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Musical Mondegreens From My Teens

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

One of the most well-known examples of a mondegreen is in the Jimi Hendrix song "Purple Haze."  Many people report hearing "excuse me while I kiss this guy" instead of "kiss the sky," which is the actual lyric.

One of the most well-known examples of a mondegreen is in the Jimi Hendrix song "Purple Haze." Many people report hearing "excuse me while I kiss this guy" instead of "kiss the sky," which is the actual lyric.

Mondegreens From My Teens

In her book Mondegreens: A Book of Mishearings, J.A. Wines notes the following:

“Technically, a mondegreen is the mishearing of a phrase in such a way that it is understood to have an alternative meaning.”

Like a veritable plethora of other published works do (both online and in print), Wines provides in her book the detailed history of how the term mondegreen came about. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version from Wikipedia:

“It is from the first verse of "The Bonnie Earl o' Moray" that the term mondegreen, meaning a misheard lyric, came into popular use among folk musicians:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh where have you been?

They have slain the Earl o' Moray

And layd him on the green.”

Author Sylvia Wright is credited with coining the term after mishearing as a child the last line of this verse when her mother read it to her. Poor young Sylvia thought for quite some time that both the Earl and his Lady had been slain. The Lady’s name, she thought, was Mondegreen.

Even if we’ve never heard one in the spoken words of a poem or story (like Sylvia Wright did) I’m willing to bet most of us have experienced this phenomenon when listening to music. This article is about that very thing: musical mondegreens I’ve experienced in my own lifetime. Specifically, it’s about a few mondegreens from my teens.

Mondegreens: A Book of Mishearings

I Shot the Sheriff and The Last Tango in Paris

Perhaps like many of us I suppose, I have experienced mondegreens since I was a kid, long before I knew they were a thing. One of the most memorable was during a road trip from Alaska to Alabama. My father was in the US Air Force and we were moving from Eielson AFB near Fairbanks to Maxwell AFB near Montgomery. We traveled slowly along what was then a mostly gravel-covered Alcan Highway, listening to the tinny AM radio sounds coming out of a mono speaker on the front dash of a 1972 Ford station wagon. I’m fairly certain the low fidelity of that car radio contributed to this particular mondegreen.

The year was 1974 and Eric Clapton’s version of the Bob Marley hit, “I Shot the Sherriff” spent 14 weeks climbing the charts that summer (it finally reached number one in September). As we drove along the Alcan, for hours and hours per day, the static-laced Top 40 hits played over and over multiple times. Indeed, I bet the Clapton song played at least 10 times a day, and every time it did, I heard this:

“Eye-shocker Sherry,” and then some other mumblings and unintelligible words beyond that.

I’ve told this story before to some members of my family, and perhaps a friend or two at some time or other. I guess some think it strains credulity, not believing I could have heard “Eye-shocker Sherry” instead of the real lyrics (“I shot the sheriff”). Still, it is absolutely true nevertheless. In fact, after putting some thought into it and conducting a little research (primarily in Wines’ book and this article), I’ve come up with several conclusions as to why it might be so. Here are those conclusions, in no particular order:

  1. There is some science related to mondegreens and how they might occur. As Maria Konnikova wrote in her New Yorker article, "Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy," humans are governed by familiarity and frequency. In other words, according to Konnnikova, we're "much more likely to mishear “Cry Me a River” as “Crimean River” if [we've] recently been discussing the situation in Ukraine."
  2. Wines also notes in her book that a mondegreen is "the mishearing of a phrase in such a way that it is understood to have an alternative meaning," and that innocent lyrics often acquire a sexual connotation, for whatever reason.
  3. In short, if there is some sort of extant predilection—momentary or otherwise—it may have an impact on the listener’s interpretation of what they are hearing. This seems to have been the likely case for me in my adolescent condition. More on the specifics of that in #6 below.
  4. We were listening to an AM mono radio in a car that only had one speaker. The lone speaker was located up front on the dash. I was in the back seat of a large station wagon. I could hear the radio, but not well, not with great clarity. Further, even when I could hear it, the quality of sound coming out of the low-fidelity speaker was such that some level of distortion was inevitable.
  5. The Clapton version of the song features prominently a group of female background singers who emphasize the first four words of the chorus loudly and repeatedly. To my 12-year-old ears, it sounded more and more like Sherry was shocking eyes than it sounded like some guy was shooting a sheriff. Besides, isn’t shooting the sheriff against the law? I was an innocent young teen, for goodness sake!
  6. I was 12 years old with the attention span of a 12-year-old and the wild and hormonally-influenced-right-on-the-edge-of-puberty imagination of a 12-year-old, too. Somehow, along the way my mom or dad left their paperback book sitting on the back seat in our station wagon near us kids one day. I found it, of course, and so ended up reading an excerpt from the book Last Tango in Paris while we were driving along. My mom happened to look around from her position in the front passenger seat, saw what I was doing, grabbed the book out of my hand. When she determined I’d been reading one of the raunchiest, steamiest scenes in the book, she turned back around, seething, and asked me, “Did you like that?!” I was 12 but I wasn’t a complete idiot, so I didn’t say anything in return, just sort of looked down and awkwardly around. In my head, though, I was going, Uh…umm…yes? I mean…is this a trick question?

If I try, I can still hear “Eye-Shocker Sherry” when Clapton comes on the radio singing his classic hit song. It will always be so. What also will always be so is the memory of that trip and my mom tripping out on me in that moment.

I Shot the Sheriff

I'm not talking 'bout Bolivia...

I'd Really Love to See You Tonight

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A couple years after Clapton’s big hit, England Dan and John Ford Coley had a solid #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” It was a good, wholesome song and I remember singing along with it quite often. I also remember one time when it was on the radio my mother turning to one of us (me, my dad, or perhaps one of my two sisters) and saying: “Well, I sure hope not! Why on earth would you want to go all the way to Bolivia?”

At first I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about, but then as she was singing along I heard it:

“I’m not talking ‘bout Bolivia

And I don’t want to change your life

But there's a warm wind blowing

The stars are out

And I'd really love to see you tonight…”

Does that defy credulity? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to that song and thought I heard the word Bolivia. Not once. To me, he very clearly says, "I'm not talking 'bout moving in, and I don't want to change your life." At least that's what my ears always heard. But not my mom. She says she heard Bolivia, and I absolutely believe that’s true. So, for me it doesn’t defy credulity. I know it was real for her. I also believe I know why she heard that, too, and once again I'd say it’s based loosely on the “science” behind mondegreens.

Here’s the history: in 1969, a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released, and so was its soundtrack. Each of these works of art could be considered among my mom’s all-time favorites. The movie is one even I love to revisit now and again right down to this very day, but it had an especial appeal to my mom as a young woman in her early 30s: it starred two of the biggest big screen heartthrobs of the day (Robert Redford and Paul Newman). The soundtrack was out-of-this world good, too, and I can remember seeing her dance around our living room when we lived in Alaska, singing along to that album and its collection of brilliant Burt Bacharach compositions. I don’t use the word brilliant lightly here, either. It was absolutely brilliant.

Anyway, I digress.

In the movie, which I think was often on my mother’s mind, Butch and Sundance and Etta end up in Bolivia, which is also where the movie comes to its startling, sad and very memorable conclusion. And so maybe, just maybe, this connection—this predilection—goes some way toward explaining my mom's mishearing of the lyrics to the England Dan and John Ford Coley song. Maybe.

I wish she was still around to talk about it.

Soundtrack Suite - Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

Rocket Man

I might go way out on a limb here and wager that most people who will read this article have heard the classic Elton John song “Rocket Man.” In fact, if you’re in the general ballpark of my same age, I know you have heard it. I’d also bet that if you’ve heard it, you’re just as likely as not to have misheard parts of it. Everyone has! Indeed, when I think mondegreens, I think of Elton John. Seems like (for whatever reason) he enunciates some of his lyrics in a way that adds to the likelihood of mishearing.

For years upon years, I heard in the chorus of “Rocket Man” something unintelligible, so if I was singing along out loud (or even in my head), I just sort of skipped over the very end part of the chorus:

“And I think it's gonna be a long, long time
'Til touchdown brings me 'round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no
I'm a rocket man
Rocket man,”
something something something

I mean, “Rocket Man” was released in 1972, right? So that means that since the early 70s when I heard it for the first time, I’d been trying to no avail to work out the words in the final line of that chorus.

I think I used to get the first word—“burning”—right. And I think I always thought the second word was “down,” so “burning down” something something something was about as good as I could get.

It was kind of an adventure, really:

Burning out a teak a tad disowned

Burning down akita that’s disowned

Burning out a pizza then move on

By the time the internet came along, and lyrics no longer had to be a secret (you could just Google them), I’d largely forgotten about “Rocket Man’s” ambiguous chorus lyrics, so I never looked them up. But revelation and ruination finally came in the form of a television commercial.

In 2012—some 40 years after I’d first heard the song—Volkswagen came out with a commercial for their Passat line of vehicles and spoiled everything for me. They laid bare the real lyrics in Bernie and Elton’s song, and once I learned what the actual words were, I couldn’t remember the ones I used to use while butchering that part of the singalong. What a bummer. Truthfully, it was much more fun being ignorant.

Here’s that commercial:

2012 Volkswagen Passat Commercial

For what it’s worth, it’s hard to be mad about this commercial ruining my misunderstanding of what Elton’s really saying. It’s a hilarious ad, and I could easily watch it 10 times in a row and still laugh out loud every time. The dude in the shower kills me. My wife might say he reminds her of me, too...

My Own Mondegreen Mishap

Later on in the 1970s, long after Sherry the Eye-Shocker, after Dan Seals and John Ford Coley’s non-invite to Boliivia, and after Elton’s trip to space, I fancied myself a songwriter, as well. I had a guitar and I did some music creating of my own. Once I performed one of my teeny-bopper tunes for my very best friend’s mom, and prefaced it with a caveat: “I have to warn you,” I told her, “I use a curse word in this song, but only because it seemed to be what worked best for emphasis at the time of writing.” So, with that introduction, I played the song for her and my buddy. Here, in my very best teenage handwriting, are the orginal lyrics to that song:

Forgetting You (words and music by greg cain)


I don’t remember that song seeming quite so mawkish when I was 16. But it’s pretty sappy, isn’t it?

Again, I digress.

Back to my vocal performance for my friend’s mom: I’m not a terribly good singer (still love to sing, though!), and I guess it’s also the case that my enunciation isn’t the best, either. Let’s face it, there were times in my life where it was downright terrible: I had to see a speech therapist daily while I was in grade school (for my entire second grade year, as I recall) so I could learn how to properly pronounce the letter ‘s’. Still, and back to the point at hand, I have a hard time believing my enunciation was anywhere near as bad as how all this played out.

You see, sometime later—perhaps the next day, or maybe after the weekend, something like that—my friend told me that his mother had been quite appalled after hearing me sing my song. His older sister had straightened it out with their mother, mind you, but her first impression had been pretty extreme.

I guess I could have been more plain when I told her I was going to use a curse word in the song. In other words, I could have told her I was going to say “damn,” but I didn’t do that. Instead, I gave her this dramatic prefatory warning like there was some really nasty word coming up in the song…and so, instead of perhaps getting into the deep and powerful meaning and syrupy sap of unrequited teenage puppy love, she was listening hard to figure out what cuss word I was going to use. Indeed, I believe now that it was because of my introductory setup and definitely not in spite of that setup that she’d clearly heard me saying, “f-bombing you, oh, f-bombing you,” instead of “forgetting you.”

Well, all righty then…no wonder she’d been appalled! I think you could call that a Mondegreen Mindset, if there is such a thing. It certainly speaks to the legitimacy of the science and psychology behind mondegreens.

Here’s another thing to think about, too, or actually one I don't really like thinking about: if you go back and review the lyrics to the song, you’ll note that the phrase “forgetting you” is included like 15 times. Whoa!

Honestly, I’m surprised my friend’s mom ever talked to me again after that.

An Ode to Lady Mondegreen

What is a mondegreen?

What does the word mean?

It’s when you hear that song

And you sing along

And you say the words

The way you think you heard

Them time and over again

From beginning to end

Then find with a laugh

You’ve committed a gaffe

Though you don’t know why

When you didn’t try

To be funny

Or ironic

Oh Lady Mondegreen

You let the words say

What I want them to mean

Or what I think I heard

Maybe a made-up word

Or a sensical, nonsensical phrase

That stays

For days and days

Or years

In my ears

And in my head

I thought he said

Eye-shocker Sherry

Who I wanted to marry

I don’t care if

Some guy shot the sheriff

To me

He didn’t seem to be

Worth a rot

And definitely not

As hot

As Sherry

In any case

The truth can’t replace

In my mind the face

And the everything else

That belonged to Sherry

Who was so very

It’s just not the same

Like if Jimi kissed a guy

We wouldn’t ask why

But if he kissed the sky?

Why would you even try?

I don’t know why

I’m not talking ‘bout Bolivia

Or trying to change your mind

I’m not that kind

Of guy

Oh Lady Mondegreen

Words I’ve never seen

So they say just what

I want them to mean

Or what I think I hear

With unfocused ear

While driving or distracted

Or have other thoughts held dear



The words

The gleaning

The song’s whole meaning

Oh Lady Mondegreen

You let the words say

What I want them to mean

What I think I hear

When I listen

And sing


But why did they

Go and replace

The trip to space

With a worn out fuze

Or something so far off

Can’t help but scoff

When I learn the truth

“That can’t be right!”

Oh Lady Mondegreen

Can’t the words please say

For just another day

What I thought they meant

What I thought I heard

Oh please

Oh please

Oh please

I loved that song

I sang along

But now

It’s not the same

I know the real name

And the real words

That now don’t

Mean the same

As when they were

A mondegreen

Seems kinda mean

To take it all away

When I can’t see

In my car

What the words

Really are

And I sing along

To a favorite song

Oh Lady Mondegreen

Could you just let the words

Forever say

For the rest of my days

What I want them to mean

What I think I hear

When the melody

First hits my ear

Oh, pretty, pretty, pretty please?

The Always Hilarious Peter Kay: Misheard Lyrics

© 2021 greg cain

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