Songs Lyrics Apparently Only I Misunderstood

Recently, a coworker and I were in the middle of a conversation about an architectural decision (made by people above our pay grade) that was causing some controversy on the team.

“Okay,” he prefaced, “here’s the situation…”

“Your parents went away on a weeks vacation?” I immediately interjected.

While the confused expression on his face and the sound of crickets that followed made clear the age gap between us, this experience also punctuates a behavioral characteristic I have displayed for years – and even (intentionally) passed on to my kids. I like to quote songs lyrics. Preferably in the middle of otherwise normal conversation. Just to make people pause and smile.

…okay, just to make me smile.

When I hear someone shout “Stop!”, I want to ask them if they want to get off that train. Is it hammer time, or are they speaking in the name of love? Perhaps they just want to collaborate and listen.

During a recent code review, when a junior developer explained a method saying “In here I do a little math…”, I just had to ask where to find the methods that would make a little love and get down tonight.

Nevertheless, there are times when even I get the lyrics wrong. We’ve all been there. And while there are already a plethora of articles written about misheard song lyrics, I have never seen anyone mention the songs that I got so horribly wrong over the years. So, here is my list, starting with my earliest recollection of lyrical misunderstanding, and proceeding in a random fashion thereafter.

That's the problem with randomness. You can never be sure.

I’m Pretty Sure That’s Not A Boys Name

Like most American families of the era, we had a record player when I was a child. Records are fragile things, and the ones my parents bought for the kids inevitably ended up scratched, broken or both.

One of our favorite records was Puff the Magic Dragon – and since one of my siblings (meh, it was probably me) stepped on and consequently broke it pretty early on, for the longest time we thought the song went “Puff the Magic Dragon… Dragon… Dragon… Dragon… Dragon… Dragon…“.

And we would sing it that way tirelessly – which, needless to say, drove our parents crazy.

Still, the song made me think about things that I’m not sure most kids my age thought about – such as my own mortality and how growing old would impact my perspective. Seriously, how many 5 year olds have an existential crisis over a song about an imaginary dragon? The misunderstood lyric came in the chorus, when I thought I heard Peter, Paul and Mary sing:

Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist with a man named Hannah Lee..

This immediately raised a number of good questions for my early-grade-school mind:

  • I guess, maybe, in his country it’s boys name? I’m pretty sure Hannah Lee is not a boys name. Sure, I know boys named Stacy and girls named Michael and Tyler – so I know any name can be used for either gender. But Hannah Lee? I tell you what, I felt sorry for the guy named Hannah Lee. I bet he got made fun of alot as a kid.
I tell you all kinds of things about my country!
Yes, I imagine things are very, very different in your country!
  • Does “little Jackie Paper” have such a fantastic imagination that even his imaginary friends have friends? Why does his imaginary friend hang out with an adult man on his spare time?  And why is there such an age gap between the two friends of this dragon? This struck me a really, really creepy. It still does.
  • Oh, wait, Puff and Hannah Lee aren’t just hanging out. They’re frolicking. See? That’s not so creepy any more. Oh, wait, nope, that makes it more creepy. Why is Jackie’s imaginary friend encouraging him to frolic in a romantic fashion (because even as a child I knew that autumn mists mean romance) with a grown man of unknown intentions? Hasn’t anyone told Jackie about stranger danger?

I’m sure you can imagine my relief when I was corrected, and learned that said frolicking was taking place in a land called Hona-Lee, not with a potential pedophile.

Random Ambiguous Exclamations

The B-52s : a group whose name seems to imply that either (a) they are entirely made up of retired Cold War era super jets or (b) they perform exclusively on said super jets. Either one would be pretty cool, right?

One of their greatest hits – they still play it on the radio – was Love Shack! Ah, what a fun song to sing along to on a long road trip. <Insert nostalgic emoticon here> But I always found the cryptic message near the end of the song (3:50) bewildering.

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenry! Busted!

Clearly I must have missed something earlier in the song.

Uh…who is Henry? Why did he get busted? Does it have anything to do with the fact that the singer can’t hear anyone knocking at the door? <GASP> Was Henry the one at the door?! This is shaping up to be a good murder mystery!

Alex "Starburns" Mugshot
This is not Henry. This is Alex. Some people call him “Starburns”. You can see why.

Who busted him? Did he get busted during the course of writing or performing this song? What is Henry’s relationship to said “Love Shack”? Shall we expect him to serve some time as a result of his infraction, or will this be just a slap on the wrist?

Was Henry doing drugs? Is that what those references to “glitter” all over the place mean? Aw, Henry, not the nose candy!

Or is it the singer that is getting busted, and is trying to warn Henry not to return and get likewise busted – in classic Sneakers opening scene fashion? Am I over-thinking this?

Not wanting to expose my ignorance in relation to the songs side narrative about Henry – after all, everyone else seemed to get it – I kept singing this misheard lyric for over a decade. And while now I can correctly sing:

Tin Roof! Rusted!

I have to admit, that really isn’t any clearer for me.

Most Confusing Martyr Complex Ever

Social commentary in music is far from a new thing, and while the causes taken up by some artists can be controversial, there are some I think we can all appreciate. Right, Sara McLachlan?

Norman Greenbaum released Spirit in the Sky in 1969 after watching a popular televangelist singing a gospel song. Despite being Jewish, Norm said “Hey, I can do that”, and wrote the song in about 15 minutes. John Lennon immediately liked it on Facebook.

Now, being Jewish, I wouldn’t expect Norm to get everything right when it came to generally accepted Christian beliefs. Still, the passion and commitment he displays when singing about an inherited neurological disorder – while commendable – always felt absurdly out of place to me. What, you didn’t hear it?

When I die, in the name of Tourette’s
Gonna go to the place that’s the best…

He is clearly so committed to the cause of bringing awareness to Tourettes Syndrome that he anticipates giving his life fighting for it! And it looks like he expects that will be beneficial somehow to his plans in the afterlife.  It’s still unclear how his death will benefit the cause.

A horribly inaccurate representation of Tourette's Syndrome.
A horribly inaccurate representation of Tourettes Syndrome.

When the song was featured prominently in the second trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy earlier this year, I looked up the lyrics and discovered my embarrassing error.

When I die, and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best…

Seems Norm didn’t give a [bleep] about Tourettes Syndrome after all.  Jerk.

Inappropriate Biohazardous Waste Disposal

Who didn’t love Footloose? Of course, I’m speaking of the original here, not that abomination they released in 2011. Honestly, what were they thinking? But, in case you missed it, Peter Quill sums the movie up nicely:

“A great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.” – Peter Quill

But the song gives some very poor advice when it comes to the proper ways to dispose of bio-hazardous waste. I don’t think Kenny Loggins had the blessing of OSHA when he declared:

Deep way down in your heart
You’re burning urine

Seriously, public health issues aside, have you ever actually burned urine? As a decorated Eagle Scout who hiked Philmont – not once, but twice – I can assure you that I have had more than the requisite amount of experience to tell you this: urine is not something you want to toss on the campfire. It stinks! We’re talking about a really, really, really awful stench!

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me to find out that for the longest time I thought this was a poorly worded euphemism of some kind. It’s the only way I could imagine there being any connection between it and dancing.

I make this face when I have to eat lima beans.
The face Tom Hanks makes trying to pee is the same face I make when I have to eat lima beans.

Egads, a UTI! Thanks, Mr. Tom Hank’s character from The Green Mile, I hadn’t even considered this possibility! But if that’s the case, I’m shocked he’s able to dance at all, let alone with such frequency and fervor. Also, still disgusting to sing about.

It made much more sense – contextually and lyrically – when I realized what he was really saying was:

Deep way down in your heart
You’re burning yearning

Which would have been easier to understand the first time around if he had correctly inserted a comma between the words, and taken the time to emphasis the existence of said comma with a pause of some kind whilst singing. And that’s why I’m not the rock star here.

I’m Not Alone…Right?

So if, like me, you’ve had an embarrassing incident surrounding the misunderstanding of some song lyric, rest assured that you are not alone. There are others like you – namely me – and you no longer need fear the stigma associated with admitting it!  Maybe we should start a support group or something. What song lyrics have you misunderstood that nobody else seems to be talking about?

We're here, we're uncomfortable, and we want to go home!
We’re here, we’re uncomfortable, and we want to go home!

3 thoughts on “Songs Lyrics Apparently Only I Misunderstood”

  1. One of my bosses had a desk calendar several years ago titled ” ‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy!”
    It contained one commonly misunderstood lyric for each day.
    The title of the calendar came from someone not understanding Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky!”
    At any rate, you are not the only one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *