Gibberish Alert

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It was twenty years ago today … we were driving down the 5 ("the 5" is the California way of saying I-5), on a stretch in Orange County where the Pacific Ocean kisses the highway, a persistent, teasing beauty. Well, except for the San Onofre nuclear reactor. We were arguing over the lyrics to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Nevermind -- maybe the last truly great piece of rock art -- had just come out. Grunge had shown up on the scene wearing a dirty flannel shirt and mumbling. The debate was whether Cobain was singing, "here we are now/give us taters." He wasn't. But it did sound that way to some of us, and one could dream up a crazy world where those lyrics would work just fine.

The list of misheard rock lyrics is long and honorable: "there's a bathroom on the right," "'scuse me, while I kiss this guy," "then I told you about our kid/how he's not a tomato." Early critics of rock decried nonsensical or puerile lyrics. That "It was twenty years ago today" opening line to this post is obviously cribbed from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club." The Beatles' lyrics were usually clear, but not always. Bob Dylan thought that in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" the Beatles were singing "I get high." Apparently, that mattered a lot at the time. Lennon corrected Dylan, telling him that the lyrics were actually "It's such a feeling, that my love/I can't hide/I can't hide." Dylan's response? Those lyrics make no sense. Why hide your love? Lennon later wrote a song that sort of answered that question. The point is that even the best writers are capable of descending into gibberish. This weekend's Wall Street Journal furnished examples of anti-Beatles criticism over the years, including insults from Noel Coward, William F. Buckley, and even James Bond. Most of those criticisms now seem as nonsensical as the lyrics they attacked.

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