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"Hey, I did a Paul McCartney song, and I hate him," Kozelek says with a chuckle. "All the cover songs I do are all flukes. I'll hear a Ted Nugent song and think it'd be funny. I have a knack for taking a ridiculous Ace Frehley lyric and turning it into something of my own. That's how I approach covers. And the people I cover I'm not necessarily a huge fan of. I don't own a Kiss record. With a lot of this stuff, they're like my own songs to me."
He extended that sentiment earlier this year when he released his first (or second, depending upon how you look at it) solo record, a seven-song sampler called Rock 'N' Roll Singer. The title track, of course, is the AC/DC tune from the High Voltage album. Kozelek's reworking blows warm with billowy chords, chiming with Byrdsian appeal, plodding along as lazily and melodically as Red House Painters' tearjerkers. It's one of three Bon Scott/Angus Young/Malcolm Young mutations on the record. With the inclusion of a John Denver song ("Around and Around"), Rock 'N' Roll Singermarks the first instance where covers have outnumbered Kozelek's originals, of which there are but three.
Live, Kozelek has long enjoyed eschewing his own songs in favor of twisted takes on REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You," Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," Neil Young's "Albuquerque," or John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane." His fans should expect no respite with the release of his next solo record -- a ten-song compendium of more tenderized AC/DC covers. Each is stripped to the core, stretched out, and feather-bedded. For example, on "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me," Kozelek drapes a pristine falsetto atop his taut, sparkly acoustic fretwork. It's bound to be anathema to AC/DC followers, with the only missing sound being Bon Scott and his subterranean rotisserie.
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"The other night we were playing a song," Kozelek relates, "and for the first time in two or three years of playing AC/DC covers my bass player said, "Are we playing "Riff-Raff"?' 'cause he recognized the lyrics. But that's the first time anybody's ever done that. No one has ever, ever said to me at a show that they've recognized it."
On the surface it's the strangest thing imaginable: John Denver and AC/DC compositions so transmogrified they become interchangeable, indistinguishable Red House Painters songs. All cut from the same Kozelek cloth, they pass by like autumn trees on a road trip. Nothing sounds out of place. Kozelek needs to cloak himself in the classic rock aroma of the '70s like a well-worn concert T-shirt, and the cover songs pay homage to the car-radio nostalgia of his youth, a recurrent theme. Plus, they afford him some emotional distance, since so many of his early songs dealt with interactions with friends and lovers.
But a few recent Kozelek-penned songs hold a glimmer of the days of old: The gorgeous "Ruth Marie" from Rock 'N' Roll Singer is a touching nursing-home deathbed narrative from the perspective of a friend's elderly grandmother. In a cracked voice as fragile as stained glass, Kozelek sings, "Remember me when I'm gone/You know I love you even though I can hardly say/And I hate it when you see me in this way." As always, printed lyrics are unnecessary: His voice is so far out in front of the mix each word is unmistakable. Old Ramon's "Smokey," for instance, is marked by this classically typical Kozelek line: "I'm staying up, waiting for you like a fool." And in "Kavita" he addresses a girlfriend with "My friends call you stupid/But I think you're cute."
Before the release of Old Ramonand his new solo album, Kozelek is taking a European holiday -- after playing a solo set in West Palm Beach next week. The vacation will give him time to do something he does well: worry.
"Well, I guess I'm getting older," begins a list of his concerns. "I'm almost 34. I'm starting to have back pain, and my right knee doesn't work. I guess I just hope everything is OK at this point in my life, you know? Because I don't know how to do anything else. I've never touched a computer or a mouse or whatever. I just hope there'll always be some guy willing to put my music out. And I just hope I'll be able to go to the doctor when I need to or get my teeth fixed when I need to and I won't have to stand in line for food stamps or whatever. I just want to know that it's gonna be OK, you know?"
Back in the band's early years, Kozelek's on-stage persona was nervous and pained, and insecurities like those outlined above would often surface. "I couldn't wait to get off the stage," he says. "I really wasn't comfortable." Shows would teeter on the edge of catastrophe, as sound problems, personal issues, the toll of the road, or any number of intangibles could wreak havoc with his emotional equilibrium, and it showed. At times Kozelek appears to relish a tragicomic role: perennial mopester, the ne'er-do-well with a guitar in his hand. Does he do it on purpose?