The never ending saga of misheard rock lyrics
By Sara Bir
We had been driving for nearly a week, and the many aged cassette tapes I'd brought along had lost their nostalgic sheen miles ago. This is what you get for going on a road trip for your honeymoon. We were stuck in traffic outside of Portland, Ore., and in danger of our minds melting in the car's greenhouse effect. Mr. Bir Toujour was too drained to even protest when I turned on the radio and tuned it to a classic rock station. "We need something to keep us alert," I said. A bad classic rock station can do a good job of that; its play list is just frustrating enough to keep you squirming without totally losing your sanity.
The very recognizable keyboard riff of Manfred Mann's version of "Blinded by the Light" came over my Corolla's minimal stereo. Mr. Bir Toujour sat up bolt upright, suddenly energized. "Wrapped up like a douche!" he exclaimed.You all know what he's referring to. "Blinded by the Light" has got to be one of the most misheard songs of the latter 20th century. The lyrics supposedly go like this: "Blinded by the light / Revved up like a deuce, another loner in the night." But anyone who's heard this song knows that it sounds like they are singing, "Wrapped up like a douche / Another boner in the night." It's been the basis for much comic fodder, and was even a starting point for a big misheard-lyric tangent in one of Ellen Degeneres' live routines.
I realized I'd never heard the song in its uninterrupted entirety--sort of like how I've seen all of It's a Wonderful Life, but only in pieces over the years. The new perspective on the Bruce Springsteen classic, as rendered by the Manfred Mann group, was very enlightening; in the cover version, the song goes on for much longer than is called for, and they repeat the "douche" refrain ad infinitum. When creeping along through interstate gridlock outside of Portland, there's ample opportunity to critically dissect the song. "You know," I said, "I think they are really truly singing 'wrapped up like a douche.' Just listen! How could it be anything else?" Indeed, every passing of the refrain only sounded more and more douchelike.
"What does 'revved up like a deuce' mean, anyway?" Mr. Bir Toujour pointed out. "'Wrapped up like a douche' makes just as much sense." We eventually concluded that Manfred Mann were singing about being wrapped up like a douche, and the whole "deuce" bit was nothing more than an elaborate conceit for a band in-joke. A friend later informed me that "deuce" is sometimes slang for "turd," which makes the supposedly original "revved up like a deuce" lyric especially absurd.
There's a tiny cottage industry built up around these lyrical flubs, which writer Sylvia Wright dubbed "mondegreens" in 1954. (Her mishearing of "They had slain the Earl of Moray / And they laid him on the green" as "They had slain the Earl of Grey / And the Lady Mondegreen" inspired the term.) San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has devoted a good deal of ink to mondegreens over the years, writer Gavin Edwards has compiled two books of mondegreens, and a few websites--KissThisGuy.com in particular--provide the global online community with a forum for sharing their own treasured personal mondegreens.
Rock songs in particular are given to mondegreens, as rock vocalists are historically given to affecting their delivery with fantastical swaggers and nonexistent accents. The prolific marble-mouthed songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones alone have emitted enough sparks to ignite many a mondegreen. For years, I thought the song "Get Off of My Cloud" was actually "Under My Thumb" as I had never heard "Under My Thumb" but knew it was a Rolling Stones song title. Recently, I heard "Get Off of My Cloud" on the oldies station, and I think my mistake is justified, as Mick seems to be saying "Heh yuhh, get uffah mah fuhhh." My brother admitted that, as a first-grader, he thought the then-Top 10 single "Start Me Up" was actually a love song addressed to some Italian girl named Pastramio.
As for John Fogerty, his self-styled bayou twang misled millions of CCR fans to believe that, in the song "Bad Moon Rising," there was a bathroom on the right, not a bad moon on the rise.
Mondegreens persist for years, and I think a lot if it has to do with the ridiculous nature of rock lyrics, even when not garbled. "She wore a raspberry beret," "Where are you going with the mask that I found," "Take a load off, Annie"--this stuff just does not make sense. But we love it, and so take rock's strange verbal cues at face value. When I found out that Chubby Checker sings "Come on, little miss" and not "Come on, little bitch" in "The Twist," it made a lot of sense that the real version of the song was the one without profanity; after all, it's been a staple of family-friendly affairs for years. Even so, I always thought Chubby was singing "little bitch" and had never questioned the legitimacy of the sentiment.
Currently, Gwen Stefani is doing a fantastic job of keeping the world supplied with fresh mondegreens, especially for unsavvy folks like me who have no idea what a hollaback girl is. The first time I heard the omnipresent single "Hollaback Girl," I took it that Ms. Stefani was declaring "I ain't no Holyoke girl," meaning, perhaps, that she was dissing Ivy League colleges. Such is the danger of hearing a song without being aware of its title. Even better is "Ex-Girlfriend," a song whose lyrics are so tightly crammed into its meter that the actual chorus, "I kind of always knew I'd end up as your ex-girlfriend," mangles into "I kind of was doing it with your ex-girlfriend"--which, it must be admitted, is much more titillating. Whoever had this understanding of "Ex-Girlfriend" is perhaps also responsible for the following interpretation of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" chant "I get knocked down, but I get over it": "I hate No Doubt, but I get over it."
Were rock singers to enunciate as clearly as evening news anchors, we'd miss out on treats like some confused listener taking Genesis' "Invisible Touch" ("She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah") to mean "She's got a hand of invisible duck shit."
Sing on, you Stefanis and Fogertys and wrapped-up douches. Rock 'n' roll is, after all, rooted in being misunderstood.
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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.