David Lister: The Week in Arts

Excuse me while I kiss this guy... or maybe not
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The Independent Online

You could almost hear the "ahem" as The Observer then played Jeeves to Lloyd Webber's Bertie Wooster. It added, diplomatically and courteously in square brackets: "Jagger's poor diction may confuse him, but the lyric is 'girl reaction'."

There is something rather wonderful about that. This is the song lyric that Lloyd Webber considers one of the most memorable ever, the one that turned him from sweet-natured boy to testosterone-fuelled young man, and it turns out that he misheard the thing. I wonder if there is someone out there whose life has been similarly affected by a misheard Andrew Lloyd Webber song. Perhaps there is a person who believes Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were pleading directly to a middle England couple with the lyric: "Don't cry for me, Archie and Tina."

But to be honest, Lloyd Webber is not alone. We all mishear lyrics, lines in plays, words from operatic arias, and they linger in our brains uncorrected for ages. I confess to believing for some years - well, decades actually - that Jimi Hendrix sang the line: "Excuse me while I kiss this guy." Only relatively recently did I learn that it was: "Excuse me while I kiss the sky." This was a disappointment. All the while I had credited him with the first "coming out" rock'n'roll lyric. But, far from being sociologically ahead of his time, he was just another drug-crazed hippie, as far as that line was concerned.

Misheard words can sometimes be an improvement on the original. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" contains the lyric "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me". One listener confessed to a website he had misheard it for years as "Beelzebub, 'cause the devil has a scythe for me". I think Freddie Mercury would have admired the poetry in that.

Talking of poetry, the greatest ever change to a line was a letter to The Independent some years ago by an inspired reader who claimed that Philip Larkin's famously bitter first line in his poem about parents, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad", was a misprint. The poet had written: "They tuck you up, your mum and dad." His poem was a fond thank you to affectionate parents the world over who tucked their children up in bed. Since reading that letter, I have never been able to hear the original without smiling.

No literary form is safe from being misheard. There are many children who believe the hymn "Gladly the cross I'd bear" is "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear".

So Andrew Lloyd Webber should not feel dismayed. A misheard or reimagined line can sustain one through life. Let him continue to think that rock singers in the 1960s used the term "girly action", even if no one but Lord Lloyd-Webber has ever uttered such a whimsical phrase. I will continue to think of Jimi Hendrix as being in the vanguard of the gay rights movement. And hundreds of thousands of children can continue to start their school day singing about a Disneyesque cross-eyed bear chuckling his way through the forest. It will keep them going until their Larkinesque parents tuck them up for the night.

The real thing. Who needs it?

Hidden meanings

Opera's attempts to woo new audiences are not helped much by the people who write the surtitles. Certainly, the translations on screen at the Royal Opera's current production of Tosca with Angela Gheorghiu (pictured) seem to have been written by someone who assumes that everyone knows the plot has studied Italian. At one point the police chief Scarpia asks the prisoner Cavaradossi several times whether he denies knowing where his comrade is hiding. Several times he answers. But the surtitles translate only the question and not the answer.

When Tosca stabs Scarpia, she growls three times at him "Muori!". Not once it is translated. OK, 85 per cent of the audience probably know it is Italian for "Die!". But what about the 15 per cent who don't? Surely the on-screen translations into English were introduced precisely for those new to an opera who need the dialogue at key moments of the drama translated. I can't decide whether the Royal Opera House's surtitles are elitist or just plain inefficient.

* Are any audiences treated in a more cavalier fashion than those at rock concerts? At the Eagles concert at Twickenham I bought a couple of plastic bottles of water. The tops were taken off by the seller, and I was told I could not have them. I pointed out that I needed them as I wanted to keep the bottles for some hours. It seems that the members of the audience were not allowed to have the tops to their bottles. It was explained that topless bottles are harder to hurl at the stage.

While not arguing with the aerodynamics, I pointed behind me to the Eagles fans in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. Were they really likely to hurl bottles at the distant stage? Even if they had the inclination, they probably didn't have the energy. I lost the argument. No one was getting the top to a bottle at this concert, even at £75 a ticket.