Each Thursday morning I take a drive out to Yahk to deliver newspapers to our dealers there, usually in the company of satellite radio tuned to the Classic Vinyl channel. That’s my music they play from a studio in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Last week I couldn’t help but smile when one of my favourite Moody Blues songs came on. I’m an unabashed in-car singer, and I always sing the wrong lyrics to Question, because I get a kick of using an angst-ridden voice to sing “I need someone to take my life” (instead of “I need someone to change my life”). Then, oddly, the next song on the playlist was Bad Moon Risin’, one of Creedence Clearwater Rival’s greatest hits, which features the often misheard lyric, “There’s a bathroom on the right” in place of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” Strangely, that line is preceded by “Well, don’t go around tonight, Well it’s bound to take your life,” for which my “I need someone to take my life” provided a perfect segue.
Misheard lyrics, as any fan of Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap knows, have come to be known as Mondegreens. It wasn’t until I thought of this column topic that I made the effort to look the word up. Apparently a woman named Sylvia Wright heard the lyrics of a Scottish folk song that includes the line “slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green,” but thought it said “…and Lady Mondegreen.” Lovely.
Rock and roll music is especially conducive to Mondegreens, the lyrics often being delivered fast and loud, with vocals competing with guitars and drums to be heard. So it is no surprise that we can go for years, or perhaps a lifetime, making incorrect interpretations of lyrics. And let’s face it, sometimes the Mondegreens are so good that they just sound better than the original lyrics.
I can’t listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze without hearing “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “kiss the sky” (although Bachman explained on Saturday night that Hendrix himself might have intentionally created his own Mondegreen for that one) and I only sing along with The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds with the line “The girl with colitis goes by” instead of “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
Bachman has done a number of Vinyl Tap shows that feature Mondegreens, and his own Bachman-Turner Overdrive megahit Takin’ Care of Business is said to often be confused with Bakin’ Carrot Biscuits.
I’m not sure that, irreverent as I might be, I can make the transition from “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” to “Dead ants are my friends; they’re blowin’ in the wind,” though. For rock music fans, some things are sacred, and anything that Bob Dylan wrote tops that list.
Some Mondegreens make so much sense that they just beg to replace the original lyrics. How about Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight after you’re wasted”? Or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Are you going to starve an old friend?”
I think I have a particular affinity for Mondegreens because I never have heard lyrics particularly well. I know key words and phrases to hundreds of rock songs, just enough to let me sing along and fake the rest. So when I get the chance to rethink an old favourite like The Foundations’ Build Me Up Buttercup with a line changed from “I’ll be beside the phone waiting for you” to “I’ll be your xylophone waiting for you” I am a happy guy. I mean who isn’t going to smile when singing Juice Newton’s Angel of the Morning lyric “Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby” to “Just brush my teeth before you leave me, baby?” It’s such a touching thought, isn’t it?
Not all rock songs are especially articulate, even as they are written. Think, for instance, of almost any Neil Diamond song (don’t get mad—I’m a fan). Even if you look up some of the lyrics you have to wonder what the guy was thinking. “I am
I said, To no one there, And no one heard at all, Not even the chair.” Huh? Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light was played endlessly in the year we got married, and in those pre-Internet years there was no easy way to look up lyrics. I had no idea that he was singing, with a pronounced lisp, ““revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night”. I suppose “deuce” could be referring to a car, as in Little Deuce Coupe, but Mann made it sound like “douche” and “revved” sounded much more like “wrapped” to my ears. I had no idea what the the real lyric was, but I happily made up my own version, as did countless others, apparently. Urban Dictionary offers three dozen or more Mondegreens for that line.
Even mis-heard lyrics don’t always make sense, of course. I still have no idea what America meant with A Horse With No Name. And don’t even get me started on MacArthur Park.