Back before there was internets and covids, words was a lot of trouble, especially song words. Rock musicians wasn’t great at “enunciatin'” as my grandpa called it, and it was usually impossible to understand anything singers sang. Lyrics wasn’t printed on the album cover because that was precious real estate for cool artwork that consumers stared at between bong hits.
It was hard to even know the name of a song if you were listening to it in a friend’s car on some cassette tape he’d dubbed his favorite music onto. So I went through teenagerdom not knowing most of the lyrics and fewer of the song titles of the music I liked, listened to on the radio, or was forced to listen to by girlfriends and others.
It didn’t matter. I had a solid imagination and could make up the song words on my own. I didn’t need no damn cheat sheet, and most of the time I liked my song words better, even when I learned thirty or forty years later that I’d been singing them all wrong.
For example in Stayin’ Alive, the part that went, “Music loud and women warm I’ve been kicked around/Since I was born”?
I always sang that “Music, love, and wampum warn/See the been kick on the barn.” Maybe my song words didn’t make much sense but neither did anything ever sung by the Grateful Dead, and they were loved by dozens.
One of the songs I recently learned that I had mis-learned was “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which I hummed for decades as “Don’t Feel the Reaper.” Now I know what you’re thinking. Ick!
But my song words in that case were pretty good because here was the Reaper coming to take you away and the song commanded you not to “feel the reaper,” in other words, don’t give in to his clammy grasp of death. And when you plug it into the other song lyrics, “Seasons don’t feel the reaper,” etc., it kind of works out, a case of getting the lyrics wrong and therefore right.
One song I never got the lyrics wrong to was Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. It came out in 1967 when I was four and my parents played it all the time. I knew the lyrics to the song years before I knew what they meant, thankfully. Arlo may not have ever written anything else worth a damn, but that one song is probably the greatest piece of storytelling set to a guitar to ever come out of a man’s mouth.
It was the kind of anthem that Bob Dylan never could pull off. Dylan, who idolized Arlo’s dad Woody Guthrie, has spent his whole life trying to be authentic, but he isn’t. He’s just a dude from Minnesota who changed his name and who made a few good songs aping Woody, right along with Springsteen and everybody else.
But Arlo wrote this great anti-war song and Thanksgiving anthem about littering in the tradition of his father on the one hand, and his grandma on the other, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. I think you’ll agree that anyone who can have a hit 18-minute song that takes up an entire side of an LP and includes numerous use of the neologism “father-raper” is pretty darned good listening.
Nowadays you can find every lyric to every song and I don’t like that. If a singer like Arlo says his words crisp and clear it means he has thought about them and he wants you to think about them, too.
If a singer like Jerry Garcia slurs his words like a fart in a jar of honey it means, and yes, Jerry said this when someone once asked him what one his songs meant, “Whatever you want it to mean.”
Which is to say that getting all hung up with knowing the words when the singer couldn’t be bothered to say them intelligibly is like putting lipstick on a baboon’s butt. Wrong item, wrong location, wrong individual. Blobby words you can’t understand, though, let your mind run where it wants to run, which is a good thing, especially for kids, because most often it ends up hopping the fence and running somewhere interesting, uncharted, free.
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