BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
December 28, 2016
One of my earliest memories is listening to the song “Please Please Me” by the Beatles on my older brother’s “The Early Beatles” LP. In the final verse, John and Paul mix up the lyrics—one sings (correctly) “I know you never even try, girl,” and the other starts to sing “Why do I always have to say, love.” It comes out as a jumbled mix that sounds like “Why know you never even try, girl,” and they carry on and finish the rest of the song. My six-year-old self thought this was amazing: I heard a mistake. Didn’t the Beatles realize it? Did they think someone like me wouldn’t notice it? Was the song just too much fun and they decided the mistake didn’t matter?
Today, we will examine mistakes. Hearing — and mishearing — music and lyrics. When I first heard “Please Please Me,” the big takeaway was that it was real — the Beatles weren’t gods, they were people who sat in a room, recorded music, and occasionally made mistakes. This was a revelation; no one in my family sat around and made music. My musical background consisted of a few ill-fated guitar lessons for my older brother and me, and my dad (who grew up south of Copenhagen during World War II) singing drunkenly to Vera Lynn’s “Hits From the Blitz” on our old stereo console after drinking too much schnapps. Music was made by other people; it was pristine and sort of unavailable. Mistakes made the music all the more human, and mistakes made me feel I could be part of it.
Other mistakes in classic songs weren’t so easy to discover. I listened to, and played with the Jacobs Road Band, the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison for years before I read somewhere about the glaring error. The all-too-familiar opening riff is actually a false start. The drummer kept on playing, and the third time around, the band kicks in and the song starts. That was not planned. Check it out for yourself:
I got to see one of these up close, as well. On R.E.M.’s 1989 tour, favorite guitarist, Peter Buck, tried to play the chiming key of C opening to “Fall On Me,” a crowd favorite. He completely butchered it, and in front of a crowd of about 18,000 people at Seattle’s Key Arena, no less. There was a brief buzz as thousands of people said, “What the hell?” at the same time, and Buck just laughed and dropped both hands off of his guitar. He took a deep breath, played it again, correctly, and the band tore into a fierce version of the song, its lyrics about acid rain haunting and urgent:
Buy the sky
And sell the sky
And lift your arms up to the sky
And ask the sky, ask the sky
Don’t fall on me….
These many years later, that’s still my best memory of that show. Here’s a version without the false start:
The mistakes aren’t always on the side of the musician—that’s my other revelation, I suppose. Many times the listener is at fault; one doesn’t hear the music properly. This gives rise to one of my favorite things: Mondegreens. Simply defined, a mondegreen is a mis-heard lyric, often for silly effect. Examples include “ ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix, and “hold me closer, Tony Danza” from Elton John. (Hint: these are not the correct lyrics. Jeez.) I used to think mondegreens were just made up, until I met someone in college who was adamant and wouldn’t believe that The Clash wasn’t singing “dumping the cat box/dump the cat box” instead of “rock the Casbah/rock the Casbah.” Come on, man.
The term was coined in the 1950s by American writer Sylvia Wright, who upon hearing the 17th-century ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray” thought the lines:
…Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green.
…They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.
There is no such character, I’m afraid, but there still isn’t a better term for hearing “There’s a bathroom on the right” for “There’s a bad moon on the rise.”
Bill Janovich, the leader of the much-loved ‘90s band Buffalo Tom, named his website “Part-Time Man of Rock” partly because he’s no longer a full-time musician, but mostly because of the misheard KISS lyric he sang as a kid: “I want to rock and roll all night/And party everyday.”
He heard it as “…rock and roll all night/and part of every day.” Well, he thought, part of every day is still a pretty good commitment to rockin’.
What all these mistakes and mishearing really represent is a dialogue. The player and listener are both active participants. In transcendent moments, you can feel at one with the music, and maybe even take meaning completely different from what the artist intended. As Tom Waits said in 1986, on MTV’s The Cutting Edge:
I like what time does to your memories…I like the way things are distorted by time. I like listening to music far away, and you’re hearing it wrong. You hear it mixed in with everything else. And, so I usually try and step back so things are a little blurred for me. Um, it’s like water stains on the wallpaper—and you thought it was part of the design. But it’s not. ‘It looks like South America,’ you know?
Thanks for listening.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and still wonders why the group Buffalo Tom wasn’t more famous.
The Erik Christensen Band plays at:
- Loakal Public House in Oak Harbor on Jan. 21, 2017, from 8 to 10 p.m.
- Front Street Grill in Coupeville on Feb. 8, 2017, from 6 to 8 p.m.
- Bloom’s Winery in Bayview on Feb. 26, 2017, from 3 to 5 p.m.
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