“That’s not what it says.”

I stop singing. A moment of confusion. I’ve never questioned the lyrics to this song. They’re as burned into my head as my name across the back of my childhood belt.

“It says this,” and she gives me her take on the lyrics.

And guess what? Her lyrics actually make sense. And it isn’t until then I realize that my lyrics make no sense at all. It’s a little embarrassing; as a writer and songwriter, I’m supposed to pay attention to these things. I’m supposed to care.

But I don’t.

In fact, I’m foolish enough to think my takes on songs–song lyrics, song interpretations, song meanings–often are better than the songwriters’. 

Don’t know what I mean? Here. Let me show you.

“Alison”-Elvis Costello.

“My God, what a beautiful song” is what I thought the first time I heard this tune 20 years ago. I was in the car with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, and we’d just bought Elvis’s greatest hits, which struck me as a very grown-up thing to do. “Alison” is track one, and something about it made me feel instantly more mature. It made me feel like I could somehow abandon my crass manner and Rush album collection and truly become the refined individual I was at heart, the one worthy of the girl next to me. My dented Ford Escort became our chariot that would drive us to this elevated future together, I her Elvis, she my Alison. We’d drink wine, cavort around a lounge with other refined folk, talk about–I don’t know–kinds of cheese, laugh in some haughty way that would piss off the neighbors. I loved this song so intrinsically, I felt I could become it somehow. And that last bit of the chorus: “Alison, my aim is true.” There’s something so gallant about that line, isn’t there? As though the narrator is measuring his worth for this girl. My aim is true. So beautiful it could be French.

But if you actually make the mistake of listening to the verse lyrics of “Alison,” it’s only partially about this reach for an all-but-unreachable love. Check out the end of the second verse:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking

When I hear the silly things that you say.

I think somebody better put out the big light

‘Cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Put out the big light. Okay, the narrator could be talking about a light that’s on, and putting it out would mean he wouldn’t have to see his beloved in her compromised state. But the line also implies that the narrator might actually want to put Alison out of her misery. All of a sudden that “My aim is true” takes on a whole new meaning.

For the record, Costello has denied any intended reference to blowing Alison’s head off, but there it is in the song, skewing it in a way that, for me, diminishes it. Frankly, I liked it better before. Sorry, Elvis. Your aim is less than true on this one.

“Pieces of the Night”-Gin Blossoms

The above song was written by the deceased Blossoms’ guitarist Doug Hopkins, and for a Tempe guy like me to say anything bad about Doug–or about Doug as a songwriter, or about this song–is like a Liverpudlian saying, “You know, ‘Dear Prudence’ really isn’t all that great.” I risk pissing off about 1000 Doug fans, many of whom are my friends in that pre-Facebook way. Anyway, here goes.

I must’ve seen the Gin Blossoms a hundred times from 1990 to 1996, in front of as few as 50 and as many as 15,000 people, and each time I heard this classic song, I tilted my head back, closed my eyes and felt what can only be described as a soul-erection, especially at these lines in the chorus:

Somewhere in the distance, out of sight

They’re playing our song.

No couplet better summed up my young, drunken years in Tempe, Arizona. No matter how lost or confused or lonely I was, there still was somewhere out there where I might fit in, somewhere where they “played my song.” Even my favorite band, Tempe heroes Dead Hot Workshop–whom I saw at least as often as the Gins–couldn’t top it. Yeah, it’s sure great to have a songwriter nail your youth for you with a few deft strokes, especially a songwriter who’s from the town where you live.

Only he didn’t.

The real lyrics, which I read on the insert of my copy of New Miserable Experience, are:

Somewhere in the distance, out of sight

Then I saw.

“Then I saw?”

I quickly found the song on the CD and listened to it again. Sure enough, Robin Wilson sings “Then I saw” and not “They’re playing our song” at this most crucial point.

(In fairness, “Then I saw” leads logically into the second half of the chorus, where the narrator states what he saw: “Gin mill, rainfall.”)

How could I have missed it? If I’d known back in the day, I could’ve done something. I could’ve gotten raging drunk and dared to approach Doug about it. “Dude, those lyrics in the chorus of ‘Pieces of the Night?’ They sound an awful lot like ‘They’re playing our song,’ which is kind of cool sounding, don’t you think?” It wouldn’t have worked, but at least I could’ve tried.

But I didn’t know, so I didn’t try.

So, screw real lyrics.

“Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm“-Crash Test Dummies

I can’t remember ever being so excited as when I first heard this song. I was in my car, driving home from work, and “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm” (is that enough Ms?) came on the radio. It had these really funny–hysterically funny–lyrics about a kid whose hair had turned white, another kid with birthmarks all over her body, people lurching on church floors. And the words were delivered by this singer whose deep baritone only added to the silliness of the lyrics. I remember laughing out loud, thinking, “Someone finally got the Butthole Surfers to make a record people can listen to.”

Imagine my consternation when I found out this wasn’t an ode to Deep-Texas absurdity but instead a song about–of all things–child abuse. Talk about killing the vibe. What in the hell were these guys thinking? Why would they write a song about child abuse in a style that can so easily be misconstrued as silliness? Oh, and by the way, who were they trying to convince child abuse is a bad thing? Who the fuck is for child abuse? My bliss dissipated. The track is now completely unlistenable to me. I couldn’t even listen to it for the purposes of this post. The chilling memory is enough.

That’s it for this time. Tune in next month when I skewer Bruce Springsteen, the Ataris and more.

Read Part II here.


TAGS: , , , , , ,

ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

116 responses to “Songwronger-Part I”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    I know I mishear lyrics a lot.

    More than a lot.

    Might have something to do with my penchant for crooner-ly vocal acrobat types.

    Despite all of that, I can’t think of any in particular at the moment. I know, often, I realize I’m mishearing the lyrics, but unable to figure out what they are, I just make lyric-like noises that sound like whatever I’m hearing rather than get the lyrics wrong with actual words.

    But my husband is a talented intentional lyric mis-hearer.

    A personal favorite, a take on Nickleback’s “How You Remind Me”:

    It’s not like you to say sorry
    I was waiting on a different story
    This time I’m mistaken
    Never knew I had a pound of bacon

    (This is a song we both loathe and arguably, his take is an improvement. At least bacon has the potential to be a metaphor.)

  2. I’ve always thought my take on song lyrics was better too. I’ve often wondered how much lyrics get garbled deliberately by the artists to leave room for free interpretation. I once had a heated debate about Beck’s song Derelict where I thought “blow back, derelict wind” was much preferable to the actual wording “derelict man.”

    And Songwronger has a great ring to it, could be a lyric all its own.

  3. When I was in seventh grade, my sister received her copy of Toys in The Attic, from Columbia House, and it stayed on her turntable for about a year and a half. So, you know, we listened to a whole lotta Aerosmith back then. For some reason, during those years, I was convinced “Walk this way, walk this way, now gimme a kiss” was actually a song about everyone’s favorite white-suited raconteur “Mar-cus Twain, Mar-cus Twain, now gimme a kiss…”

    Walk this. Mark. Marcus.

    The person who disabused me of this notion still brings it up now and again at various gatherings.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Marcus Twain! That might take the prize, Sean.

      Here’s my fav from my youth:

      Big ol’ Carolina

      Don’t carry me too far away.

      Big ol’ Carolina

      ‘Cuz it’s here that I got to stay.

      Jet airliner.


  4. sheree says:

    Great post, made me think of the Iron Butterfly song: Inagodadavida, which was supposed to be “in the garden of eden”. I still crack the hell up when i hear that song.

    I never sing the Jimi Hendrix classic Hey Joe the right way. I always sing, Perdro where you goin’ with that gum in your hair? Heh.

    Good stuff. Look forward to your next post.

  5. dwoz says:

    I know it’s a trite and hackneyed trope, but Creedence’s “There’s a bathroom on the right” is always at the gate.

    As a bassist, I’ve had to learn literally thousands of tunes, for bands over the years. There’s been many heated debates about sung lyrics. To add to this, I’ll say as a graphic designer and print production specialist, that it isn’t uncommon for the album cover art to go to the printer before the final mixes and mastering…and there’s LOTS of album liner notes that have lyrics that don’t match what’s being sung. Which is correct?

    • Art Edwards says:


      We act like the words are so precious, don’t we? As far as hard rock goes, the words should just stay the hell out of the way of the groove and everything will be fine.

      “Bathroom on the right” has to be in some kind of misheard hall of fame.


      • dwoz says:

        “…we act like words are so precious…”

        What, are you fucking KIDDING me?!!!!!


        actually, words are. One of the most devastating moments of my adult life that didn’t involve death, was when someone I was producing a song for, decided that the middle verse needed to be cut.

        Why not just cut the tongue out of my mouth? Why not just slice my jugular and watch the pretty red river flow into the gutter? Why not strap me between two thoroughbreds facing opposite directions, and fire the starting gun? Why not just tell me that yes, ALL those orgasms were fake?

        oh, the pain!

        Actually, that devastating moment DID involve death.


        • Art Edwards says:

          Not in heavy rock music. The words are secondary to the groove, to my mind.

          I always thought it was funny that Christian group were concerned about the “messages” in hard rock music, which of course sent them scouring lyric sheets. The message is almost entirely in the groove, and yes, they should probably be afraid.

  6. Dana says:

    Sean – I love you more every day! I will never listen to that song the same way. Those Aerosmith boys were just ahead of their intellectual rockin’ counterparts, Rush, who’d strut their stuff with “Tom Sawyer” half a decade later. 😉

    I have pretty poor hearing (the result of frequent ear infections and almost getting my head blown off when I was a kid), so there are hundreds of misheard embarrassments in my past. I have so many I wouldn’t even know where to start.

    Do you believe in my dick?

    • Art Edwards says:

      Once again, Rush proves to be ahead of its time. They’re going to erect monuments to those guy 500 years from now.

      “Do you believe in my dick!”

      And I hope you do.


  7. Joe Daly says:

    The one that always crippled me as a kid was “Makin’ Love,” by KISS.

    I used to think it went:

    I could swear and the dog said white!
    I really wanna
    By my side
    No head to tadey!

    I’m embarrassed to go on with what I thought was the rest of the song.

    But yeah, even years later, knowing the real words to songs, I find myself still favoring my own misheard jams.

    Fun stuff, Art!

    • Art Edwards says:

      I think it’s like reading a novel and picturing one of the characters with blond hair, then coming across a sentence like, “Her brown hair flowed in the wind,” and still picturing the character with blond hair. We bring our own baggage to these songs, don’t we?

      I wish I remembered the Kiss tune. YouTube to the rescue!


  8. Slade Ham says:

    The inarguable winner of misheard lyrics has to be Jimi with “S’cuse me, while I kiss this guy!”

    And I used to think there was a part in Yellow Ledbetter that said… ah, fuck it. Never mind.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Yes, that one is classic, and probably better as “this guy.”

      I think “Ah, fuck it. Nevermind” is a great lyric! Someone needs to write that song.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        There is an “Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.”

        I’m surprised no one has mentioned the incomprehensibility of that song.

        Or maybe it was just so long ago, none of us can remember what we thought it said anyway.

        • Art Edwards says:

          I think I’ve exhausted everyone’s Nirvana patience, Becky.

          If those lyrics are nonsensical, at least they’re are audible. I like that better than a song whose singer seems to purposefully keep it obscure. Valid reasons for obscure lyrics aside, it always makes me think the singer is trying to hide something, which isn’t what I want in pop music.

          I say all this, but REM was my favorite band back in the day.

        • Becky Palapala says:


          I couldn’t understand them at all. That’s what I was getting at. Not that they were incomprehensible in the sense that they were nonsensical. Once one knows what the lyrics are, the song makes reasonable sense.

          It was figuring out what the words were…not what that they meant…that I thought most people (including me) had trouble with.

        • Art Edwards says:

          You know, you’re right.

          I think I’ve seen them written enough that I assumed they were comprehensible.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Right. We all stampeded to find out what the words were. That’s how I remember it. “WTF is he saying? ‘Hello hello hello’ or ‘Oh no oh no oh no?'”

          That’s what I meant by mentioning that maybe it was so long ago (and we have so long ago discovered the song’s actual content) that we can no longer remember what we (mistakenly) thought it said.

          Anyway. I think that one probably belongs in the misheard songs hall of fame. I just can’t remember what for.

        • Art Edwards says:

          I remember Weird Al’s version a little better than Nirvana’s.

          And I forget the second verse
          Oh well I guess it pays to rehearse
          The lyric book’s so hard to find.
          Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.

        • Lorna says:

          Yellow Ledbetter would be the perfect song to sing lyrics to in the game Rock Band because all you’d have to do is mumble through it. I don’t think I understand one word that comes out of Eddie’s mouth in that song. Well, maybe one or two. Again….see them. That’s about it.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Yeah, incomprehensibility was clearly part of the action plan on that song, but I have to admit I kind of like it like that.

        • Dana says:

          I’m sure most of you have seen this, but I still think it’s pretty funny.

          Potato wave!


        • Art Edwards says:

          Yes! I love the person who puts these together.

          I have to admit, my appreciation of Vedder has grown as I’ve gotten older. The uniqueness of his voice, the fact that he’s clearly giving it his all, are points in his favor. The over-concern with how he was perceived got in the way for me back in the day. Now, I seem to be able to listen to him without that baggage, which is nice.

  9. Lorna says:

    I was really dissapointed to discover that the lyrics to Shinedowns Second Chance did not say

    I just saw Halley’s Coment she waved

    but instead is

    I just saw Halleys’ Coment shooting

    Which makes much more sense, but I still sing it my way even though I know it’s wrong.

  10. Keith says:

    We used to have a little band and play Peacemaker and Refresh songs around town. My fav misheard is when my then girl-friend thought we were singing “If I wasn’t so Freakin Dumb” instead of “Green & Dumb”. Freakin Dumb really fits for me.


    PS: And her

  11. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    When I was a little kid, I thought the first line of Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” was:

    “The walrus won / every time he made a bet”

    And I had an image in my head of a walrus at a card table, taking all of the humans for fools. It made perfect sense at the time.

    Wonderful article, Art, and not just for opening the floodgates for everyone to share their personal misapprehensions. “Good Night to the Rock & Roll Era” sounds intriguing … what year(s) have you set it in, or is that giving too much away?

    • Art Edwards says:

      “Wonderful article, Art, and not just for opening the floodgates for everyone to share their personal misapprehensions”

      Thanks, J. Ryan.

      (Oh my gosh, someone asking about my novel.)

      It’s set in 2000, just as bands are starting to use the internet to reach their fan bases and record companies are starting to make criminals of their customers. It’s the third in a rock trilogy that started with Stuck Outside of Phoenix (2003), which is set in 1990, and Ghost Notes (2008), which is set in 1995. I’ve pretty much spent the last 14 years writing about the 90s rock scene. I’ll probably spend another 14 doing it.

      “Good Night to the Rock & Roll Era” will be finished on Dec. 31, and I’ll start seriously shopping it in Jan.

      Thanks for asking. Very excited for 2011.


  12. Greg Olear says:

    Was wondering when you’d post this!

    My take on “Allison” is that she’s preggers (“I heard you let that little friend of mine /Take off your party dress”), and that the narrator is telling her he’s not the daddy (“I don’t know if you were loving somebody / I only know it isn’t mine”). That makes “my aim is true” a lot more fun, no?

    As for mishearing lyrics, I will maintain till my dying day that Kurt Cobain, at the end of “All Apologies,” is singing my name: “All I want is O-lee-ar.”

    • Art Edwards says:

      “All I want is O-lee-ar.” Yes!

      I like your interpretation of that line better than another I saw online:

      “I don’t know if you were loving some body / I only know it isn’t mine.” Which takes out the pregnancy issue and takes it back to unrequited love. A little silly, but hard to deny its validity.

      It’s quite a complex song, and enjoyable on that level.

      • Greg Olear says:

        Given EC’s love of wordplay — I know this because I have maybe 18 or 19 albums and have seen him live five or six times, and I’m not a guy who sees shows much — I think the “some body” interpretation is probably what he had in mind when he wrote the lyrics. But I prefer mine.

        When our daughter was born, I thought about sending out cards that looked like the first EC album, but with her photo, and it would be called MY NAME IS PRUE. But I was afraid no one would get it except my friend Charles, who got EC to sign a card for our wedding. Inscribed and everything.

        • Art Edwards says:

          “My name is prue” is awesome.

          “Radio, Radio” just came on my iPod. I think he’s trying to talk to me.

          Grateful this thanksgiving for a Senior Editor who helped me out of a jam,


        • Greg Olear says:

          Ah, ’twas nothing.

          This senior editor, at the moment, is overwhelmed by the promise of an early bed. But first, because why not, my Top Five EC Songs (off the top of my head):

          1. Beyond Belief
          2. (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
          3. Indoor Fireworks
          4. King of America
          5. (The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes

          5,653. The Only Flame in Town

        • Art Edwards says:

          No doubt those are all wonderful.

          Sleep tight.


  13. Risking ridicule (and the venom of sometime TNB contributor Mike Doughty) by saying that my favourite band is probably Soul Coughing – various “reliable sources” state that the chorus of Super Bon Bon begins:

    Too fat, fat you must cut lean

    No. It does not. Not because that would be silly – Soul Coughing lyrics are often nonsensical, or at least the end product of a meandering logic process – but because…well. I’ve been listening to these words for fifteen years, and they are either:

    Two fat fat chipmunks drag queen


    Two fat bachelors drag queen

    Much better.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I will stand alongside you in your love of Soul Coughing despite the potential contempt of the (for me, anyway) equally beloved frontman.

      I always though it said “cut clean.” Huh.

      • God interview with Doughty from Village Voice, in which he explains why he doesn’t like to talk about Soul Coughing: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2009/10/interview_mike.php

        • Simon Smithson says:


          Steve, I believe you meant to refer everyone to our interview with Doughty.


          That being said, I have a print-out of the lyrics to St. Louise which I found on the internet, because I refused to sing along and not know the words.

        • Art Edwards says:

          So weird about him and Soul Coughing.

          I would venture that that horrible situation made the music better. That kind of pressure from the “dark” side of the band–the side that’s never pleased with you–keeps you on your toes. It comes at the expense of your sanity–I wouldn’t wish it on Mike or anyone–but it does make things boil that would be tepid otherwise.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Art, he thinks the music is awful (Doughty does).

          He’s really quite vehement that it was hell & garbage in every single respect–the experience, the product, everything. Like, he can’t even get happy that regardless of how Soul Coughing makes him feel, other people enjoy it.

          As far as he’s concerned, some other man (who he often insists is “dead”) fronted that band, and it was a band that made shitty music to boot.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Wow. Sounds like he was hurt pretty badly by the whole thing. Perhaps he’s not really hearing it right now.

          Unfortunately, he’ll always be seen through a SC prism. Even Sting, despite all his accomplishments, is seen through a Police prism.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          As far as celebrities go, Doughty is really a very open and accessible and thoughtful person–both in the sense that he thinks of others and that he thinks, period–so I think that makes his entrenched inflexibility in this regard all the more surprising. He seems to be a pretty talented critical/analytical thinker and he interacts openly and often with fans online, engages in intellectual discussions with them, etc., yet he has this decidedly emotional sticking point. So it’s a bit odd.

          But what the hell. We all have our wounds.

        • Art Edwards says:

          The nature of being so out-there with a band Soul Coughing–and the music being so good and original–combined with him being so young…no wonder it wasn’t all peaches and cream.

  14. “…at least the end product of a meandering logic process”? I am a constant disappointment to myself.

    • Art Edwards says:

      You don’t disappoint me, Steve. How could I–how could anyone–be disappointed with “Two fat fat chipmunks’ drag queen”?

      Love that song. Mike Doughty’s just wrong.

  15. Gloria says:

    My boys’ first musical love was The Beatles. Then came They Might Be Giants. Have I ever told you how much I love TNBG? So, much, Art. It’s insanity. So, we were dancing like crazy people to Don’t Let’s Start one day and I was singing along and there it was – the lyric I didn’t know. So I looked it up. Do you know what it says?

    They want what they’re not and I wish they would stop saying,
    Deputy dog dog a ding dang depadepa
    Deputy dog dog a ding dang depadepa

    First of all, what the hell does that even MEAN? Second of all, do you have any idea how hard that is to sing with John L? It’s SO hard.

    Lyrics, man.

    Great piece.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Every pop song is about how it makes you feel and nothing more.

      Bless you for schooling your kids on TMBG. The world just got a little brighter.


      • Gloria says:

        Oh, for sure! As you might imagine, they’re especially fond of “You’re Not the Boss Of Me Now.” 😉

        • Art Edwards says:

          That song must be newer, yes?

          I’m not great at keeping up with my fav’s more recent stuff, but there was a period where Flood was my own personal Sergeant Pepper’s.

          “Minimum wage, yeeah!”

        • Gloria says:

          Flood is a perfect album. “You’re Not the Boss Of Me Now” is the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle. It’s on their 20 Years of Dial A Song box set, which I own and would totally be happy to share.

        • Art Edwards says:

          I could listen to tracks 1 through, like, 10 of Flood like it was all one perfect song. It was addictive in that way we associate with 21st Century, internet-y, culture, but it came out in 1989. Just thinking of “Lucky Ball and Chain” give me a rush like I just drank something sugary.

  16. Ashley Menchaca (New Orleans Lady) says:

    I’m usually pretty good about not screwing up lyrics. My husband is the one who like to make up all of his own words and sing loudly for all the world to hear. It makes me insane!

    With that being said, there was one time that my screwed up version of a classic cost me $100. There I was, singing in my mother’s kitchen to a song we both loved as children when I hit it…that one line that sealed my fate…

    I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna,
    I was playing soft while Bobby sang the blues.
    Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine,
    We sang every song that driver knew.

    My entire life I have been screaming the words to this song and I have always said “we sang every song that daddy knew”.

    Why? I don’t know! But my mother’s correct version coming from the other room made me angry. I flew in there telling her that she should be ashamed of herself for destroying a classic.

    We went back and forth…
    yada, yada, yada…

    then she bet me $100 she was right and I was just a silly little girl that still had a lot to learn about Ms. Janis Joplin….

    I hate it when my mother is right.

    great post. 🙂

    • Art Edwards says:


      I get proven wrong by a family member all the time. My wife is the resident lyric-hearing master, and I’m constantly being pulled mid-bliss from my singing to have my mistakes pointed out.

      The other day, I swore to a friend that “Black Water” absolutely was not by the Doobie Brothers.


  17. In the café today, the radio played Celine Dion’s classic The Hot Dogs Go On.

  18. Simon Smithson says:

    My most embarrassing moment was, after months and years of proclaiming myself an avowed lover of the Beastie Boys, I roared out ‘This is all your sabotage,’ exactly as a friend was yelling ‘Listen all y’all, it’s a sabotage.’

    We both went silent.

    And never spoke of it again.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Oh, then you have good friends.

      I revealed to my friends, when I was 13, that I thought “Boris the Spider” by the Who was actually “Oh, this is my land,” and they laughed me out of the room. I bet they’d still laugh me out of the room.

      “I got a million friends.” -Bob Dylan

  19. Great post!

    Have you seen this: http://www.kissthisguy.com/

    My favorite is still:

    Slow-talking Walter/
    the fire engine guy

    as the chorus to “Smoke on the Water”

  20. Quenby Moone says:

    Shall I forever and always ruin a Death Cab For Cutie tearjerker for you? Or shall I just suffer by myself silently, my husband tormenting me with the lyrics I can never un-hear…

    • Art Edwards says:

      No, tell me.


      • Quenby Moone says:

        I gave you a chance, man.

        If Heaven and Hell decide
        That they both are satisfied
        Illuminate the Nose on your vacancy sign

        Now I will forever and always imagine some drunk guy like WC Fields lit up like a Christmas tree instead of the bleak, rather more poignant lyrics they intended. My husband rubs it in every time we hear it, and now it’s always this dopey Rudolph theme.

        Elvis Costello always pulls fast ones. A lot of his songs are about being a prick. I love him for that.

    • DO IT. I hate that band. I was thinking “Ooh, pretty tune, swirly piano,” then I realised the song was about someone dying in an intensive care unit that smells of piss. Bastards.

  21. D.R. Haney says:

    I used to pay a lot of attention to lyrics. I don’t anymore because words are treated more like sounds by most of the bands I prefer, and that’s the way I’ve come to respond to them. But I remember being very amused in high school when I was with a girl who was singing along with a song on the radio and stopped at some point to say, “That man on the radio is singing the wrong words!” I suppose you had to be there.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Well, I guess I think she was right! I’ve always thought songs were about how they make you feel first and foremost. If the real lyrics get in the way of them, screw the real lyrics.

      I’m seriously considering including Minor Threat’s “Filler” in Part II.

  22. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Hi Art!

    Oof, but I’ve always hated Crash Test Dummies, particularly that song. Love the Butthole Surfers, though. In fact, just your mere mention of them makes me want to dig out my old CDs.

    So, my wrong-lyric story is this: Once upon a time, a friend made me come over to spend an entire afternoon helping her decipher the lyrics to “Still Loving You” because not knowing what Klaus was singing was driving her mad. This is all I can remember (aside from having a big fight about the “fried eggs.”):

    If we go again all the way from the start
    I would try to change things that get in our love
    Fried eggs been the one …

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Art Edwards says:

      I was surprised I didn’t get more flak for mentioning the Butthole Surfers in the same sentence with the Crash Test Dummies. There was something absurd about the song that I instinctively responded to. I think, in that instance, the song tried to guide the band, and the band wouldn’t let it happen. Too bad for both the song and the band.

      Wait, it’s not “fried eggs been the one”?

  23. Aaron Dietz says:

    I didn’t know about any of this and I love that Elvis Costello song, Alison. My oh my. Though I guess I’m not surprised by that possible interpretation, given Costello’s quirky intelligence. It’s never simple.

    But the Crash Test Dummies song. Yeah…that makes no sense. I’m glad I can’t remember that tune right now.

    • Art Edwards says:

      That’s exactly how I felt when I first uncovered the real meaning of the Costello song. I was supposed to appreciate how complicated the song is, but it just left me disappointed.

      If I could mind-control the readers of this post, I’d make it so they didn’t remember the CTD song.

  24. J.E. Fishman says:

    Nice post. Part of the brilliance of Elvis Costello, I’ve always thought, is that his words rarely have a single meaning. “You’re my soft-touch typewriter, and I’m your great dictator.”

    • Art Edwards says:

      You’re right. It’s multi-layered, and we should appreciate that.

      For my money, before a pop song is about its own depth and richness, it’s about how it makes me feel. That’s selfish, but for me it’s what separates a pop artist from, say, Shakespeare. I don’t want Shakespeare lines in my Zeppelin songs. I want a Page riff and Plant going, “Push, push, push.” Those are the feelings I want evoked when I listen to a song.

      I appreciate how complex the song is, but I don’t love it for the same reason.

  25. Dennis says:

    This phenomenon of mishearing lyrics is called “mondegreen”. For more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen.

  26. Kevin says:

    I feel kind of bad for you, never getting “pieces of the night.” The song is a brutally beautiful and painful song. (and sadder still, considering the writer’s demise.)

  27. GenW.5 says:

    A good friend of mine misheard a famous KISS song as:

    I…wanna rock ‘n roll all night
    and part of every day…

    Which made sense to him as a kid. You hafta rest sometime!

    • Art Edwards says:

      My wife and I cracked up at that, GenW.5.

      Funny, but the part of the song I screwed up was “You keep on shouting, you keep on shouting.” I always sang, “You keep on shouting, HUGE people shouting.”

      An easy song to misconstrue, I guess.

    • Smoke says:

      That’s what I used to think it said when I was a kid. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  28. Tony says:

    I never saw “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm” as about child abuse, and I still don’t. It’s a weird collection of anecdotes like kids tell each other on the playground about all the strange crap that other kids have going on. The “Once there was this kid who…” type stories are legion.

    The song is about embarrassment and shyness and, ultimately, that everybody has some secret crap and that somebody else is bound to have some crap that’s worse than yours! It has the story of the boy whose hair turned white after an accident, followed by the girl who was embarrassed by her many birthmarks — but both of them were GLAD that someone had it worse: the kid with the wack-o religious family.

    Hardly “abuse”

  29. GenW.5 says:

    Oh, and here’s another one…what do you call a lyric which is not misheard, but mis-sung?

    I’m thinking of Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” I could never, ever make out the first line of the chorus–it sounds just like “After all the hoo you’ve been through…I will make it up to you…”

    The official lyrics according to every source I’ve found are: “After all that we’ve been through…”

    Now, with things like “bathroom on the right” or “part of every day,” when I know what the words are supposed to be, I can hear them clearly in the song and wonder how I missed them. But with this one, no matter how closely I listen, i just can’t hear “we’ve” in there. I don’t know how or why anyone would torture a “we” to sound like “hoo.” Maybe he was just goofing around?

  30. Amy says:

    Like Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg is also a master at wordplay and double entendres. But his accent sometimes gets in the way of my American ears hearing all his cleverness.

    In the pre-internet days, I struggled to figure out what Billy was singing on one song in particular. A friend of ours had made a cassette of Worker’s Playtime but failed to include the titles of the songs. I knew it couldn’t be “Mr Thank You, a big joke.” But as hard as I listened to the song, I could never hear any other words. Then, years later, I bought the actual CD and glanced over the liner notes and saw what it really was. Alas, I still have trouble remembering to sing “Must I paint you a picture?” since “Mr Thank You, a big joke” is so firmly implanted in my brain. Still not sure who I thought Mr Thank You was.

  31. cincyanon says:

    As a kid in a basement listening to a band practice (and contributing deafness in my right ear) I heard them sing Bitch by the Rolling Stones and this line, “Sally baby the padlock’s gone.” Sounds pretty good. Who’s Sally? Almost as good as the Stone’s line “I salivate like a Pavlov’s dog”
    On another note “put out the big light” might have been a nod to a line from Shakespeare’s Othello “Put out the light, and then put out the light” which is said as he’s killing his beloved and hoping his love for her dies too.

  32. Selene says:

    Hi Art,

    Nice to discover your blog (via Andrew Sullivan). I wanted to share a favorite story. When I was a small child, maybe 5, a friend of my parents’ told me that “Love The One You’re With” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (I think that’s the right permutation) was a very wise song and I should take the advice in it. I promptly committed it to memory, or so I thought, and stayed fond of it for years. Years!

    And there’s a rose in the fist of love
    And the evil die with the good
    And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.

    I was in my thirties when I learned the actual lyrics. Sorry, Steven Stills, but I kind of prefer my own.

    And there’s a rose in the fisted glove
    And the eagle flies with the dove…

  33. Smoke says:

    I love making up my own lyrics to songs. Sometimes I just do it to see if anybody notices and calls me on it (I like to butcher popular expressions to see if anybody catches me, also). But sometimes I genuinely find my lyrics to be an improvement. I still prefer my version of the Rober Palmer classic “Might as well face it, it’s my dick that you love”.

  34. Rhayader says:

    I had an aunt who used to enthusiastically belt out Deep Purple’s “Cold Running Water”. The rest of us know it as “Smoke on the Water”. Don’t ask me how she got the actual song title wrong.

  35. Randy Anderson says:

    That was a great read Buddy!

    I always jacked up Heart – Edge of 17 lyrics.

    Actual: Just like the white winged dove….
    Randallized: Just like a one winged gull…..

  36. […] This is Part II of a post where I place the blame squarely on songwriters for screwing up their songs. See Part I here. […]

  37. Neil Hadsall says:

    Edge of 17 was a Stevie Nicks song.

    For a good one try deciphering the first few lines of Van Halen’s Everybody Want’s Some.

  38. Jim Gerke says:

    I’ve been reading me some Art Edwards this morning.
    I don’t think I ever saw this one.

    Great piece and the comments are also a lot of fun.
    Can’t believe you didn’t know it was “Then I Saw”.

    On to Part 2.

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