Editor’s Note: The below is a version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.
I was sitting around, listening to the Beach Boys, as one does. Specifically, I was listening to the King’s Singers in an arrangement of one Beach Boys song: “Good Vibrations.” We have all heard this song all of our lives, but I had never quite focused on one lyric: “I don’t know where, but she sends me there.”
I tweeted, as one does. I said that this lyric was possibly my favorite, in any pop song. “It is borderline nonsensical,” I said, “but so wonderful.”
Responding was my friend Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion. “Borderline, maybe,” he said, “but the right side of the border! Wasn’t it Wallace Stevens who said that poetry resists the intelligence almost successfully?”
It was indeed. The Stevens poem “Man Carrying Thing” begins like this: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”
Also responding was my friend Rahul Danak, a financial whiz in Chicago. He had thought of a lyric from “Transport Is Arranged,” by the band Pavement: “Praise the grammar police, set me up with your niece.”
That is absolutely nuts. But really nice.
I related all this to readers of National Review Online, as one does (at least if one is me). I invited them to send me their own examples — examples of lyrics that are borderline nonsensical but wonderful all the same (or wonderful because borderline nonsensical). Their responses took me on almost a tour of music.
“I’m tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.” That comes from the Talking Heads song “The Big Country.” It sort of relates to my Beach Boys lyric, doesn’t it? So does this one: “Even I never know where I go when my eyes are closed.” So does this one: “What do you see when you turn out the light? / I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”
That last one comes from a very famous song: “With a Little Help from My Friends,” by the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney, in particular). The one before that comes from “Chalkhills and Children,” by another English band, XTC.
“Give me some words I can dance to or a melody that rhymes.” Freaky and nice, right? That’s a Steve Goodman song — “Banana Republics” — associated with Jimmy Buffett. “Go and beat your crazy head against the sky.” What a request, or demand! It comes from “Darling, Be Home Soon,” by the Lovin’ Spoonful.
This one is way bizarre:
Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah.
Some people call me the gangster of love.
Some people call me Maurice,
’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.
Don’t bother looking up “pompatus” in your Webster’s. Steve Miller made it up for this song, “The Joker.” (It’s pronounced POM-puh-tiss, by the way.)
Okay, wrap your mind around this one, if you can: “Back then, we were like cavemen, / But we mapped the moon and the stars. / Then we forgave them.” So sings Take That, in “The Flood.”
I had to think about this line for a while: “Communication is the problem to your answer.” There are other such sentiments too, in “The Things We Do for Love,” by 10cc (an English band). You like this, from the Kinks? “I’m a 20th-century man, but I don’t want to die here.” (That line comes, suitably enough, from “20th-Century Man.”)
And now for some Stones: “No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue.” That shows up in their song “Paint It Black” (speaking of colors). To make things a little freakier: The song originally came out with a comma — “Paint It, Black.”
You will hardly find a more jubilant song than “Cecilia,” the Paul Simon number. But what about this lyric? “Jubilation. She loves me again. I fall on the floor and I laughing.” I laughing? It sounds like baby talk. But Professor Cornel Bonca, author of Paul Simon: An American Tune, says, “The ‘I laughing’ is perfect.” That’s because “dumb ecstasy” has made the narrator “really lose it, grammar included.”
Call the grammar police, while setting me up with your niece?
Here is a curious one, from a famous Beatles song (if that is not a redundancy): “The movement you need is on your shoulder.” I have quoted “Hey Jude,” of course. An earlier line makes perfect sense: “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulder.” But that later one? McCartney meant it as a placeholder, while he thought of a proper line. But Lennon liked it as was. In fact, “it’s the best line in the song,” he said.
Really? Well I’m not the one who made a zillion dollars.
A month ago, I was interested to read the obit of Allee Willis, who, with Maurice White, wrote “September,” the Earth, Wind & Fire song. White had a nonsense phrase in there: “bah-dee-yah.” It occurred over and over. Willis asked him what it meant. He replied, “Who cares?” “I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him,” Willis said, many years later. “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
Wherever she went — weddings, bar mitzvahs, shopping malls — Allee Willis heard “September” played. People told her it made them happy, and that made her happy. It is, I must say, one of the happiest songs I know.
Okay, Elvis Costello, who is always good for a little head-scratching. An NRO reader pointed to this line, from Costello’s song “Green Shirt”: “There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes.” Another reader cited a fragment of “Crosseyed and Painless,” by the (aforementioned) Talking Heads. Written in 1980, it seems appropriate for our current period, which has earned the label “post-truth”:
Facts all come with points of view.
Facts don’t do what I want them to.
Facts just twist the truth around.
Facts are living turned inside out.
Some lyrics are not nonsensical — even borderline so — but make you pause nonetheless. I offer — or a reader offers — a line from “Against the Wind,” by Bob Seger: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” That is borderline deep. And may I mention, in the interest of reflected glory, that Seger and I attended the same junior high in Ann Arbor, Mich. — Tappan — though a generation apart?
Here is a line that belongs in the same camp as Seger’s. It comes from “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go,” by They Might Be Giants: “Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn’t thinking isn’t thinking of.” (That is close to Dr. Seuss territory.)
Do you know “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House”? This song comes from the band Big Dipper, who sing,
Who threw the doors out of the windows
And the windows out the doors?
Brought the outside to the inside
And the ceiling to the floor?
In giving me the kind of lyrics I asked for, readers couldn’t help giving me their favorite lyrics, too — their favorite lyrics of any kind. Take three quick ones: “Guilty feet have got no rhythm” (from “Careless Whisper,” by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley). “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy!” (James Brown — who else? — in “The Payback”). “I hear from my ex on the back of my checks” (Michael Franks, “In the Eye of the Storm”).
This next lyric is a little rattling: “How her only plan in life was getting lost / How she took me to the edge and made me watch.” It comes from “Somewhere Along the Way,” by the band Dawes.
A funny one from Matt Betton? “Guidance counselor said, ‘Your scores are anti-heroic. / Computer recommends hard-drinking calypso poet.’” The song is “If It All Falls Down,” sung by Jimmy Buffett.
Country music is a goldmine, of course. Let me give you simply three titles: “When Your Phone Don’t Ring, It’ll Be Me.” “Dropkick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life).” “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House.”
That last is a warm evocation of family life, isn’t it? But I must give you a fourth title: “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love.”
Here is a lyric from Cosmo Sheldrake (real name), in his “Tardigrade Song”:
Well, all I want is my shrubbery
And my little patch of moss
With my whisky in the cabinet
And my feet all clothed in socks.
Back to my Beach Boys lyric, which started this whole thing: “I don’t know where, but she sends me there.” In truth, it is Mike Love’s lyric. (You might say that all his songs are Love songs.) I can also hit you with some Ludacris — courtesy of Kevin Williamson, my friend and fellow National Reviewer. In “Get Back,” the rapper sings, “We all in together now, birds of a feather now. / Just bought a plane so we changing the weather now.”
The opening words of “Hook,” by Blues Traveler, might stand for our whole theme:
It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel that I’ll convey
Some inner truth of vast reflection.
Someday, I might do great rhymes — great rhymes in song. We’ve already heard at least one: “I hear from my ex on the back of my checks.” (A close cousin is the song “All My Exes Live in Texas,” by Whitey and Lyndia Shafer, recorded by George Strait.) I have a special fondness for this line: “I like the island Manhattan. / Smoke on your pipe and put that in!” That comes from West Side Story, whose lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim. He does not like his (immortal) lyrics in that show. Neither does he care much for Lorenz Hart’s lyric in “My Funny Valentine”: “Your looks are laughable. / Unphotographable.” That, too, is great and immortal.
My favorite rhyme ever? I think it comes from an old gospel song: “Glory, hallelujah. I give my praises to ya.”