“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.
“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.