Have you ever had a great idea that you never pursued, only to see some sad simulacrum of it enter the public eye years later? Not necessarily some history-altering innovation or cultural touchstone. Maybe even something mundane. Gripped in the chilly torpor of insomnia, you channel-surf post-midnight TV, and amid all the black-and-white scenes of incompetence and the 80s-era video effects, there it is: that idea you had five years ago. Maybe it’s a stackable spice rack, or a clear-backed, window-mounted birdhouse. Who knows. But you had that idea, years ago – and yours was better than this tacky gimcrack, for damn sure. You could have been The Guy Who Invented The [Amazing Product!] Instead, you end up as The Guy Who Will Never Stop Telling That “Story” About How He Came Up With The [Amazing Product.]
That’s me and “Don’t Forget The Lyrics!”
I grew up listening to the radio a lot. And, as kids do when they don’t really have any useful skills or talents or meaning in their life, I used to daydream about situations where those paltry talents I did have were, through some incredibly contrived process, so laudable that it granted me fortune and respect. One particularly fond imagining was The Lyrics Contest.
In my imagination, it was a radio contest, “but nationwide, somehow.” Ah, the heady days of youth, when local radio truly was local, and you weren’t hearing the exact same song as the exact same time as listeners in Denver and Detroit and Duluth. Depression. But on The Lyrics Contest, a couple dozen contestants would be on the stage, all standing behind a grove of podia. A song would play. The song would stop. A random contestant’s podium would light up! The spotlight swivels smartly onto them! Do they know the next line? They don’t have to belt it out like Aretha Franlkin. They don’t even have to sing it. They just have to say it. If you failed, you were out. And so the field of contestants would narrow, until it was just between me and some wrinkly, elderly 50 year old. Everything I’d been selected for so far had been unavoidable pop or 80s hits. The old man had been lucky, too. And now it was down to this. The crowd would hush. The lights would dim. The final song would begin. An oldie. It varied, in my daydreams: sometimes Herman’s Hermits. Sometimes Dion. Sometimes The Coasters. Sometimes Pet Clark. But the old man would look over at me, a smirk on his face, believing I was surely too young, too oblivious, too much like the normal kids to possibly know the words to those songs of his own faded youth. The song would stop. The podium would light up. And, pausing only to take a breath, I’d sing the next full line, in perfect pitch. The doddering fifty-something would stare, his mouth agape. The balloons and confetti would fall. I’d finish out the rest of the song, the audience cheering for, and inspired by, this talented, enlightened youth whose very weirdness was something everyone could be proud of!
And then I’d remember what an actual clod I am, acknowledge that I’d probably faint on stage, imagine everyone making fun of me for that and every other foolishness forever, realize I deserved it, and go on to feel ashamed of myself for having imagined anything so stupid.
That’s part of why I never actually watched “Don’t Forget The Lyrics!” nor its knockoff, “The Singing Bee.” I totally had that idea. I totally could have done something with it. I totally could have done all right on the show itself. But I knew it would just be a big flashy half-hour reminder of all the ways my imagination and my abilities completely fail to overlap.
So I have a host of accurate answers to this prompt. But what song I’ve memorized is particularly special? Is there some song that, perhaps, counters that awkward sense of shame, of seeking approval from others, denying it of myself? A song that, just maybe, I should be proud to know in full?
I could be a little glib and say “Albuquerque” by Weird Al. It’s eleven minutes long, and I do indeed know the whole works. Obviously, Weird Al is about nothing if not, well, embracing one’s weirdness – and that’s one of the most surreal songs he’s ever done. And yet.. I can’t help but classify it in the same place as The Frantics’ “Tai Kwan Leep / Boot To The Head” or The Vestibules’ “Bulbous Bouffant.” Do I know all the words? You better believe I do! I’d lay in bed late on a Sunday night, long past when I should have been asleep, and hear them on The Dr. Demento Show. And I’d hear them so often, for so many years, that they inscribed themselves into my brain. I’d mouth them all, replete with facial expressions, whenever I heard them – and damned if I don’t still do so! And yet… how much do they really count as “songs?” “Albuquerque” is the most musical of them all, and it’s still more or less a spoken-word piece with a chorus.
It’s damn tempting to pick something from Dr. Demento, though. I was so quick to feel stupid or ashamed of every interest and enjoyment I took, but… the exuberant, self-acknowledging silliness of Dr. D made it unmockable. Sure, someone could say “This is all ridiculous and pointless and surreal and stupid!” But when that is the express point and purpose, it’s not an insult anymore, and the joke’s on them for failing to take it in stride.
Plus, my parents had no affinity for any such silliness, so it gave it all that little hint of rebellion. But also a sense of camaraderie: The Dr. Demento Show was like a secret club, hidden in plain sight. Only certain people knew about it (or cared) – knew that, if you tuned the dial just right, at just the right time, and if the weather was clement and the radio gods were willing, you’d hear things that almost nobody had ever heard before. And a lot of it was made by weirdos like you. You might never meet anyone else in your daily life who’d heard – or even knew of – Dr. D, but no matter how isolated you were while you listened, you knew other people were out there listening to it, too. The same song, at the same time, in Denver and Detroit and Duluth.
And yet… even that doesn’t quite convey what I want to convey with this choice, though it’s close. What is it that I want to evoke? What, if anything, is there that could make peace with my youthful daydreams of significance and the constant soul-evaporating Awkward? A song involving awareness of something from “before my time,” yes. Coupled with rebellion, yes. Adult disapproval. Their fear of the weird. My sense of… ownership of the music, of participation, of being among a few who were wise to it. That desire to be separate from, even in conflict with, the mundane.
Something from Jimmy Buffett’s “Songs You Know By Heart,” if just for the sake of literalism as well? Possibly. “Don’t Dream It, Be It?” Maybe. Not personal enough…
Aha. I had to step away to think on it a while, but I’ve got it:
“American Pie” by Don McLean.
“The hell?” you say. Allow me to tell a story from the dimly-lit warehouse of my childhood memories, reassembled as well as I can.
As I said, I grew up on oldies. I knew this song from a pretty young age. And I knew my mom hated it. She saw no redeeming qualities in it whatsoever. “It’s too long, it makes no sense, and nothing has anything to do with anything.” I thought it was okay, and wouldn’t launch myself across the room at Mach 5 to turn the radio down or anything – that distinction went to Bobby Vee’s “Rubber Ball.” Still, I could understand her on the “This doesn’t make sense” front.
Fast forward to sixth grade Music class. We were getting ready for some program – you know, the ones that make your poor put-upon parents come to your school, sit in the uncomfortable bleachers of the gym, and endure a few hundred K-12 students butchering an assortment of Americana over some substandard PA.
But that year, we were going to do something different. Our class wasn’t just going to sing “God Bless The USA” or “If I Had A Hammer” or what-the-hell-ever. We weren’t even singing something in the book. Instead, we got a flyspecked photocopy of the lyrics to “American Pie.”
The reaction of the class was much like the reaction of my mother. “This is, like, too long an’ junk. It makes, like, no sense. Nothing has, like, anything to do with, like, anything an’ stuff.”
The next time we had Music, one of my classmates came in with his own flyspecked photocopy. It, too, had the lyrics to “American Pie.”
On the right, it had a line-by-line interpretation and analysis.
“February made me shiver?” That was Buddy Holly’s plane crash in February of 1959. The Day The Music Died. Kurt Cobain’s suicide was recent enough – and relevant enough – for us to draw a parallel.
The Jester was Bob Dylan, and Elvis was the King, and The Beatles were the marching band, the Sergeants – symbols of the counterculture movement that took over after the 50’s sock-hops and doo-wops became a thing of the past.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash referred to Mick Jagger, on the stage at Altamont, where “hands were clenched in fists of rage” as a Hell’s Angel – an “angel born in Hell” – murdered a man and put paid to the idealism of Peace, Love, and Freedom.
Janis Joplin, the girl who sang the blues, had no happy news to give, and turned away from life after an overdose.
The sacred record stores didn’t have the 50s music anymore – it wouldn’t play, not even in Peoria.
All meaningful communication seemed to be over, nothing left but screaming, crying, dreaming, wordlessly, because words had failed.
The “three men [he] admired most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” could be interpreted multiple ways – as Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens; as John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
Whoever they were, they were gone as well. All his icons had fallen. The world of his childhood had vanished, overturned by a counterculture that failed anyway. And all that was left was a hollow sense of “Real America,” of black-and-white 50’s “values,” of misplaced nostalgia – and a descent toward anarchy and futility.
It was like cracking a code. I’m not sure if I’d ever been made so aware of symbolism, of interpretation, of the idea that things could be interpreted in more than one way! The song went from nonsense to something gritty, something pained. It wasn’t just silly, it was a dirge, a dirge for childhood. And there we were, facing the end of our own. If nothing else, the song felt a lot cooler when we knew it was about the Rolling Stones and murder and plane crashes. And stuff.
For once, we were actually a little excited for the program. This wasn’t just fluff – it was About Something, in a secret code that even our parents didn’t know.
We never knew whose parent it was. We had our suspicions. But someone started making phone calls. It wasn’t appropriate, they said, for children to sing the word “Hell.” Or to sing about “sacrificial rites,” or “Satan.” How could a music teacher possibly ask children to sing about Satan being happy?
Of course, we complained. Look, didn’t we learn that it was a metaphor? It’s not our fault the Hell’s Angels are called Hell’s Angels. It’s not like the song is presenting them, or the murder, or Satan, or – worst of all – hippies in a favorable light. Look, it means something more than just the lyrics…
The memory blurs still more here. It may just be nostalgia and idealism that makes me want to say we sang it one last time in Music class, and we were supposed to hum on “Hell” and “Satan,” but a lot of us “accidentally forgot.” Regardless, we didn’t sing it for the program, and we wound up singing “God Bless The USA,” or something still worse.
But, ill-remembered as that is, it’s still actually one of my stronger memories from elementary school. I remember it as a time we really learned something in music class. Not just the yearly reminder of what notes looked like, not just singing along with some insipid songbook, but singing a song that had a real life, that was written by a real person, a song that talked about real people and real things, awful things. I remember the few days we were treated like we were old enough to understand it, mature enough to express it. And realizing that our parents… weren’t. The song was foursquare against teenage rebellion, against revolution, against change. Especially now, I see it as a sad, kids-these-days, past-clinging lament, not prescient enough to realize that the music never died at all. Even Neil Young would, only a few years later, realize that rock and roll could never die, would try to understand his imminent obsolescence, would reach out toward DEVO and Johnny Rotten – and would be embraced as the Godfather of Grunge. But someone’s sainted mother was in even more denial than Don.
So I still know every word. I don’t necessarily like the song, even now. I don’t know that I even agree. But I remember how a whole world of history seemed to open up. I remember hoping to find symbolism in other popular songs. It may well have been one of the sparks for my long love of overanalyzing everything, interpreting everything, trying to tease deeper meaning from the inscrutable, the pedestrian, the inane.
And if nothing at all else, it brought forth “The Saga Begins,” which I also know by heart – and which actually makes the best of the ruination of cherished childhood media.