By Patrick Vecchio
Back before everything was just a Google search away, my cousin Paul and I were talking about song lyrics, and he jokingly said he would give his lifeâ€™s savings to anyone who could recite any four consecutive lines of U2â€™s â€œElvis Presley in America.â€
But alas, thanks to the Internet, now there will be no more endless debating of timeless questions like: â€œI bury Paulâ€ or â€œcranberry sauceâ€? All the mystery to rock lyrics â€“ the lyrical code weâ€™d spend so much time trying to crack â€” all of it is gone.
Or maybe not.
I was reminded of this last week when I did a search for the lyrics to ZZ Topâ€™s â€œMy Headâ€™s in Mississippi.â€ In sifting through the lyrics, I spotted these four lines:
And last night I saw a naked cowgirl.
She was floatin’ across the ceiling.
She was mumblinâ€™ to some howlin’ wolf
About some voodoo healin’.
Stipulated: ZZ Top will never win any awards from feminists, and understandably so. Letâ€™s set that (not inconsiderable) point aside, though, and consider the last two lines: The cowgirl is addressing an animal â€” a â€œhowlinâ€™ wolf,â€ to be precise.
Not really. She surely must have been mumblinâ€™ to some Howlinâ€™ Wolf, which is an entirely different animal: the legendary blues man Chester Burnett, aka Howlinâ€™ Wolf. I once saw Wolf and his band. They were playing on the main floor of my collegeâ€™s student union. Fewer than a dozen people were in attendance. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty, as Marley once observed. Anyway:
Iâ€™m not convinced the lyrics hounds who post to Web sites are always the brightest lights above the dance floor. Consider this selection from Graham Parkerâ€™s brilliant â€œBack in Timeâ€:
Then they will call your name and hand you a medal,
Or something more practical, like a whistling kettle,
And itâ€™ll test your metal. Just try to keep grinning,
Knowing that this feeling is indulgence worse than sinning,
Trying to go back in time.
Parker is singing about that point in life where weâ€™ll realize itâ€™s mostly behind us. When we get there, will our â€œmetalâ€ be tested? No, but our â€œmettleâ€ might be.
Metal, mettle â€” relatively benign confusion, really. But sometimes the confusion can become comical. Everyone has those stories about what they thought they heard, as opposed to what really was being sung: Hendrixâ€™s famous line from â€œPurple Hazeâ€ being misheard as â€œâ€™Scuse me while I kiss this guy,â€ for example. The best (worst?) such confusion I ever read about was the line â€œtake the world in a love embraceâ€ from Steppenwolfâ€™s â€œBorn to be Wild,â€ a line someone misheard as â€œkick the world in a lovinâ€™ place.â€ I told this story to my sister Linda once, and after she stopped laughing, she sang the misheard line in her best Tiny Tim imitation, prompting more tornadoes of laughter.
All too often, Web sites canâ€™t help us differentiate between â€œlove embracesâ€ and â€œlovinâ€™ places.â€ Iâ€™d love to find some authoritative lyrics to â€œSomething Else is Working Harderâ€ by the Golden Palominos, because the lyrics Iâ€™ve been able to decipher sound intriguing. (Vocals, by the way, are by Jack Bruce, in a truly inspired performance.) I have been able to find someoneâ€™s transcription of the lyrics, and even though that person has a much keener ear than I, the transcription still contains these two lines:
[ indecipherable ]
[ indecipherable ]
At least that person knew when to surrender to the unhearable â€” as opposed to this person, who took on Brian Enoâ€™s â€œUnderâ€:
Well all the waves of spin are foaming,
And fake muezzin steam and brew,
Formed in the fire of all their longings (?)
Yes, thatâ€™s right, the dreaded â€œfake muezzinâ€ has surfaced again. I thought Tipper Gore had taken care of that problem once and for all.