Struggling Weekly, Feb. 20, 2014
One of my favorite Christmas-stocking-stuffer gifts last year was a small book, “Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.”
For those unfamiliar with Barry, he’s a nationally-syndicated columnist who was quite popular for a number of years, although he seems to be semi-retired and doesn’t write much new stuff anymore. Jeanne regularly gets me his desk calendar for Christmas, and it has been “Classic Dave Barry” — recycled clips and quips from his earlier books and columns — for quite awhile.
Barry’s shtick — “I’m not making this up,” the “alert reader” submissions and “great name for a rock band” thing — can be pretty formulaic. But the “Bad Songs” book provides a valuable service — reminding us that not all the oldies were goodies — and is a lot of fun. (And I wasn’t channeling it when I wrote that “Awful Eight,” or however many it was, column a year or two back!)
The inspiration for this piece, though, is a reference early in the book. Barry cites the first lines of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda,” not as a bad song, but as a hard-to-understand lyric. He translates it as “Since she put me down, there’s been owls puking in my bed.” Come on, Baby Boomers, that is what it sounds like.
That got me to thinking about pop/rock songs, good and bad, that are hard to understand. And here I’m not talking about ditties like “Sukiyaki” and “Dominique,” which were clearly written in a language other than English.
Take for example, one of the original “what the heck are they saying” songs, “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen. Its lyrics were opaque to the point where an urban myth developed that they were, well, naughty. This supposedly was not true, but you couldn’t prove it by me. In fact, there are some allusions in there that could have double meanings. Or are just incomprehensible, I’m not sure.
You can throw in just about any song sung by Stevie Nicks. The parody commercial of a couple decades back — “Stevie Nicks mumbles her greatest hits!” — was a bit cruel, but on the mark. The chick didn’t enunciate clearly, and complicated the matter by joyriding on her poetic license.
Or most of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s oeuvre, too. Their classic was “There’s a bathroom on the right,” but “Born on the Bayou” includes some head-scratchers, as does “Fortunate Son.”
But artists known for singing straight up occasionally got off the plantation, too. Elton John’s intoned some lines in “Rocket Man” so obtusely that Volkswagen used it in a very funny commercial.
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and the songwriter’s excesses, made “Stairway to Heaven” not only overwrought but downright confusing: Once you figure out that the lyric is “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,” you’re left wondering what the heck it’s supposed to mean. (Full disclosure: the preceding two songs were included in my “Awful Eight.”)
Not that I’m totally against obscurity and obfuscation in music. Steely Dan, one of my favorite groups, is known for throwing in phrases and concepts that literally need explaining — you can go on their website and find out what “kirchwasser” and “a skwonk’s tears” are. Part of the charm is trying to figure these things out from context, and the music behind the lyrics is extraordinary.
Another of my favorite artists, Van Morrison, will occasionally veer off the straight-and-narrow; huge chunks of “Astral Weeks,” his classic breakthrough album, sound like free association. But part of that has to do with the many musical styles that influence his singing and writing, Celtic and American blues.
Let’s face it — and this addresses Dave Barry’s rationale in categorizing of a lot of pop songs as “bad” — the music is supposed to be entertainment, and art. It doesn’t absolutely have to make sense.
On the other hand, we don’t want owls puking in our beds, either.