Tag Archives: Purple Haze

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“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.


There’s a bathroom on the right

John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “In My Life”

Song lyrics have been on my mind a lot the last few days.  I’ve told you about how my father could recite the lyrics of every classic rock song ever written, even if sometimes his interpretation of what was being sung was somewhat out there.  In fairness to him, he certainly wasn’t unique in his lyric dyslexia, as anyone who’s ever scrunched their eyebrows to “Louie Louie” can attest.  (The FBI investigated the song for several years in the 60’s to try and determine if it was obscene – your tax dollars at work, folks.)  In an era where written verse has retreated to the obscure, impenetrable domain of the hipster, music lyrics are our most accessible form of poetry.  The trouble is, the stuff that is the most popular tends to function on a level no more complicated than “Roses are red, violets are blue.”  It is as though there has been a collective decision that nobody’s listening to what’s being sung, so it doesn’t matter what the words are.  The trouble is, blandness and vapidity doesn’t just drag the song itself down – it diminishes all of music.

Recently, I was struck by a verse from a song that you’ve heard if you saw The Adjustment Bureau – “Future’s Bright,” by film composer Thomas Newman and Richard Ashcroft.  Presented for your consideration:  “When Icarus fell from the sky, the plough still turned the field and the child still cried.”  The song isn’t the greatest ever written, nor is this the most inspiring lyric ever growled by a semi-obscure Brit alt-rocker.  But it’s stuck with me regardless, I think because it is at the least an attempt at poetry inside a very commercial product.  It’s plain language, but still evokes strong imagery and draws allusion to classical myth – challenging the listener, in effect, to find out who Icarus was and why his fall is significant, particularly in the context of the greater message about the optimism inherent in looking forward at a life filled with possibility.  How refreshingly old-fashioned, when the lion’s share of popular music these days seems devoted to discussing the shapely undulations of a female’s hind parts in da club.

Elvis Costello said recently that his favourite couplet in all of music was Cole Porter’s line from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”:  “Use your mentality, wake up to reality.”  My personal favourite is Paul McCartney’s famous closing statement, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – an incomparably beautiful, spiritual, philosophical reflection on the meaning of life, one whose genius even the compliment-stingy John Lennon was able to admit.  Both songs come from an era where more was expected from music.  There has always been an element of sales and the view of songs strictly as product, particularly in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley, but it seems to me that writers just used to try harder.  These days?  Three writers to declare “Pedicures on our toes, toes, trying on all new clothes, clothes, boys blowing up our phones, phones” and then misspell the Kesha song’s title, “Tik Tok.”  (Were we under the mistaken impression beforehand that pedicures could be applied to the elbow?)  It took nine writers – nine independent minds, collaborating, just ponder that for a second – to string together the pronouncement, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the Block.”  Yet it only took Freddie Mercury to write all of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed.  When did it become acceptable to settle for so much less?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of great songwriters out there still giving their all and trying desperately to earn space on the radio alongside Selena Gomez declaring over and over, in a blinding flash of self-referential insight, that she loves you “like a love song, baby.”  No doubt in the classical music era there were a hundred failed composers for every Mozart or Beethoven.  The difference between then and now, is that the democratization of media – as beneficial as it is in some respects – has led to the mediocre stuff attaining heights of popularity deserved only by the brilliant.  The hacks of the 18th Century music scene are long and deservedly forgotten.  Rebecca Black got a music career in spite of, and in fact because of being dreadful.  We can’t blame the artists (or wannabes) for this, as much as we may feel like stabbing out our ears with icepicks rather than endure Bieber whining “baby, baby,” one more time.  We’re the ones who decided to stop demanding better – we decided that French fries were preferable to vichyssoise, regardless that the musical equivalent of saturated fat does nothing but make our brains lethargic and stupid.

Part of the fun of trying to figure out the lyrics of some of those older songs was the premise that whatever was being warbled beneath overdubs of guitar and keyboard was something worth discovering.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” the gold standard for misheard lyrics along with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” is a rollicking, foot-tapping number whose words, while straighforward, still manage to function on the level of metaphor.  You can at least sense that there is an inquisitive mind behind the syllables, not a soulless, management-appointed committee more interested in demographics than saying anything substantial.  That’s why no one really cares that much what “Hey Mister DJ, come pon de replay” means.  It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but it’s not one you’ll ever want to sing to yourself in the shower.