“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.
Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound: the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended. If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener. The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign. Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen. More on this in a minute.
My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed. His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed. I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup. He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music. Anything from the 50’s or 60’s, however, he knew cold. The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops. For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist: Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes. He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.
Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.) This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens. Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning. That is, if you cared. Dad didn’t. His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter. “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.” (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)
I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place. I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer. In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice. Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is. And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son. We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts. Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.