material made available by the day’s publishing houses and record labels. A hierarchy informed by race as much as talent dictated who sang what, the former giving us some insight into why it took Holiday nearly a decade to be seen as a priority by music executives even though she’d been wowing New York jazz-club crowds for years.
In 1941, Holiday was the third artist to record “All Of Me,” which was written a decade earlier by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons. Do those names ring a bell? Probably not, which is why it’s natural (and forgivable) to associate this song with Lady Day and, to a lesser extent, her musical soulmate at the time, Lester Young, who played tenor sax on this recording. Indeed, in this instance, it’s easy to find the song’s identity within Holiday, who laid claim to “All Of Me” by sheer force of talent. For the life of me, I can’t recall Willie Nelson’s version or any of the countless others that have been recorded since.
In hindsight, the fact that Holiday didn’t write the song matters even less considering how hauntingly it relates to her personal life. Though written in a way that anyone with a broken heart could relate to, the song’s playfully masochistic lyrics (“Take these arms/I’ll never use them” being just one example) strikes a resonant cord when meditating on the abuse she endured at the hands of lovers and heroin. In 1959, that endurance ran dry, of course, when the toll of a recent heart failure was greatly exaggerated by withdrawal, ultimately ending Lady Day’s life at the too-young age of 44.
Though NOFX is no stranger to irreverence, its cover should hardly been seen as a joke. It’s revved-up to be sure, Young’s sax displaced for tinny distortion while Fat Mike’s vocals are just slightly (read: drastically) more nasally than Holiday’s, but the quartet nonetheless infuses the song with a seriousness it possibly didn’t mean to convey. This effect greets us most potently as the line “Take these lips/I’ll never use them” sees two guitar lines diverge for the first time in the song, harmonizing with a purity that belies the band’s typically crass m.o. This tension, for me, is what’s always made NOFX great.
Cast your vote wisely.