Saturday, December 10, 2011

Burning down the streets of Babylon

You've probably seen it a half-dozen or more times already: People in various places singing along with Sir Elton John's "Rocket Man" — and all of them goofing the last line of the chorus.

Obviously none of them had ever had the liner notes or the sheet music.

Hey, it still happens. There are songs we all sing along with in the car but don't really know the words to because the singer enunciates as though s/he'd put a soup spoon load of mashed potatoes in his/her mouth before stepping into the recording booth. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is particularly bad; in fact, "Wierd Al" Yankovic's parody version is all about the late Kurt Cobain's singing, which varied from the mumbled to the screamed without gaining much comprehensibility in the latter direction.

Then again, sometimes you read the lyrics and you wonder, "Do I really want people to understand this?" It's tempting to dismiss all modern pop, rock and country music as cotton candy for the mind ... until you realize how John Lennon's "Imagine" has influenced a generation or so of people. And not in uniformly good ways. (It's amazing how many people have made a prophet out of an intellectual slacker who in his post-Beatles career did little more than set regurgitated leftist nostrums to a backbeat.)

Anyway ... I grew up belting out a lot of what I thought were Bernie Taupin lyrics but were actually my mind's attempt to impose clarity on Sir Elton's horrible diction. "Burnin' down the streets of Babylon" is just one of many lines I muffed. "Well, everybody's talking, like, uh, stick around" (No, it's "We'll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around").

But he's not the only one; My friend Larry and I spent a good hour or so  rewinding and playing The Doobie Brothers' "China Grove" to get the lyrics right, and I found out only a few months ago that we still got some wrong: 
"Well, the preacher and the teacher, Lord, they're a caution ...."
"They say that the father's insane, And there's Miss Perkins again ...." 
"Ev'ry day, there's a new thing coming, In praise of an oriental view. The sheriff and his buddies with their samurai swords ...."
In fact, I just had to go back and check myself; the words still have a tendency to morph in my mind because I've been singing them wrong so long. And I still only know the chorus of The Fray's "How to Save a Life" because of Isaac Slade's mush mouth.

Anybody else have favorite songs with lyrics they had to guess at?