"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Song Remains the Same 

(Editors' note: This is the first post in what I think might become an occasional series about songs I like - songs that may not be especially hip, but have that certain ineffable something that makes a song special to my ears - and their history. Let me know what you think, and in particular, if you would like me to try this sort of thing again in the future. After all, I have my regular readers' best interests at heart. Really, I do.)

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The First Cut Is the Deepest (Steven Demetre Georgiou; 1967)

There are certain songs which I can remember distinctly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard them. Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is the Deepest" - which I first encountered when I was about 8 or 9, as it played on the radio in my grandparents living room in Anaconda, Montana - is one of the earliest of these.

Cat Stevens is, of course, the nom de groove of the artist formerly known as Steven Georgiou, and currently known as Yusuf Islam. For anyone who grew up in the '70's, reactions to Stevens' recorded ouvré - exemplified by the zillion-selling quartet of Tea For the Tillerman (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), Catch Bull at Four (1972), and Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974) - represents a musical litmus test. He is generally considered either the zenith of the singer-songwriter genré, or its nadir. In fact, both are probably true; Cat Stevens could write beautiful melodies and literate, poignant lyrics, or he could be cloying and simple-minded - often, all in the same song.

Although Cat Stevens' recording of this song appeared quite early, on the oh-so-modestly-entitled 1967 release New Masters (and dig those Edwardian threads he's sportin' on the cover!), it was not the original recording. The song was originally written for P.P. Arnold (real name Patricia Ann Cole), a gospel-tinged expat from South Central Los Angeles who achieved some small fame in England in the 60's. (Readers who despise Pink Floyd less than I do might be interested to note that Ms. Arnold toured with Roger Waters as recently as 2002.)

Neither Arnold's version of the song nor Stevens' was a big hit, at least in America (I don't have my copy of Joel Whitburn's essential reference handy, but I doubt that Arnold's version cracked the Top 40, or that Stevens' version did much better). Although the song has been recorded at least 10 or 12 times, the best known version until recently was the one recorded by Rod Stewart on A Night On the Town (1976). Now, of course, the song is most frequently associated with Cheryl Crow, who released not one, but two versions on The Very Best of Cheryl Crow (2003). These two versions are strangely similar, in my opinion, in that both artists are talented vocalists who seem more than willing to hide that fact if it will help them sell records - in that sense, they are exactly the kind of performer best suited to cover Cat Stevens, himself a talented songwriter who spared no effort in hiding his abilities.

The song itself is a terrible mishmash of brilliance and hackdom. Consider the lyrics:
I would have given you all of my heart
But there’s someone who’s torn it apart
And she’s taken just all that I had
But if you want I’ll try to love again
Baby I’ll try to love again but I know

The first cut is the deepest
Baby I know the first cut is the deepest
But when it come to being lucky she’s cursed
When it come to loving me she’s the worst
I still want you by my side
Just to help me dry the tears that I’ve cried
And I’m sure going to give you a try
And if you want I’ll try to love again
Baby I’ll try to love again but I know

The first cut is the deepest
Baby I know the first cut is the deepest
But when it come to being lucky she’s cursed
When it come to loving me she’s the worst

I still want you by my side
Just to help me dry the tears that I’ve cried
But I’m sure gonna give you a try
’cause if you want I’ll try to love again
Baby I’ll try to love again but I know

The first cut is the deepest
Baby I know the first cut is the deepest
When it come to being lucky she’s cursed
When it come to loving me she’s the worst

On the one hand, this is a fairly artful account of the sort of cirrhotic heartsickness many of us have felt after a nasty breakup - self-absorbed and self-pitying, without obvious irony (how many women are really likely to be attracted by a line like "if you want, I'll try to love again"? - but on the other hand, how bad is that "cursed/worst" rhyme, anyway? Yeah, it's that bad.

But the melody is brilliant. It is worth noting that every version I know follows the original melody and interpretation - right down to the tempo - almost note-for-note. In a way, that's the story of Cat Stevens: For all his pretense (and I do mean pretense) to sensitive poesy, it's his melodies that endure. Even bathetic tripe like "Morning Has Broken" has survived all these years on the strength of pure catchiness. Odd little rhythmic fillips, a simple but not completely obvious chord structure, well-crafted tension between staccato and legato sections - these are some of the hallmarks of good (or maybe just competent) songwriting. As writers from Stephen Foster to the dreaded Diane Warren know, that's enough to cover a multitude of sins, at least sometimes, and this song is one of those times.

 

Comments:

 

Great feature. I have many fond memories of the Rod Stewart version of that song and never knew that Cat Stevens recorded it. I dare you to write about a Thin Lizzy song next.
 
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