Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Van Morrison Mondegreen….

A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a phrase like a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, in a way that yields a new meaning to the phrase.

The American writer Sylvia Wright first coined the term in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954. There, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray." She wrote:

"When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."

One classic example offered when the question comes up is the Jimi Hendrix lyric “’scuse me while I kiss the sky,” misheard as “”’scuse me while I kiss this guy.” Funny, but it also, I would argue, fails to meet Wright’s definition that they are better than the original.

In other words, while a mondegreen is a misheard lyric, not all misheard lyrics are mondegreens.

There was a line in the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” that bothered me for years. Mick Jagger appeared to sing, “I was there while your kings and queens, sought to vindicate for the Gods they made.” The problem is, of course, that while one may “vindicate,” one may not “vindicate for.” Just a really awkward lyric sung in the heat of the moment I always supposed, until years later when I read the lyric in a book of Stones lyrics: “I was there while your kings and queens, fought for ten decades for the Gods they made.”

My fault, sorry; and not a mondegreen.

But consider the case of Van Morrison’s “Madame George.”

Like many people, when I first heard the song back in 1968 as the jewel in the crown of his brilliant Astral Weeks album I heard the title as “Madame Joy.” My 15 year old self had yet to spend any time with transvestites, Irish or otherwise, and later I’d even find early versions of the song when the title actually was “Madame Joy.”

Finding out – as soon as I bought the LP and read the first reviews – that the central character was a Belfast transvestite helps add to the thick sense of decadence and decay that permeate the song. It immediately reminded me of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row” in its description of a funky, hipper world where people slept past noon and drank wine until dawn.

Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford & Fitzroy, Madame George
Marching with the soldier boy behind
He's much older with hat on drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like Shalimar

And outside they're making all the stops
The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
Happy taken Madame George
That's when you fall
Whoa, that's when you fall
Yeah, that's when you fall

When you fall into a trance
A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms and history books you glance
Into the eyes of Madame George
And you think you found the bag
You're getting weaker and your knees begin to sag
In the corner playing dominoes in drag
The one and only Madame George

And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says Lord have mercy I think it's the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below

And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George

The next line was one of my favorite lyrics of all time. In a song drenched in and about decadence, Morrison sang,

And I believe the Romans fell with music, laughing, music, dancing, music all around the room.

He connects the decadence of the Belfast transvestite’s scene to what is arguably the greatest signifier of the decadent – the fall of Rome.


That’s just magnificent.

But it’s not what Morrison wrote and it’s not what he sings. What he sings is this:

And as you leave, the room is filled with music, laughing, music,
dancing, music all around the room.

A pretty image; a warm wine-fueled glow before the gloriously impossible to diagram...

The love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love to love that loves....

...that he plays like a riff on an alto sax to bring the song toward it's conclusion.

A pretty line, but not as good as mine.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Do Over....

I was talking to a friend and we got onto the subject of time travel, and the question of whether we would, if we could, go back and change pivotal moments in our lives. My own life, though having many chapters, is in the broadest sense, a two-volume affair. Volume one starts with my birth and my youth growing up in Philadelphia. Volume two starts when I left home at the age of seventeen in the summer of 1971 for the small town of Clarion, PA.

If I suddenly found that I could go back, my first thought was to go back to the early 70s. There were some things I would do very differently. There are some things I said, many more things I didn’t say. Regrets I’ve carried, like too much luggage through a crowded airport, for decades; that sort of thing.

But as I thought about that, I realized that so much of it was tethered to the things that happened to me back in high school. I went to an all male, all white, urban Catholic high school at what may have been the single worst moment in the last five hundred years to do so: 1967-1971.

So much of what happened to me there had to do with fear: fear of confrontation, fear of women, fear of intimacy, fear of failing, fear of authority. But – and, if you’d like to make a drinking game out of this post, take a drink every time the word “but” shows up – I think if I wanted to really change all that, I’d be better off returning to the origins of those basic fears, and head back to elementary school.

Now the time machine dials are set to 1959, Saint Matthew’s elementary school at Cottman and Hawthorne in Northeast Philadelphia. That I am typing this in a room in a house on Hawthorne Lane in Indianapolis, fifty years later, is only mildly disturbing.

And if I go back there, the whole outcome of my youth changes. I would have played more sports, I would have bought the guitar I fantasized about and joined a band, I would have paid more attention in algebra and Latin. The new me, fearless and confident, would have more likely gone on to the University of Pennsylvania or another east coast school after high school, rather than the small state teacher’s college in the middle of nowhere that gave me a conditional acceptance.

And not going to Clarion in 1971 changes everything that followed. I don’t take that job in West Virginia, I don’t go to Ohio University, I don’t move to Indiana, I don’t make that record, I don't start that small business….

I don’t.

And so, the time travel story isn’t really a story about going back and fixing all the mistakes, changing the bad decisions, moving there rather than here. It is a story about living another life; completely different and – this is the thing – another life that is like all lives; complete with its own set of missteps, its own errors in judgment, its own failures, successes, and its own regrets.

No one gets to live a life free of those things because a life, any life, every life is woven from out of all those things.

One of the fundamental questions about the nature of time itself is why does it only run in one direction. I don’t have the knowledge of mathematics necessary to understand how that even gets to be a question, but as far as I know we seem to be pretty much stuck with it. Take that away – let us live our time like Groundhog Day – and we lose all continuity, which is another way of saying that in trying to “fix” our lives, we lose them.

Enjoy the present. No re-gifting.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Nancy & Frank, 1974

Nancy & Frank.

Main Street, Clarion PA, during the 1974 Autumn Leaf Festival. Photo by Tom DiStefano.

From a series of photographs of this annual celebration in this small Western Pennsylvania town. The background suggests a crowd, as does the look on the man's face - suggesting general revelry. The woman looks... alive, in the moment; maybe slightly surprised by the photographer (while the man seems unaware or oblivious).

The expression on the man's face at first seems as if he's calling out to someone out of the frame. But the more you look at it, it looks more like he wants to proclaim that life, at least in this moment, is good. He seems to understand that good is bad's fraternal twin. But it doesn't matter. Nothing lasts. Now is good.

The lines of the photo's composition arc upwards, from lower left to top right. It's that upward arc that seems, to me, so expressive of the early-mid-1970s.