One day last week I wrote here about moments of transcendence, albums or songs or even parts of songs that lift us from where we are to somewhere else entirely—goosebump moments, repeat-button moments, etc. I am unable to say precisely what makes one of these moments, only that I know them when I hear them. Sometimes it’s a single note or line of music, the sound of a particular instrument, or a certain turn of phrase. The phenomenon doesn’t have to make sense. And neither do the things that cause them.
As a practicing wordsmith, I’m also a lyrics freak, and several of my favorite goosebump moments (why didn’t I think of that phrase to describe them in my original post?) are induced by lyric lines. But several of my favorite lyric lines are gibberish. Now, there’s sometimes a thin line between gibberish and poetry (what does “buying a stairway to heaven” really mean?), but even accounting for poetic invention, some lines, and even entire songs, defy attempts to attach meaning to them.
Ever since I first heard it in the summer of 1976 (oh, Christ, here he goes again), I’ve been a fan of Neil Diamond’s “If You Know What I Mean.” I love the way Diamond sings it like a man who’s midway through a double scotch and has the rest of the bottle close at hand, and I love the reverb that’s slathered over it like mustard on a hot dog. “If You Know What I Mean” sounds like it’s about something important, but what?
And the radio played like a carnival tune
As we lay in our bed in the other room
And we gave it away for the sake of the dream
In a penny arcade
If you know what I mean
Diamond has said, apparently, that the song about the loss of innocent dreams (“Here’s to the songs we used to sing/Here’s to the times we used to know”), and if anybody can identify with that, it’s me. But still, as impressive as “If You Know What I Mean” sounds to me, it also seems pretty opaque.
Another favorite set of lines comes from “Run for Home” by the British group Lindisfarne, which barely sneaked into the Top 40 late in 1978. This is another topic with which I can identify, and I’ve dug this song since I first heard it—particularly the last verse.
I’ve traveled the land
Made mistakes out of hand
Seen the faces in the places misunderstand
I’ve been ’round the world
Seen the pretty boys and girls
Heard the noise that destroys and commands
“The noise that destroys and commands.” Damn, that’s cool. Got no idea what it’s supposed to mean, but I like the way it sounds.
I was on the road the other day when “Love and Loneliness” by the Motors came on the box. It’s a remarkable record, a grandiose production featuring a squeaky synthesized string sound and a guitar riff lifted directly from “Born to Run.” But its most direct ancestor is not “Born to Run” as much as it is “Sugar Baby Love” by the Rubettes. And the lyric of “Love and Loneliness,” which, amidst the rush and fury of the record’s production, seems as though it simply must be filled with meaning and portent, is actually magnificent nonsense:
Now loneliness is there despite the love we make
And loneliness knows where to find the friends we make
And the place we live is just a new street number on an old address
Called love and loneliness
But just as “If You Know What I Mean” becomes a bit more lucid in spots, so does “Love and Loneliness.”
I sometimes wonder how you see us now
I’d read your mind if I had the chance
I don’t know if I’d ever find our love in there
Or just old photographs
OK, that’s a nice bit of writing right there, but every time I hear the song, half of me wonders what the hell it’s supposed to be about, even as the other half of me is cranking up the volume and stomping on the accelerator pedal.
Please share your favorite bits of magnificent gibberish in the comments.