Thursday, August 13, 2020 17:30

Ooh Las Vegas (Covers)


I have a tremendous affinity for cover songs that are so different from the originals that you’d have to know the original in order to recognize that the song is actually a cover.

A perfect example of such as song is Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends”. The only thing in common between Cocker’s version and The Beatles original is the lyrics. There are no other commonalities whatsoever as Cocker put his trademark manic emotional bombast on the Beatles excellent but very mid-tempo original.

Sometimes the cover carves out such a strong identity that the majority of the public sees the cover as the original and the original as the cover. Such is the case with “All Along The Watchtower”. Most people associate the song with Hendrix, not Dylan who did his original version in a straight folk-rock style. When I saw Dylan back in ‘87 in a power trio setup, he covered the Hendrix version of his own song…and if the concert weren’t in an open air arena, he would have blown the roof off the m******f*****…it was so f****** hot.

However, there is one song and its cover that I find more remarkable than any others because the reworking of the original song was not just stylistic but symbolized a sociological and societal evolution as well.

Gram Parsons should have been the most important person in country music history (other than perhaps Johnny Cash) and IMO, his premature death was every bit as devastating to popular music culture as the early loss of Jimi Hendrix (and far greater than either Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin). Songs like Hickory Wind and $1000 Wedding are incredibly passionate and emotive while tunes like “Streets of Baltimore” showed that he knew the country cliché’s well enough to turn them on their head.

Yet, “Ooh Las Vegas” on its surface, has none of the brilliance of Gram’s best work. It seems to be almost a filler tune on an album with far meatier cuts.

But is it really filler? This up-tempo diddy is extremely emblematic of the Cowtown that Las Vegas used to be. If all you’ve experienced is something like Le Reve in Las Vegas than maybe you won’t really know what we’re alluding to here. Beginning with the original Ocean’s 11 featuring Frank, Dean & Sammy and progressing through the 60’s with films like Gary Lockwood’s “They Came To Rob Las Vegas” and “The Only Game In Town” with Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor, Las Vegas was shown to be caught in the awkward teenage-like transitory stage of growing up from cowboy to burlesque while traveling on the long and winding road to full-on adult nirvana. I have a snapshot in my head of being 4 years old in a Vegas Casino back in 1972 and if I examine closely the detail that’s still held in my memory, I can bridge the time and distance back to Gram’s song quite easily.

Which leads us to the Cowboy Junkies cover version:

I’ve never been a huge fan of theirs. However, they absolutely kill it in this song and why I find their cover so compelling doesn’t just relate to how awesome the song stands on its own merits. This version perfectly captures how Las Vegas has evolved from the 60’s not just through the late 90’s (when the song was recorded) but deep into the 2010’s as well. The smoky vocal and deep bass riff perfectly encapsulate the dark and seemy side of Vegas that’s (cliché or not) the essence of why many people come to town.

Like “Streets of Baltimore”, I think Parsons sings “Ooh Las Vegas” in a somewhat cheeky way…the lyrics to the song which he sings somewhat flippantly are actually quite dark and frightening. The Cowboy Junkies version works so well not just because they stick to the literal essence of the lyrics, they exaggerate them in precisely the opposite way of Parsons. The cover could have fit on the “Sin City” soundtrack…the film imagery would complement the tune perfectly.

What’s really striking to me is how Parsons describes Vegas as “that crystal city”. While Parsons was alive, describing Vegas thusly would be considered metaphoric. The scope of the original Caesars or the Sahara might have been large, but Vegas was still full of Thunderbird-style motels and was very much a low-budget destination during Parsons life. The Vegas of today has evolved into Parsons vision of it that he set on paper over 40 years ago. These sorts of insights this make it a real shame that only a segmented niche of music aficionados have been exposed to Parsons’ incredible yet unfortunately limited catalog of music.


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