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What Was That He Said?

Water in the road still hanging to the trees…” — an obviously incorrect bit of lyric to John Fogerty‘s Green River.

John Fogerty by http://artist.in2pic.com

I was listening to this song on repeat as I missed the bus home this evening. I was being soothed by Creedence Clearwater‘s greatest hits on the train, and realized the moment this song was over that it had done something unexpected. It made me forget that today’s heat was so moist and heavy that the sidewalks felt like radiators. I fell into a groove and momentarily forgot that today’s was the kind of heat that can seriously interrupt one’s flow of coherent thought. Your body keeps telling you to drink some water and lie down, but your brain has its list of important things to do. While you try your best to get through your list without lingering too long in any of the air-conditioned stores along the way (that you have no reason to visit), your body keeps admonishing you for not bringing your pillow along and staying in one store or the other until they throw you out. On the train, Green River became the only song I wanted to hear.

It crossed my mind to google the lyrics when I got home, before checking my email, because I had never understood most of what Mr. Fogerty was singing. I caught enough to know that he loved Green River and was explaining why, with details meant to evoke this place for his listeners, so I didn’t think he would include such an incomprehensible line as the one above. It’s more likely that the misheard line is evidence that I’m the one with the problem.

There’ve been some awfully funny books written on the subject of misheard lyrics. So this is obviously a widespread problem. Not so important as problems go, but still widespread. I thought about that and began to wonder if I would change his performance of the song, even if I could. My answer was, “Of course not!” If I was the producer with him in the studio, I think I would have asked for one more take, to see if he could enunciate a little more, but as for the history of it now, I like the way he sang it. For the art of it, the performance has to stay just as it is. Of course, with my next thought I remembered how the art is a little blame for the inadvertent embarrassment this sort of thing can bring to people– like the much younger Ré who had a serious crush on Greg, who worked at the store where she bought her vinyl.

I only bought records in that store because of the intoxicated way I felt around Greg’s square jaw and his broad shoulders in rock and roll t-shirts. Singles were ten cents cheaper at Sears, but Greg had to get them for you from the library-like stacks behind the counter, and I learned early on that if you gave him your name and phone number, he would order the ones they didn’t have in stock and call you when they came in. He would lean in over the counter, closer to you, as he wrote down your info, and I could gaze at the back of his neck if I positioned myself just right. I loved WXRT in Chicago for supplying me with the sometimes esoteric knowledge of obscure new music that I could both love and order from Greg.

My awful moment came when I asked for Neil Young’s new single, “Pot of Gold” which I realized was actually “Heart of Gold” after Greg tried, but was unsuccessful at suppressing a smile that wanted to be a full on laugh. I could see that he was lingering in the stacks longer than necessary, but I didn’t know why until he had composed himself, come back to the counter, and slid the single gently across it with his finger just under the title. “You mean, ‘Heart of Gold’,” he said. “That’s a really good song. I like it, too.” I never knew if he was a nice guy, and trying to make a girl who was so young and obvious feel better, or if he was trying to rub it in. It doesn’t matter now. But I do think this memory makes a reasonable case for an artist mixing a little enunciation in along with the art.

I decided not to look up the lyrics to Green River, at least not just yet, so I won’t be telling you what that line really is. I’m sure I get what John Fogerty means, so if I don’t sing my version out loud in public, where someone with better song perception can hear me (I wonder if it’s an ability like being able to keep one’s balance on ice?), I can safely go on singing what I think I heard.


19 thoughts on “What Was That He Said?

  1. Love this and how you evoke the heat of the present along with the more psychological-emotional heat of the past. 😉 And then you bring art and misheard lyrics into it too… such an enjoyable read!

  2. I just turned on the heat! It’s raining, windy, cool; the trees and underbrush are lush with growth from all the rain. Everything is green and alive, and I just want to crawl under a cozy blanket with a book and tea, as if it’s a winter afternoon. Crazy weather. I love how you brought the heat to me today, especially the line about the pavement. And I loved Credence! Oh, and in my opinion, Greg was worthy of your crush and was trying to make you feel better, or trying to give you the correct title gently. Nothing like those early, young girl crushes.

  3. I misunderstand lyrics all the time, and when it happens it drives me nuts. They’re the most important part of the song for me; I want to know what images the music should evoke. It makes me feel lost, not to know.

    • I get what you’re saying, Averil. I used to feel that way all the time. Now, when I need to know, I look them up. (Thank goodness for the internet!) But now that I can do that, I don’t so much. If I don’t need to sing a song in front of people, I can sort of let go of the need for specifics. It might help that I think the lyric above is hilarious! (And goodness knows I can use a good laugh!)

  4. Great. I love the record store story. I always had a problem with Creedence lyrics too….but then again, lots of singers fudge the lines a bit for effect. Mick Jagger the primest of examples. Hail, hail rock’n’roll !

    • I’m glad you liked this, Al. You’re right about all those singers who do this for effect. Have you ever noticed how sometimes you hear clearly what a singer sang but your friend can’t catch it, and then vice versa? It’s like each of us has a different meter for this kind of thing. And yes, hail, hail rock’n’roll!

  5. My man has a knack for using the wrong word. For Raspberry Beret (Prince), he sings “rags bearing her name.” (!!) Lush and plush are the same word in his vocabulary. Oh, I wish I could remember more, I really ought to keep a list of his malapropisms. But that would be kinda mean. (Yes, I’ll do it! Thanks for the idea!)

    • You’re quite welcome! (Don’t tell him it was my idea.)

      I actually do this purposely, a lot of the time. My family knows that Madonna (the singer) is MacDougal. Someone mispelled ‘self’ once as ‘slef’, so I say that a lot now instead. Please don’t ask me why. I’m hanging my head. (There aren’t many programs for this sort of thing.)

      • You can check me into one of those programs too, when you find one, and we can amuse each other! I once watched a documentary where a guy said in accented English “ewent” instead of “event,” and now I say that when it’s really a big ewent.

  6. “One end of my rope still hangin’ to a tree”

    First time I sang this song at karaoke was just to read the words, which are, yes, incomprehensible; now I pick it because it’s so much fun to sing. Not much range, good beat, lyrics that few people know so who cares, and you get to sing “Weeeeelllllll” like some sort of primal scream therapy. CCR was so good. I think they were from the Bay area, but a lot of their songs were southern swamp rock type of music, like this one.

    “Barefoot girl, dancin’ in the moonlight!..”

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