But "These Days" has stuck around for decades' worth of days, living on in various voices and versions. If you check out coversproject.com, they list 12 artists as having covered this song (though one wonders if they are really thinking of "These Are Days" when it comes to 10,000 Maniacs). And those are just the documented, or audio recorded, instances. Who knows how many other renditions have filled concert halls or basement dives?
I'm certainly not the first person to notice this phenomenon (the Philadelphia City Paper wrote a piece about the song's resurgence/longevity in December 2003), but I am struck nonetheless. Perhaps it is because, at this time in my life, I am going through "these days," feeling like I am losing out, lost in regret, sitting and thinking and not doing a whole heck of a lot. And lo, here is "These Days" in spades, ready to spell out exactly what I am feeling in 32 flavors of melancholy.
The first version I ever heard of this song was the cover by Fountains of Wayne. It appeared as a B-side to the single for "Troubled Times" off of "Utopia Parkway." Though it may diminish my standing in the eyes of the musical elite, I did not know for a long time that it was a cover. It was not until Gwyneth Paltrow strode toward Luke Wilson in a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Royal Tenenbaums," and Nico's fragile intensity echoed a song I had come to love, that I realized that the song's origin lie elsewhere.
When I purchased the soundtrack to "The Royal Tenenbaums," I added Nico's version to my small collection of "These Days" covers, a collection still more impressive than the three versions of "There She Goes" I had at one point (and played as a block on my old radio show). I cherished both versions in their own way. Nico's, by virtue of her startlingly unique voice and the accompanying string section was starker and more pervasive, yet more lilting all the same. Fountains of Wayne's was more of a folksy dirge, with Adam Schlesinger's power-pop croon and acoustic guitar at the helm. For a long time, this was my "These Days" dichotomy, and it served me well.
When I saw Mates of State live several months ago and heard them cover this song live, I was held rapt, though convinced I'd never be able to find a digital copy to call my own for posterity. Well, the Internet works in mysterious ways. The Mates of State version, with its quicker tempo, uplifting organ interludes and sweet boy-and-girl harmonies, is definitely one of the more inspiring (as opposed to depressing) versions. Yet it also brings the song's lyrical content into keen relief.
Also discovered online and not noted on coversproject.com is an all-too-appropriate 1999 live cover of the song by the late Elliott Smith. From him more than anyone else, the lyrics ring hauntingly true. And all of this is just a small sampling of how people have found this song and made it their own.
Of course, it belonged to someone else first. The version of this song as sung by its songwriter is one of the more fleshed-out versions you will find. A full band backs Jackson Browne's soulful rendition. There is no starkness or dangling plucks left to accentuate the song's desperation and hopelessness, but rather a guitar solo, occasional ribbons of piano, and layered vocals. Frankly, it sounds more truck stop than open mic. Gregg Allman's version is much the same.
Perhaps I am just more accustomed to the occasional band or singer-songwriter stripping down to a lone instrument and offering up this song as a sacrifice upon its frets or keys. And no offense to its creator, but... these full-band versions just don't do it for me. Give me Nico's sweeping strings or Elliott Smith's warbled choruses, or Mates of States's harmony on the line "I have not forgotten them." Perhaps, for me, this song paints itself best in small, quick strokes, and not sweeping, layered textures. The bareness it evokes is best matched and conveyed with a similar vocal and instrumental approached. I think Jackson Browne did best initially to hand this off to Nico. She set the bar, and hopefully future generations of musicians will continue to try to reach it.
Well I’ve been out walking
I don’t do that much talking these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to
And I had a lover
It’s so hard to risk another these days
Now if I seem to be afraid
To live the life I have made in song
Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long
I’ll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don’t confront me with my failures
I have not forgotten them