"Gimme Shelter" used to be one of my favorite songs. I suppose, in some way, it may still be. That song is tied to a memory which will likely keep it tethered to my heart. It's just that now I'd rather think of the memory and imagine the song without ever actually hearing it again. Why? Well, because I finally found out what they were saying.
Prior to Rock Band, I had no idea what the majority of the lyrics were. I liked the music, dug the melody… "Love, sister, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away…" You know I hesitate to even quote that, since it's probably wrong. Anyway, one day – while basking in nostalgia – I watched my brother rack up a lot of points to this song as colorful blocks flew up the neck of his guitar. The basking ended abruptly when the words "rape" and "murder" ticked along the screen. I sat straight up. "What? Rape? Murder? Just what the heck is this song about?" I'm sorry, but knowing the lyrics has ruined this song for me. I simply cannot bop along belting out lyrics like "rape" and "murder."
I'm certainly not the first person to misunderstand lyrics. Rosie O'Donnell thought "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was about a girl with a bowel disorder – and who could blame her? It does sound more like a girl with colitis goes by than a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. And I once heard that Bob Dylan was shocked at what he thought was pure boldness on the part of The Beatles to sing "I get high" on "I Want to Hold your Hand" when, in fact, they're actually singing "I can't hide."
Everyone misunderstands lyrics.
For years my sister thought Jimmy Buffett cut his heel on a Pop-Tart before cruising back home. Never mind that that doesn't make sense or the fact that I've told her multiple times it's 'pop-top' – to this day, in her mind, it was a Pop-Tart that lacerated his foot in "Margaritaville."
Sometimes we just sing along without ever considering if it makes sense or not; other times we may over think it – like Linda did with England Dan & John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." She'd sing, "I'm not talkin' 'bout the linen…" Again I was there to set her straight (which I'm sure she loved). I said, "It's not linen, it's movin' in." She told me it was linen and that the word was being used as a metaphor for all the stereotypical duties a woman incurs when a man and a woman get together. (See what I mean? A little over thought.) I said, "It is not linen. It is not a metaphor. It's movin' in."
Then there are the times we get the lyrics right but miss the point. Years ago, a friend of mine who loved The Kinks' classic "Lola" had no idea that Lola was a transvestite. She actually sang the correct lyrics – for the whole song – and still didn't know. I asked her what she thought the end meant when they say, "I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola." She said Lola was happy the guy was a man. And while I'm sure he was happy about that, I said, "That's not it. Lola's a man, too." All she said was, "Oh…" as the logic gently washed over her.
Back in the 70s long before PC was prevalent, my other sister, Laura, believed that Three Dog Night loved the natives when, in fact, it's the ladies they loved as they sang "Joy to the World."
Although I knew it didn't make any sense, for years I thought the boys of CCR didn't need a pinhead just to hang around "Down on the Corner" (even though pinheads are often fun to be with). It wasn't until I paid attention to the word nickel in the next line that I figured out they must be saying 'penny.'
And while I had no idea why Billy Preston's Willie went 'round in circles (I first heard this song as a child when I really enjoyed spinning), I just thought we had that in common.
There are probably thousands of stories of misunderstood lyrics. After my experience with the Rolling Stones, I think sometimes it may be better not to know. As my friend Elena used to say, "I have no idea what they're saying, but I give it a 10 'cause I like the beat!"
Rock on –