Chris Cornell’s “Billie Jean” and the moment when a cover surpasses the original

Getting the writing engine started with a few words on whatever song’s up next, this is A.M. Shuffle. Today: Chris Cornell’s “Billie Jean.”

If you’ve never heard this version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” sung by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, go play it now. Skip over whatever nonsense ad precedes it, and listen. It’s Cornell with an acoustic guitar and that Robert-Plant-in-flannel voice, and it’s outstanding.

Stripped of all the ’80s production, the ingrown biases that MJ brings, and most importantly that essential bass line, this is one hell of a sad and sinister song. Billie Jean is a predator, lasering in on our singer and tearing apart his life right down to the roots: “She told my baby we’d danced till three, as she looked at me / showed a photo of a baby crying, his eyes looked like mine … ”

You never really believed Michael Jackson was the victim of a vixen, even before the tabloid revelations. But Cornell? This is a guy who can make you believe he’s gotten fed into a meat grinder just because he danced a little too long in the round with the wrong woman.

This is one of those examples of when a cover version adds something so new and transformative to the original that it causes you to rethink how you hear the first version. Hendrix forever altering Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Johnny Cash wrestling “Hurt” away from Trent Reznor, Coltrane changing “My Favorite Things” from Broadway cheese to jazz perfection … this cover may not stand with those, but that’s only because the original was so indelible. Well done, Mr. Cornell.

Jay

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