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Another Somebody Sung Somebody's Song Wrong

(Photo Illustration by Susana Sanchez)
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Come to think of it, other people's mishearings can be just as endearing as one's own. I will never be able to hear Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" without thinking of my son, 5 or 6 at the time, doing his Hammer moves and enthusiastically chanting, "Do the jet! Do the bella kwee! Hey, hey!"

On the few occasions when I've checked, a song's actual lyrics turn out to be less interesting that my mistaken understanding of them. Bob Seger is actually singing, "Call me a relic, call me what you will" on "Old Time Rock & Roll." But I prefer my misinterpretation: "Call me a rabbit, call me what you will . . . "

The apparent name for this phenomenon is mondegreens, a word coined by writer Sylvia Wright in the 1950s to describe her childhood misreading of an old Scottish folk song that referred, or so she thought, to "Lady Mondegreen." Instead, the song described the slaying of a noble and the townspeople who "laid him on the green."

The all-time greatest mondegreen may be "Louie, Louie." The song has been recorded by hundreds of artists, but I refer here to the 1963 hit by the Kingsmen. When the song came out, some parents thought lead singer Jack Ely's slurring of the lyrics masked indecent or obscene statements. The resultant uproar led to a federal investigation. "Louie" is actually a sweet story of a homesick sailor who longs to return to his girlfriend ("A fine girl, she wait for me/Me catch the ship across the sea . . . ").

A somewhat similar controversy broke out a few years later with "I Am the Walrus," the Beatles classic from "Magical Mystery Tour." The acid-trip-inspired tune contains a spacey, distorted chant at the end that some people to this day swear is "Everybody smokes pot" and others insist is a repeated obscene comment.

I'd argue that "Benny and the Jets" is a close second to "Louie" in the mondegreen sweepstakes. Elton John's 1973 hit is so incomprehensibly sung that only a few of its lyrics ("B-b-b-b-Benny and the Jets!") are actually understandable without liner notes or sensitive sonic equipment some 35 years after the fact. I am pleased to report that this song is still mystifying people, as evidenced by a brief scene in the recent movie "27 Dresses," in which the characters argued over the lyrics.

Anyway, here, among the many mangled verses, is what I think I'm hearing:

Oh, it's a-weird and s'wonderful.

I'll fancy the ready cane.

She's gotta let me move

I know how, too . . .

You know I read a little pack of 'zines.

I'll grant you that Elton's actual lyrics are probably better than my own. But that doesn't matter to me. My understanding of "Benny" is locked in adolescence and hasn't grown at all over the years. I'm very proud of that.

I mean, finding the real lyrics now would be like finding that some other long-cherished artifice of memory wasn't strictly true, as if your dad wasn't really that strong or your first girlfriend, really, wasn't all that pretty. All this may be literally true. But that's the problem with the literal truth: It has very little poetry. And it sure as heck ain't got no soul.


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