I often hear lyrics completely wrong. Either it’s an inherited, small eardrum or natural lack of concentration. I couldn’t understand why in “Rock The Casbah”, the Clash had to tell us that “Sheree don’t like it. Rock the Casbah.” I thought Sheree must have been someone’s girlfriend. I was convinced for years that REM’s The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight featured a lyric where Michael Stipe says “Call me Cheryl Baker. Call me Cheryl Baker” and only last year realised it was “Call when you try to wake her”. After all, it wasn’t entirely unthinkable that Michael Stipe was a Bucks Fizz fan. And don’t get me started on The Beatles, particularly during the psychedelic years, where the lyrics merge into a drug-added impressionistic bombardment of words. I thought for years that “newspaper taxis appear on the shore” from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was “You’ve paid for taxis up here, on the shore” and I wondered why Paul McCartney thought his Addison Lee account was anything to do with it.
Lyrics can be dangerous things. Both Jim Morrison and Whitney Houston, for example, were clearly so affected by “Norwegian Wood” that they went and “…crawled off to sleep in the bath.” How many rash and downright idiotic decisions have been made on the spur of a moment after listening to “Living on a Prayer” ? How many people think that Barbara Streisand’s blasting out of “life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter” is not metaphorical but literal? It isn’t reasonable to think the sun is a ball of anything , let alone dairy butter, but there are some peculiar people out there. Perhaps now would be a good moment to say that I never understood what on earth the song “Parklife” was all about. “All the people, so many people....” yes, Damon, dear, there are quite a lot of people. But what are you instructing us to do here? Go hand in hand, hand in hand through their parklife? Take a route straight through to Parklife? What does that mean? We might not want to go to the park, particularly those of us who suffer from hayfever.
It’s more fun to replace words you are certain exist in songs, with a token word. Replacing “heart” with the word “aunt” is a real crowd pleaser. It not only changes the lyric but, as P G Wodehouse discovered, there are few things funnier than stoic Aunts suddenly turning up in bizarre places. Imagine if Bonnie Tyler had experienced a total eclipse of her Aunt. Or imagine the scolding I would be in for if by accident I left my Aunt in San Francisco. And has anyone ever answered that ancient question : How do you mend a broken Aunt? Maybe Toni Braxton had it, when she asked the listener to unbreak her Aunt. But this game also releases a new truth from the lyric. Aunts are toughies. I should know, I am one ten times over. Aunts are durable, accommodating and tenacious. Aunts have a frightening strength which causes all men within a ten metre radius to shudder involuntarily. Nuclear warheads’ robust military strength falter when faced with the countenance of an Aunt with an axe to grind. Is it entirely impossible then, to imagine at the end of Titanic when everyone is dead and the ship is at the bottom of the Atlantic, that when all else is lost “My Aunt Will Go On”? Therefore, the joke doesn’t work if you put the “Aunt” in to replace a tender “Heart” of the shattering variety : “Aunt of Glass” draws no smiles. Although you can do the same with “Eyes” and “Thighs”, making that classic song from Dirty Dancing “Hungry Thighs“, or Survivor sing about “The Thigh of the Tiger”, but it isn’t as satisfying. Nothing quite clasps the humour of getting the lyric wrong like an Aunt, even a couple of lovely thighs can’t quite do it.
Starting with the morning commute, I am trying my best at widening my classical music library and it’s beginning to feel like an endurance test. It gets me away from the fear of misunderstanding the lyrics because there are no lyrics. Beyond being terrified by Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf as a small child, and banging out Debussy’s Arabesque No 2 on the piano after a meat supper and a dessert made entirely from Chianti, I don’t tend to push myself. But it’s not enough. One Debussy swallow does not a summer make. I spent years playing Hummel, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Beethoven on the piano, but such was the pressure to learn and the boredom of endless practice that I instantly reverted to spending three years listening to The Doors on LP. This explains why I have a shortfall in my classical learning, which I am keen to address, and why I sat cursing at my computer on Monday evening. I quite liked Mahler’s Symphony No 1. So I bought Mahler’s No 2, which sounds like a rude thing but isn’t. It was 25 tracks. All of the titles were in German and were called things like “WiebraumilchstraBe Leibfraumilch”. My internet connection ruptured itself trying to deal with all it’s German musical dynamism. I rebooted the whole thing and eventually, my constipated MAC dredged up the music from the Itunes download list. Then when I played it, it was good for the first 11 tracks, but the remaining 14 tracks were full of some opera lady sounding distressed.
I did successfully get the whole Mahler Symphony onto my iPod but then it didn’t seem to suit it. The iPod, even turned up full blast, is still not that loud on the quiet parts of a Mahler Symphony. It cannot compete with the rolling, purring engine of the No 82 bus which I travel on daily. The streets and noises and air of London drown it out. This doesn’t happen with “Day Tripper”, which when turned up loud on the iPod can basically compete with everything apart from an atomic war. Neverthless, my new routine is Debussy on the bus on the way in, the Beatles when I’m walking around trying not to buy anything in the shops and then Mahler on the way home. But this effluence of classical music is affecting everything. Debussy’s La Mer is so dreamy, that it took me from Golders Green to St Johns Wood just to put my lipstick on. Usually, during those two locations I’d have put a full face on, checked Facebook, and read two chapters of a thriller from the 1870s. And going home listening to Mahler – have you ever tried going home listening to Mahler? It makes you feel so rage-driven that by the time I arrive home I’m feeling positively violent. If not, I end up feeling suicidally reflective. The iTunes is sort of anti-classical too – the tracks are so long that they cut out half way through download for no particular reason, because iTunes is overwhelmed with the Bavarian splendour of the classical music. Huge orchestral waves suddenly veer up in the middle of a soft, lullaby of a piece and give you a fright. And if there’s one person I don’t want to be frightened by in the evening gloam, it’s Mahler. The one thing that slightly more horrifying would be Mahler’s Aunt.
It’s hard to be confident about choosing classical music when I actually used to think that “Grieg” was the name of a composition composed by someone called Peer Gynt. But I shall soldier on. I shall choose inventive and challenging classical music at random moments when I’d rather be listening to Jessie J – even though my Aunt’s not really in it.
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