What do songs mean?
That's a more difficult question than it sounds. The process of creation is complex, and the writer doesn't always know himself. Lou reed wrote Perfect Day after a walk in Central Park, and that's what he thought it was about. When other people heard it they thought he was writing about drug addiction, and he seemed to believe them. Mike Oldfield wrote Moonlight Shadow shortly after the death of John Lennon, but claimed that wasn't what the song was about. Was he right? Who knows.
However sometimes it is quite clear what the song is not about, and sometimes it's also quite clear the people requesting it really don't get it. So here are my top five misunderstood songs.
Imagine by John Lennon
Well, yes, but you wonder if he actually got that when he made the video. That really is the ex-Beatle playing a $40,000 piano in his $2 million dollar mansion whilst singing "Imagine no possessions". I wonder if he could?
However Imagine gets on the list because it is our most requested song at funerals.
Now if you actually are a humanist that's all very well and good, although personally I'd go for Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. However as they're about 2% of the population, it isn't humanists who are making Imagine popular. Instead it's people who are nominally Christian sending dear old Aunty Nora's coffin through the curtain to Lennon singing "Imagine there's no heaven."
Perhaps not a bad little thought experiment to carry out, but there's a time and a place for this, surely?
Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
"Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand, Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man" goes the second verse, which should give you an indication this was no simple Redneck hymn.
However that doesn't stop it being your number one singalong classic for 'Make America Great Again' voters. Which, of course, leads to the age old discussion of whether this makes The Boss a hero or a zero. I mean, it's one thing to write an anti-war song that gets banned from the TV, becomes a smash hit and gets sung by half a million hippies at Woodstock (take a bow Country Joe). But to write to an anti-war song that gets sung by Trump voters??!?
As Spinal Tap said, there's a fine line between genius and stupid.
Puff the Magic Dragon by Pete, Paul and Mary
Everyone except Peter Yarrow. Instead Yarrow decided to use a poem, written by a friend of an old housemate, to tell the story of an ageless dragon, left behind when the boy he plays with grows up. It's sad, it's poignant, everyone knows the words, and it's not about drugs.
The problem was nobody believed it wasn't about weed. Within twelve months of the song appearing Newsweek were reporting as fact that the boy's name, 'Jackie Paper', was a reference to rizlas, 'puff' meant smoking, dragon really meant "draggin'", 'autumn mist' meant clouds of smoke, 'Hanah Lea' meant a place in Hawaii marijuana apparently grows really well etc
Yarrow has now spent more than half a century denying this, and not from any puritanical motives. If he wanted to write a song about drugs, he says, I bloomin' well would. Meanwhile, stop corrupting a perfectly innocent song that children love.
Indeed, he appears to be so unrelaxed about the issue that it pretty much proves he isn't on pot.
The One I Love by REM
inspired a website.
However this song does achieve a special status, owing to the number of people who request it for their girlfriends in clubs, without actually realising what it's really about.
You should always try to listen to REM lyrics, although that can be quite a challenge. Having spent a lifetime around cars, guns and heavy metal bands, I expect that by the time I retire I won't be able to understand even Brian Blessed without subtitles. And if I want to imagine what this will be like, I just try to make out the lyrics of Radio Free Europe.
The One I Love though, can just about be understood by anyone with normal ears, so there isn't really an excuse for dedicating a song to your True Love that refers to "A simple prop to occupy my time", and where the woman in the last verse is clearly not the same one as in the first.
However, unlike the other entries in this blog, I very much suspect that the lyrics of this song were written to be misinterpreted, and that's it's REM having the last laugh here.
Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams
Adams came up with a bit of catchy soft rock nostalgia here. Pretty much every thinks the '69' refers to 1969, the year of the moon landings, Woodstock and the end of the hippy dream. Who wouldn't want to remember 1969? The fact that Adams was ten when Country Joe was raggin' at Max Yasgur's farm is, presumably, considered a bit of artistic license.
However Adams has made clear that this is not so. It is about the band he put together at High School, and 'Jimmy' who 'quit' and 'Jody' who 'got married' were real people. The '69' was, and he has stated this on the record, a reference to the quantity and quality of sex they were all having at the time. For some reason though this interpretation hasn't really taken off. Maybe it's the lumberjack shirt?
So some people write clean songs that people think are dirty, some people write dirty songs that sound as if they're clean. Bryan Adams writes a dirty song that sounds dirty, and everyone thinks it's about the Beatles splitting up.
Once again, it's that fine line.