People love to search for hidden meanings in song lyrics. They always have, and they always will. From 2500-year-old erotic poetry being reinterpreted as sacred scriptural allegory (seriously, click on those and scroll down to 4:5 – you won’t be disappointed) to people looking for everything from elaborate death hoaxes to in modern classic rock. This is an entirely harmless activity (with some odd or insane exceptions) that provides great amusement to both listeners and authors. And musicians often write music that begs for overanalysis while actually being about the inanest subjects, whether for their own entertainment or just by accident. I call these works “achievements in anti-Joyce,” because just as every time you read Ulysses you reveal a new layer of depth, every time you listen to these five songs you uncover a new kind of nonsense. And here are five of them, followed by how people analyze them and what their composers said. IMPORTANT NOTE: These are all songs I love. Just because they mean less than you think doesn’t mean they’re not great. This is not intended to insult these songs, but rather to show that we can appreciate works of musical genius with incredibly silly lyrics.
1: Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man
With lyrics like “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” and “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of your mind”, many have claimed this song is about LSD and the druggie counterculture of the 60s. The mysterious “Tambourine Man” whose song is requested has been identified with characters from counterculture icon His Hipness Lord Buckley to the Pied Piper of Hamlin to Jesus himself. And Dylan is, of course, the unchallenged master of allegory and poetry in song lyrics (just ask the Nobel Prize committee!)
So what does the Bard of the 20th Century say this song is about? A man, with a tambourine, playing a song for him. In 1985, Dylan confided in an interview that the song was based on seeing his friend Bruce Langhorne in the studio. In his own words: “…he had this gigantic tambourine… It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.”
2: Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
From Satanic conspiracy theories involving backmasking to complaints about a pretentious Tolkien-inspired “P*O*E*T*I*C lyrics… as lush as a Kleenex forest,” one thing everyone can agree about Stairway to Heaven is that its lyrics must be at least attempting to deliver a deeper message. But, in the words of self-declared “intensive researcher of lyrics” (read: spewer of pretentious pseudospirituality and other nonsense) Bob Wallace, “If you ask a million people to give their interpretation of Led Zeppelins’ Stairway to Heaven, without collaboration, you will get a million different interpretations.” Maybe that’s because the song is at such a deep level we cannot understand its true nature, like the universal form of Krishna, or like Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young.
Or maybe we should listen to Robert Plant, the author of the lyrics. He has said that “nobody can blame you” for hating the lyrics because of how “pompous” they are. He has said “I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time. Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about.” Or maybe he didn’t know in the first place. He wrote it sitting by the fire with Jimmy Page and hashed it out in just one night.
3: David Bowie, Life on Mars
This song has been described as sounding “like a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting,” with “a slew of surreal images” as lyrics, flowing topics together from an obscure reference to a 1960 novelty song about a comic strip to a mockery of John Lennon’s (alleged) “working class hero” status. This song is perplexing enough that an entire TV series was based on it, using it to create a fish-out-of-water feeling as if being on another planet. There must be some deep meaning behind all these evocative images, right?
Turns out it was written as a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” after he got the rights to the original French song it was based on instead of Bowie. The chord progression is close to the same, and Bowie admitted writing it in one afternoon. It’s consequently been described as a “song about plagiarism,” and it seems that was the intention from the beginning!
4: Peter, Paul and Mary, Puff the Magic Dragon
It’s such a well-known “fact” that this song is about weed that it’s become a running joke that potheads won’t shut up about it. In the sarcastic words of acclaimed urban legend debunking site Snopes,
“Puff” was an obvious name for a song about smoking pot; little Jackie Paper’s surname referred to rolling papers; “autumn mist” was either clouds of marijuana smoke or a drug-induced state; the land of “Hanah Lee” was really the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, known for its particularly potent marijuana plants; and so on.
This is a sore spot for Peter Yarrow, the song’s author. He’s been forced to defend against this accusation for years, and it clearly has annoyed him to no end. He’s called it “sloppy research” with “no basis for it,” has lamented that it “it defames the sweetness of a child’s song,” and has proclaimed, “What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?” The guy is 78. Let him be, people!
5: The Beatles, I Am the Walrus
What do people think this psychedelic Lennon song means? A better question might be what they don’t think it means! Some have analyzed it as referring to Lewis Carrol’s “the Walrus and the Carpenter,” with John as an allegory for the walrus, while the oysters he leads to be taken advantage of are the Beatles’ fans. Others have looked through the pounding opening and heard old emergency sirens. The “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theorists eventually reached the point where they thought “that almost every line of “I Am the Walrus” relates to Paul’s death and replacement by a lookalike.” From the beginning (“’I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ clearly refers to a massive unified conspiracy!”) to the end (“The clip from King Lear’s ‘O, untimely death!’ is about Paul!”), every lyric they slice and dice to fit their theory.
But what really happened? Well, this song is at the end of this list for a reason. John probably meant the entire song as a prank to play on those who overanalyzed his lyrics! John’s old friend Pete Shotton told it like this:
“I dipped into a sack [of fan mail] that had just arrived and pulled out a letter which happened to be from our old school, from a pupil at Quarry Bank. He said his English teacher was getting them to read and analyse [sic] Beatles lyrics, find out the hidden meanings, what they were really all about. This started John off remembering lines we used to recite when we were at school. ’How did that dead dog’s eye song go, Pete?’ I thought for a while and remembered bits of it – about yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. ’That’s it,’ said John, and he started scribbling: ’Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.’ And it went into I Am The Walrus. He threw in semolina, thinking of how we were forced to eat it as kids and hated it, and pilchards. When he finished, he turned to me and said: ’Let the f***ers work that one out, Pete!’”
No matter the original meaning of these songs’ lyrics, they’re all still classics, and we love them for a reason. Patterson Hood of the Southern punk band Drive-By Truckers said of Stairway to Heaven, “I’ve always been a lyric guy, and there aren’t lyrics that would hold up on their own without the music in their catalogue. But Stairway is a perfect lyric for that music.” We can use the same logic for all the songs on this list. Dylan’s ethereal imagery fits the airy acoustic guitar and harmonica of Mr. Tambourine Man wonderfully, just as Bowie’s surreal pop-culture references meld together with the ‘70s TV hugeness of Life on Mars, and the imagery of the dragon in a faraway land works with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s campfire storytelling style. And even the intentional complete nonsense of I am the Walrus is perfect for the psychedelic cacophony of the music – were the lyrics to make sense the music wouldn’t fit at all! Lyrics don’t have to be deep to be perfect for their song, and overanalysis can, if we’re not careful, ruin what we love. We can peel back the nonsense only to find more nonsense, but music first and foremost touches the heart, not the mind. Let the songs speak for themselves!