The Cover, Johnny Cash/Depeche Mode, and Meaning

In my last post, which featured the Led Zeppelin cover, In My Time of Dying, I used the “cover” as an analogy for how biblical materials get used anew in different contexts within Scripture itself. The point I tried to make there was that the original is not always the most authoritative version of a song or scriptural tradition.

In this post, I want to compare Johnny Cash’s cover of Personal Jesus, to Depeche Mode’s original. Cash’s version appears on one of the acclaimed American Series albums he released near the end of his life. These albums feature a lot of covers, some quite surprising. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song, Hurt, is perhaps the best well known of these. But he also covers artists as diverse as Roberta Flack, Tom Petty, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, and the list could go on. Some of them work surprisingly well, like his cover of U2’s, One. Some not as well (Bridge Over Troubled Waters). The most satisfying of the covers for me is Cash’s take on the Soundgarden song, Rusty Cage. It’s a surprising choice and tremendous new arrangement under the direction of Rick Rubin.

It’s not surprising, given Cash’s religious devotion, particularly at this point in his life, that he would choose to cover a song with the title, Personal Jesus. The Depeche Mode original made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s a synth rock song, driven by electronics and keyboard, with a great groove. Cash’s version is acoustic, a guitar doing most of the work, still with an infectious groove, but less driven as the original. They are significantly different musically speaking.

But Cash is faithful to the lyric, word for word. And yet, in my estimation, the performances mean two completely different things. Depeche Mode wrote the song after reading Priscilla Presley’s, Elvis and Me. Elvis, had become her own personal Jesus. Carried into the song, the lyrics seem to be a critique of televangelists who offer faux spiritual comfort to lonely people. It’s ironic, a parody, a critique. (You can check this interpretation by noticing two other covers, Marylin Manson, and my favorite, Sammy Hagar).

Feeling unknown and you’re all alone,                                                                                      Flesh and bone by the telephone.                                                                                                  Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.                                                                                  Reach out and touch faith.

When Cash sings these very same lyrics, the meaning of the song changes dramatically. Cash’s evangelical faith holds as the highest value a “personal Jesus.” Jesus can enter your life even if you’re “feeling unknown, and you’re all alone.” Even in your living room, you can be saved. Reach out and touch faith.

We could argue the merits of the different theologies represented here. But the main point to be made is that the very same words can take on completely different meanings in their reuse. Perhaps Cash meant to do this, perhaps not. But the context of the recording, sung by an American country artist with a very public faith near the end of his life, as opposed to a British synth band increasingly known for their darker tendencies, makes all the difference.

I come from a tradition that was built on the idea of restoring the New Testament church. At the very least, the cover analogy provided here, would call into question the very enterprise. It’s possible to cover the original word for word and come up with something that means just the opposite. I love William Placher’s observation in his book, A History of Christian Theology, where he observes that the effort of the 2nd-3rd century church to keep everything the same ended up changing everything.

The power of a good cover, Cash’s or anyone else’s, is that it is contextually authentic. It necessarily presents itself as an interpretation, not a reproduction. Maybe the analogy here is the difference between a cover and a cover band. The cover band cares nothing of context or the surplus of meaning that is present in something as rich and textured as lyric, beat, voice, etc. But a cover, a good cover, brings out of all these potential meanings, something newsworthy–new meaning, an act of interpretation. I would suggest the same is true for all subsequent performances of the biblical narratives, whether in preaching or in the shape of congregations.

Choose the cover. don’t be a cover band.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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