Stuff That I Think About Late At Night: Six Often Misunderstood Songs

What I’m talking about here are not songs with deliberately obscure lyrics (early R.E.M.), or songs whose lyrics are often misheard. I’m talking about songs where the semantics seem clear enough, but people misunderstand them nonetheless.

To begin:

Cracklin’ Rosie: Neil Diamond (1970)

The lyrics to the tune make it easy to construe the song as a hymn to a woman of ill fame:

Oh, I love my Rosie child —You got the way to make me happy. You and me, we go in style …Cracklin’ Rose, you’re a store bought woman, but you make me sing like a guitar hummin’

This interpretation does make Neil Diamond sound icky, almost as icky as he seems throughout his remake of The Jazz Singer.

No, Mr. Diamond hasn’t lost weight. He’s in blackface.

There’s just one thing: the song’s “store bought woman” is actually a bottle of cheap booze consumed by a Canadian tribe where the men outnumbered the women. (source.) What this says about gender relations in the tribe forty years ago is a discussion best had another time. But the song appears to be about Neil Diamond’s narrator riding the rails with a bottle of cheap wine, not with the a cheap hooker.

By the way, riding the rails, with or without cheap wine, is not nearly has fun as Mr. Diamond makes it sound.

Rocky Mountain High: John Denver: 1973

Misinterpreting this song requires both an obsession with drug references in song lyrics and a talent for locating ambiguity where none exists. (This will be true of another song in this list.)


Whatever else can be said of John Denver’s songwriting, one of its principal features is its utter lack of irony. His lyrics are heavy on soaring natural imagery and romantic longing, ingenuously expressed. It’s this feature (or bug, depending on your point of view) that made him an awkward fit for the satirical folk group The Chad Mitchell Trio. Wordplay just wasn’t a part of Denver’s kit.

If “Rocky Mountain High” were a song about anything pleasure more illicit than wandering Colorado’s high mountains, it would be the first and only instance of a pun in any of John Denver’s songs. As Denver said when Congress (!) asked him about the accusations of a drug reference:

This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains, and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid meteor shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the first time.

The only irony to be found here: the people leveling the accusation were the ones with drugs on the brain. So often the way.

Puff the Magic Dragon: Peter, Paul, and Mary:  1963

The other song often associated with marijuana:


Okay, if a listener were to have drugs on the brain, “Puff” could be associated with marijuana smoke, and the name “Little Jackie Paper” with the rolling papers of the joints. Fine. (Of course, such materials could, with equal validity, represent tobacco cigarettes… or a pulp and paper factory for that matter–the one near Lawrence University did an awful lot of puffing, as I recall.) Still, even granting the interpretation, it’s hard to make a case for this song’s advocating drug use. The story of the song is that Little Jackie Paper grows up and forgets all about Puff, who slinks into obscurity as Jackie gets on with his life.

Now, if listeners would like to interpret this song as someone giving up drugs and growing up, I guess no one’s stopping you. But they’re probably better off doing as Peter Yarrow suggested, restricting their interpretation to “the obvious one”.

Every Breath You Take: The Police, 1983

I understand that this song is often played at weddings. I take it that those doing that either haven’t listened to it or entertain the same creepy fantasies about sexual politics in romantic relationships that made Twilight a hit. The voice of the song is not that of a loving, supportive partner; it’s that of a stalker who’s only slightly less frightening than the murderous narrator of the Tom Jones hit, “Delilah”.

Here’s Sting on the song:

I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.

So, if the person you love insists on putting this song on the wedding playlist, all I can say is, it’s not too late to split up, change addresses, get plastic surgery, and disappear.

Born in the U.S.A. Bruce Springsteen. 1984

Listen to the song with ears open, and it’s a bitter tune about the difficult, alienated lives that blue collar veterans returning from the Vietnam War try to salve with hollow patriotism. If all you hear is the music and the chorus, you might be someone who programs music for Republican presidential campaigns.

Helter Skelter: The Beatles, 1968

Actually, I don’t think most people misinterpret this song disastrously. It might seem incongruous that a song that rocks this hard is about a piece of playground equipment, but that’s the kind of madcap Paul McCartney was in 1968. (It probably did lead to lots of misinterpretation, though, because of listeners who thought it can’t be that simple.) There was, however, one person who took this song way the wrong way.

If you listen to 6,000,000,000 people this year, don’t let this be one of them.

In 1969, Manson spent a lot of his spare time (and believe me, he had a lot of spare time) listening to the Beatles’ White Album, on which “Helter Skelter” appears, and witnesses say he listened closely. Over time, he developed this all encompassing theory that connected the White Album to the Book of Revelations, which predicted that black people would kill all the white people (except Charlie and the family), and that after the race war, Helter Skelter, was over, black people would need a white man like Charlie to run the world, and since Charlie would be the only white man like Charlie left, he’d be King of the Earth.

How much of this stuff Manson believed is hard to say because Charles Manson lies a lot. Still, he did manage to so convince his followers that they were willing to murder strangers in gruesome ways by regaling them with this story.

I can imagine that many of the Manson family members in jail started to separate themselves from their dwarfish guru right around the time they found out the truth. I can imagine one of them shouting in her cell “It’s about an amusement park slide? The song is about a fucking AMUSEMENT PARK SLIDE!?! Are you kidding me?”

Let that be a lesson. A poorly interpreted song is a dangerous thing.

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