Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza
Every one of us has done it: We've rocked out in front of our family and friends, sung our little hearts out, emoted with eyes closed. And then when we opened them, we've seen a roomful or carload of people laughing their asses off because we got the words wrong. Totally whiffed on 'em. Made a complete and utter moron of ourselves.
There's even a word for it -- if you hear and learn the wrong words, you have just given birth to your very own mondegreen. Incidentally, "mondegreen" is itself a mondegreen -- a mishearing of a Scots ballad that contained the lines "They had slain the Earl of Moray / And laid him on the green." The coiner of the word heard them as "They had slain the Earl of Moray / And Lady Mondegreen."
Some mondegreens are famous. There's Jimi Hendrix's "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy"; Elton John's "Hold me closer, Tony Danza" and "Don't let your son go down on me"; Kenny Rogers's "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille / 400 children and a crop in the field"; and Bob Dylan's "Dead ants are my friends; they're blowin' in the wind." Then there's the Manfred Mann's Earth Band's "Blinded by the Light," which everybody seems to think is about a douche, loofahs or an ovary. (The correct words: "Blinded by the light / revved up like a deuce / another runner in the night.")
Some have even made it onto recordings: John Prine tells the story of his most famous mondegreen on his live record Live On Tour. Seems a fan once requested that he do that "happy enchilada" song. Prine replied that he had never written a song about an enchilada, happy or otherwise. Turns out the fan wanted to hear "That's the Way that the World Goes Round," which has this line: "It's a half an inch o' water and you think you're gonna drown."
San Francisco Chronicle scribe Jon Carroll has made mondegreens a staple of his column for decades (www.sfgate.com/columnists/carroll/mondegreens.shtml), and the Internet teems with misheard lyrics sites such as kissthisguy.com, amiright.com and iusedtobelieve.com. Though amiright.com is the most exhaustive, kissthisguy.com is probably the easiest to navigate. It's not as repetitive as the others, and songs are archived by title and artist. Best of all, most of the submissions, which come from the site's readers, are accompanied by painfully embarrassing little tales of when and how these people were exposed.
After spending an entire Sunday afternoon on the site a month or so ago, I can say that my favorite was the guy who sang the "If I was a sculptor, but then again, no" lines from Elton John's "Your Song" to his girlfriend like this: "If I was a skeleton, or then again, a gnome." "I thought it was some sort of medieval fantasy thing, knights on horseback and all," writes submitter/likely D&D aficionado Mike Z.
But even with thousands upon thousands of mondegreens out there already, you can always find more. I asked around and dug up some good ones, and hell, I've got a few of my own, which I'll get out of the way first. Until I finally looked up the words the other week, I just knew that Van Halen's "Runnin' with the Devil" had this line in it: "I had no love / no love in Koo-reaaa." In actual fact, Diamond Dave was not singing some war vet's lament; what he sang was that he "had no love you could call real." Also, as a horny teenager, I thought the line in Rick James's "Superfreak" that refers to the eponymous minx as "The kind of girl you read about in new-wave magazines" said "Newsweek magazine," which made me pick that staid mag up with an oft-disappointed fervor for a time. I also was convinced that ELO's "Evil Woman" was a song about transvestism or a sex change operation called "He Is a Woman," and it took a pretty heated argument with some of my friends back in high school to convince me otherwise.
One of those guys was my buddy Steve Uecker, who was himself a veritable font of mondegreens. He was the first guy to tell me about the Hendrix "kiss this guy" howler. "I remember telling my brother, 'Hendrix is cool and all that, but did you know he's gay,' " he told me back then. Uecker also had a great one for Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years." "Are you reelin' in the yeast / stowin' away the thyme / have you had a cup o' tea / Would you like to try mine?" "I thought it was about a guy going through his spice cabinet," he explained.
Children -- who hear a song and then adapt it as best they can with their limited vocabulary -- churn out mondegreens the most efficiently. Hell, during the writing of this article, my eight-year-old son insisted the "Eye of the Tiger" goes like this: "I am the tiger / the pharaoh of life." (Too much Yu-Gi-Oh, I think.) And partially because the Beatles are so popular with kids, they are the top mondegreen band in history. I had a few with them myself -- I misheard the French-language section of "Michelle" -- "Michelle ma belle / sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble / très bien ensemble" -- as "Michelle, my belle, Sunday monkey go play piano song, pi-a-no song," and I see from numerous Internet sites that I was far from alone. How are American five-year-olds supposed to know French? Also, a woman at kissthisguy.com reports having sung "Paperback Writer" as "Piggyback Rider" as a child, while another rats out her young daughter who was singing "She's got a chicken to ride and she don't care" in the backseat.
Children aren't the only source of mondegreens. Language is a slippery thing, even for adults. Did you ever hear that old saw about how America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language? I know all about that firsthand -- my wife is English, and despite over ten years of marriage, we still occasionally have trouble making ourselves understood, and we have both butchered the lyrics of songs coming from each other's countries. For about 20 years I sang the Clash's "Safe European Home" lines "I went to the place where every white face was an invitation to a robbery" as "I went to the place where every white face was an invitation to a Marine." My wife returned the favor by thinking that the chorus of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" ran a little like this: "Rollin' down the street smokin' and/or sippin' on gin and juice." But then they don't get much Indo over in Lancashire, so forgive her this lapse in street cred.
People for whom English is a second language have an even harder time. Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop told me about the Cuban-born mother of one of his girlfriend's friends, who told her daughter that her favorite Beatles song was "Hey Hey Louise." The young woman was flummoxed and asked her mom to sing a few bars of that Lennon/McCartney gem. Mom obliged thusly: "Hey Heeey Louise / I Loo-ooo-oove you / Hey Hey Louise / It's not enough to show I caaarre "
Then there are obscure geographical references. A while back I Googled the lyrics to some of local rapper Big Moe's tunes, and found that the helpful out-of-towners who posted the lyrics to the sizzurpalicious rapper's "Just a Dog" line about "I remember you way back at the Jack Yates" as "I remember you way back at the Jack race," no doubt causing far-flung H-town rap fans endless speculation about just what kind of thugged-out Texas activity "Jack-racing" is. Conversely, there's the Pretenders' "Middle of the Road," in which Chrissie Hynde comes to grips with the fact that she is in her thirties and has children and can't throw down the way she used to do. At one point she snarls, "I don't mean a Hampstead nursery," which I thought for years was "I don't need a hamster -- no siree!" And of course Chrissie Hynde was never the hamster type, so that kinda made sense, but on the other hand I can't imagine her saying "no siree" under any circumstances.
And at other times, the fault lies with the singers and songwriters. Sometimes the words don't make much sense until we rearrange them into something a little more logical, and at other times we just can't understand the mush-mouthed singers, and in other cases, both slurring singer and cryptic writer combine to give you a real titan of mondegreens.
Space does not permit a discussion of these true royals in this field -- people like Kurt Cobain, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder. We'll save those for another article, and we'd like your help. Send your best mondegreens to me, along with your excruciating, toe-curlingly humiliating tales of singing them in front of people.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.