I love music. I also love lyrics. These two things are often argued to be separate entities, but I’ve never felt that way. Music is a large vehicle that carries different things on every one of its trips. While some can get into one of those vehicles without lyrics, it’s certainly not my typical preference. I listen carefully to lyrics, but even so, I’ll often mishear them. Now, this happens to all of us, and sometimes, we’ll even swear our own versions are better than the intended original.
Whether or not that’s the case remains to be seen, however there’s something to be said for how we project our own philosophy onto content and how much things change when we do. I’d like to share one of my favorite examples. I suggest that as you read my interpretation you pull up the full lyrics on your own to have side by side my take.
Song: “Act Nice and Gentle,” as performed by The Black Keys
Original Lyric: Act nice and gentle to me
Misheard as : Act nice and gentlemanly
This is a very simple and overdone song lyric. The premise of the song is simple and you’ve heard it before. The singer is addressing a significant other and assuring her that she doesn’t need to doll herself up, or provide him with anything more than being “nice and gentle”. The song was originally released by the Kinks in 1967, and at the time the concept was probably still not even close to novel.
Not a hurtful message, and definitely a positive one, but it’s been done better by others. See Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” for a good example.
Anyway, take a look at the song from my misheard conception and that’s where you find some true originality and brilliance.
From my perspective the song certainly changes a lot. There are two possible interpretations that can derive from the shift of “gentle to me” to “gentlemanly”. The first of which, and the one that I don’t really prefer is that the singer is insisting that his significant other act more like a man in their relationship. In this case, the singer would be a chauvinist and would be relegating all of the negative behaviors he isn’t fond of to his significant other simply being a woman. So I don’t like that one.
The one I like is; the singer is a father and the song is being sung to his son. Suddenly, the song begins with a beautiful setting of a father sitting on his porch, maybe contemplatively smoking his pipe, while his wide eyed son is looking up at and taking in the wisdom.
The son isn’t old enough yet to resent the wisdom inherent to his father’s words. We know this because the song starts off with the father complaining about his son’s fancy clothes and that he doesn’t even know where he got them from. So now we know his mother has probably been taking the poor kid shopping, and likely spoiling him rotten. The father is playing the other end, just trying to keep his boy grounded. Unfortunately, his son soon begins to drift away.
In a couple of the later phrases we see the father complaining about the son’s false eye lashes. In the context of it being a son and not a dolled up woman, what we see is a father indicating that he is clearly losing touch with his son who appears to be in his adolescence and is acting like a damn fool. He’s likely “going punk” or something of that nature. The father is still insisting that he loves his boy and that he just wants to take him as he finds him, because his baby boy will always just be good enough for him. It’s a beautiful message, really. He’s still addressing his son, and really he just wants him to be a good man.
The song then comes to a close and it’s getting a little sadder, it ends with the repeating phrases “Come on baby, hold my hand. Come on baby, understand, you gotta, Act nice, act nice and gentlemanly.”
As far as I can imagine, there is really only one time an old school fella like this father would ask his son to hold his hand.
The father is dying. He no longer is making specific requests about his sons behavior, there is no time for that. Rather, he is simply requesting of his son that he holds his dying father’s hand. And, because the father is still a father, he must impart some last bit of wisdom, no judgment, no hate, just a simple message: Act nice and gentlemanly.
The original song lyrics are fine, mine are better.
You can read more of Louis Miles’ work at his blog.