Yesterday on Twitter, somebody started a thread asking for people to post the best opening lyrics of a song. The first entry I saw was from “Thunder Road”, a wonderful song: “A screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves”. That’s a good opening line, but it doesn’t even rhyme with what comes next.
Idle hands and an idle mind led me to look at the opening lyrics for another wonderful song: “Surf’s Up” (which I didn’t put on Twitter). Van Dyke Parks wrote the words for Brian Wilson’s music:
A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand and hand some drummed along, oh
To a handsome man and baton
But there was a problem. The Genius lyrics site shows the third line as:
To a handsome mannered baton
There’s a note that says these were the original lyrics. Somebody else marked that as “a stretch”. I quickly acquired an account on Genius and put in a correction, based on the fact that most people say it’s “a man and baton”, those are the words Carl Wilson seems to have sung on the original recording, and contemporaneous sources don’t disagree:
At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words. “It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life—‘Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.’”
The 1971 Beach Boys LP had a lyrics sheet, but, having moved on from vinyl, I sold that album years ago. The other side of the lyrics sheet showed parched earth, counterintuitively for a group that still called themselves that and an album with a metaphorical reference to the ocean in its title. I didn’t have the old lyrics sheet, but the internet, as it so often does, came through:
Expanding the image revealed that, yes, it’s “a man and baton”. Victory was mine!
(The album was released at that brief moment in time when Mike Love, shown in the middle there, was willing to appear in public without a hat — the long beard compensated for his thinning on top.)
I thought that was the end of the matter (although scientific, historical and aesthetic matters never really end). Further research revealed that no, it’s not that clear what the lyrics are supposed to be.
Eight years ago, a contributor to a Beach Boys message board wrote:
For the record (pun intended) Carl got the lyrics wrong when he copied them down listening to Brian’s demo. It’s . . . “a mannered baton”.
And there it is, in the 2011 box set, The Smile Sessions:
A handsome mannered baton! Victory is no longer mine!
But what are a song’s lyrics anyway? If there’s a conflict, are the lyrics what the composer originally had in mind? Or what was first performed for the public? Are the lyrics what was written on the original manuscript or what everybody sings today (such as this guy or this other guy)? There is no definitive answer.
Fortunately, in most cases, there is no conflict. Consider “The Star Spangled Banner”. Nobody argues whether it’s “bombs bursting in air” or “bombs bursting for air”. We all know the words (for the most part).
This brings me to a very brief account of last night’s dream. Two men with great voices were singing our national anthem in a big stadium. One of them made a mistake. He sang “bombs bursting for air”. That’s all I remembered when I woke up.
I mention this because there was an article this week called “For the love of America, stop playing the national anthem before sporting events”. The writer’s thesis is that “it’s not an act of genuine patriotism, it’s a ritual of joyless conformity”. The article was in response to a small controversy:
This week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed that for the entirety of the current National Basketball Association’s season and preseason, the national anthem wasn’t played prior to his team’s home games. No one had noticed until Cuban confirmed it with The Athletic.
The NBA told The Athletic that given the bizarre and difficult circumstances of the pandemic era, they were fine with teams deciding how to conduct their pre-game operations. But after conservative pushback the league quickly relented, as did Cuban, and just like that we’re back to the business-as-usual of acting out a quasi-religious devotion to a tuneless song about war.
Personally, I like singing the national anthem with a big crowd. It’s one of the times I feel patriotic. And it’s always interesting to hear somebody sing it in public, wondering if they’ll remember the words.
The only reason I found this dream interesting and why I’m sharing it now is that it’s one of those times when it looks like a person’s brain put two and two together and came up with something else. My brain was apparently doing its nightly cleanup. It found a memory of an article about the national anthem and another memory about the questionable lyrics to a song and combined those fragments into a little story about somebody screwing up the lyrics in front of thousands of people (who could be the thousands of people who see stuff on the internet). Dreams don’t necessarily mean anything but it’s nice when they seem to.