By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Okay, here it comes again, that part toward the end of the Creedence Clearwater song, "Looking Out My Back Door," when John Fogerty sings, "Ann-Marie's an elephant, a-playin' in the band/Won't you take a ride on a flyin' spool . . ."
The mind reels. How delightful: A musical elephant named Ann-Marie (I wonder what instrument she plays). And taking a ride on a flyin' spool? Sounds thrilling, though perhaps a bit tricky and dangerous.
Only I'm pretty certain that's not what Fogerty is singing. Like dozens, maybe hundreds of pop songs I've been singing along with, I know I'm mangling those lines, and have -- can it be? -- for decades.
Back when, the only way to puzzle out a misunderstood lyric was to buy the album and check the lyric sheet or liner notes (you remember albums, don't you, kids?). For more than a decade, it's been easy and free. Tap a few keystrokes into one of the many lyric sites on the Internet, and the words become as clear as sheet music.
But really, why would anyone want to do that? Why would anyone bother to tamper with one's golden, screwed-up, misheard lyrics? Why bother with fastidious exactitude now, after you've been singing it your way at least 6,587 times?
Music is personal, even when it's being consumed by millions of other people. You never lose the songs that seeped into your head at a certain age. They are forever linked to a time, a place, experiences. The associations are vivid: whom you knew, whom you hated, whom you had a crush on. Clothes, food, smells all come rushing back. If you correct what you thought you heard, you pull on the thread of memory, disturbing the entire fabric.
You are, on some level, what you mishear. "Any misheard lyric is an impromptu Rorschach test," writes Gavin Edwards, who has collected misheard lyrics in several volumes of amusingly named volumes (" 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy," "He's Got the Whole World in His Pants," etc.).
When I hear "Beast of Burden," in my mind, it's the summer, and I'm a teenager painting houses again. As the strokes go back and forth in the heat, Mick and I sing the bridge part together: "Yeah, all your sisters, I can suck a duck . . ."
Never understood that line. And I know it isn't right. And I don't care.
Or maybe I'm driving down the coast highway in my first car, to my first real job. It's 6 in the morning (early shift), and I push the cassette into the dashboard. And that staccato bass starts to come up with the sun. And the Knack guy sings -- or so I thought then and now -- "Is it just a matter of time, Sharona?/Is it just a debt to be, a debt to me/Or is it just in my mind, Sharona?"
It doesn't quite make sense. And yet it's perfect.
This Pavlovian response mechanism also works with songs you can't stand. Maybe it works even better with songs you hate because -- and I'm sure brain scientists will back me up on this -- songs you hate bore even deeper into your consciousness than songs you love. I've had a nagging suspicion all these years that the lyrics to "Dancing Queen" don't go: "Night is young and the music's high/We can do the Watusi/Everything's fine . . . " But I like it better that way. I mean, she's a dancing queen, so surely she'd know how to do the Watusi.
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.