‘You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel’ and other misheard lyrics that surprise, confound and delight.

Back in the big-haired days of 1984, I witnessed a group of nearly grown men fighting over the title of a hot new song on the radio. The argument preceding the fisticuffs sounded like this:

“Idiot! He’s clearly singing, ‘Hey, Ma Ma.’ You know nothing about music.”

“Nope. He’s singing, ‘Enema.’ There’s something wrong with your ears, boy.”

“Why in the world would David Lee Roth be singing about an enema? It’s ‘Hey, Ma Ma.'”

“You’re both morons,” interjected a third fool. “David Lee is saying ‘Can-a-da.'”

And so on. I tried to cool tempers by correcting everyone in the room. I mean, the title of the song, which David Lee kept screeching over and over, was obviously “Animal,” right? If the Internet had been around, I would have raced off to look it up and claim my prize.

Only, it wasn’t “Animal” Van Halen had unleashed on the finger-snapping public. It wasn’t “Enema,” “Canada” or “Hey, Ma Ma” either. It was “Panama,” and when the radio station deejay related that information, we called him a vile name and hung up the phone. “Panama,” ha ha ha! What a stupid name for a song.

That’s the beauty of misheard lyrics, my friend. Once those incorrect words have burrowed into the musically challenged gray space of your mind, it’s hard to accept the real lyrics as truth. More often than not, your badly mangled interpretation of a song sounds better than the original. Even if it makes no sense at all.

“Driving up north with the family years ago,” says Daniel Tanguay of Lewiston, “Billy Squire came on the radio — the song ‘Stroke Me.’ My 4-year-old at the time pipes up and says, ‘Sophie’s trophy, Sophie’s trophy. Why do they keep singing about Sophie’s trophy?’ The wife and I couldn’t help laughing.”

Laugh all you want, but I think “Sophie’s Trophy” is a fine song title. Of course, you’re talking to a guy who thought the opening lines to “Smoke on the Water” were something so lurid, my editors won’t let me print it here.

Several people thought Creedence Clearwater Revival was singing “there’s a bathroom on the right,” which, when you get right down to it, is much more informative than “there’s a bad moon on the rise.”

If you’re a musician, you’ve got to make a choice. Do you want people to understand what you’re screeching, crooning or bellowing? Or do you want it to sound good?

AC/DC made their choice and stuck to it.

“Dirty jeans and dungarees,” says Anna Dearborn of Damariscotta.

Nope. That’s wrong. Anybody want to correct her?

Barbara St. Jean has got you covered. Or at least her husband thinks he does.

“For years,” the Lewiston woman says, “he’s been singing, ‘Dirty deeds and the Thunder Chief.’ It’s supposed to be ‘dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap!’ I thought he was singing about some Indian chief. Ha ha ha!”

Laugh away, sister. But for songwriters, there’s that quandary: Sing clearly and get your point across or shriek like a banshee and get them dancing?

“It’s very important to get the message across,” says local musician Nick Knowlton, who writes both songs and commercial jingles. “Jingles have to be sung with a smiling voice in order to be effective. Songs on the other hand have to fit the mood of what is being conveyed in the lyric.”

Knowlton is not above mangling lyrics now and then if it serves his needs. He knows the secret opening lines to “Smoke on the Water” as well as I do. He kind of likes them, even.

“I used to sing it with a slur on proper occasions in some clubs,” Knowlton says.

Here are some more bungled lyrics.

David Burke: “From Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Scare a moose, scare a moose, will you do the Fandango . . .'”

Russ Keith: “Rolling Stones Beast of Burden: ‘I’ll never leave your pizza burnin’ . . .'”

Adam Smith of Bridgton thought the Beatles were singing, “the girl with colitis goes by,” in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

David Orino of Rumford hears Janis Joplin singing, “I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna” in her classic “Bobby McGee.”

Kathie Dolan of New Gloucester thought that instead of “Forever in Blue Jeans,” Neil Diamond was singing about a fashionable spiritual leader named “Reverend Blue Jeans.”

Almost everybody thought Elton John sang about a woman with “electric boobs” in “Benny and the Jets.” Same with Jimi Hendrix announcing, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” in “Purple Haze.” And we won’t even get into Manfred Mann making Bruce Springsteen’s “cut loose like a deuce” sound like something hygienic and baffling.

Hey, singing is tricky business. So is songwriting, as a lyricist attempts to put to words images that swirl through his or her head. Is it joy, the art of stringing words together in such a way? Is it misery?

“Neither,” says Josh Ward, bassist for the local rock band Zealous Bellus. “It’s more of an epiphany. We tend to wake up with ideas in our heads.”

“I totally agree with this,” says ZB frontman Dana Banks. “It is very fun and exciting to work on new material, but it can also be very challenging if we are not on the same page, at the same time. Sometimes it’s crunch time and we all feel it. Sometimes we just like to have fun.”

You want to talk about fun? There was a time when Banks, an accomplished musician, thought Mick Jagger was singing, “I’ll never be your big suburban,” instead of mumbling something about a “beast of burden.”

Again, the question for the musician is how he wants to reach the audience: Through literary prowess or through volume and lyrics that are shouted to a level of incoherence?

“I think it depends on the song,” Banks says. “Sometimes a really strong message can strike home with a bunch of people and make the song a hit. But also fitting the lyrics with the emotion of the music is very important, or vice versa.”

There’s also the idea of skipping lyrics altogether and avoiding embarrassing moments where music lovers attempt to decipher the Eagles singing about the “warm smell of colitas” (the actual lyrics) in “Hotel California.” (Apparently a reference to the Spanish term for the tips of a marijuana plant.)

Forget it, Bub. The misheard version of that is also too lewd to publish here.

“Some songs with no lyrics sound awesome too,” Banks says. “I love instrumentals. Without lyrics, more emotion is put into the music, into the instruments, by whatever feeling is being portrayed, and music is the universal language. So no matter what language you speak, anyone can feel the emotion put into an instrumental song.”

Sure, but where’s the fun in that? Without words, you don’t get the joy of wondering what Billy Joel meant by crooning, “Sing Gus a song, you’re the piano man.” Or why REM advises, “let’s pee in the corner,” in “Losing my Religion.” Or why Elton John is so enamored of the former star of “Who’s the Boss?” when he sings “Hold me closer, Tony Danza . . .”)

Let’s face it. When you’re trying to entertain yourself on a long commute by singing out loud with the radio, volume matters more than words. If you have to make up half the words to “Born in the USA” just to scream your way through the song, more power to you. Even the pros do it that way sometimes. Maybe they remember the song wrong. Or maybe they just like the wrong version better.

“There have been many (I misunderstood) or I just made some up,” Knowlton says. “I love peoples’ expressions when I do that. Like (in Ringo’s sickeningly sweet tribute to adolescence), ‘You’re 16, you’re beautiful . . . and you’re blind.'”

Zealous Bellus members, who laugh as hard as anyone over misheard lyrics, also understand that the process of writing and producing music is a business. Write whatever you want, but if it doesn’t sound good, people won’t like it. The band is currently pressing a five-song EP with a little of this and a little of that.

Knowlton, who has been performing all over the place lately, from Maine to Florida, is now working on his second CD.

These cats are professionals. They probably know that the Steve Miller Band sang about a “big ol’ jet airliner,” not a “beagle Jedi lineup.” They probably know that Kansas never said “nothing lasts forever but the Windex shine” in their gloomy hit “Dust in the Wind.”

They no doubt grasp by now that Deep Purple’s opening lines to “Smoke on the Water” are “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline,” but maybe – just maybe – they’ll occasionally sing it my way.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: