Randall Beach: Turn on your mind and try to figure out these lyrics
Have you ever wondered what John Lennon was talking about when you listen to the jumble of lyrics he dreamed up for “I Am the Walrus”?
And have you always assumed Paul McCartney was simply writing a romantic song about seeing and desiring a beautiful woman in “Got to Get You Into My Life”?
Have you puzzled over Procol Harum’s trippy hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with lines such as: “But I wandered through my playing cards/ and would not let her be/ one of 16 vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast”?
Sure, I’ve spent decades pondering these heavy meanings, as have many of you other baby boomers and a few of our descendants who dig the music of the ’60s and ’70s.
Much of it comes down to our state of mind when we first heard the song on the radio or on our turntables. I was so knocked out by the surreally soothing first line of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” — “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” — that I chose it as the quote to be placed under my picture in my high school yearbook.
Some of my friends said I must be a pothead to be applauding such an obvious reference to drugs. Drugs? I was oblivious. At age 17, I was yet to be “enlightened.” I just liked the flow and bliss of the image.
I was reminded of all this a couple of weeks ago when Will Hart sent me an email tracing how he recently explored the meaning of the Genesis song “The Carpet Crawlers.” It’s on their album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” from 1974, when Peter Gabriel was doing most of the songwriting. Hart recently bought the CD of “Lamb” at Replay Records in Hamden.
Hart loves “The Carpet Crawlers.” Although I have listened to it many times and enjoyed the sound, I had never thought much about what it might mean. But Hart was so taken by this “transcendently beautiful song” and its refrain “you’ve gotta get in to get out” that he began looking into its meaning.
“Typical of numerous Genesis songs, the lyrics are abstruse, psychedelic, full of symbols, ancient and bibilical, and ultimately hard to understand,” Hart wrote. “Who, for example, are the carpet crawlers?”
“I was listening to the song as I drove with my golden retriever/Irish setter mix, to take him for a hike at Sleeping Giant,” he said. “It was a beautiful April day with blue skies and a steady breeze. When I had read the lyrics, I noted that the carpet crawlers do not ‘eat’ their callers, as I had mistakenly thought; rather they ‘heed’ their callers. So that was one mystery solved. I had the song in my head during much of the time I hiked the ‘Ravine Trail’ with Buddy Burgher.”
When Hart got back to his condo, he went to Google and found a website that provides lyrics to rock songs and invites readers to give their own interpretations: www.songlyrics.com.
He said none of the responses provided a definitive answer but they were creative: “One guy said the carpet crawlers were sperm cells swimming up the uterus and fallopian tubes, trying to fertilize the eggs — a totally plausible interpretation. Another was that they were teenage junkies shooting up heroin in a welfare hotel near Times Square. A third interpretation was that the carpet crawlers were awakening to a life of spirit, transcending the material realm.”
Hart suggested I devote a column to “familiar rock song lyrics with mysterious hidden meanings.” (And so here it the heck is.) He threw out some other examples: “I Am the Walrus, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” and Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow.”
I told Hart those were all interesting songs to chew over, except for “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Wasn’t that an obvious remembrance of seeing an attractive woman? But Hart replied he had read McCartney saying he wrote it to sound like a basic love song and didn’t want the casual listener to discern the underlying meaning to “I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there ...”
Sure enough: I pulled out my copy of Steve Turner’s “The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write” (I’ve got about six such books) and read this: “John believed that by mentioning ‘another kind of mind’ in the lyrics, Paul was alluding to his drug experiences. He has since confirmed that he was. It was a hymn in praise of pot, disguised as a love song. It wasn’t a woman that he needed every single day of his life, but a joint.”
Who knew? Not I.
I read on, to the pages examining “I Am the Walrus.” It turns out Lennon was basically enjoying messing with our minds. He told a Playboy magazine writer that Dylan “got away with murder” at times and so Lennon decided “I can write this crap too.”
But are these lines “crap”?: “Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess/ Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.” No, they’re witty wordplay! Right?
We’re also treated to the refrain: “I am the egg man/ they are the egg men/ I am the walrus/ goo goo g’joob.” Turner said he found out the “egg man” was a reference to the Animals’ Eric Burdon’s habit of breaking eggs over his female conquests while making love to them.
I did not know that.
Here’s another nugget about “Walrus,” courtesy of Ian MacDonald in his book “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties”: Lennon was in part inspired to write “Walrus” after he heard, oh yes, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” MacDonald wrote that “Pale” was “famous in the pop world for taking portentous meaninglessness to rococo lengths.”
Sure, yet as Bruce Springsteen said in a similar vein: “Oh, but Mama, that’s where the fun is.” That was part of the fun of the ’60s.
We’re lucky we now have websites to try to sort out these hard-to-hear obtuse lyrics. When I was a teenager, ears pressed to my transistor radio, I tried mightily to figure out what the heck Mick Jagger was saying at the beginning of “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
This is what I came up with: “You’re the kind of person, you feel like surfin,’ this beats all the rest.”
Then out came a new magazine called “Tiger Beat,” which reprinted lyrics! It was a revelation. It enabled me to learn the real first line: “You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal dull affairs.”
Geez! Nothing to do with surfing!
Dear reader: what songs have at some point confused you as to their meaning? You are welcome to let me know.
Contact Randall Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-680-9345.