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!


  1. From Abigail S.

    My brother and I were just discussing misunderstood lyrics yesterday and remembering the 80s when I thought the song was called, "you dropped the farm on me." ;)

  2. From Jennifer V.

    Had no idea geeks were once called poindexters. "But rock-n-roll wasn't meant to be important." Right. Great blog, Jack.

  3. From Robert L.

    Another great blog. I was going to respond with that line from Stairway but you beat me to it.

  4. Back in the day, friends and I thought that song "I'm so hot for her" was Mick singing about how "I'm so wonderful and she's so cold" . . .we thought it odd, but not for Mick! Ha, ha, ha! Didn't stop us from singing it at the top of our lungs though!

  5. I think I like your version better, Nat!

  6. Well, Jack, this is a good one! One of my favorite examples of truly WTF lyrics is from the old ELP song, "Still you turn me on"

    "Do you wanna be the pillow
    Where I lay my head
    Do you wanna be the feathers
    Lying on my bed
    Do you wanna be the cover
    Of a magazine
    Create a scene

    Every day a little sadder
    A little madder
    Someone get me a ladder"

    A ladder?

    As to meaning, my mother always used to say, "if you look for bugs in your food, you're gonna find 'em"

    I have taken this to heart, as well as the nugget of wisdom gleaned from a ladies' room with doorless stalls in an old poor boy joint in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. Upon walking into said ladies room and noticing someone there (in one of the doorless stalls), I said "oh, scuze me" and looked away. The rotund lady replied (in a New Orleans accent hard to imitate, but vaguely close to one from Brooklyn or the Bronx), "don't worry, dollin', you see sumpin you ain't never seen before, hit it wid a stick!"

    Goo goo ga joob!

  7. That's a hell of a story, Eileen ... makes me want to see New Orleans more than ever. And now I know to bring a stick!

  8. From Boyd M.

    How could you leave out “We skipped the wild fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor, I was feelin’ kinda seasick, the crowd called out for more…”

    And you call yourself a poindexter?