Magnificent Gibberish

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.

5 thoughts on “Magnificent Gibberish

  1. I have never believed that the lines “I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ / When after all / It was you and me” have any real deep sociopolitical meaning … but they work on a level of outrage, like a slap in the face, especially as Mick’s rant gains momentum.

  2. Yah Shure

    From the moment I first heard it on KDWB in early 1968, the Bee Gees’ “Sinking Ships” (the B-side of “Words”) has held me firmly within its grasp. But if Google is any indication, no one seems to know exactly what its lyrics are, let alone what they’re supposed to mean. As best as I can decipher them:

    Sinking ships, watching the sail in the sun as it sinks in the sea
    Crashing planes, only the eyes of the doomed with a smile on their face
    So I say to myself that it’s real
    Take a look inside myself. Can I feel?

    Caramel cups, windows that slide up and down with a squeak and a sigh
    Funny day, banging the door to a close as it’s hurting my knee
    So I say to myself that it’s real
    Take a look inside myself. Can I feel?


    Um………….. right. Methinks it’s the basis for those recurring dreams, where I’m at a college final exam, blue book in front of me, filled with the lines that remain blank, as I am unable to devise any kind of plausible explanation as to the meaning of this song. Countless dreams later, I think I can finally sum it up:

    A magnificent, enjoyable performance whose lyrics wouldn’t get a passing mark in Introduction To Poetry classes.

    As it turns out, “Sinking Ships” was merely the prerequisite course for what was to follow a few months later: “MacArthur Park”. For me, at least, the lyrics aren’t the reasons I revere such performances. It certainly wasn’t the lyrical nonsense that compelled me to seek out the Bee Gees single. Had it been the world’s most deeply-profound poetry I was after, I would have grabbed a book from the shelf, and not that Atco 45.

    Oops, gotta run. I’ve got another class to catch in the Magnificent Gibberish lab. The group America is supposed to be there today, dissecting alligator lizards in the air.

  3. Chuck Small

    Love the Lindisfarne song, so thanks for reminding me of it …

    Another song I loved, though I never quite got the lyrics, was Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” Just did a search of a lyrics search engine, and what it said the lyrics were makes no sense at all to me. But then, I guess the groove of the song went a long way toward making it a favorite, and if I didn’t know the lyrics, I just sang whatever sounded like they went along.

  4. Repeat offenders that they were, the Bee Gees left a catalog full of lyrics that qualified for your inspired label of Magnificient Gibberish. “Black Diamond” is a favorite, but the prize in these parts goes to “Holiday” for this:

    “Ooh, you’re a holiday, such a holiday.
    “Ooh, you’re a holiday, such a holiday.
    “It’s something I think’s worthwhile
    “If the puppet makes you smile.
    “If not, then you’re throwing stones, throwing stones, throwing stones.

    “Ooh, it’s a funny game, don’t believe that it’s all the same,
    “Can’t think what I’ve just said, but there’s something upon my head.
    “Millions of eyes can see, yet why am I so blind?
    “When the someone else is me, it’s unkind, it’s unkind.”

    Never quite figured it out, but you know, it sounds good on the record. And that’s probably the common denominator.

  5. Miles

    To say I agree totally with your assessment of “If You Know What I Mean” would be a vast understatement. It is, imo, the best of all Neil’s songs and one of my all-time favorites. Lyrically, my favorite goosebump song would be Greg Lake’s “Closer To Believing”. I’ve always been a fan of Lake’s writing but this song outdoes them all, imo. Instrumentally, the one song that literally stops time for me is Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place”. This song never fails to take me to what I would consider Paradise. Perfect from beginning to end.

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