Cover Band


Kristie Betts Letter

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.

Q: How many lead singers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one. He holds the light bulb and the world revolves around him.

Our lead singer’s name was Melvin but of course he didn’t go by Melvin because he wanted to be a rock star after all. [1] What people do with unfortunate names is a mark of character, and the way we tweak parental whims. Melvin lacked the spark that the rest of the band possessed. Yes, he was handsome and grew self-conscious scruff (occasionally shaved into a goatee) but he lacked our wit and offstage personality. We all beat time, played riffs and created the song as a functioning team, a human machine. [2] Lead singers, however, become the face, and often receive all the credit for this machine. But in this case at least, Melvin “please call me Vin” did exactly what his we told him, right down to the patter.
A great cover band does not mimic, they inhabit. A great cover band must keep the factor of recognizability that fits so well with the alcohol to bring folks back to an optimistic summer of yesteryear: Led Zeppelin [3], Steve Miller Band [4] and the occasional Radiohead [5] so as not to seem dated. The secret is in the numbers – if we pull in a crushing crowd, then we will always be asked back.
They need to laugh, but with full participation. “What a cheesy song,” they giggle while swaying. “But they make it sound so cool.” Nothing is cooler than an inside joke.
The effect should be timeless. The sets, the jokes, those well-known lyrics. The sorority girls loved the songs we played. They knew the words and like the great joiners that they are, they always sang along.

Q: How many sorority girls does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 17. One to change the light bulb, 3 to print the t-shirts, 4 to provide moral support, and 10 to gossip about what a little slut she is.

We of course had a hard time understanding our appeal to the fraternity boys, and more importantly to the sorority girls. When we began playing, we wrote impassioned songs that had a bit of Zepplinesque verve mixed with some Jim Morrisonesque philosophizing. But it didn’t take many gigs before we realized that the originals were a no-go. Everyone left the dance floor, frat boys got in fights. But the covers? A bunch of overplayed songs were being played over—and not quite as good as the radio versions, we admit. And yet these girls in matching shirts were loving it. The boys in baseball hats bounced ferociously, in rhythm. Familiarity comforts as alcohol numbs.
Melvin/Vin had a problem though. He had given up smoking marijuana [6] because it made his stage performance sluggish. Lots of rock stars have stage shows suffer due to overindulgence, but our band didn’t yet have the contract or the following. And that stage performance was really all that Melvin brought to the table. He couldn’t sing so well. His gravely hum thing only worked because he danced around and shook his groove thing.
Ever since he quit pot, [7] he has been strung out on soda that kept him up all night, wild-eyed and sugar-buzzed. Already our band kept opposite hours from all the serious people, all the sloggers. Melvin beat an addiction to drugs, unable like the rest of us to handle them recreationally. [8] So he quit, but he replaced dime bags with a frighteningly intense need for Mountain Dew. Can after can of the pissy liquid.
We didn’t know him that well, since he was the last one to join the band (answering an ad in the local freebie paper looking for a “smoldering singer for an up-and-coming band.”) Most of us were hoping for a beautiful-but-soulful girl. We got “It’s Melvin but call me Vin.” Semi-smoldering and wholly addicted to Mountain Dew. [9] We helpfully said, “That stuff will kill you,” [10] which Melvin did not appreciate.
And it certainly did.

Q: How many musicians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 0. They like it dark.

Our lead singer Melvin/Vin was the only concession, the only post-adolescent admission of failure. None of us musicians could sing. Technically Melvin couldn’t really sing either, but his sexy growl that worked with the guitar stylings. But having the talent to get his mouth around someone else’s words, backed up by instruments Melvin could not name much less play and cues that he didn’t take seriously—that kind of talent earned no props from any real musicians, or even admitted non-musicians like the rhythm guitarist. We all hated Melvin.
He still got the girls. He couldn’t achieve any kind of longevity with them, since his lack of personality became more apparent the further away from a stage he stood. Still, he was the center. He didn’t need the wit that the rest of us took for granted, or the ease of body. With the girls that would crowd backstage or drop by our cheap hotel rooms, he would begin long serious conversations about himself, always looking for his own reflection in their shiny surfaces. We watched the way that they crowded around him at the end. They smiled for us too, but Melvin had the magic conferred by the microphone. Stepping to the forefront creates sex appeal and sex appeal always trumps beauty. [11] Or talent.
But we hid our dislike because we were playing out and getting gigs. Not to mention getting girls. As long as Melvin fronted us, we hit our groove and communicated. It was like a web of secret signals spun in front of an entire crowd. Spending so much of life in loud bars breathing in second hand smoke [12] – it wasn’t good for either the lungs or the eardrums. Luckily for our heath at least, this lead singer wasn’t long for the world.

Q: How many fraternity brothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Whatever. Frat boys will screw anything, anywhere.

Sororities [13] and fraternities [14] are the social structure in miniature, a purchase of friendship and legitimization, except instead of complex social machinations necessary, the finances [15] are up front and the selection process keeps the superficial at the forefront.
None of us had ever joined such an organization.
But just like in the real world, any critique of those who pay big money for the physical beauty and the financial social scene, must be amended with reality. They pay the bills. Without these crowds of college students who had no desire to study on any given Thursday night and could always afford a cover plus the price of beer, cover bands would have no currency. When people talk about love, they reveal their relative openness as well as their emotional gag reflexes. Each night girls fell in love with Vin, and their less-pretty friends fell in love with us as we played familiar songs in bars full of filtered light like the inside of a beer bottle. These girls sang together and touched anyone in proximity. The artificial community is enough to take anyone away from their own loneliness. These girls would dance and prance and occasionally cry fat tears into Rolling Rocks.
The fraternity brothers would bounce into each other, knocking ball caps off of their own heads. Their homophobia [16] received due expression in the way that they beat their chests and genitals against each other to the rhythm of the music.
Everyone’s pupils were love-open, with the flashing lights occasional in the darkness, the struggle to make sense of the sound and stimulation.
When they turned on the lights at closing time, the magic was over. Pupils pulled into frightened pinpricks, and companions were revealed in their florescent-lit truth. The same faces dappled with light and the stumbling attempts at communication that had been primarily proximity and expression rather than actual words, became revealed.

Q: How many groupies does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Where is the lead singer? [17]

Perhaps if someone would have gone to that basement with Melvin. In a post-gig glow, everyone else was hanging out in various states of lounge on the hotel room queens. We were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes – our post-show vices activated our lead singer’s cravings for his drug of choice.
“I need some soda,” Melvin/Vin said, having drained the latest 2-liter to the dregs. He popped his eyes to self-consciously add a “what a quirky surprise” expression to his Eeyore tone. Despite the attempt to seem casual, what Melvin/Vin wanted was far beyond carbonated high fructose corn syrup with a caffeine jolt. Strangely, not even the sorority groupies offered to accompany him to the soda machine in the basement.
This never would have happened to a guy who was really named Vin. [18]
Perhaps the machine took his money. Perhaps he just tried to shake it a bit. Perhaps the soda was stuck, with a bottom edge visible but immobile. Although he had a bit more bulk than we did, he wasn’t exceptionally strong. He shook the machine, they do know that for certain (analysis of angles and dust patterns.) When housekeeping found him the next day, his arms were still wrapped around the bulk of the machine. Hopefully it happened fast. Otherwise, we all would have had to shoulder responsibility for not going to look for him (not until the next morning even), for not caring enough to possibly save him from the slow suffocation beneath a soda machine.
At the funeral, we played Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” [19] since apparently Melvin’s dream was to someday move to this land of blue sky and abundant citrus, [20] away from the steely colors of east coast industrial towns. Everyone, even those of us who wanted to kick him out of the band, cried when the song told us to. Such is the purpose of sad songs. [21]

A band that’s made it becomes legendary when the lead singer dies a strange death – they can have a reality show to find his replacement. [22] A band that’s still struggling – no chance. We could switch between three chords in any rhythm under the sun. A talent of time, not music. And if our lead singer had not been crushed beneath a soda machine, maybe we would have made it, started playing originals in all that second-hand smoke. The minute that machine tipped, it was no longer an issue. After Jack Daniels [23], we could allow ourselves to feel. The emotion now was anger. “He ruined everything. Soda.” And we raged. We completed that quintessential masculine ritual. We punched the walls more from the death of our dream than from the death of a young man with a gravelly voice and great stage presence.
Only a small percentage of bands ever make it, and cover bands have even more of a tendency to remain trapped in the cycles. Our hopes were crushed beneath a heavy load of carbonation and metal. The numbers had never been with us.


[1] In the year of Melvin’s birth the name was a very unpopular choice on the American list of most common names: 1115.
[2] In people passionate about team sports in their younger years, 75% suffer from a sense of isolation as an adult, even if they have a happy family life, because of the years spent working as one organism with a group of other athletes. They suffer the most if they pursue careers built on independence rather than the team (teaching, solo artist, plumber.)
[3] Formed in 1968, disbanded in 1980 after drummer John Bonham died of a drug overdose.
[4] The Steve Miller Band hasn’t had a hit since 1982’s “Abracadabra” but they still sell out concerts and their greatest hits album is a staple of all CD clubs.
[5] Currently considered the “safest” answer a man can give if a date asks the question “What kind of music do you like?”
[6] Top 3 negative side effects reported by habitual marijuana smokers:
1 – amotivational syndrome, characterized by immobility and passivity
2 – paranoia
3 – insatiable hunger.
The number 1 negative side effect reported by doctors is the link to lung cancer.
[7] Although marijuana withdrawal has no physical symptoms, 16% of habitual marijuana smokers report a psychological dependence.
[8] 89% of musicians in established rock-and-roll bands admit partaking in illegal drugs at some point, even if they were now post-rehab. I would argue that an additional 6% lied in their answer because all the pot made them paranoid.
[9] First introduced by Pepsico in 1964 with pictures of hillbillies on the front and marketed as “zero proof moonshine.”
[10] Not only did it have high fructose corn syrup, it had the questionable Yellow #5 and something mysterious called “brominated vegetable oil.” Also, the Yellow #5 has been linked to lowering sperm count, but that might not have meant as much to Melvin.
[11] Women rate the lead singer of a band 3X more attractive than any other member, even if the features are virtually identical.
[12] Exposure to which causes over 3000 lung cancer deaths each year.
[13] Of Miss America contestants, 95% are members of a sorority, with the rush process being a sort of “Round One” for being accepted based on looks and social performance.
[14] Of Wall Street businessmen in managerial positions, 73% are members of a fraternity. Only 0.4% of fast food workers are members of a fraternity.
[15] Average dues for sororities and fraternities are a little over $800 per year, effectively disenfranchising those students without extra income.
[16] While 82% of fraternity brothers admit to being “fairly homophobic” or “extremely homophobic,” a full 64% of them have had an erotic experience with another man or in the presence of another man.
[17] In 1989 Ric Ocasek, lead singer for the Cars, married Paulina Porizkova, a supermodel. Since he looked like he had a shrunken head and she looked like every adolescent boy’s dream, this proves that a lead singer can get away what would otherwise be impossible.
[18] Since Vin Diesel became famous for being both macho and bald, 80% of all Melvins switched to the later ½ of their name.
[19] A tribute to Joni Mitchell which appeared on the Led Zeppelin IV album in 1971.
[20] California is #1 in state population, due to its appeal for transplants and those hoping to make it in the entertainment industry.
[21] Sad songs have made 83% of people cry at some point in their lives. For just women the number is 91%.
[22] INXS lost their lead singer to what was presumably auto-erotic asphyxiation and found his replacement on a reality show called “Rock Star: INXS.”
[23] Jasper Newton Daniel, who would only answer if you called him Jack, (1850- 1911) founded a Tennessee brewery in 1866 – making him all of 16 when he began to produce one of the most famous spirits in the world.