Note on 3/18/2019: As with all of these posts, this was the original, from 2009. I have seen a bunch of people post this video since I wrote this. But back then, it was not all over social media yet.
Have you seen this video? It has been passed around on the web for a while now. Stay with it until you have seen Prince solo to the end of the song.
What you see here until about the 3:30 minute mark is a perfectly serviceable and respectful cover version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a tribute to George Harrison. You have the studied aloofness of Tom Petty, sleepwalking through the vocals and acoustic strumming. You have Jeff Lynne doing his part perfectly reasonably, thankfully unable to weigh the song down with goofy backing vocals and other shit he piles on when he is in a studio. You have Stevie Winwood — arguably the most soulful Englishman next to Jagger, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker (and who else?) — on the B-3 organ. You see the latest incarnation of the Heartbreakers being what they have always been: one of the greatest backing bands of all time. And you have Dhani Harrison, George’s son, strumming along.
And there is the guy in the cap, aping, note-for-note, Eric Clapton’s original solos from the legendary White Album recording. It took me a bit of searching to figure out that his name is Marc Mann and he is talented enough to be chosen as a sideman/session guitarist Lynne and George at various junctures. Now, you watch and you might think, “Cool, he is nailing the bends, the notes, the whole original solo.” And the Clapton part was more than just soloing; it was a wholly integrated arrangement for guitar parts. Yet, when it came time for the actual solo, Mr. Mann — who I am sure is quite capable of striking out with his own improvised solo — makes a respectful choice to play the parts Clapton laid down. Totally fine, if forgettable. And unnecessary.
Then you notice the pimp-hatted Prince playing sideman on stage left. But he seems like a loaded gun with a hair trigger. And sure enough, around the 3:25 mark, you see Dhani — who should never play poker (take it from someone who knows) — unable to stifle a grin; he has an idea of what is coming.
And sure enough, the soloing, the song, perhaps the whole night is then turned over to Prince, who in the last few years (for me) has made the argument that he is the greatest lead guitar player since Hendrix. He is truly heir to Jimi. As we all know. Hendrix revolutionized lead guitar playing. And he did so without the benefit of some of the technological advances made since his death, stuff like intricately balanced distortion pedals and other devices that are made to harness the sort of feedback and sustain that Jimi, Townshend, et. al. had to rein in by manipulating volume controls and primitive distortion stomp boxes before their signal reached ridiculously loud tube (valve) Marshall and Hiwatt amps.
So Prince has the benefit of a few more devices to exercise a bit more control, but it really does not matter much; what made Hendrix’s playing so distinct was his laying it all out there, performing without a net, taking chances that only bop and post-bop jazz guys were taking, and doing so at massive volume, so that he in turn influenced the most forward-thinking of jazz cats like Miles Davis.
And here, in one single performance, Prince comes on like an atom bomb and levels the place, destroys everything in his path, devastates the stage and the players. He performs at a whole different level. He goes out there with no regard for tradition, for the original solos; no, he goes out there and shreds it, putting his own stamp on the song, and in doing so, shines up an otherwise dull rendition. He brings out the best of the song. He takes it to new place, while leaving the rest of the band to keep one foot in the original. As such, he pays the greatest respect to the song, its author, and to Clapton’s original sign posts pointing the way to the potential.
While the rest of the band, the old guys, all kind of lay back and play it cool, keeping the song grounded — to the point of keeping every backing vocal part in place (“look at you all…….still my guitar gently weeeeeeeeps”) — Dhani’s face is aglow. He looks around at the other guys with a sort of “can you fucking believe this?!” expression, hoping to make eye contact and get some acknowledgment and musical communion. He seems to get no such feedback from the grizzly old dinosaurs. Dhani is our — and George’s — stand in and representative. He is there to express what we sitting at home feel: “Holy Mother of God! Is this not one of the greatest virtuoso guitar solos of the past couple of decades?!” Dhani is quoted at this Beatles fan site, “Harrison concludes by stating that he doesn’t like music that pulls its punches. ‘All the records I like are hardcore. Bob Dylan is the hardest core of the core. Air are chilled out, but they’re hardcore musicians. U Srinivas is a hardcore dude from Madras. Leadbelly? He killed a man! Enough said!'”
I’ve never been a big fan of basketball, but one of the only analogies that springs to mind is that of a perfectly average team of aging pros all of a sudden spiked with a young Michael Jordan or LeBron James; a superstar who opens the game up to spectacle; someone who is so comfortable in his own skin, with Zen-like presence in the moment and absence of extraneous thought and second-guessing. They rise above all the other players, but lift the whole team up to a new level. Sure, there are other players who are jealous and resentful. But then there are players like Dhani, who are playing without ego and who appreciate being in the presence of greatness.
OK, some (likely some of the guys on stage) might just shrink from this and see Prince as showboating. And the way Prince just struts — struts — offstage after his seemingly pre-rigged guitar just swoops up and disappears above the stage – surely indicates the same sort of arrogance displayed by Jordan when he would refer to teammates as “my supporting cast.” But for Jordan, the ball was just an extension of his hands and he was one with the whole court. For Prince, it is the guitar and the stage. He is not composing the solos before he plays them; it is all one subconscious stream. He has tapped in. These are the great ones.
Others might claim, “sacrilege!” for messing around with Clapton’s original solo, as old timers who watched and idolized Bob Cousy might claim that the game should be about passing and set shots. And I would agree that Clapton’s solos are perfect for the song: the weeping, the tasteful use of bending strings as displays of sorrow. But that’s been done. That recording is over 40 years old and has been played somewhere every day of those subsequent years. Now George is gone, and the world is even more in need of “sweeping.” George sang, against hope, “with every mistake we must surely be learning.” Prince is the post-modern answer; as Stevie sang, “Telling us how you are changing right from wrong/’Cause if your really want to hear our views/You haven’t done nothing.”
So Prince takes up where Clapton and Harrison left off, changing the weeping to the outright gnashing of teeth, moaning, yelling and raging. He performs without fear, though, without the net, as he went on to do in the also-legendary performance on SNL a few years later, of the song “Fury.”
The rest of the band should have kicked up some dust, as well. But they are just guys in suits playing for other old guys in suits; the worst of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concept; by its very existence, the HOF fossilizes vital music. Crusty rockers content with their place in the lineage. It is, arguably, a place that had a hard time making space for someone like Prince, who defies categorization. The performance is from 2004, the year that both Prince and George (posthumously, as a solo artist) were inducted into the Hall. It feels like Prince is out to prove he can outrock any straight-up “rock” artist. He is the rightful heir to the Hendrix mantle. I choose him over Stevie Ray. You heard me. Any day of the week.
I think George would approve of the new take on the song. Many, if not most, of his songs had the conscience of eastern thought running through them. LSD and the Maharishi woke him up in the mid-’60s and he kept on teaching: “All things must pass away”; “Isn’t it a pity/Now, isn’t it a shame/How we/break each other’s hearts/And cause each other pain/How we take each other’s love/Without thinking anymore/Forgetting to give back”; “The love you are blessed with/This world’s waiting for/So let out your heart, please, please/From behind that locked door”; “Beware of sadness/It can hit you/It can hurt you/Make you sore and what is more/That is not what you are here for.”
These are all paraphrases of the teachings of the Buddha and other eastern philosophers. They taught that so much of the negativity in the world is borne out of fear. As a result, most of us live defensively most of the time. Buddha says get back to your original self, who you were, your face before you were born. Everything after that is adding to a mask, a shield, buttressing yourself against the pain and suffering in the world. Open yourself back up. Live in the moment. Realize we are here for a limited time. Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. I’m not saying go to work at your office in a pimp suit and strut out of a meeting after making a particularly astute and bold point. But live it up a little. Just ask yourself every once in a while, “what would Prince do here?”
Yeah, I know, now it all seems trite, “dance like no one is watching,” and all that Chicken Soup kind of shit. But it’s because it is all true: “He not busy being born is busy dying,” as Bob Dylan sang.
Almost everyone on that stage with Prince is playing defensively. Prince is busy being born.
And so, I continue a Beatles-related chain. Perhaps I am still looking for musical therapy. This week’s cover is from my favorite solo record from the individual Beatles, George’s masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, which actually might be in my top 4 Beatles-or-Beatles-related records. I would rather listen to all three LPs, including the jam side, more than sitting all the way through Sgt. Pepper’s, for example.
And I’m not sure if I don’t just go ahead and ignore my own advice, making all the safe choices on this recording. It is a pretty faithful cover. How about that? My only excuse is that I am covering a song a week here, and I don’t always have the time to be very inventive — in, say, a Cat Power-way. Do I take enough chances? Not sure. Probably not. Buffalo Tom used to blister through a hairy version of “Wah Wah,” and going way back, “My Sweet Lord.” Galaxy 500 used to do a great cover of this number. Seek it out.
24 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 56 Isn’t It a Pity?”
Bill, you should be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for your perfect take on Prince's performance.
Thanks, LK. I used to think Prince was a bit of a flash in the pan until I watched this in our college dorm room with some buds:
I love your anylysis of the performance. You truly do justice to it, however, when you inserted the line from Stevie, you lost me. To me, Stevie's song from which you quote, is more of a direct commentary on our current Commander-In-Chief….and I can't seem to make the connection to this performance the way you intended. I hope that my political interjection doesn't offend you to the point that you block this comment….but just for poops and giggles, listen again to Stevie's song in the light of our current administration…if you have the political nerve.
All in love,
Bill, you're speaking to the converted here. When I saw Purple Rain in 1984 (or whenever) and watched him rip leads like the one at the end of Let's Go Crazy, I was sold – always that he was a brilliant guitarist and lead player.
The video is interesting, and your deconstruction is accurate, reflecting the larger issue of how boring those R&R; HoF tribute band efforts tend to be. Prince can come across as a hot dog, but he has the chops to back that up cockiness. In the video, he plays on a different level from the older guys, and it's as if he's kicking dust up into their faces, saying, "Geez, lighten up and let's, well, go crazy already."
Regarding the cover, it took me back to a moment in time when we lived on Heather Road between 69-71. I was lying in bed in my room and the DJ broke from a commercial and said (and I don't know why I remember this), "Ladies and gentlemen, Mister George Harrison" – and then Isn't It A Pity started playing. I also remember being mesmerized and transfixed by the chord progression and sensing this was a special moment in time.
Firstly, you can see by some of the comments in below posts that I never delete individual comments. Though I have deleted a couple of whole posts + comments sections that related to some specific current event or political matter. I prefer to give people enough rope to hang themselves in those matters.
But your point about Stevie's song is well taken. However, two things: I write these posts pretty much in one stream, without revising (rarely even proofing, as you can likely tell). However, while Wonder's song may have certainly been specific to the context you point to, I am sure even he would allow that most lyrics should be enjoyed and understood in a wider range. So, "you haven't done nothing" could certainly be an answer to George's lyric; i.e. the world still needs sweeping, and all. But, OK, maybe out of left field and gratuitous.
Being born in '71 and prone to lists, I put Eddie Van Halen, Johnny Marr, Bob Stinson, Joey Santiago, and the Edge as the most influential guitarists of my generation – at least to my ears. There's no winning or convincing in these discussions, but you raise a very compelling argument for Prince.
If you get a chance – either in a response to this or in a future post – I would love to get your take on any and all of the Rock and Roll HOF concert which premiered tonight on HBO. Any thought on Metallica backing Ray Davies?
I am thankful for the music and the thoughtful words and stories and hope this carries long into next year.
This is GREAT. Thanks Bill.
I understand now, why Stevie's lyric, "You haven't done nothing yet…" came to your mind when you wrote this….It wasn't until my 4th viewing of this video that I noticed the way Prince was looking over at Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, & Stevie Winwood with a look of "You old Dinosours haven't done nothing yet to bring this tune to life….but I will…"
Unfortunatly, I think his talent, genius, and vision was lost on them….but not on you!….I'm sorry to make your comment into something political….
You're stream of conciousness was right on!.
Thanks for sharing,
Ahhh…All Things Must Pass…what's the line?…The best Beatles album the Beatles never made.
One of my favs and certainly helped me when my Grand Dad passed away. Good stuff.
As for the Prince stuff, please see Marc Ford as a player who can take a band over the top. But as the previous poster noted, no sense arguing this stuff.
I'm sorry Bill, didn't hear your cover yet, I was just playing this Wheeping guitar. And as much as I like SRV, I have to admit, Prince, at least here is the true heir of Jimi. I had missed this.. (but hey, I am not in the US.. )
Very astute take on this song Bill. Also, I like to COW, well done.I guess that you explained a whole bunch of the frustration I have with a lot of "Classic rock."
Prince had me won over years ago, but only reinforced it through, was it the Superbowl a few years ago- he was brilliant, covering the foo fighters and such. People might have a hard time crowning him the next hendrix, not for lack of talent and vision, but for lack of recorded groundbreaking material and guitar based stamina.
I love the basketball analogy, but perhaps, using picasso would be a good one as well, or james joyce. Both took it to the next level in their respective fields, and risked it all to hit genius- what is they had been more traditional- certainly they would have been terrific, but not goundbreaking in the same way, not immortal.
Anywho, perhaps a great message to take from this post, is the same message from Lennon's "Imagine." Live for today, really live, stop worrying about the next life and and be in the moment. Afraid to fail is afraid to live.
The irony of these statements is that "religious" people would say you are being selfish, disrespectful and too secularly proud- however, isn't fearing for your own soul the most selfish thing to do? Prince lives in the moment, and risks it all- but what is gained is tremendous.
When you watch this clip do you feel a) inspired or b) depressed? Doe sit make you break out the guitar and let it all out or put in a funk for a day or two, thinking, "If he's doing that what the hell am I doing?"
Just so you know…
Many of us closet/bedroom/basement/garage guitar players see your work in the same light as you see Prince. Much in the way a good high school player sees a great college player and thinkg, "Man, if only…"
Bill-great post. I agree that Prince really blows this one out of the water on this song. Very cool!
Y'all have some great comments/feedback.
Steve, I didn't intend to use the
diminutive form of yr name, disrespectivly, sorry; thought I had read your name that way. I'm old.
Bill, great review. It's hard to believe anything by Prince could be underrated but I have to say Sign o' The Times would qualify.
Great writing as usual.You really captured the essence of what we all love about live rock music.By the way,when are BT gonna release a live dvd ?I'm guessing these things cost a bit to produce etc.
Do you have Georges album Brainwashed that was finished off after he passed away?It has a good mix of all the stuff that made him so great-lots of slide,a little bit of uke,and of course quality songwriting.
when he chucks the guitar, where did it land…or did it go straight to heaven?
I'm a few weeks behind, Bill, but this blog is absolutely everything I was trying to articulate about Prince's performance. I have watched that clip dozens of times and never been able to quite explain what is so gripping about it- and you've nailed it completely.
And I LOVE your cover. LOVE it. One of the best things I've heard this year. This area of your vocal range is huge and heavy.
Mr. J. –
Thanks to Adam Duritz for the referral to your page. I have been reviewing my DVR to watch portions of that show since the airing. Amazing doesn't even get at the Prince performance. Those of us watching the show live (t.v.) were stunned, but only for a second. Then we remembered Prince's unique talent. And we felt his love for his craft and his crafts adoration of him; wasn't the guitar designed for Prince and for all of the princes to come in future generations? And not just the guitar but music and theater and their ability to alter our human condition?
And the thing I kept thinking was that guitar was screaming – 'yes, man, this is how it was meant to be – thanks for making the best of the air time and thanks for loving your job as much as I love you.'
Prince kicked ass and took risks. And he loved it. And we loved it. Thanks for this blog – it is very cool and I plan to become addicted to it if I haven't already.
Think Prince is one of those dudes who can really really channel the energy in there. The whole band takes off when he pulls George's ghost in from the universe. Mr Harrison Jr. nods to Prince because he knows his old man is up there. Plus, c'mon he's Prince… he has to be the biggest on the stage.
Ya gotta also love that he busted out a Tele instead of his usual customized thing.
Another thing, he plays that with so much soul…more soul than the technical chops that he obviously has. Give me Verlaine, Quine, Gilmour, Burton, Young, Springsteen over the soulless Van Halen and his ilk any day.
There's no one who can doubt Prince's virtuosity after watching that video.
Just like no one can doubt the sheer effrontery of the man for swaggering away after that solo as if it was his concert. Show some respect, Prince! You might be good, but George was GREAT and last, but not least, Clapton is GOD!
I read that Prince had only heard the song for the first time the night before!