Lyrics are to songs what clues are to mysteries

Lyrics are to songs what clues are to mysteries

Among the lost arts I miss most is deciphering lyrics.

There was a time when you had to do it on your own, back when transistor radios provided the only portal available, and that was, well, reliant solely on the listener’s attention span and/or intellect.

This was in the days when rock ’n’ roll was in its ascendance, when the British Invasion had nearly subsumed its American counterpart and role model, when the Beatles would crush all competition, once occupying each of the top-five slots on the Billboard charts.

It’s hard to explain just how ridiculously impossible this really was.

But then again, we’ll never see anything like Beatlemania … ever.

I can hear your objections in my mind’s ear:

“How do you know something like that?”

“Who made you the Nostradamus of tomorrow’s music?”

“Didn’t you once christen the Gin Blossoms the next big thing?”

“And what about the Cowsills? Didn’t you once call ‘The Rain, the Park and Other Things’ one of the greatest achievements of Western culture, right up there with ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Casablanca’?”

Well, if you’re going to get picky …

Still, the point remains that what the Beatles accomplished in seven short years over the course of 13 albums and 45 Top 40 singles isn’t likely to be superseded by any other band/artist.

Sometime in the distant future perhaps, long after we’ve since shuffled off our mortal coils, a challenger to the throne might arise.

But then someone will drop the tonearm down on “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” and those alien pretenders will do their best Jetsons impression and whiz off into space after hearing “Nowhere Man” or “Here, There and Everywhere,” bowing deeply as they retreat.

It should come as no surprise to you, having likely lived through it, the Beatles were the first to print their lyrics on an album cover, decorating the back of “Sgt. Pepper” with the words to each and every song. At the time this was beyond revolutionary.

It was unheard of. Nowadays, they’re all available online. But then?

I remember holding it in my hands, there in the downtown record store, and studying the artwork that adorned the frontice, picking out some of the people I recognized, noting the “Welcome the Rolling Stones” sweater that the doll in the corner was wearing.

But then I flipped it over and — oh, my goodness — what was this?


All of them.

Right there in the open.

Available to everyone.

Now as I grew up — I was 12 in summer 1967 — and began to fully appreciate everything “Sgt. Pepper” had to offer, I understood the songs’ words were just a part of its majesty.

Still, I felt a little less excited about such a landmark in music. I was the one, after all, who used to listen to the British and American countdowns weeknights on WKYC out of Cleveland.

Figuring out the words was part of the fun. Whether they were from a British band or a Motown artist, it seemed important to know.

Of course, I was a reader of books and newspapers and magazines, a future English major, so I was already drawn to words and their power, the way even a jotted note on a grade card mattered.

“Michael has a mind with wings,” my third-grade teacher had written, to which my brother replied, “Just makes him a birdbrain.”

And when it came to correctly understanding song lyrics, he had a point. For example, the first time I heard the Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” I thought it was all about a “damn high society boy.”

Later, I’d learn Tommy was, in fact, deaf, dumb and blind.

But rock music is an inexact science, and from the days of “Louie, Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the lyrics can remain elusive.

Dozens of books and hundreds of websites are devoted to that precise phenomenon, that all-too-human inclination to hear, “S’cuse me while I kiss this guy,” instead of seeing “the sky.”

Some great singers — among them Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and Patti Smith — have all but admitted to intentionally slurring or otherwise obscuring their lyrics in the interest of retaining mystery.

I understand that, for it was precisely that inclination that would find me with an ear up against one speaker as a friend did the same to the other as Bruce Springsteen sang “Thunder Road” in 1975.

“Mary, dressed waiting,” he said. “No, her dress is waving,” I said.

Worst-case scenario? We’d listen to it over again, and that rocked.

Mike Dewey can be reached at or at 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC, 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where lyrics are always debatable.