Like many people, I have a great love of misheard lyrics—especially my own. My favorite is in the Janis Ian song “At Seventeen.” One line toward the end of the song is, “In debentures of quality and dubious integrity.” I can probably be forgiven, because I had no idea what a “debenture” was. For those of you similarly in the dark, it is, “An unsecured loan certificate issued by a company, backed by general credit rather than by specified assets.” But I heard what I think is a better line out of context, “But death insures equality and dubious integrity.” It is only at the end of the verse that Ian pays off the metaphor with, “Their small-town eyes will gape at you / In dull surprise when payment due / Exceeds accounts received…” That’s one of the reasons that Janis Ian is a great songwriter and I’m just a guy with a knack for appreciating great songwriting.
But by far, the best lyric mishearing is from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version of “Blinded by the Light.” The original version by Bruce Springsteen doesn’t really have the problem for a couple of reasons. One is that he doesn’t pronounce “deuce” as “douche” the way that Chris Thompson does in the Earth Band. But also, the original line makes the meaning clear, “Cut loose like a deuce.” What meaning? No meaning, just a pleasant rhyme. In the Earth Band version, it is supposedly “Revved up like a deuce.” But of course, everyone hears, “Wrapped up like a douche.”
What’s brilliant is that we humans are so great at finding meaning in meaningless things that doubtless millions of people have given those lyrics some meaning. And admit it, you’d believe me if I gave you some lame meaning for the line. How about this one, “The deuce, of course, was short for the Chevy 270, straight-6 engine popular among drag racers in the 70s. So the song is about hesitating at the start of race when the light changes color. But more broadly it’s a metaphor getting on with your life and getting out your hometown.” In addition to everything else, you’d believe me because that is what most people think the meaning of every Bruce Springsteen song is.
“Blinded by the Light” also has that “Hooray for Hollywood” problem. The opening lyrics are so engaging that most people forget what happens afterward. The melody is what matters anyway. But while “Hooray” is a very funny song with much to say that is even more true today than in 1937, “Blinded” really has nothing to say. So why not douches or Chevy 270 engines?
All of this is grist for comedy. And indeed, toward the end of my years in graduate school, I came upon this skit from a very short lived sketch comedy show The Vacant Lot. The skit involves four friends playing poker. One of them starts singing “Blinded by the Light” with ridiculous lyrics. The others make fun of him. But then it turns out that their lyrics are at least as ridiculous. It ends with one of them cracking and setting everyone straight. Except that his lyrics aren’t quite right either. I’m not sure if that is supposed to be part of the joke, or if the writers themselves are suffering from the same problem. Watch:
Springsteen said during a VH1 Storytellers that the song was just him playing around with a rhyming dictionary. So what does anyone expect? Certainly, Springsteen doesn’t seem to care. I’ve heard him joke that “douche” was a better line given how much better the Earth Band version did than his own. (I think it is more a function of production.) Regardless, I’m sure that Springsteen was happy to cash all those royalty checks from the megahit.