It is a convention in Anglo-American vocal music that the lyrics should make some sort of sense. The meaning may be dense, or multi-layered, but the lines should not be completely impenetrable, or flat-out imbecilic. A person of reasonable intelligence and attention should be able to suss out what is being said without herculean effort. The music reproduced below, for example, just won’t do: something more than the words “in the frog/perpen-dicular to the frog/far away from the frog/without the frog” must be imparted to the listener.
Generally the search for meaning isn’t a problem. This is particularly so because, in the popular tradition, the message is almost always both straight-forward, and the same—though usually it is at least somewhat veiled. Pop music is all about loin-joining: urging the joining of loins, celebrating the joining of loins, recalling when loins once joined. Ninety percent of all the vocal music that has ever made it onto the radio bespeaks an urgent chemical roiling that may be summarized as follows: “I feel great lust for you, and desire that we engage in sexual congress as soon as possible.” This is the sentiment that lies at the core of almost every love song . . . whether the singer is Rudy Vallee, or Ras. Of course, the veils have slipped some over the past 70 years. Thus, we have moved from the slickly sincere, buttery smooth seduction of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” to Liz Phair’s blunt, bare, matter-of-fact “HWC,” in which she cheerily chirps an ode to the outpouring of her lover’s semen.
Still, there remain those oddities, works wherein the words defy the probings of logic, intuition, or even sanity. I realized this anew recently, when, while driving, an Eric Clapton rendition of “Badge” poured forth from my radio, a song that, while still a joy to listen to, still, after all these years, makes no sense whatsoever.
Before I get to “Badge,” and other songs without sense, there will be a couple of detours.
For instance, my two current favorite “plain speaking” songs, songs in which the meaning is perfectly clear. First is Joan Osborne’s sly, biting, laceratingly funny “Let’s Just Get Naked,” in which the singer proposes as a possible cure for an ashy, aged, fucked-out relationship—”here comes that story again/all about that television show/here comes my typical response/won’t you tell me something I don’t know?“—some, well, fucking.
My other fave of this “plain speaking” genre is jazzman Eddie Harris’ “Eddie Who?” Harris, an utterly original, inventive, accomplished, uh, weirdsmobile, at some point decided that he just hadn’t received his due from this world, and so he sat down and wrote a song to tell that world all about his fine self. This was many years, mind you, before an entire sub-genre emerged in hip-hop in which singers churned out boastful chants detailing how many cops they had shot, crack vials they had sold, and women they had chained to the bumper and dragged down the street behind their fully armored Escalades. It also pre-dates Hank Williams Jr.’s many cornified reflected-glory ramblings about the Extreme Wonderment of his father and all his father’s famous friends.
A note about the call-and-response of “Eddie Harris” and “Eddie Who?” that closes out the number. Traditionally, Harris would say “Eddie Harris,” and the crowd would call back “Eddie Who?” . . . but the wily Harris would keep it up, sometimes for ten minutes or so, if that’s what it took, until he had successfully communicated to the crowd that they were supposed to respond with “Eddie Harris,” not “Eddie Who?” Indeed, the whole point of the song—”Eddie Harris is my name.” Not until the thickheads assembled had figured this out, would Harris end the song. In the version offered below—the only performance of this number I can find on the tubes—you can easily read from his face and his inflection that that is exactly what Harris is trying to get at. But he gives the number up before he can get there. I presume because he was performing in Germany, and he figured that, due to the language barrier, he would probably never succeed in getting across such a subtle point.
Sometimes a songwriter will set something down and send it out into the world, only to find that folks out in the world hear something completely different from what s/he had meant and intended. Probably the most notorious example of this is the Lennon/McCartney throwaway number “Helter Skelter,” a filler ditty referencing a British term for a children’s slide, but one that the brooding lunatic Charles Manson out there in California instantly interpreted as a vital coded message sent out to him personally, warning that wild-eyed KneeGrows were about to commence a race war, and that he, Charlie, needed to kick the thing off by bursting into people’s houses and sticking forks into their stomachs.
Something far more benign occurred with the Ace tune “How Long?” Vocalist Paul Carrack wrote the song in vexation and despair, having heard via rumor that Ace bassist Terry Comer was working out with other groups, preparing to skulk right out of the band. “How Long?” was intended as a shot across Comer’s bow. Everybody in the band knew it, and recording the thing was not exactly a festival of fellowship and joy. Carrack figured it would be the last song the band ever released. Instead, “How Long?” was heard by the world as a love song, an “I-know-now-that-you’re-cheating-on-me” song in the vein of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and people rushed out in great herds to purchase it. “How Long?” shot like a rocket up the charts, peaking at #3 in both the US and the UK, thereby imparting an additional two years to the life of the band. Fittingly, the target of the song, Comer, plays an insinuating bass line that contributed significantly to the number’s success.
The opposite occurred with the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” This 1966 Holland-Dozier-Holland number was sent out as a Motown love song, in the “hey’ darlin’, why don’t you now try me?” genre—a promise of succor and support to a man-wary woman the singer would clearly like to come his way as a lover.
But it was heard by combat troops in Vietnam as something very different. Lost in a lost war, abandoned by everyone but each other, unable to rely on anyone but those suffering through the same hell, they heard “Reach Out” as a call from themselves, to themselves: “now if you feel that you can’t go on/because all of your hope is gone/and your life is filled with confusion/until happiness is just an illusion/and your world is crumbling down/reach out/come on reach out for me.” It was their promise to themselves. That, when the bullets started flying, and the bodies started falling, they would be there for each other: “Reach out—reach out for me!” The song even sounded of combat, with an introductory galloping, as of feet running; the abrupt shifts into minors; the vocalist urgently shouting at the top of his range; the tense alert pauses, sounding only a rapid beat, like a fluttery straining heartbeat.
Once having heard what this song meant, to those for whom it meant the most, I couldn’t really any longer hear it any other way.
And then sometimes you don’t even need to know the language, to know what the words mean. It is not necessary to understand a lick of Spanish to know what is going on in Jennifer Lopez’ “Por Arriesgarnos”: the Big Rush, of the Big Love. If “Let’s Just Get Naked” marks the end point, “Por Arriesgarnos” is the beginning.
And, finally, to the songs that make no sense.
Back in the day, Michael Stipe of REM was a shy lad. He did not think he sang particularly well, so he buried his voice in the mix. He did not think he had much of worth to say, so he larded his lyrics with obscurity and gibberish. International fame and fortune tends to boost one’s self-esteem in such things, and so these days Stipe with his words is much more forthcoming. And his voice no longer sounds from deep down in the maelstrom.
“Disturbance At The Heron House,” from the 1987 REM release Document, is an irresistible rocknroll song, but there is no way anyone would have divined that it was intended as Stipe’s “rewriting of the novel Animal Farm,” if he had not belatedly told us so, in a sort of spasm of confession about some of his more opaque works, delivered from the stage of Madison Square Garden last year. Though the lyrics are mostly impenetrable, they are awash in herons and monkeys, neither of whom feature in Animal Farm, and the song seems to be concerned with a squalling melee in a zoo, rather than on a farm. There are also disturbed references to “a gathering of grunts and greens,” “a stampede at the monument,” “the followers of chaos out of control,” and so forth. I mean, Mike, c’mon: I don’t think Orwell himself could have sussed it out. Then again, maybe Stipe did get across what he wanted: I, after all, am an Orwell addict, and I became deeply addicted to “Disturbance At The Heron House” from the moment I heard it.
Although there is more juice in the brash cascading electrified version on Document, I’m posting the acoustic rendition from MTV Unplugged, because I like the variations Stipe works in the end on “try to tell us something we don’t know.“
As a work of fist-pumping anthemic rocknroll, “Badge” is even more irresistible than “Disturbance At The Heron House.” But no one, particularly George Harrison and Eric Clapton, who wrote the thing, have ever tried to claim that the words mean anything. Some of the lyrics are admittedly transcribed from the inane ravings of a drunkard, and the title itself comes from Clapton’s inability to read Harrison’s writing, no doubt due to the lingering effects of a drug coma.
At the time of the song’s initial release, various people attempted to tease meaning from what they heard. There was even a theory, propounded by Normal People in the press—a theory several times since mercilessly mocked on stage by Clapton—that “Badge” referenced some nasty, dirty British political scandal, one that Harrison and Clapton somehow blundered onto and decided to address, obscurely, in song. If that makes absolutely no sense to you, that a couple of scruffy musicians lost in a dope haze would become privy to the innermost secrets of the British government, remember that these were the days when people were attempting to steam the covers off their Beatles album-jackets, while playing the albums themselves backwards, in order to unearth new clues about the tragic, concealed death of Paul McCartney . . . and Charlie Manson was roaming around out there in the California desert, basing on Deep Meanings he extruded from Beatles songs the identities of people who should be killed, when, where, why, and how.
The truth of it is that when “Badge” was written the “power trio” Cream had already decided to disband. I like to think from shame, the members aghast that they had unwittingly spawned that atrocity that would soon be known as “heavy metal.” But in fact it was more personal: drummer Ginger Baker wanted bassist Jack Bruce put to sleep, and Clapton wanted out of the glare of the “guitar god” spotlight. For the band’s final recorded effort, the three men were each tasked with writing a new song, which would fill (barely) one side of an LP otherwise devoted to live music. Harrison elected to help Clapton with his contribution. The two men had become friends, not least because of the incipient Pattie Boyd Problem. (That’s Boyd, on the left in the photo to the right, in the sort of get-up we were all forced to wear in the 1960s and ’70s.) Married to Harrison, Boyd nonetheless became Clapton’s grail, for whom he would plunge down the rabbit hole of heroin addiction, where he would produce for her, among other works, the Layla LP. While flailing at Layla, Clapton was living as lovers with Boyd’s younger sister, Paula: she left him when she heard the thing, as it confirmed for her that Clapton was using her as some sort of weird Vertigo substitute for her sister.
Anyway, back on “Badge” day, Clapton was down at the studio, desultorily trying his hand at some lyrics, and had got as far as “I told you not to wander ’round in the dark.” He was reading these to Harrison, when an extremely inebriated Ringo Starr fell into the room, picked up the cue, and burbled: “I told you about the swans that they lived in the park!” This made absolutely no sense at all, but Clapton wrote it down anyway, because they were words, and he wanted to get the damn song finished.
It was these “swans,” which dribbled from the lips of a man blind drunk, that the wizards of British journalism would later conclude referred to unknown, but soon-to-be-scandalized, British political figures.
The bibulous Starr was pumped by Clapton and Harrison for more wisdom, which resulted in such further “Badge” lyrical absurdities as “then I told you ’bout our kid/now he’s married to Mabel.” When Starr’s well ran dry, he was poured out of the room, and Harrison and Clapton grappled with finishing the song themselves.
As Harrison later explained it: “[w]hile writing the words we got to the middle part, which I call the ‘bridge,’ so I put that on the paper with the words. Eric was sitting opposite me, and he looked at the paper—upside down to him—and cracked up. He said, “what’s that—badge?” And I said, “it’s bridge.” So Eric called the song ‘Badge.'”
The word “Badge” was never actually heard in the song “Badge” as it appeared on the Cream Goodbye LP. Years later, when Clapton started stretching the song out to the rouser it is today, he began winding it up with refrains of, variously, “where is my badge?” and “love is my badge.” I prefer the latter myself, but then I’m that kind of guy. But by far the best version of the song available on the tubes is of the former sort, and that’s what’s offered here. One of the YouTube commentators insists: “1:39 has to be the greatest bridge in history!!! period, full stop, end of the chapter, the end!!!” And it’s kind of hard to argue with that. Fitting that it comes in a song named “Bridge” . . . er, “Badge.”
The Australian band The Church has never really been concerned with making lyrical sense. This was particularly so on its 1992 Priest=Aura release. There, lyricist Steve Kilbey’s admitted predilection for art pour l’art was overlaid with opium. The crypticism begins with the album title itself, which, like “Badge,” resulted from a misreading: Kilbey misapprehended a Spanish fan’s notes on translation, reading “priest=cura” as “priest=aura.” Though there is a lot of defiantly obscuro “sunless sea” wordplay on the disc, I am going to close with one of Priest=Aura‘s more straightforward numbers: “Feel.” That is because it is lyrically concerned with the tantalizing boundaries of the forever-impenetrable mystery of existence. Something far more opaque than any “Badge.”