'Scuse Me While I Make Up My Own Songs

Even though I know what the real lyrics are, I still favor my words over the author's

There's an old newspaper joke beloved by ink-stained wretches everywhere.

Two reporters and their editor are dragging themselves through the desert, near-crazy with thirst, when they observe an oasis in the distance. After managing to crawl all the way there, the writers leap gleefully into the cooling waters. But when they look up, they see the editor calmly pissing into the pool.

"What in god's name are you doing?" the reporters cry out in disbelief.

"Making it better," says the editor.

Fans of rock and roll have been pissing in the lyric pool for more than half a century. They swap out lines they don't like, or don't understand, and insert their own, damn the writer's intent. This exercise goes all the way back to the earliest days of R&R, driven, in no small measure, by "Louie, Louie," which has no intelligible words and thus literally demands that listeners weigh in with hyperstimulated imaginations.

There was no internet back then to set listeners straight, and mumbled and distorted lyrics remained mysterious for generations. Some misreads remain widely shared. More often than not, the substitutions do not make these songs any better.

For example, Hendrix's original "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" from "Purple Haze," is infinitely more powerful than "kiss this guy," which is how legions of people continue to hear that line. Or, "The ants are my friends / they're blowin' in the wind." It's clever in its own way, but there's something almost sacrilegious about fucking with Dylan's lyrics.

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I tended to substitute my own words in cases where, after countless hearings, I was simply unable to ascertain the actual lyrics. Now that I know what they are supposed to be, I still favor my words over the author's.

The Kinks, for me, have been a rich font of creative rewrite. From "A Well-Respected Man" comes the line, "But his mother knows the best / about the ma-tri-mon-ial stakes." I must have parsed that line a hundred times as a teenager, trying to sort out Ray Davies' thought process, and I never came remotely close to hearing it as "matrimonial stakes." The closest I ever got was "the matter of owning snakes," which doesn't make much sense, but that's my line and I'm sticking to it. Moreover, I think Ray would be cool with it. Hell, if he were that devoted to his original lyric, it would have been enunciated more clearly.

Another Kinks classic, "Lola," begins "I met her in a shop down in North Soho." I couldn't make out North Soho, and even if I could, I doubt I would have gotten the reference. So, I turned it into "a shop down an auto hole." My version takes the song in a wildly different direction—Vin Diesel meets Harry Potter—but, again, I'm sticking to my original misconception.

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And, finally, there are lyrics that, even if they were articulated clearly on the original vinyl, I unconsciously turned them around in my mind to suit my own needs and my sense of the rightness of things.

Take "Go All The Way," a hit by the Raspberries in the early 1970s, which at its core is a paean to groveling. As lonely and horny as I occasionally found myself then, I never sank so low as to beg anyone for sex, and the song itself is so unbearably insipid that I chose to hear it only as I wanted to hear it. Thus, "Please, go all the way" got automatically translated to "Please, go-oh away." I didn't get the lyric right until just a few months ago, when the song came on as a closing theme on a TV show, and I remarked to my wife that I always liked its edgy, dismissive tone. "It's not 'GO AWAY,'" my wife explained. "It's 'go ALL the way.'"

Oh, right. Anyway, another piece of pure pop that's fully deserving of being pissed upon.

Tags: music