TunesDay: Kicking the world where it hurts

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 life’s savings to anyone who could recite any four consecutive lines of U2’s “Elvis Presley in America.”

But alas, thanks to the Internet, now there will be no more endless debating of timeless questions like: “I bury Paul” or “cranberry sauce”? All the mystery to rock lyrics – the lyrical code we’d spend so much time trying to crack — 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 Top’s “My Head’s in Mississippi.” 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 mumblin’ to some howlin’ wolf
About some voodoo healin’.

Stipulated: ZZ Top will never win any awards from feminists, and understandably so. Let’s set that (not inconsiderable) point aside, though, and consider the last two lines: The cowgirl is addressing an animal — a “howlin’ wolf,” to be precise.

Not really. She surely must have been mumblin’ to some Howlin’ Wolf, which is an entirely different animal: the legendary blues man Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf. I once saw Wolf and his band. They were playing on the main floor of my college’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:

I’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 Parker’s brilliant “Back in Time”:

Then they will call your name and hand you a medal,
Or something more practical, like a whistling kettle,
And it’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 we’ll realize it’s mostly behind us. When we get there, will our “metal” be tested? No, but our “mettle” might be.

Metal, mettle — 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: Hendrix’s famous line from “Purple Haze” being misheard as “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy,” for example. The best (worst?) such confusion I ever read about was the line “take the world in a love embrace” from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” a line someone misheard as “kick the world in a lovin’ place.” 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 can’t help us differentiate between “love embraces” and “lovin’ places.” I’d love to find some authoritative lyrics to “Something Else is Working Harder” by the Golden Palominos, because the lyrics I’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 someone’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 — as opposed to this person, who took on Brian Eno’s “Under”:

Well all the waves of spin are foaming,
And fake muezzin steam and brew,
Formed in the fire of all their longings (?)

Yes, that’s right, the dreaded “fake muezzin” has surfaced again. I thought Tipper Gore had taken care of that problem once and for all.

10 replies »

  1. The lyrics for “Blinded by the Light” still throw me for a loop. I don’t care what it’s SUPPOSED to be. We all know what it sounds like. 🙂

  2. Cool that you saw Howling Wolf. A lot of people thought he was a novelty, but he was a highly skilled singer to those who listen closely. Too bad it was under-attended. Freddy King once appeared at my high school. Fortunately, if not fully understood, it was well-attended.

    Re Hendrix and “kiss the sky”. . . I’m old enough to have seen him live three times. He used to point at Mitch Mitchell in deference to the misinterpration as “kiss this guy.” Probably visible in films of him too.

  3. “Blinded by the Light” was written by Bruce Springsteen and was the first song off his first album. His original lyrics can by found on his official site:

    “And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride”
    There’s a little audio Rorschach test. What does it sound like to you and what does it mean?

  4. That he was doing the worst imaginable imitation of Bob Dylan at that point in his career.

    Springsteen’s first album was dreadful; his second, “The Wild, the Innocent. . .” transcendent. Everything since, ho-hum. (Though his heart is in the right place.)

  5. Russ: Ho-hum? Born to Run
    Darkness of the Edge of Town
    The River
    Born in the USA
    The Ghost of Tom Joad Ho-hum? You’re yanking my chain, right?

  6. Not everyone has to like Springsteen. If I can dislike Elvis and the Beatles, Russ can dislike Bruce.

    Given his admitted enjoyment of techno, I’m not actually too surprised. Put up Bruce’s music vs. VNV Nation or Assemblage23 or even Frou Frou, and I can totally see why someone who likes the latter might not like the former.

  7. Speaking as a big FF and VNV fan, I’m not sure I see this as an either/or proposition.

    I’m not demanding that Russ like Bruce, I’m just trying to get my head around loving The Wild, the Innocent… (a great record, no doubt) but thinking everything since is ho-hum.

  8. Bruce Springsteen — there probably isn’t an artist I respect more and yet dislike his music as much as I do.

    Getting back on topic, Steve Kilbey of the Church takes great pleasure in frustrating the web culture. He refuses to post lyrics and sometimes writes vaguely so that the lyrics could be construed (and written) in two totally different ways. He will improv his lyrics live if he starts to notice fans trying to mouth along too much.

  9. Bruce Springsteen — there probably isn’t an artist I respect more and yet dislike his music as much as I do.

    Exactly. Thank you, Fikshun.

    This reminds me of a musician friend of mine who approached guitar playing technically. He lived near Philadelphia when Bruce was on the rise and both saw, and opened for him with his own band, a couple dozen times.

    He was enthralled by his live shows. but my friend would always go, “Three chords! He just uses three chords!”

    I know many have built their careers in rock and jazz on three chords, but Bruce’s music is kind of boring, his lyrics and singing pretentious. Still, in that ridiculously over-used phrase, he’s an icon.