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.


Jeffers66 said...

I like your line better than Van's. Then again, I prefer "when I needed sunshine on my brain" in "I'm A Believer", and "Billie Joe never had a liquor scent" over "lick of sense". Pass the biscuits, please.

Anonymous said...

Though hardly anywhere near a decent song (with or without misheard lyrics) I always felt my lyrics of Dylan's 'No Time To Think' improved on the original; I always heard 'I'd have paid off the traitor and killed him much later' as 'The pain betrayed her and killed her much later (but that's just the way that I am...)'; it seems to work nicely...

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

I still hear the line about the Bible Belt is Johnny Cougar's "Jack And Diane" as "Bottle Bill," but maybe that's okay.

tommyD said...

Ain't no woman like the one-eyed Goth.

countryboy said...

I've been a huge fan of Van Morrison for many years, and the song, Madame George, is one of my all-time favorites. The words and music compliment each other wonderfully. Astral Weeks, IMHO, will be considered his best and most influential work.

Stan Denski said...

As much as I love Astral Weeks, I think Moondance tops it. Morrison's album each are on a scale between R&B and the more mystical end of things. Each record tends toward one of those or the other. It's like a wrestling ring with a tag team match of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett versus John Donne and W.B. Yeats. Usually one team pins the other. But on Moondance, they meet in the center of the ring and all go down to the pub for some drinks.