People have rights, right? Of course, they do! And no one need inform young Steve of that either. He is 15 and takes his right to sing seriously. Even if everyone else around may, silently, question his liberties with a melody. Not that Steve is aware he is taking any liberties at all. To be brutally honest, young Steve is one of those that, sadly, cannot carry a tune. Not for love or money. But try telling him that. Actually, no one has tried because, in the end, everyone is mindful of those aforementioned ‘rights’.
Back in the 1970s, the singer Melanie put out a song titled ‘Look what they done to my song, ma’.
As an aside, a lot of music-minded people still think, incorrectly, that this song was an original by the British band The New Seekers. The New Seekers did a version of the original and I wonder if Melanie, with a tinge of irony, thought to herself, ‘Look what they’ve done to my song’? I doubt it, though.
Anyhow, Melanie’s song can be used as a comical yardstick for anyone doing a cover of the original. I’ve heard one friend of mine, on hearing Tangerine Dream’s version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, go, “Whoa!”
He was speechless after that, tongue tied, leaving me to try and interpret the ambiguous silence.
On reality music shows, one always hears the ‘mentors’, who are celebrity stars themselves, instructing the competitors to “Own the song. Don’t stick faithfully to the original. Do something different with it. Show your versatility”.
And so forth... Many a time, such a suggestion has come back to bite the mentors in the ... well, let’s say the ankle, for the sake of decorum.
“You’ve just done far too much with it,” they wail, “You took it to a whole other area. I’m afraid I couldn’t recognise the original version at all behind all the vocal callisthenics.”
And so forth...
As for young Steve, I’m convinced that he’s hearing one tune when he sings, and we, his audience, are hearing an entirely other melody. A melody that, if one were looking for a simile would be, ‘as flat as a pancake’.
This morning, he’s singing — belting out — The Black Key’s ‘Lonely Boy’. And he’s polishing the dining table to the rhythm of the melody. And here’s the dichotomy: Steve’s song itself may be bland, unvarnished, but the table in contrast bears such a high sheen from his attentions that I doubt if I’ve seen a shinier dining table in my entire life.
His dad’s car, a second-hand Audi, sits in the driveway proudly displaying a similar gloss. You’d think it’s come straight off the showroom floor. The upright piano, in a prominent section of the sitting room, is winking and reflecting beams from the afternoon sun slanting in through the window.
Steve’s mother, Bess, is an award-winning pianist and a music teacher. Is it an irony at all, I ask her delicately, that Steve hasn’t ‘inherited’ the family gene?
“Oh, he has,” interrupts Steve’s dad, “Steve’s inherited the gene all right. Just not Bessie’s. He’s got mine. And boy, you don’t want to hear me do a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’, or ‘Happy Birthday’. I can take a happy song and reduce people to tears in a jiffy.”
We all laugh.
“He’s his father’s son in every respect,” Bess pipes in, “Not just in his fussiness for neatness and keeping everything polished and dust-free. You haven’t seen him interpreting architectural blueprints. It’s a gift that came with birth. By the time he’s 25 he’s going to be way ahead of his dad.”
His dad adds: “What would you rather build, a song or a house? A song, if you’re lucky, will last a lifetime. Houses, if built well, will keep you in clover for more than one lifetime.” “Whoa,” I reply, and leave them to interpret my remark whichever way they will.
We all file out for afternoon tea and leave ‘Lonely Boy’ Steve to himself.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.