MONDEGREENS

It's Got a Great Beat But You Can't Sing To It

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At a Bob Dylan concert I attended recently, I  saw a sign that said: "Bob Dylan, Unplugged." I thought they were talking about his sinuses. Was I wrong.

Here's Bob's act: An off-key, garbled kind of keening, punctuated by hellish interludes of shrill, piercing nasal bleats sharp enough to cleave a windshield at 60 paces. This sonic carnage is performed to a fitful series of eerie, almost convulsive twitches, each of which sends Dylan's curdled cerebral cortex sloshing across the staggering multiplicity of low-grade pharmaceutical residues he calls a brain . . . at $35 a seat.

My opinion? Dylan may be the greatest songwriter who ever drew a breath. But how many eardrums will burst till he knows, he should've quit singing long ago? The answer my friend, is shrieking in the wind.

Want to experience a Dylan concert, but can't raise the scratch? No problem, here's what you do: Get a four-year-old with laryngitis and keep him awake for six days straight by feeding him continuous helpings of Super Sugar Crisp and double-strength espresso. Then force him to chant the Monroe Doctrine in Swedish for two and a half hours. That's pretty close to what it's like sitting through a Dylan show. There were some highlights to the show (like the guitar solos), during which I gazed at Bob with a pathos I normally reserve for lepers and fast-food employees.

During the less inspired moments, I mostly just sponged fresh blood out of my ears and dodged the herds of bewildered sheep who stormed the concert hall in search of their wounded mother. You know it's bad when PETA activists raid the show because they mistook the lead vocalist's singing for the sound of weasels being perforated with grapefruit spoons.

But maybe I'm being unfair to the enunciation-challenged. After all, many singers have made considerably vigorous livings by murmuring, gurgling, muttering, and stuttering their way through the lyrics, have they not? In fact, numerous books, magazine articles, and Web sites have been created around the phenomenon of "mondegreens," a contrived term for the lyrics we substitute when singing songs whose true lyrics leave us baffled.

My first mondegreen experience came during my parochial school's third-grade Christmas pageant, during which, instead of singing, "Let there be peace on Earth," I bellowed, "Let there be pizza first." I had little time to explain the concept of misheard lyrics to Sister Mary Frances Subjugation before she bared her three-inch incisors at me from beneath her Wilford Brimley mustache, hurtled five pews in as many seconds, and cracked me across the head with a 462-page hymnal.

Mondegreens are a particularly severe affliction in the world of rock 'n roll, perhaps because you rarely find psychotic, hymnal-toting nuns at Megadeth concerts. This also may be due to the fact that most of us are first exposed to rock music as teens and young adults, when our comprehension of the lyrics was often impeded by the sound of roiling bong water (a factor which also explains why so many rock singers slurred the lyrics in the first place). Among the most notorious of rock mondegreens is Hendrix's line in Purple Haze: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky," which many have heard as, "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." However, after minutes of exhaustive research, I've discovered that Hendrix was not hallucinating, nor was he gay when he sang that line. He was just jonesing for McDonald's, and the true lyric is, "'Scuse me while I git some fries."

Whatever the reason for this bizarre phenomenon, I've decided that mondegreens have played such a powerful force in the history of rock music, they deserve their own category at next year's Grammy Awards. Here are my picks for the MondeGrammys:

Best Male Artist: The indubitably, indisputably indecipherable, Mick Jagger. I know what you're thinking, "Hey Steve, what about all that Dylan bashing you just did?" Well, the way I see it, Dylan was actually intelligible in his early days, before his drug-drenched brain became incapable of REM-stage sleep. Jagger has been prattling on incoherently since the day he was born with lips the size of a bus depot. Sample: Brown Sugar: "Stone Gold Shadie down the knockin' shields, shode in the bucket down in new mown fields."
Runner-up: Michael Jackson. Only "The Artist Who Formerly Had A Nose" could pull off retroactive puberty, in which his voice actually gets higher as he gets older. As a result, his singing has evolved into an incomprehensible series of freakish clicks and squeals so torturous that dogs have been known to pitch themselves headlong in front of speeding buses to escape the sound.

Best Female Artist: No contest; the MondeGrammy goes to Stevie Nicks. At some point in her life, Stevie clearly overdosed on Chap-Stik while smoking a cigarette. The ensuing chemical reaction caused a permanent vapor lock on her lips, making it impossible for her to pronounce 17 of the 21 consonants. Sample: Edge of Seventeen. "Show with the glow taste no flow of eege, I will throw with the amal free fire to bleek, on the ebb of sebentreen."

Runner-up: Mariah Carey. I'm sorry, but it's not necessary to hit every octave from fog horn to smoke detector before you finish singing the word, "the."

Best Unintelligible Group: Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love them. Have no idea what the Fogerty they're talking about. Sample: Down on the Corner: "Down on the corner, out in the street, something, something, something, something, something, your feet."

Runner-up: Any heavy metal band. The point here is not to savor the poetic nuances of the artfully turned phrase but, rather, to torque up the volume to the point where the foundation of your house liquefies.

Best Song: Woodstock. The anthem of a generation too stoned to notice. Joni Mitchell wrote it. Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang it. I've heard it a thousand times. I still don't understand it. Sample: "We are star ducks, we are goalies, we all cough up a red carbuncle, and we've got to get our shelves back to the dark nuts."

Runner-up: Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) by the Hollies. It starts out nicely enough, "Saturday night I was downtown, working for the FBI." From there you need a secret decoder ring, a bar-code scanner, and a team of U.N. translators.

Best Misheard Lyric: Not to be redundant, but this award also goes to Crosby, Stills, and Nash for Love the One You're With. In a desperate attempt to rhyme "love," they actually penned a line that says, "and there's a rose in a fisted glove." Until I read that line in a songbook a few years ago, I truly believed they were singing, "and there's a road where the fish make love," and reasoned that it was some kind of aquatic courting ballad for carp.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Little Richard. Sample: "Tutti frutti, aw rutti. Tutti frutti, aw rutti."

Runner-up: Sister Mary Frances Subjugation's Cracked Cranium Children's Choir.


Adapted from an article originally published inLife and Leisure magazine, March 1994.

2011 Steven Ricci

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