Thursday, September 25, 2014

Can't Name That Tune

I don't hear very well.  I've gotten by for years with a mix of lip reading and playing a game of "fill in the blank" with what I think are logical words or ideas for the gaps.  I ask people to repeat themselves or I nod and smile until I'm forced to say "Wait. What?" because I realize I've missed something big.  This isn't usually a problem.  I'm sure that people think I'm rude if they are standing behind me and say "excuse me", because I usually don't notice their presence.  I seldom hear footsteps or can differentiate background voices from general white noise that fills my head any time I'm in public.  I don't move for them simply because I have no idea they are there, silently cursing me for accidentally ignoring them and repeating themselves until they push by me and I think they are jerks.

 I get by for the most part, but there is one thing that has always vexed me.  It has been a problem for as long as I can remember, and with my husband's recent purchase of the karaoke machine it's become startlingly apparent.

I can't understand song lyrics to save my freaking life.

When words are set to music my heart goes wild.  I love me a good song.  I love singing at the top of my lungs to my favorite tunes on the radio, and I am over the moon when I'm belting out my favorite hits with the "follow the bouncing ball" type lyrics that the karaoke machine feeds me.  Unfortunately, at least once a song my forehead will crinkle up as I squint and think "No... that couldn't possibly be the words.  There is no way I have sung this song 400 times and never knew that this is what they were saying!", but that is exactly what happens EVERY TIME.

I'll give you a couple of examples.

When I was working in Cherokee, North Carolina at the outdoor drama Unto These Hills I longed to be in the pre-show choir.  There were auditions the first week we were there.  I thought I was going to make it in easy peasy since I had been a music major in undergrad and had concentrated most of my time on musical theatre performance.  I went in with "I Get A Kick Out of You" from Anything Goes and didn't realize that it was a kind of challenging piece forthe sight reader who was accompanying the auditions.  I wanted it very up tempo and it took a moment to get under way but I thought I had done just fine.  Everyone else was singing a few bars of Amazing Grace and I figured that since I had a piece prepared I had a leg up.

They posted the cast list the next day and I wasn't on it.  I was heartbroken and I spent the entire summer kicking myself for blowing it.  To make matters worse my roommate made it and came home each night and warbled her way through her alto line over and over and rubbed salt in the wound.

I cried many times that summer in frustration over the fact that every night my friends let their beautiful voices soar over the mountains and I wasn't with them.  Still, I learned every bar of every song and sang along while I sat in the costume shop sewing my little heart out.  I'd be painting the dancers with Texas Dirt and harmonizing with the folks dancing in their calico dresses on stage.  Folding laundry, darning socks, beading chest plates, all of these were accompanied by the songs of the pre-show entertainers over the loud speakers, and I was right there with them, unseen and hidden in Laubin or kicking around in the dressing rooms with the actors.

My favorite of all the songs was A Merry Good Tune.  It was a beautiful melody and I thought I may have heard it before they sang it on the hill, but I thought it was completely lovely.  If there was one song that made me melancholy that I wasn't out there in the show, it was that one.

The next year I auditioned again, but I didn't expect anything.  I didn't even bother preparing a piece.  I walked in and said to the director "all I did last year was sing along with your choir.  I hope this year I can do it from the stage instead of the dressing room."  I then sang a few bars of Amazing Grace a capella. I knew it from the hymnals at our church and had every verse memorized like every other Catholic school kid.   Eventually we made it through the whole song with several modulations and interjections of "sing it again, this time a little bluesy" or "do something interesting on the end of this verse."  When I finished they stared at me.  Then they said "why didn't you audition last year?"  I'm glad I didn't puke on my shoes as I explained with increasing redness that I had indeed auditioned and yes, I had a piece prepared then and that additionally I knew every word of every song they had sung the previous year.  They ran me through a bit of Rocky Top which I knew from liner notes to a John Denver album my mom had and then we did the chorus of The Farmer's Cursed Wife which was a bunch of diddle-aye-dies and other made up words.  Finally he said "Do you know Amercian Tune?" and I drew a blank.  "I don't think so.  Did you sing it some other year?"  Nope.  They had done it the past year.  It was a Paul Simon chart.

I wondered how there could have been a song in the show I didn't know.  The pre-show segment was only 30 minutes or so of music.  I thought perhaps it was part of the big medley they ended each performance with and I hadn't known it as a stand alone song.  Suddenly the room was filling with my favorite song from the year prior.  I almost exclaimed "A Merry Good Tune!" but instead I whispered "oh, shit."

These are not the lyrics to American Tune.  They are however the lyrics to A Merry Good Tune:

  "Many's a time I've been mistaken, and many times confused.
  Yes sir, I've often felt my name wasn't most always misconstrued.
  But it's alright, it's alright - I'm just weary to my soul.
  Still you can't expect to be right near everyone so far away from home.
  So-o far away from home."

There was some more stuff about statues looking at me and the it ended with the whole merry good tune stuff and me tryin' to get some rest.  At least I got the rest part right.

The only people who knew my alterna lyrics were my friends Michael Berg and Brooke who had heard me sing it wrong all summer.  I must not have sung it too loud because I don't remember them correcting me.  Blissfully I was able to hum along and then look at the lyric sheet so I didn't make a complete fool of myself.  I made the choir that year and I figured out quickly that I had made up my own special variety of misheard words for nearly every unfamiliar title we sang.  It took a few weeks for me to straighten them out.  I still argued until I was blue in the face that the line in Seven Bridges Road was "time sweet as honey" and I am sticking with it because frankly nothing else makes sense and if it's wrong I don't want to be right.

This was just the first in a long line of the stunning realizations that my ears quite often (if not always) do me wrong.

I once asked my brother in law Bill what an angrion was.  I had looked in the dictionary and hadn't found it, but he was a fan of the artist who sang the song the word was in, and I figured he would know.  "Use it in a sentence Mick" he said.  I answered "there's a place in the wood for the angrion man with his looking glass, tie, and his radical pants."  I was laughed out of town.  He asked me if I knew the title of the Billy Joel song and I said "Angry Young Man."  Oh.  Damn.

I was positive that Michael Jackson sang "Billie Jean has got my cover.  She's Justin's girl but claims that I was the one with the chance to love my son".  I thought it was about a private investigator for some reason and the sidewalk lit up because he was retracing the steps of his cheating girlfriend.  I have no idea why.

When singing Linda Ronstadt's Blue Bayou on the karaoke machine the other day I was impressed that the only major misunderstanding was "I'll sip tequila sunrise with sleepy eyes - how happy I'll be."  Who wouldn't be happy to be back home and drunk?

My ex fiance went to high school and was very good friends with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  He asked me when we first started dating what my favorite NIN song was and I said it was "Turn on the Light".  He proceeded to tell the man all about it when he saw him next.  I'm sorry, but Terrible Lie just isn't as dynamic.  

When it comes to nonsense words I am oddly golden.  I can understand vowel sounds really well and I can do the whole scat line of Rag Doll by Aerosmith with complete precision.  I was also clear that Steve Miller spoke of the pompatus of love.  Made up words are easy to understand because they're easy to hear and you don't have to think too hard about what they mean.

There are hundreds.  Hundreds of songs that I have very little understanding of.  I want to buy these vocalists some consonants and a diction coach.  Then I want them to sing very slowly and loud right next to me without a bunch of percussion banging away.  Finally I want them to start giving out liner notes.  Liner notes with lyrics are a blessing to people like me.

I'm going to keep on singing my own lyrics.  They make sense and even if they aren't what the song writer intended me to hear, I kind of love my secret justifications behind each misheard lyric.  If you see me grinning at the karaoke machine it is because, yet again, I have had a moment of "really?  THOSE are the words?"

In the immortal words of Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls (whose songs I really think I know the lyrics to but clearly don't) "You've got to laugh at yourself.  You'd cry your eyes out if you didn't"

Much Love to all yinz guys.  Please share with me your misheard lyrics or your memories of mine.  I know I'm notorious for this by now.

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