Achievements in Anti-Joyce: 5 Classic Songs that Mean Less than You Think

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’sO, 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!

The Takács String Quartet’s Beethoven Cycle

Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets are well known as some of his most forward-thinking works. From his early quartets (Opus 18, no. 1-6)  demonstrating his mastery of the form to his colossal and complex late quartets (Ops 1278, 130-133, 135), he pushed the boundaries of the form, making it into what it is today. Conveniently for performance cycles, Beethoven wrote 17 (when separately counting the Große Fuge Op. 133, technically originally meant to be a finale attached to no. 13), and they evenly range throughout his musical periods, meaning a series can have a taste of multiple periods in each concert.

The Takács String Quartet of Hungary is an acclaimed quartet, forty-two years in age, which is performing the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, all 17 string quartets, at Princeton University’s 123rd season of concerts (six sessions, throughout the 2016-2017 school year). I recently attended their fourth program, on January 19. They performed:

Before the concert, there was a lecture by Princeton music professor Scott Burnham about a specific element in the string quartets. Several in the series had similar lectures, and this one focused on Beethoven’s slow movements. This was most likely because this program’s three quartets have some of Beethoven’s greatest slow movements. Although I enjoyed the lecture and its discussion of said slow movements, it felt a bit like a spoiler. One of the best parts of a classical performance of an unfamiliar piece to me is how it unfolds and shifts, revealing itself as you listen, especially in Beethoven’s heavily motivic works. So listening to a lecture (including recordings of key transitions) before seeing the performance can sometimes spoil the wonderful surprise you get when, for instance, the third variation of the second movement of String Quartet #12 shits from A-flat to the distant key of E through use of a single half-step. I would have probably enjoyed the lecture more had it been at a separate event, or after the concert instead of before. Nevertheless, it was still fascinating and I don’t regret attending.

The performances were excellent, but the Takács quartet has been around so long it would be more surprising had they not been. Their style is often heavily emotional, and you can see that they are deep into the music and having the time of their lives. It was as much fun to watch the performers as it was to hear the music, and when you love Beethoven as much as I do, that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The seating was interestingly arranged – as part of what they called “Beethoven Up Close,” the balcony was closed, and seats were placed on the stage, so that the audience (through a system of open seating) surrounded the performers. This was a nice idea, but it had the minor drawback that any coughs, shuffles, or dropped items on the stage were heavily amplified from the acoustics in the auditorium.

All in all, it has been a fantastic series, and the oddities in seating are more than made up for by the sheer joy of the performers and their fantastic performances. Although this particular post focuses on their most recent program, I’ve been to three of them, and will be attending the final two as well. I highly recommend the series to anybody who wants to experience the heights that a string quartet can reach. The March 15th (with “Beethoven Up Close” seating) and 16th (with a pre-concert lecture) still have available tickets!

*Yes, it’s labeled no. 3. It was published third in Op. 18, but he had completed it before any of the other five in the opus. Opus numbers can be complicated for people who don’t know a lot about classical music, so as an analogy, remember that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road last, but released Let It Be after Abbey Road.

Piccolos on the Shoulders of Contrabasses

One of my favorite stories about any composer goes like this. According to Carl Czerny, the pupil of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, a young composer named Anton Halm once brought a sonata he had written to Beethoven. Beethoven pointed out Halm’s sonata had a few violations of standard music theory rules in the Classical era. Halm retorted that Beethoven had violated those rules himself. To which Beethoven answered, “I may do it, but not you.”

Why do I love this story so much? I once had the same argument with my own father. While working on a chorale harmonization (as so many music students are forced to do over and over again), my father spotted some parallel fifths. I pointed out that composers from Handel to Tchaikovsky used parallel fifths for effect. He responded that “you have to know the rules before you can break them.”

Throughout the history of music, it seems the greatest groundbreakers in every case familiarized themselves with earlier work before creating something new. One of the founders of the Classical era, with its emphasis on simplicity and elegance, was Johann Christian Bach, the son of the greatest and most complex composer of the Baroque period. He studied with his father, mastering the Baroque form before solidifying the style galant that would lead to the Classical era. His sonatas were elegant and approachable enough that it is no wonder he was a great influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ludwig van Beethoven studied under the Classical master Joseph Haydn, and the music of his early period is still in a very symmetrical Classical styleIt wasn’t until people already considered him the undisputed heir to Haydn and Mozart that he began experimenting. His Symphony no. 3 “Eroica” vastly increased the size of the development and coda for the first movement and using a mournful funeral march form for the second. Upon beginning its composition, Beethoven said to a friend, “From this day on I shall forge a new path.” After mastering the old classical form, his new path led to such groundbreaking late-period works as his Piano Sonata no. 32, abandoning sonata form altogether, and the almost post-tonal Große Fuge.

Arnold Schoenberg began as a late Romantic composer, studying under the famed Gustav Mahler, said to be the heir of Brahms’ legacy. But Schoenberg wasn’t satisfied with the Romantic era tonality, and began expanding his tonal system into what he called “pantonality” – ignoring the old restrictions of seven-tone keys and extending his music into dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone,” territory. But for all the rules he broke, Schoenberg insisted that his music was not abandoning, but merely expanding the realm of tonality, describing himself as “a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”

Although the previous examples were from the “Western art music” tradition, we can find similarities in all genres. Today we think of the Beatles as technically and musically groundbreaking, and laugh at quotes like “Groups of guitars are on the way out” from Decca Records executives in 1962. But in the early 1960s, many critics saw them as another bland example of rock and roll, music they considered to be “a bottomless chasm of vacuity” and “nothing more than noise.” And for the first few Beatles albums, many of their songs were covers, from successful (like “Twist and Shout“) to not so much (like “Mr. Moonlight”). They didn’t start stretching the bounds of popular music until 1965, around when they began recording Revolver. They had to master the popular music of the late 50s and early 60s before they broke new ground and created the psychedelic sound of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.

The physicist Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is just as applicable in music as it is in physics. Without Bach to stand on the Classical era wouldn’t have formed, upon which Beethoven stood. Schoenberg stood on Mahler, who himself stood on the shoulders of the entire Late Romantic era. The Beatles stood on the shoulders of 50s pop. Piccolos on the shoulders of contrabasses may look small, but their sound goes far.