Who Will Be Your Big Ol' Jelly Rhino?

So there's this R.E.M. song that's always bothered me. Well, not the song - which I really like - but the lyrics. And specifically, what the hell Michael Stipe is saying. It's a song called Camera, from their 1984 album Reckoning (which is underrated - though admittedly for much of the 1980s R.E.M. was my favorite band, so I'm slightly biased), and the lyrics that bug me are pretty central to the song. "If I'm to be your camera," Stipe sings, "then who will be your ...." The thing that kills me about this lyric is that there really shouldn't be many options for this question: "If I'm to be your camera, then who will be your camera-related-metaphor," I figure. And that last word clearly starts with "f." But here's the thing: If you listen closely, you can tell it's not "flash." It's not "film." And it's not any other word I can think of. Not to mention that it sounds slightly different every time he says it.

Now, far be it from me to expect clarity from R.E.M. lyrics. This, after all, is a band that released a song about thousands of people who had been "disappeared" in Guatemala, and then had to do a press conference pointing that out, since no one actually got that from the song. Sometimes I think they just put words together that sound pretty in sequence, meaning be damned; also, the cryptic nature of their lyrics appeals to the English major in me. Camera itself starts like this (best I can figure):

From the inside room
When the front room green becomes your special book
It was simple then
When the party [or possibly the par tree?] lows [or maybe knows] if we fall by the side

See what I mean? It's pretty, but... huh? (And I refuse to look up the lyrics online, because with REM, I prefer to puzzle it out or be mystified without the assistance of Google. Plus, all the lyrics sites rely on fans to transcribe the lyrics, and are sometimes blatantly wrong, so I don't know that it would actually help. I know that some people read "green" in that second line as "greeting," which makes a whole lot more sense...but it just doesn't sound like it when he says it!)

But still: If I'm to be your camera, then who will be your.... your what?? Usually I can figure out the words, even if the words then don't make a lot of sense. Not here. Back in the days of mixed tapes, I put this one on a tape for a friend, hoping she would be able to help.

"So," I asked hopefully, "what's he saying there??"

"Well, it kind of sounds like 'flash,' right?"

"Except that it doesn't always sound like there's an 'l' in it. And when there is an 'l' sound in it, it sounds a lot more like 'flush.' ...Or 'frush.'"

"Well, OK, but do you think he's saying 'If I'm to be your camera, then who will be your flush'? Really?"

"...OK, not really; but it just doesn't sound like 'flash.' And 'film' is out because it ends in a sort of mushy 's.'"

"So there are one or two times it could be 'flash,' or 'flush,' but there are other times it definitely can't be. I think sometimes it sounds like 'fist,' or maybe 'first.'"

"Best I can figure is, 'If I'm to be your camera, who will be your fish?'"


"Well, it doesn't make sense, but neither does any of the rest of it."

Sometime in the 1980s, back when I read Rolling Stone religiously, because that's what you did when you were in junior high and desperately wanted to be cool but had no idea what that might actually entail, I read an interview with Michael Stipe, and one exchange has always stuck with me. The interviewer had always wondered about a particular lyric and asked about it. Stipe pondered it, and said he wasn't sure. The interviewer pointed out that it was a song REM regularly played in concert, so Stipe had been singing it really recently; did he really not know the lyrics? "Oh," Stipe answered, "I just syllable-ize it." That's right: he doesn't know what he's saying either; he just syllable-izes it.

That makes me feel a bit better about the fact that I seem to have a talent for seriously misinterpreting lyrics. For years, I was convinced that the Steve Miller Band was singing not this:

Big ol' jet airliner, don't carry me too far away
Big ol' jet airliner, for it's here that I got to stay

but instead this:

Big ol' jelly rhino, don't carry me too far away
Big ol' jelly rhino, for it's here that I got to stay

Mm hm. In my mind, they were pleading with a big ol' jelly rhino (made of either purple or red jelly) that was threatening to carry them off on its back. Imagine my surprise when years later I heard a clearly enunciating DJ introduce the song. "Jet airliner"?? Really?

Admittedly, "jet airliner" makes a hell of a lot more sense in context than "jelly rhino." But at the time, I just figured that hey, whatever, they did a lot of drugs. And the thing is, if you listen to that song thinking "big ol' jelly rhino, don't carry me too far away," you will totally hear that. Really. Try it. And it actually makes it a much better song. Once I realized that it was just "big ol' jet airliner," I also realized that it was not the surreal visual I'd imagined, but in fact a pretty boring song.

Then there's the Cowboy Junkies' beautiful song "To Love is to Bury":

Then one night a terrible fight
Words spoken better left unsaid
With his wedding vows ringing in my ears
He gave his life to me

They say to love is to bury
Those demons from which we all hide...

In an apparent attack of anti-Kansas prejudice, however, I thought that what Margo Timmins was singing was...

They say to love is to bury
Those demons from Wichita...

Yeah, I'm not proud of it. But even now that I know better, I can't help but think about Wichita when I hear that song.

Perhaps my oddest mis-hearing, though, is what I thought a-ha was saying in "Take On Me." A-ha, if you recall, was that band from Norway that, back in 1985, sang "Take On Me," which had a video that was really nifty and won all kinds of awards. It's a very poppy, substance-less song that also doesn't always make a hell of a lot of grammatic sense - I mean, "take on me"? Quoi?

Anyway, though, there's a part of the song that goes like this:

So needless to say
I'm at odds and ends
But that's me stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is OK.

Except that I thought they were saying this:

But that's me stumbling away
Stalin Lenin that life is OK.

That's right. The budding socialist in me decided that this random ear-candy pop song that was largely about love and leaving also had a little ode to past Soviet leaders just plonked down in the middle of the song. I only figured out the real lyrics a couple years ago, and since I've had that misconception for so long, I'll still sing "Stalin Lenin that life is OK" when the song comes on the radio.

I like to tell myself that I misinterpreted because I was a big Housemartins fan, and the Housemartins would totally have done a little bubbly, poppy ode to communism - they were basically about class warfare, but with synthesizers. But it was pretty damn clear that a-ha was not exactly a group with great sociopolitical insights, and, well... Stalin? Because he's... such a popular metaphor for "life is OK"??

The one thing I never mis-heard was Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," which evidently is the source for so much confusion that a book about mistaken lyrics took its title from it. When Hendrix sings "'scuse me while I kiss the sky," evidently a large number of people thought he was saying "'scuse me while I kiss this guy." This was such a common misinterpretation that The One And Only pointed me to a great concert recording of Jimi where he sings "Purple Haze" and actually changes that line to "'scuse me while I kiss that guy." Which kind of rocks.

Apparently, I don't syllable-ize. If I don't know what's being said, I'll make up my own story, and it's usually one that entertains me more than what's actually being said. Wouldn't that be a great skill if you could apply it to meetings? And how much more fun would that make arguments? On the other hand, though, I guess this is pretty much also the Fox News approach, what with "Barack Osama," not to mention that if you think Bush is making sense, you must be adding your own words in there somewhere.

My way is much less damaging, though, and way more fun. Besides, I know that, in spite of it all, Stalin, Lenin, life is OK.




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30. March 2008

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