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Strumming my face with his fingers

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By John Pawlak

The year was 1973.  Nixon ordered a halt to the bombing in Vietnam.

“The Sting” won Best Picture at the Oscars.  Pablo Piscasso died and MRI technology was born. The Sydney Opera house was opened and Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby. 

The radio hummed with the soothing voice of Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly,” a saccharine-sweet melody about a guitar player whose words uncomfortably harmonized with the life of the listener. My friend Carl loved that song and he would sing along with it. 

“Strumming my face with his fingers – singing my life with his words ...” Uh, strumming my face? 

No, no, no, I told him!  It’s “strumming my FATE.” Now, it’s not odd that my friend misheard the words.  Not understanding the lyrics is typical for listeners of rock music ... but strumming my FACE? 

I never did understand the visuals of that one. And let’s get another thing cleared up once and for all ... the Beatles did not sing, “Something in the way she moos, attracts me like no other mother.”  

Well, at least I don’t think they did.

Rock music has always blurred the senses, either by jet-engine volumes or by incomprehensible lyrics.  Procol Harem’s  “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is a classic example for “rocked” lyrics – “We skipped a light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor.”  

Despite many discussions on what the meaning of the lyrics, songwriter Keith Reid did once admit that he had no idea what the song was about.  What better metaphor for the oblivious lifestyle that rock music underscores? Remember Patti Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” that cute little ditty in the mid-’70s in which they sing out a verse in French – “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”  

My neighbor’s 12-year old daughter and her friends would be out in the backyard, screaming out the lyrics to the song. Obviously, their parents didn’t realize that this meant “Would you like to go to bed with me tonight?” 

Now I understand why so many students take French. When the Ramone’s hit, “I Want To Be Sedated,” was blasting at the discos, you might have heard someone singing along, “I want a piece of bacon!”  

Todd Rundgren’s “I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on my drum all day” got warped into “I just want to bang and get drunk all day.”   Hmmm, actually that kind of works better, doesn’t it?

But the King of all incomprehensible lyrics is without a doubt “Louie Louie.” Originally written by Richard Berry in the mid-’50s, it hit the big time a decade later when the Kingsmen released their mumbled version.  Louie Louie is a song about a man who longs to travel back to Jamaica to see his girlfriend. 

“A fine little girl, she wait for me.  Me catch a ship across the sea ... Me see Jamaica moon above, it won't be long me see me love.” 

How innocent can a song get? And yet “Louie Louie” was analyzed and scrutinized by an FBI investigation back in the early ’60s. They couldn’t understand the words and so it was assumed that the song was spewing vulgarity over the airwaves. In the true tradition of revolution, rockers came out of the woodwork to buy the record. The rest is history.

Little has changed in the past 40 or more years. And even when the lyrics are coherent, they are often incomprehensible, at least to those who actually listen to the words. Consider “Loser” by Beck. “In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey, butane in my veins so I’m out to cut the junkie with the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables, dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose ...”

And despite even weirder lyrics than that, the kids today bob their heads as meaningless eddies of disconnected words swim over them from their iPods. Listening to today’s music, I find myself yelling: “Use a verb!”

Hey, my music made more sense when I was their age! OK, OK, so maybe my memory is a bit diffuse. I didn’t think anything strange about “Inna Gadda Da Vida” and despite the obvious allusions, “Lucy in the Sky” seemed a perfectly innocent song to me.

So here I am, finding myself shaking my head as I hear the “noise” kids listen to today, forgetting how my parents did the same to me. But seriously, who were they to criticize? 

Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, a kiddley divey too, wouldn't you? Uh huh, sure Dad ... yeah. My music is noise?

Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. I’m sure that life in the ’90s would have been a lot less painful if, “Achy Breaky Heart” had been harder to understand.