I was just a wee Lebowski, rolling strikes and drinking virgin White Russians, when I first heard Mick Jagger snarl that immortal line: "Heartbreaker, with your bowling ball." Cool! I thought. Jagger digs the lanes too. Maybe one day when I'm a big-time rock journalist, he and I can go bowling together.
Years later, when a know-it-all friend informed me that the correct words to The Rolling Stones's ditty was "Heartbreaker, with your .44," I realized that the song wasn't about bowling at all. It was about crime and urban blight. All of which made the song less personal to me. It also made the song not as good.
Through the years, similar experiences have happened, like the time I first heard Purple Haze. Awesome song, killer riff, the whole deal. But the composition truly took on a new dimension when Jimi Hendrix belted out the line "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." Whoa! I thought to myself. Not only is Jimi Hendrix the first (and only) black psychedelic rock guitar hero, he's a gay rights activist as well. Here again, my know-it-all friend set me straight - the song was about cosmic consciousness and stuff like that. It wasn't a gay anthem at all. Still a cool tune, but not what I thought.
Being a guitarist and drummer, I admit that I don't listen to lyrics as closely as others might. I tend to focus on the overall sound of the song, the playing, and the way a singer puts the words across. Unfortunately for me, what I believe the singer is saying oftentimes differs from reality. And most of the time, the latter isn't better. Here are more examples:
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bad Moon Rising When John Fogerty sang the words "There's a bathroom on the right," I thought he was being quite helpful, instructing people to the lavatory. It never occurred to me that he was merely trying to be spooky.
Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run "Baby this town rips the balls from your sack" sent shockwaves right through me. "Man, Bruce is really telling it like it is!" I said to myself. When I found out that he was singing "Baby this town rips the bones from your back," it seemed as if the sentiment wasn't as forceful. He's still a good writer though.
ELO - Don't Bring Me Down And here I thought Jeff Lynne was asking Springsteen not to disappoint when he pleaded "Don't bring me down, Bruce!" In point of fact, the last word, "grroosss!" makes no sense at all.
Dobie Gray - Drift Away In this soul classic, the words "Gimme The Beach Boys or gimme the meatballs" always held a special kind of meaning. The actual words, "Gimme the beat boys and free my soul" are okay, but not quite as magical.
The Beatles - I Saw Her Standing There Even The Beatles are capable of bumming me out. Take the line "I'll never dance with another." To me, Paul McCartney was saying, "I'll never dance with her mother," and I was like, "Sure. Paul doesn't want to dance with his girl's old lady. Sounds fair." Turns out this wasn't the case at all.
The Beatles - Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds My mother is a nurse, so when I heard John Lennon sing "the girl with colitis goes by," I asked her what this strange affliction was. She seemed a little baffled but gave me a textbook explanation. All for nothing, really - Lennon was referring to a girl with "kaleidoscope eyes." My mother probably couldn't have explained that one anyway.
Steppenwolf - Magic Carpet Ride "Last night I had a leg of lamb" sounded like a decent enough line about the past evening's menu. But the real lyric, "Last night I held Alladin's lamp," has nothing to do with food. Different meaning entirely.
Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven "There's a wino down the road" is a short and gritty description of the town drunk. The real words, "And as we wind on down the road," are very nice, I guess, but they tell me nothing about the neighborhood and its inhabitants.
And lastly we have Billy Joel - You May Be Right Although I abhor the man's work with an almost unreasonable passion, I thought his line "You made the rice, I made the gravy, but it just may be the tuna fish you're lookin' for" was pretty inventive. The real words are so generic that they need no repeating here. Suffice to say that the Piano Man lamed out, as usual.
There are other examples - in fact, here's a rather comprehensive website that details other misheard song lyrics. Seems I'm not the only one who doesn't hear things as they are. As for me, I'm finished with reading lyrics sheets, and I don't associate with my know-it-all-friend either. I'm tired of having songs ruined by what the writers meant. I'll stick to the voices inside my head. Most of the time, they're vast improvements.
By Joe Bosso