More often than not, songwriters are inspired by real world events rather than the ethereal and fickle Muse. The lyrics they write attempt to capture what they were feeling or thinking; however if the lyrics are ambiguous, the song’s actual meaning is ultimately in the ear of the beholder. Some of the music industry’s greatest hits fall into the category of “most misinterpreted songs” because the misconceptions about the lyrics, that have spread with the speed of an urban myth, have completely overshadowed or replaced the original inspiration for the song. Not surprisingly, many interpretations are related to drugs — probably since the most of the 60s generation listened to their music in a drug-induced haze. Fans of literature will be pleased to learn that some of these songs were inspired by famous literary works. Thanks to biographies and interviews over the last few decades, the musicians can now set the record straight.
1. Daniel by Elton John
Misconception: a song about a gay couple
Inspiration: Lyricist Bernie Taupin had read an article about the Vietnam war that inspired him to write the song. In an interview, Taupin elaborates: “The story was about a [fictional] guy [who was blinded in the war] that went back to a small town in Texas, returning from the Vietnam war. They’d lauded him when he came home and treated him like a hero. But he just wanted to go home, go back to the farm, and try to get back to the life that he’d led before. I just embellished that and like everything I write, I probably ended up being very esoteric, but it is a song that is important to me, because it was the one thing I said about the Vietnam War. I wanted to write something that was sympathetic to the people that came home.” According to guitarist Davey Johnstone, the final verse that made an allusion to Daniel being a war veteran was cut from the final version of the song by Elton John.
2. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles
Misconception: a song about LSD (Lucy Sky Diamonds=LSD)
Inspiration: In an interview with Rolling Stones (1971), John Lennon swore that he was completely unaware when he wrote the song that the title (initial of words) spelled LSD; he said, “”I didn’t even see it on the label. I didn’t look at the initials.” (Of course, Paul McCartney completely trashed Lennon’s innocence when he remarked that it was “pretty obvious” that the song was inspired by LSD in an interview with the Daily Mirror in 2004). The song was actually inspired by a picture that his son, Julian, drew for his friend, Lucy O’Donnell, who were students at Heath House School (a private school in Weybridge, Surrey). In a 1975 interview Lennon explained, “Julian came in one day with a picture about a school friend of his named Lucy. He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” The images in the song were inspired by the characters and imagery in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The girl with kaleidoscope eyes was inspired by Yoko Ono.
3. Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
Misconception: a song about the lead singer’s (Freddie Mercury) struggle with AIDS and his feelings about death
Inspiration: Band member Brian May stated that the real meaning of the song was a private issue for Mercury and the band wanted respect that. He did however confirm that the lyrics contained veiled references to the lead singer’s personal trauma: “Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.” In an interview with Record Collector (1993), Mercury provided a flippant explanation: “It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?” Some conjectured that the inspiration for the song was Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, about a man who confesses to a murder and experiences an epiphany just prior to his execution.
4. Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan
Misconception: a song about drug dealers
Inspiration: Bob Dylan explained that the song is about the search for inspiration. The song’s title character was inspired by folk guitarist Bruce Langhorne. Dylan elaborated, “Bruce was playing with me on a bunch of early records. On one session, [producer] Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was, like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing and this vision of him playing just stuck in my mind.”
5. Hotel California by The Eagles
Misconception: a song about devil worship, specifically an actual hotel in San Francisco owned by the founder of the Church of Satan; another misconception was that the Hotel California was the Playboy Mansion, or the Camarillo State Mental Hospital (Camarillo, California)
Inspiration: Henley, speaking to the London Daily Mail (November, 2007) explained: “[Hotel California] was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew. But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce.” Henley added: “We were all middle-class kids from the midwest. Hotel California was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles. Another inspiration for the song was Twilight Zone and John Fowles’s masterpiece, The Magus (featured in the Modern Library’s list of the Best 20-th Century Novel); in the liner notes of The Very BEst of the Eagles, Frey and Henley elaborate: “We wanted this song to open like an episode of The Twilight Zone… We take this guy [the song’s narrator] and make him like a character in The Magus, where every time he walks through a door there’s a new version of reality. We wanted to write a song just like it was a movie.”
For further reading: The Magus by John Fowles, Modern Library (1998)
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