Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Dirty Projectors are a fascinating band, more deeply invested in newness than nearly any of their alt-rock contemporaries. Their newly released album Swing Lo Magellan continues to explore fresh territory; here’s their minimalist video for its similarly stripped-down first single, “The Gun Has No Trigger.”
But you don’t get to make your art new without mastering its history. “Two Doves,” a tender ballad that’s smack in the middle of Dirty Projectors’ 2009 album Bitte Orca, is a magpie’s nest, incorporating glittering fragments of songs written before songwriter David Longstreth was born.
A few of Longstreth’s lyrics in “Two Doves” point to specific sources. The first line of the song is “Geranium kisser/ Skin like silk and face like glass” — both slight variations on phrases that had never been uttered before Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” (Here’s Joan Baez’s 1967 cover of it.)
The joke of a lot of “Two Doves”’ lyrics is that they’re not just from an old song, they’re from a really old song: the Song of Solomon. The Biblical text “For thy love is better than wine/ Because of the savor of thy good ointments” becomes “For your love, better than wine/ Your cologne is really fragrant”; “Thou hast doves’ eyes… Also our bed is green” becomes “Your two eyes are like two doves/ But our bed is like a failure.”
That “failure,” though, is the key to the whole piece. The line “don’t confront me with my failures” appears in “Two Doves”’ first verse; more than forty years earlier, it had been the climactic line of “These Days,” a song that had made its first appearance on former Velvet Underground singer Nico’s first solo album in 1967. That recording — whose fingerpicking-and-string-quartet arrangement is pretty clearly the spine of the Dirty Projectors’ song — turned up again in 2001 on the soundtrack of The Royal Tenenbaums.
“These Days” is a world-weary song, implying a failed affair and a long string of bad life decisions. (“It’s just that I’ve been losing so long,” goes one verse.) In fact, it had been written by Nico’s then-18-year-old boyfriend Jackson Browne — when he was 16 years old, he’s said. Browne didn’t release his own version at the time, but it’s been a part of his repertoire ever since. Here’s a live performance of it he did a few years ago:
Browne was establishing himself as a songwriter, rather than as a performer, at the time, and covers of “These Days” started rolling in. One of the first was in 1968, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of which Browne had been a member for a few months in 1966.
But another curious side effect of “These Days” also manifested itself in 1968: it tends to inspire other songs based on it. The first seems to have been the great vocalist Tim Buckley’s “I’ve Been Out Walking” — recorded live that October, although it wasn’t released until 1990, and apparently never recorded in a studio. It’s got the same opening couplet as Browne’s song, and then speeds off in its own direction.
By 1973, Browne was finally ready to record “These Days” himself, in a new arrangement inspired by one he’d seen Gregg Allman play live. As it turned out, Allman recorded his own version around the same time, and the two recordings came out almost simultaneously; here’s Allman’s.
Most of Jackson Browne’s repertoire doesn’t have a lot of currency among indie-rock types, but “These Days” is the one prominent exception. Browne recently played “These Days” with the Flaming Lips as part of the O Music Awards road trip. In 2007, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark was filmed singing a gorgeous version that seems to have been inspired by the Nico arrangement.
And in 2009, The Tallest Man on Earth recorded his own cover of “These Days” (featuring a small arsenal of instruments) for this video.
But there have also been more rewrites of “These Days” before the Dirty Projectors song with which it shares its initials. In 1996, “These Days” popped up again in mutated form, thanks to a Scottish band with a habit of alluding to late-’60s American pop. The title track of Belle and Sebastian’s album If You’re Feeling Sinister doesn’t bear any particular lyrical resemblance to Browne’s song, but its chorus melody is almost note-for-note identical.
Beth Orton’s 2002 single “Concrete Sky,” conversely, doesn’t sound like “These Days,” but its bridge includes the same couplet that provided the seed for Tim Buckley’s “I’ve Been Out Walking.” Of course, “walking” and “talking” is one of the most obvious rhymes in English; it might even have gotten stuck in Orton’s head if she’d seen The Royal Tenenbaums the year before.