ROCK AND ROLL SONGS have taught me a lot. And by “rock & roll,” I mean rock, folk, punk, funk, metal, prog, R & B, disco, rap, and pop. While peers, family, and work edified me in various ways outside of school, rock and roll songs, specifically, taught me the value of defiance, the efficacy of shock, etc. No surprises there. As the years trundle on, however, I realize something less obvious: rock and roll, an art form ostensibly focused on the less cerebral aspects of life, has actually enhanced my vocabulary. And I know I’m not alone.
There’s much good in this. Because music is the second greatest time-travel device (scent is the first), I can pinpoint when and where I learned certain words, and this feels like a triumph over forgetfulness. I connect to my formative years – roughly toddlerhood through about 15 – in which I listened constantly to my mom’s records, my first LPs, and the radio, grooving, daydreaming, but also, apparently, learning. (After this time I became a voracious reader and paid more attention in school.)
For instance, I have no idea when and where I learned the word encyclopedia. But I do remember when and where I learned the word bustle. Bustle, of course, refers to the Victorian garment (designed by a sadist) to enhance a woman’s posterior, and in Led Zeppelin’s deathless “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant sings, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now / It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.” I wondered what that was, that bustle, so I looked it up. I was 12. (I also wondered what it was doing in the hedgerow, but I had my ideas.)
Needless to say, Plant and Co. also taught me the word zeppelin, while I learned Sabbath from another band. (My childhood home was not religious.) In fact, to this day, whenever I hear either of those words in their original contexts (the latter more than the former), I immediately think of the bands.
“I can’t do that. I’m keeping the Sabbath.” “Yes, hold on to those LPs.”
I think fatherhood led me to realize how many terms have come to me through lyrics. It did not occur to me before then. When my son was smaller – he’s 16 now – he was, like most kids, incessantly inquisitive, and he would ask what words meant. Sometimes, he’d also ask how do you know that? Like: “Dad, what does that word mean?” “Bismillah means, ‘In the name of Allah.’” “How do you know that?” “Uhhhh… it was in a Queen song called ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and I was curious and looked it up. Here, let me show you the band at Live Aid on YouTube.”
The more I think about it, the more I realize how much rock & roll has increased my word power. Please find below a selection of said words, with (often unnecessary) definitions. And never underestimate the capacity of a fertile mind exposed to words wrapped in music.
50. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen: bohemian (having informal and unconventional social habits), rhapsody (an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling), scaramouche (a clown), fandango (a dance), and, as noted above,bismillah
scaramouche, scaramouche will you do the fandango?
49: “Sodomy,” from the musical Hair: sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty, masturbation, orgy, kama sutra (From Mom’s record collection, sung by a clueless, very young me at the top of my lungs to raised eyebrows, which led to my looking up the words and shutting up. You do not need me to define these terms.)
sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty / father, why do these words sound so nasty? / masturbation can be fun / join the holy orgy kama sutra / everyone
48. “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” Simon & Garfunkel: desultory (lacking enthusiasm), philippic (bitter attack)
47: “Bastille Day,” Rush: bastille (fortress, prison; in this song, specifically, a fortress in Paris, used as a prison, built in the 14th century and destroyed July 14, 1789. Thank you for the history lesson, prog gods)
46: Tales of Topographic Oceans, Yes: topographic (map-like)
45: “Placebo Syndrome,” Funkadelic: placebo (fake), syndrome (a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behavior)
when your ups lift you down your placebo is too weak / you’re in the syndrome
44: “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” from the musical Oklahoma: surrey (light four-wheeled carriage with two seats facing forward… OK, not exactly a rock and roll song, but still…)
chicks and ducks and geese better scurry when I take you out in the surrey / when I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top!
43: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” CSNY: suite (an ordered series of musical movements)
42: “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison: Hare Krishna (a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness)
hm, my lord (hallelujah) my, my, my lord (hare Krishna) my sweet lord (hare Krishna) my sweet lord (Krishna Krishna)
41: “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Paul Simon: crapped out (to abandon a project, activity, etc., because of fear, cowardice, exhaustion, loss of enthusiasm, etc.)
four in the morning, crapped out, yawning / longing my life away
40: “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” Beatles: plasticine (a soft modeling material, used especially by children)
picture yourself on a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking glass ties
39: “Back in the U.S.S.R,” Beatles: balalaika (a guitarlike musical instrument with a triangular body and two, three, or four strings, popular in Russia and other Slavic countries)
let me hear your balalaikas ringing out, come and keep your comrade warm
38: “Champagne Jam,” Atlanta Rhythm Section: Dom Perignon (expensive champagne)
let’s raise a ruckus, let’s tie one on, break out a bottle of Dom Perignon
37: “The Wall,” Kansas: travesty (a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something)
it rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between all I am, and all that I would ever want be / it’s just a travesty
36: “Blinded By the Light,” Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band/Springsteen: calliope (a keyboard instrument resembling an organ but with the notes produced by steam whistles, used chiefly on showboats and in traveling fairs, named after one of the Greek muses) deuce (representing two, although, like most of you, for years I thought he was singing “douche,” which I also looked up)
with this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground… revved up like a deuce another runner in the night
35: “The Bare Necessities,” from The Jungle Book: pawpaw (papaya)
when you pick a pawpaw or a prickly pear
34: “Take It Away,” Paul McCartney: impresario (a person who organizes and often finances concerts, plays, or operas)
an important impresario has a message for the band
33: “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: sacroiliac (the rigid joint at the back of the pelvis between the sacrum and the ilium), zircon (a common, typically brown mineral but sometimes in translucent varieties of gem quality)
Neon King Kong standin’ on my back, can’t stop to turn around, broke my sacroiliac… a zircon princess seemed to lost her senses down at the peep show watchin’ all the creeps
32: “In the Ghetto,” Elvis Presley: ghetto (an isolated or segregated area or group)
31: “Jet,” Wings: mater (Latin for “mother”) suffragette (a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest… reportedly inspired by Bowie’s use of this juicy word in “Suffragette City,” which, although it came before, I heard after “Jet”.
30: “Lady Marmalade,” Labelle: Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir (“would you like to go to beed with me tonight?” …the first French words I ever learned, long before it was “appropriate” to say such a thing)
29: “Give A Little Whistle,” from Pinocchio: conscience (an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior)
always let your conscience be your guide
28: “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell: hejira (Arabic for “journey”)
27: “Riki Tiki Tavi,” Donovan: i.e., as in the Latin term “id est” (that is)
when I was a young man I was led to believe there were organizations that would kill my snakes for me, i.e. the church, i.e. the government, i.e. school
26: “Come Together,” Beatles: holy roller (a member of an evangelical Christian group that expresses religious fervor by frenzied excitement or trances) juju (an object venerated superstitiously and used as an amulet by tribal peoples of West Africa), toe jam (that grey-brown stuff that accumulates between your toes, primarily composed of dead skin cells, sock fluff and sweat)
here come ol’ flattop he come groovin’ up slowly he got juju eyeball he one holy roller… he wear no shoeshine he got toe jam football
25: “I Am the Walrus,” Beatles: semolina (coarse wheat used in making pasta, breakfast cereals and couscous), pilchard (sardine), knickers (girl underwear)
semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower… boy you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down
24: “American Pie,” Don McLean: levee (an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river), adjourned (break off a meeting, legal case, or game with the intention of resuming it later), verdict (decision)
drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry… the courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned
23: “Rock the Casbah,” The Clash: muezzin (a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque) minarets (tall slender towers, typically part of a mosque),Bedouin (a nomadic Arab of the desert)
the muezzin was a-standin’ on the radiator grille…drop your bombs between the minarets, down Casbah way… the Bedouin they brought the electric kettle drum
22. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” King Crimson: schizoid (antisocial, apathetic)
cat’s foot iron claw, neurosurgeons scream for more / at paranoia’s poison door, 21st century schizoid man
21: Synchronicity, The Police: synchronicity (the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection)
20. “The Streak” Ray Stevens: physique (body)
whoa yes they call him the Streak / he likes to show off his physique
19: “Surrender,” Cheap Trick: WACS (Women’s Army Corps)
Father said “Your mother’s right, she’s really up on things / before we married Mommy served in the WACS in the Philippines”
18: “Sylvan Song,” Heart: sylvan (consisting of or associated with woods; wooded)
17: “Down Under,” Men At Work: vegemite (dark brown Australian food paste made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives)
I said, “do you speak-a my language?” / he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich
16: Equinox, Styx: equinox (the time or date, twice each year, at which the sun crosses the celestial equator, when day and night are of equal length)
15: Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin: graffiti (writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place)
14: “Clampdown,” The Clash: clampdown (a severe or concerted attempt to suppress something)
you grow up and you calm down and you’re working for the clampdown / you start wearing the blue and brown and you’re working for the clampdown
13: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John: penthouse (an apartment on the top floor of a tall building, typically luxuriously fitted and offering fine views; not, in fact, just a dirty magazine)
goodbye yellow brick road where the dogs of society howl / you can’t plant me in your penthouse I’m going back to my plough
12: “16 Shells From a Thirty-aught-six,” Tom Waits: thirty-aught-six (In 1903, Springfield Armory developed the .30-03 rifle or “30 Caliber of 1903.” In 1906, the .30-03 was modified to have a shorter case neck and load a lighter bullet. It became the .30-06, or 30 Caliber Model of 1906, and was adopted by the U.S. military on October 15, 1906.
I plugged 16 shells from a thirty-aught-six and a Black Crow snuck through
a hole in the sky
11: “Aqualung,” Jethro Tull: aqualung (a portable breathing apparatus for divers, consisting of cylinders of compressed air strapped on the diver’s back, feeding air automatically through a mask or mouthpiece; also, a disgusting pederast)
sitting on the park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent / snot is running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes / Aqualung
10: “Pinball Wizard,” The Who: dumb (unable to speak) intuition (the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning) Bally(company that makes pinball machines)
he plays by intuition, the digit counters fall / that deaf, dumb, and blind kid, sure plays a mean pinball… I thought I was the Bally table king, but I just handed my pinball crown to him
9: “Convoy,” C.W. McCall: convoy (a group of vehicles traveling together, typically accompanied by other vehicles for protection), reefer (refrigerated trailer used for transporting perishable goods; not just a joint) NOTE: this song taught me and countless others much CB slang, which we now recall instead of, say, our pin numbers
was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth pullin’ logs
cab-over Pete with a reefer on, and a Jimmy haulin’ hogs… we got a great big convoy rockin’ through the night, yeah, we got a great big convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight?
8: Abraxas, Santana: abraxas (a word of unknown significance found on charms, especially amulets, of the late Greco-Roman world, and linked with both Gnostic beliefs and magical practices by early church fathers. Found in Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, and also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri)
7: “Sympathy For the Devil,” Rolling Stones: troubadour (a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, especially on the theme of courtly love) politesse (formal politeness or etiquette)
let me please introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste / and I laid traps for troubadours who get killed before they reached Bombay… so if you meet me, have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste / use all your well-learned politesse, or I’ll lay your soul to waste
6: “Get Off My Cloud,” Rolling Stones: Union Jack (the national flag of the United Kingdom, consisting of red and white crosses on a blue background… yes, this is where I learned the term for the UK flag)
in flies a guy who’s all dressed up like a Union Jack, and says, I’ve won five pounds if I have his kind of detergent pack
5: “Island Girl,” Elton John: racket boss (trusted Mafia associate in charge of a certain business, or racket. In this instance: man in charge of a prostitution ring. Heard this song, which now screams political incorrectness, long before I saw The Godfather.
Island girl, black boy want you in his island world… he want to take you from the racket boss, he want to save you but the cause is lost
4: “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Little Richard: ball (engage in sexual intercourse)
good golly Miss Molly, sure likes to ball!
3: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Bob Dylan D.A. (district attorney)
Maggie says, the Man he say, they must bust in early May, “Orders from the D.A.
2: “The Immigrant Song,” Led Zeppelin: Valhalla (the great hall in Norse mythology where heroes slain in battle are received) threshing (to separate grain from a plant, typically with a flail or by the action of a revolving mechanism)
the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands to fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming / on we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the Western shore!
1: “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” Lynyrd Skynyrd Dobro (a type of acoustic guitar with steel resonating disks inside the body under the bridge originally made by the Dopyera brothers)
old Curt was a black man with white curly hair / when he had a fifth of wine he did not have a care / he used to own an old Dobro, used to play it across his knee