Misunderstanding the lyrics of songs is not a sign of cognitive deficiency; rather it is an entirely honorable–and creative–activity that for years has provided listeners with considerable pleasure, allowing them to experience, if only for a deluded moment or two, the satisfaction of being a songwriter of sorts. Consider, for instance, the genius who first submitted ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ as an alternative lyric for Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Purple Haze,’ or the budding McCartney–Lennon hybrid who thought that ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ would work better in Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s ‘Bad Moon Rising‘. Surely they must have caught, for an instant, from their new vantage point that looked down on the teeming masses who could only hear the staid original versions, a glimpse of themselves as poets in the making?
These questions are not rhetorical. I ask because I have just experienced a profound misunderstood lyric moment myself, thus proving you don’t have to be a stoned high-schooler to experience the pleasures of hearing the Absent.
For years now–as befitting my vintage, I’d say for close on to three decades–I have been listening to Led Zeppelin‘s ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You‘. This distinguished member of the White Boy Blues Canon is justifiably considered an epic: that slinky frontman, Robert Plant–who would probably be considered too effeminate by most of today’s rock fans–wails and wails about the wrong his woman has done him, and Jimmy Page plays some of his most scorching, bluesy guitar pieces as accompaniment. Long-haired stoner heaven, indeed. (Incidentally, this is a good track on which to note that Zeppelin’s music production values gave a very prominent place to their percussion section: you can hear John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer, laying down the foundations loud and clear, front and center. )
Plant begins by noting that he’s been ‘Working from seven to eleven every night’ and quite rightly observes that that ‘really makes life a drag, I don’t think that’s right.’ And then, he launches into a line that I’ve always, always, heard as ‘I feel it in the best, in the best of food, I did what I could.’ I am not sure why but this line encapsulated the anguish and suffering at the heart of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ perfectly. Imagine: a lover so lovelorn, so sickened by the fear, anxiety, and depression that are the hallmarks of the romantic relationship for the melancholy, that he cannot eat, his palate destroyed by the bitterness of an unreliable and shifting love. It was, along with ‘Do you remember mama, when I knocked upon your door?/I said you had the nerve to tell me you didn’t want me no more’ the line that best conveyed the torment so palpable in this song.
I have been informed, however, that the line in question actually reads ‘I’ve really been the best, the best of fools, I did what I could.’ I’m afraid this version doesn’t quite do it for me; it does not show the true affliction of the soul that I think my version does.
I’m going to continue to hear my line (I suspect it’s too late for me to hear the ‘correct’ version now). Moreover, listeners are supposed to co-create the music they hear; every song has a distinctive role to play in our lives, one whose contours only we can describe. If the ‘actual’ or ‘correct’ lyrics don’t ‘work,’ I suspect we substitute, subconsciously or unconsciously, ones that do.