Friday, April 27, 2012

In Which, Ironically, Words Are De-valued

I'm a musical dunce.

As in, "Hey, some guy on the radio is singing 'Jessie's Girl'!  Just like the other day I heard a bunch of people singing 'Take a Chance On Me"!  They're all ripping off The Chipmunks, from that timeless album of songs my parents got me for Christmas in which they sing classic songs only a trio of castrato rodents could have written!  I hope these other people got permission from Alvin, or one of his considerable legal team at his record label!"

I recognized pretty early on that my taste in music is the sort of thing that infuriates real aficionados of that art form, in much the same way that someone extolling the virtues of the newest piece-of-shit Michael Bay Transformers film might ignite my ire.  I'm very much a junk-food music fan.

Acknowledging that, though, does not excuse my demonstrable history of having no idea what the lyrics are to many of even my favorite songs.  I don't know what switch never got flipped in my head, but I just can't be bothered to learn the words in most songs, even those I've heard and loved for decades.  Never mind that I can recite whole sections of film from memory without consulting any reference.

"I know what you're wondering, and the answer is yes, I do have a nickname for my penis. I call it The Octagon. I also have nicknames for my testes; the left one is James Westfall and the right one is Dr. Kenneth Noisewater. And, ladies, if you play your cards right, you just might meet the whole team."
Song lyrics just don't stick in that way for me.  I'll even sing along with a song phoenetically, sounding out rough approximations of what's being sung.  Perhaps this is because I am certain I will get it horribly, amusingly wrong if I put forth the effort to divine the true lyrics.

If I may use a perennial holiday favorite as my first example, let us look to Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit," the closing track from The Chronic.  Being a dorky white kid growing up in Middle America, I was right in the demographic that gangster rap was aiming for in the early nineties.  However, loving the CD and knowing the extensive backstory that fueled it were two very different things.  I had no idea that Dr. Dre had been in another group called NWA, nor that he split acrimoniously from fellow member Eazy-E and was using a fair amount of The Chronic's running time to call out his now-rival.  I couldn't have told you Eazy-E's real name.  Hell, it took me nearly a minute to come up with Dr. Dre's real name while typing that last sentence just now.
He combed his hair differently back then.
So I had no way of knowing who Dr. Dre was talking about when he took to the mic in his cover of John Phillip Sousa's "Bitches Ain't Shit" and began with,

"I used to know this bitch named Eric Wright,
We used to roll around and fuck the hos at night..."

The song goes on to tell a story of being wronged by Wright, and Dre deciding he's better off without such a bad influence in his life, though the flippant labeling of Wright as a bitch who ain't shit may be on the harsh side.

Here's the thing, though.  Dre puts a big creamy pronunciation on the word "named," and since I was going in ignorant of the players involved in this interpersonal drama, I mentally grabbed part of that word and tacked it onto the next one.

So, for a period I'd estimate running from 1991 until about, oh, say 1999, I thought that Dre used to know this bitch named Mary Wright, and that she was either a lesbian or I was too sheltered to know what "fuck the hos at night" meant after it had been appropriated and modified in black culture.

Is it this? It's this, isn't it?
Snoop Dogg once got me good, too.  There is an otherwise forgettable track called "Woof!" from Snoop's equally forgettable debut album with Master P's crew, entitled Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not To Be Told in a frankly shameful attempt to lure consumers looking for Melissa Etheridge's album of the same name, in which Snoop asks a question and then answers it himself via a backing track.  The actual Snoop-on-Snoop conversation goes as follows:

Snoop: "How many niggas you know that can fuck around and die and come back?"
Snoop: "None."

I agree, it's deplorable that his Carl Sagan quote goes unacknowledged in any of the album's liner notes, but I suppose it's not bound to the same legality as actual music sampling.  What stuck with me as a stupid teenager, though, was Snoop's laconic delivery of the backing track; essentially, if you want to hear "none," he said "none."

However, if you think he might have said "nine," then it's tough to un-hear "nine" even once you've sorted it out and know better.

I marveled at the blase attitude with which Snoop so casually told the world that he somehow knows NINE niggas who can fuck around and die and come back (!!!).  Anything north of three or four ought to count as at least worthy of being mentioned on the lead track.  Nine is just astonishing.  Not to Snoop, though.  Snoop is operating on a level which tells me he's got a cousin or a friend who knows at least fourteen or fifteen niggas who can fuck around and die and come back, which means I must at least pose the question of whether anyone's seen Suge Knight and Ra's Al Ghul in the same room at the same time.

A reference which tells you a lot of what you need to know about me.
It isn't all hos and bling for me, though.  I'm stupid about lots of non-rap song lyrics, too.  I once got it into my head that The Clash sang a song called "Rock The Cash Bar," which seemed oddly specific but not enough for me to question it.  Also not enough for me to avoid making an ass of myself by adamantly stating that those were the true lyrics in a dispute with a friend.  On what authority I was passing this edict, I have no idea.  At any point I could have said to myself, Self, you've been wrong on guessing song lyrics roughly 116% of the time since birth.  Why are you arguing this so passionately?

Because The Clash deserve an open bar, damnit.  That's why.
I don't fucking know what I was thinking, okay?
But nothing approaches the majesty of the Beach Boys' "Kokomo," which I managed to get wrong twice in the span of three lines, thus forever changing my notion of what the song was about.

First off, between shout-outs to every tropical destination The Beach Boys could think of, there are actual lyrics to learn.  It isn't just a geographic shout-out.

"Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahamas, Key Largo, Cincinnati... Mike, would it hurt your feelings if I said this list needed tweaking?"
This is how they send one stanza into the chorus:

"Bodies in the sand,
Tropical drink melting in your hand,
We'll be falling in love
To the rhythm of a steel drum band,
Down in Kokomo."

Let me break in here to remind you that I am not mentally retarded, as far as I'm aware.  I've never sniffed paint, I thought whippets were Taiwanese ripoffs of the Jim Henson estate until well into my twenties, and I don't believe I was dropped as a baby.

I feel I need to mention this as a prologue of sorts, to telling you what I simply accepted as fact upon mishearing the words to this song.  In my palsied mind, the following all happened, and were intended to sound woozily romantic:

"Bodies in the sand,
Tropical cake melting in your hand,
We'll be falling in love
To the rhythm of the steel mill there,
Down in Kokomo."

I wish I was joking here.  I really do.  I owned "Kokomo" on cassette-single, with Tom Cruise leering at me from the cardboard sleeve advertising "From the Soundtrack to Cocktail" in neon lettering. I listened to the song dozens, maybe hundreds of times after buying it sometime around 1989 or 1990.  I was a smart kid, I swear it.

And yet I thought that the Beach Boys thought that romance would bloom, if only we could both sit here with cake somehow melting in our bare hands as we stare at each other with moon-eyed adoration, listening to the constant industrial clanging and whistling and screeching of the serene steel mill just across the way there, beyond the trickling creek now purple with waste from the mill's output valves.

"You're right, Brian. Detroit is way more romantic. Somebody else write it in here, I've still got cake all over my hands from my date last night."
I'm not sure just what dystopian hellhole I thought the Beach Boys lived in, but it's heartwarming how optimistic they were to still find love under such conditions.

"Bodies in the creek,
Chemical run-off leaves a big black streak,
HAZMAT has their hands full,
And the future's looking awful bleak,
Down in Kokomo..."

(wet, hacking cough x 4)

Love is in the air. Love and coarse particulates. But mostly love.
27 April 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment