“I like turning on two radios at the same time and listening to them. I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that’s how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.”
For years I have held the strong belief that you should never look up the lyrics to your favorite songs because the lyrics you think you hear are usually better than the official ones.
You can imagine how delighted I was to learn that Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, felt the same way, and wrote about it in the foreword to the band’s complete lyrics:
I’ve generally found that the words to songs I thought I heard in the works of others were more colorful and enigmatically apt than the words I eventually discovered were intended. More to my personal taste. I assume the same is true of my own work. Mishearing can be as much a strength as a liability. People, accidentally overhearing their own thoughts, are inclined to like what they hear, self-recognized at a distance and mistaken for another.
“Back in the day,” he said, he didn’t allow his lyrics to be printed so that listeners “could dub in their own mishearings, adding a bit of themselves to the song.”
Misheard lyrics, by the way, have a name: Mondegreens. Here’s Maria Konnikova on the science behind them in The New Yorker:
“Mondegreen” means a misheard word or phrase that makes sense in your head, but is, in fact, entirely incorrect… Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance. That was a car alarm. That’s a bird. Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way.
Mondegreens are an act of creativity — our brain is creating something that isn’t actually there.
I remember Lynda Barry standing in front of an audience and singing the The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’.” Here is how she told the story elsewhere:
There is a lyric I understood as “That would be ecstasy, you and me and Leslie, just groovin’”
I loved this idea of me and one of the Young Rascals and someone named Leslie groovin’ together in that bird singing place. I didn’t know who Leslie was, I didn’t know who the Young Rascals were, I just knew where ever they were was where I wanted to be.
When was in my mid 20’s I heard the song again, and the lyrics were actually
“Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly groovin’”
And it was such a disappointment. Because Leslie was gone. And ‘endlessly’ groovin’ didn’t sound like anything. It sounded like an idea of something maybe, but nothing specific. Nothing as personal. And nothing that felt like a place.
It may make more sense– but it wasn’t alive in the way ‘Leslie’ made it alive.
‘Leslie’ didn’t make any sense, it’s nowhere else in the song, but it anchored it for me because it was specific rather than general.
That’s what I was trying to say. That it’s a specific image vs. a general image that tends to be more alive. And useful. And able to take you somewhere.
That idea, that mishearing can take you somewhere, is so powerful. As Tom Waits says in the quote above, he actively courts mishearing, cultivates the “weird ear,” because the mishearing is the beginning of new sounds.
In this epic New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen, E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt remembers recognizing Springsteen’s “drive to create original work”:
In those days, he said, you were judged by how well you could copy songs off the radio and play them, chord for chord, note for note: “Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.”
There are several examples of songs that were born because of creative mishearing. Stevie Nicks wrote “Edge of Seventeen” after Tom Petty’s wife Jane started telling her how they met:
“She was telling me about Tom [Petty], about when she met him, and she has an incredible Southern accent…and she said that she met him at the age of seventeen, but I thought she said “edge”, and she said “no…age” and I said “Jane, forget it, it’s got to be “edge”. The “Edge of Seventeen” is perfect. I’m going to write a song, ok? And I’m going to give you credit.” She didn’t believe me, you know? She couldn’t believe it when it came out on the album.”
And at least one mondegreen changed the world: Bob Dylan thought the Beatles were singing “I get high!” in “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” so he got them stoned for the first time!
See also: Re-imagining from memory