are some terrible covers out there. Madonna singing American
Pie, for example. A few years ago someone tortured Harry Nilsson's
classic Can't Live. There's even a sort of techno-pop cover
of Total Eclipse of the Heart floating around, if anyone besides
me cares. But I can only name two artists who could sing a song
and make you forget that anyone else ever had. They were, of
course, Joe Cocker and Rusty Magee.
of Rusty's great gifts was to take a song we all knew, and even
loved, a song often by an artist of particular distinction,
like Cat Stevens or Van Morrison, the kind of artist whose sound
you never mistake when you hear it, and wrest it from that artist,
steal it, filch it, and make it so his own that you will never
be able to hear it again in it's original form without thinking:
Hey, that's Rusty's song.
some songs were Rusty's songs. He was an accomplished songwriter.
But the reason why, for the rest of my life, whenever I mention
that I knew Rusty Magee, thirty total strangers within earshot
will flock to me all whispering in awe "You knew Rusty Magee?
I love Rusty Magee", is that, among his many achievements, he
took a few songs off the radio, or off record albums, and handed
them out to his audience, like cookies. Nobody didn't sing along.
Rusty was in the hospital this last time I almost expected to
find hoards of fans lurking about his room. What I found though,
instead, were hoards of friends and acquaintances, more than
a lifetime's worth, (at least more than mine) coming and going
at all hours, waiting to see if Rusty would awaken and give
them a smile. It was truly a pilgrimage. Rusty had the same
effect on his friends that he did on his audiences. And if he
made his fans feel like friends, imagine how he made is friends
feel. His generous spirit, his humor, his shit-eating grin brought
us enormous joy. And that's a very hard thing to give up. So
no one was willing to. Friends sat with Rusty as long as Alison
would allow, savoring the last minutes, incredulous, despairing,
of his last days Rusty, tripping a little, I guess, imagined
himself traveling on a bus. Alison asked him who was on the
bus with him, and Rusty said, Joe Jackson. At first I'm thinking,
Joe Jackson, is he dead? But then it became clear that Rusty
was thinking of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the anti-hero of his baseball
musical. And there were other baseball players, on the bus,
too, and I like to think of them all, now, sitting around Rusty,
who is at the piano, making fun of Jim Steinman. Or lamenting
the demise of the LP, or performing highlights of Rusty in Orchestraville,
or wearing his popcorn hat as Rasta Magee.
more than anything else, I imagine them all singing to the great
covers, as I did. On each of the many, many nights Rusty and
I gigged together, after I came off stage, I scrambled for a
seat in the audience in time to be part the sing-along. Father
and Son, whatever he found in that book he had of greatest pop
songs, and of course, Brown Eyed Girl. Which I will never hear
again without thinking that Van Morrison stole it from Rusty
say to you all, as you all must be thinking. Sha la la la la
la la la la la la te da. La te da.
here to return to Speaker List