Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Most Mangled Song Lyrics Ever

“So that's what they were singing all along?”

When last we gathered, the topic was rock-n-roll lyrics that were just too bizarre to be understood by the average, narcotic-free human being. Those were in their own category ... never really meant to be fathomed.

Well, brothers and sisters, thanks to suggestions from Brian and Abigail and a few other very entertaining readers, today we will touch on a related area of study ... the most accidentally misunderstood rock lyrics ever.

That's misunderstood in the sense of misheard. Like getting the words wrong. Like … just fill in whatever words seem make sense to you.

I'm sure you'll recognize some of these, and I'll even post a small wager that you've mentally rewritten one or two yourself.

Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
Actual lyric: 'scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Misheard lyric: 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.

If there were a Misheard Musical Hall of Fame, this would be Babe Ruth.

Ever since those four mop-topped lads from Liverpool took over Ed Sullivan's stage and stormed the beach to kick off the British Invasion, buttoned-down, pearl-necklaced parents across America had their suspicions: Rock music in the 1960s was out to redefine their Eisenhower-born, upstanding young men ... long-haired, drug-addled and gay.

Finally, here was the evidence.

The beauty of this particular lyric is that even after you've read the words on the liner notes, and even after you've written the music label's parent company and received a certified, notarized letter confirming that Mr. Hendrix is indeed saying “kiss the sky” … you can still hear it.

“Darn it, Martha, they don't even spell Jimmy right.”

Here are a few more candidates for our mythical Hall of Fame:

You May Be Right, Billy Joel
Actual lyric: You may be right, I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're lookin' for
Misheard lyric: You made the rice, I made the gravy,
But it just may be some tuna fish you're lookin' for

Why this almost makes sense:

As a calorically challenged American, there are times when every television show, movie, newspaper article, song and Shakespearean death scene reminds me of food. I not only understand this particular misinterpretation, I celebrate it. It illustrates the plight of all of those who look at a nutritious apple and see apple pie. Who look at a healthy salad, take out the roll they always keep in their pocket and turn it into a hoagie. So I stand tall (actually more wide than tall) and say “Make buns, not war!” Sorry, I get a little emotional on this topic.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
Actual lyric: Where the dogs of society howl.
Misheard lyric: Where the dachshund society howls.

Why this almost makes sense:

With apologies to Elton's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, I think we'll have to conclude that the misheard words are actually a little better than the original ones this time. The image of an entire society of howling wiener dogs is Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz cool and exactly the kind of thing that could be haunting our nighttime hours just as creepily as giant mushrooms or flying monkeys do. So that's one missed opportunity for Bernie, but on the positive side, he got the next one right.

Tiny Dancer, Elton John
Actual lyric: Count the headlights on the highway.
Misheard lyric: Count the head lice on the hiney.

Why this almost makes sense:

This one is tough to defend. Although the sound is extremely close, the refrain “Hold me close up, Tiny Dancer” more or less rules out any perceived danger of infestation. Then there is the decidedly unrocker-like term “hiney,” which no self-respecting cool dude would use. And finally, in all fairness, head lice generally don't go there.

Africa, Toto
Actual lyric: I bless the rains down in Africa.
Misheard lyric: I left Lorraine's down in Africa.

Why this almost makes sense:

This is basically just a variation on the intended theme. Blessing the rains in Africa is a statement on how dry it can get there, right? I like to think that maybe Lorraine's is what we sometimes call a watering hole (but which is actually a tavern); and Africa is a place where you can still find many real-life, functioning watering holes, what with all the hippos and giraffes and such. So this interpretation works on several levels.

Stayin' Alive, The Bee Gees
Actual lyric: Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.
Misheard lyric: Well you can tell by the way I lose my watch
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.

Why this almost makes sense:

There's a certain vulnerability to a guy who is always losing things. That fits in well with the Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever, the movie that this song opens. He's a tough guy from the streets, but with a burning desire to dance, dance, dance! Also, the lost watch explains why there's no time to talk in spite of his being a woman's man.

Space Oddity, David Bowie
Actual lyric: Ground control to Major Tom.
(Multiple) Misheard lyrics: Clown control to Mao Tse Tung.
Ground control to Major Tongue.
Ground control, Tomato Tom.

Why this almost makes sense:

I have my suspicions that combining clowns and Chairman Mao was a CIA initiative to discredit the communist Chinese leader at the height of the Cold War. If so, bravo, CIA! But I think my favorite is the “Tomato Tom” misinterpretation. To me, that is taking an already eccentric little song, turning it even more obtuse and saying “Take that, Mr. Bowie.”

Help!, The Beatles
Actual lyric: When I was younger, so much younger than today
Misheard lyric: When I was young the sun was younger than today

Why this almost makes sense:

It's hard to argue with the logic that the sun ages just as we all do. Why that would influence one to never need help in any way is a little harder to explain. But the Beatles were nothing if not, shall we say … experimental in their lyrics. After all, is bringing up the aging of the sun in a plea for help any stranger than picturing oneself “in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies”? I think not.

Like a Virgin, Madonna
Actual lyric: Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
Misheard lyric: Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time.

Why this almost makes sense:

This would seem to make no sense at all until you consider the reputation of Madonna back in the day. She was the very definition of what used to be known as a “party girl” ... Spears and Lohan and Hilton rolled into one (having said this, Madonna did manage to have the grace to exit a limo properly pantied). Even so, thirty-one times does seem like a lot of touches to maintain that particular classification. It brings to mind a statement often attributed to Groucho Marx: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Actual lyric: There's a bad moon on the rise.
Misheard lyric: There's a bathroom on the right.

Why this almost makes sense:

If you listen to enough Creedence, it becomes very clear that lead singer John Fogerty is begging listeners to get the words wrong. There is the song “Sweet Hitchhiker,” which sounds more like “Sweet Itchy-Yike-Her,” and John claims (in a perfect Curly Howard accent) to have “hoid it through the grapevine” that not much longer would she be his. On another level, since he is warning us not to go out at night because it's bound to take our life … at some point, we'll most definitely need to know where the bathroom is located.

In conclusion ...

Most of us are vaguely aware that we may not have gotten these words exactly right, and as a result seldom sing them out loud. But there are few experiences in life as fun as watching someone so confident in his misunderstanding that he blissfully belts out the song, complete with his own personalized words.

Cherish those moments when you come across them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Those Crazy, Crazy Lyrics

Mares eat oats, and does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy.
A kid'll eat ivy, too. Wouldn't you?

I loved that song when I was a kid.

Little did I know that it would create a pathway in my brain that would allow me to appreciate the utter nonsense that would permeate my favorite songs in the years to come.

The rock generation took nonsense to a level never before attempted or achieved.

Maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was the times, but it's hard to imagine Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer coming up with anything vaguely resembling Bob Dylan's “... and she just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.”

Ira Gershwin surely scratched his head along with the rest of us to Jim Webb's “MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain …”

Sammy Cahn probably didn't tap his toe to the Beatles' tune proclaiming “I am the walrus, you are the egg man,” or to the ever more baffling:

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

Steve Allen, who was a songwriter as well as a host/comedian, caught on quickly ... as evidenced by his dramatic reading of Gene Vincent's “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”

I suppose the idea behind early rock was that it was “the beat, the beat, the beat,” as one surprisingly rhythmic guardian of morality put it in the 1950s. Who cares what they're saying as long as we can move our feet to it?

The kids on American Bandstand reserved their highest ratings for new tunes only if “We can dance to it, Dick.” (Just to avoid any misunderstanding here for the younger audience, they were addressing host Dick Clark.)

And so if you weren't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time, so what? No tears were shed for you. Too bad if Maybellene couldn't be true, and done started back doing those things she used to do. That's your problem, buddy.

Only geeks (known then as “weirdos” or “poindexters”) knew all the words, any way.

Then, some time during the mid-1960s, that changed.

Largely due to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, a whole generation took off its dancing shoes and put on its headphones. Songs with a message, like “Lady Madonna” or “Blowin' in the Wind” took the pop culture main stage and rock found itself in the unenviable position of being thought of as important.

When Donovan sang “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain … then there is,” the media clamored for the deeper meaning behind the imagery. Even Elvis went social commentary on us with his biggest 60s hit: “'Cause if there's one thing she don't need, it's another little baby's mouth to feed … in the ghetto.”

But rock-n-roll wasn't meant to be important.

The Animals, with Eric Burton singing lead, tried to warn us that there was no use interpreting the words of rock music toward some greater meaning: “I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.”

And the Moody Blues couldn't have been any clearer:

And if you want the wind of change
To blow about you
And you're the only other person to know, don't tell me
I'm just a singer in a rock and roll band

Finally, the singer/songwriters got together and decided to bring the music back to its gibberish roots.

In 1969, Tommy James & the Shondells had two top hits, one more difficult to fathom than the other. First, Tommy and the boys shared with us the key to peace and brotherhood. Unfortunately for the world in which we actually live, it was a not-yet-on-the-market product called Crystal Blue Persuasion. Then they told us that they had discovered a beautiful feeling by repeating the words “crimson and clover” over and over. (And over and over and over. Don't bother, it doesn't work.)

As noted in the beginning of this article, Dylan and the Beatles gladly abandoned their “songs with meaning” concept and joined in. So the blarney and balderdash were back in full swing:

Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven:
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow
Don't be alarmed now
It's just a spring clean
For the May queen

America, A Horse With No Name:
The first thing I met, was a fly with a buzz
And the sky, with no clouds
The heat was hot, and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I imagine that you could add dozens of your own favorites to this list.

If nothing else then, rock music has contributed to our culture by teaching us that you really don't need to have a clue to what the lyrics of a song are saying to enjoy it. Come to think of it though, the classical masters like Bach and Beethoven didn't even bother with lyrics, did they?

Okay, so maybe there is no great contribution to society, but I'll sum up my feelings on the subject with a few words from Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones:

I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it!

Monday, July 12, 2010

They Don't Make That Any More

“I'll have a Crystal Pepsi. Or, wait ... let me try that New Coke.”

It may be hard to imagine, but the time may come when today's young people lament the passing of some of the brands they have gotten so accustomed to seeing as they grew up. (“Remember Twitter? What were we thinking?)

Of course, many of us have already experienced that feeling. Advertisers bombard us with perfectly good reasons why we just can't live without a particular product, but sometimes we collectively say, “No, thanks.” That doesn't mean they were bad. It just wasn't their time.

Here are a few ill-timed products that had such high hopes, only to be tossed onto the scrap heap of American consumerism:

Simca Cars
My family had a 1962 powder blue Simca, which was the sort of “economy car” that made the Volkswagen Beetle look like a Ferrari 250 GTO. We did have quite a few adventures in that car, though. Some were performance-related … it climbed hills like the last kid to finish the mile run at fat camp. Some were the result of pilot error … we once found ourselves driving the wrong way on the Schuylkill Expressway. So, to be honest, I have a soft spot in my heart for Simcas. Just the same, the last car bearing the Simca name was unleashed on a disinterested public in 1980. Simca was also the name of Latka's girlfriend/wife on the classic sitcom Taxi, but that's probably just a coincidence.

Tareyton Cigarettes
This brand took a physically harmful product, combined it with a grammatically incorrect slogan (“Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch”) and added a politically incorrect image (women sporting a black eye). Naturally it was a huge success. English teachers across America cringed as they could find no sanctuary from the paraphrased slogan that was on everyone's lips ... “Us [Yankees fans, Catholics, homosexuals, fill in your group here] would rather fight than switch.” Technically, you can still find the brand around, but the market share has dwindled to the point of near extinction. It could be that Tareyton smokers lost most of those fights.

Salvo Concentrated Detergent Tablets
There was a definite military theme to this first detergent to dispense with the bother of measuring out the proper amount of soap for your laundry load. Besides the name itself (defined as the simultaneous discharge of artillery or firearms), the commercials showed a woman in a World War II vintage airplane dropping these tiny, white “dirt bombs” into her washing machine. Maybe the women-in-the-military theme was ahead of its time. Or maybe preventing customers from using too much detergent proved to be a revenue-losing proposition. For whatever reason, Salvo disappeared from the detergent shelves after just a few years on the market.

Ortlieb's Beer
An elderly couple lived across the street from us when I was a kid. (And by “elderly” I mean somewhere between 40 and 80 years old. You can't really get more specific than that when you're under ten yourself.) The man was called “Whitey” and his wife was “Petey.” I remember two things about them: They had two parakeets, also named Whitey and Petey, and Whitey drank Ortlieb's beer. A lot of people drank Ortlieb's then, but I remember being impressed by his refusal to drink any other brand. Sadly, there must not have been many like him because the last of the true Ortlieb's beer was produced in the late 1980s (the name was bought by Schmidts and then Heileman, but the formula was changed) and they demolished the brewery building itself in 2002. I'm kind of glad that Whitey (probably) didn't live to see that.

The Polaroid Black-and-White Camera
Today is sounds a little like a painful medical condition, but at one time a Polaroid was a downright marvel of scientific achievement. You could take a picture and it would very slowly develop itself in the camera in a slimy, larva-like condition of not-fully-doneness. There was a sort of chemical smell that added to the experience, too. In the early 60s, we took this state-of-the-art device to Hershey, PA to watch the Philadelphia Eagles train and got a picture of my brother Dan and me with the great Sonny Jurgensen! This is still one of my favorite captured moments.

But it's not only products that fall by the wayside. Sometimes it's perfectly useful jobs like these that get “progressed” out of existence:

Elevator Operator
Now you can see them only in old movies. But there was a time when “elevator operator” was an actual job. In fact, my grandfather had this job at a General Electric building after he retired as a Philadelphia police officer. I'm not sure whether people back then were just too technologically inexperienced to push the correct floor on the wall panel, or it was just a way to keep more people employed after The Great Depression. If it was that last thing maybe we ought to think about bringing this career back into the workforce.

The disappearance of these professions (except the iceman, for obvious reasons) baffles me. We're all about convenience these days. And you can still get a pizza or a cheese steak delivered in most areas of this great country. So why not the bread or donuts or cakes and pies that the breadman brought us? Why not the plain, chocolate or strawberry milk that the milkman so gently left on our doorsteps each morning? I may contact Google to see if there's something they can do about bringing these services back. After all, they already know where we live, what we buy and how often we move our bowels.

Gas Station Attendant
Oh, there are still people working in gas stations … usually behind a bullet-proof piece of plexiglass … but they don't attend to anything except scowling and making change. Real gas station attendants were always very concerned (perhaps even obsessed) with the state of our cars. They asked to check the oil, the radiator and our tire pressure, all while wiping the windshield clean and giving us free maps and/or perfect directions. And one more thing ... they pumped the gas, too.

So as new jobs are created, and new can't-do-without products introduced, you might want to save a small place in your memory for the poor unfortunates who don't quite make the cut. And can anybody tell me where I can get some Fizzies drink tablets or some Bonomo Turkish Taffy?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Warning Labels We Really Need

Oh, you've seen them.

You take home your brand new purchase and, like any responsible consumer, you read the instructions and warnings before using. But that one warning is just so incredibly bizarre that you lose all focus and wonder what incident could possibly have caused the manufacturer to add that.

Apparently, there are human beings walking the Earth (and voting and parenting) who don't realize that coffee is too hot to splash on the crotch; that Odor Eaters are not to be eaten; or that ironing clothes that are on still on your body will only make you the most kempt patient in the Emergency Room.

But these labels got me thinking.

Wouldn't it be great if life came with little warnings along the way? Just a few hints that we could actually use to help us navigate around the rapids that we encounter as we paddle down the river of life.

Warnings like these (seen here in chronological order):

WARNING: Do not judge all edible items by this jar of strained peas. Food will get better as you get older. There are excellent reasons that there are no 5-star restaurants named Gerber's or Beech-Nut.

CAUTION: Potty-training is strongly recommended. Although it may seem simpler now, the changing of your diaper puts you in what you will soon discover is a very embarrassing position.

DANGER: Candy bars found in the sandbox may not be candy bars.

WARNING: “Because I said so” is adult talk for “I don't know why, but you'd just better do it.”

CAUTION: When pole is frozen, avoid contact with tongue. (See A Christmas Story for details.)

DANGER: People will only stand for a limited amount of “I know you are, but what am I?” before smacking occurs.

WARNING: Knowledge of math will be a necessity throughout your life; the capital of New Hampshire and the dates of Napoleon's reign, not so much.

CAUTION: “Puppy love” heartbreak can hurt just as much as big dog heartbreak.

DANGER: Jumping from high places to impress friends may result in nicknames with words like “crazy,” “stumpy” or “special” in them.

WARNING: Parents can devise punishments that your still-forming mind cannot begin to fathom.

CAUTION: No one will believe that the big kids made you drink beer and stay out past curfew.

DANGER: Stories that seem to be funny in the locker room may not seem to be funny at grandmom's birthday party.

WARNING: Objects of your affection may appear sweeter, smarter and more loving than they actually are.

CAUTION: The phrase “Give me your honest opinion” seldom calls for your honest opinion.

WARNING: Believing something does not make it true.

WARNING: Bad kids come from somewhere. Please check yours for shenanigans on a regular basis.

CAUTION: The job interview is not the preferred forum for airing your views on religion, politics or alien encounters.

WARNING: People can see you while you're driving. Eating, make-up application and nose-picking should be avoided during this activity.

WARNING: 96 percent of all toupees are noticeable.

CAUTION: Your stories of the old days may induce sluggishness in others.

DANGER: Demonstrations of former athletic prowess may result in humiliation, lost wagers and/or painful and expensive bone breaks.

And finally, this one is my father's favorite:

WARNING: Remember to be good to your children, because they will choose your nursing home.