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Song Troubles

Written by Chan Marty in English -

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Song Troubles

By Marty Chan

There’s a man who leads a life of danger

To everyone he meets he stays a stranger

With every move he makes another chance he takes

Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow

Secret Agent Man… Secret Asian Man?

For years, I swore Johnny Rivers composed Secret Asian Man just for

me, until a pretentious audiophile told me that the correct title was Secret Agent

Man and that my misheard lyric was a mondegreen, a mistake made by amateurs.

Odds were pretty good that this music fanatic wasn’t going to live to see

tomorrow, but he slipped away before I could club him to death with a stack of

his vinyl records.

Before this sad discovery, I happily belted out off-key tunes without

thinking twice about what I was singing. I knew I couldn’t carry a tune, but I

thought I was hitting the right lyrics if not the right notes. Now doubt crept in.

Did Jimi Hendrix really sing “scuse me, while I kiss this guy”? Why was Alanis

so upset about a “cross-eyed bear”? Exactly why was Credence Clearwater

Revival telling me about the “bathroom on the right”?

A quick search on Google answered my questions. Jimi was “kissing

the sky” and Alanis was upset about the “cross I bear.” However, I believed that

CCR’s lead singer, John Fogerty, had a small bladder. Why else would he also

sing, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”?

The irony was that I used to pride myself in remembering lyrics. As a

teenager, I had committed the entire album of Billy Joel’s The Stranger to

memory. I whistled the melancholy melody at the top of the title track and

barked the electric guitar that came on the heels of this manic-depressive


The Stranger came without printed lyrics, which meant the only way

to learn Billy’s songs was to listen to them over and over again. I dropped the

needle on the record’s grooves so many times that I had gouged a network of

canyons across the vinyl landscape. I skipped over the chasms to learn my

favourite song, Movin’ Out.

This song was my teen rebellion anthem. In hindsight, I probably

should have picked something more in your face like Alice Cooper’s School’s

Out or The Who’s My Generation, but my dad refused to let any offensive record

spin on his stereo. The only exception was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’

album, Going Places. I couldn’t develop any kind of serious angst while

Tijuana Taxi honked on the hi-fi.

The Stranger was one of few albums Dad allowed to be played in our

home. A passive-aggressive, I slapped Movin’ Out on the stereo every time he

was within earshot to let him know that I didn’t care for his rules. I didn’t want

to be like the grocery store clerk, Anthony, saving his pennies for some day or

the cop-bartender, Sergeant O’ Leary, breaking his back for a Cadillac. If this

was moving up, then Billy and I were movin’ out, just as soon as I saved up

enough allowance. The song transported me to New York. I imagined running

into Billy outside of Mr. Cacciatore’s on Sullivan Street, and telling him how

his song inspired me to fight the power. Any time my dad came into the living

room, I sang the chorus especially loud: “I’m movin’ out.”

I came home one day to find that The Stranger had worn out his

welcome. Somehow, the vinyl had been warped into an Escher print. I suspected

Dad and Billy moved out to the barbecue, but my father chided me for storing

my records over the heat register.

In retaliation, I bought Blizzard of Ozz, an album that could withstand

the heat, because it was heavy metal. I ripped off the cellophane and tried to

memorize Crazy Train, but no matter how hard I listened — no matter how many

times I replayed the song — I couldn’t understand Ozzy Osbourne. Why did

metal spoons have feelings? Honestly, it was driving me insane. Instead of

learning the lyrics, I sang the “ai-yi-yis” at the start of the song. In a Double

Dutch game of sing-along, I’d wait until the song had built momentum and

jumped in for the chorus; hanging around long enough to sing the lyrics I could

understand and then hopping out again. This method stuck with me for many

years and many different choruses, but I did have trouble with instrumental

songs like Harold Faltermeyer’s theme song to Beverly Hills Cop. All I could

do was doo-doo-doo-doo my way through the tune.

While the technique worked well in the car when songs by the Police

and Culture Club were blasting at volume eleven, the sing-along shortcut was

not so good when I wore headphones. My friends wondered why I didn’t want

them to “stand so close to me,” and more than a few buddies did “really want

to hurt me.”

To compensate, I gave a little run up to the chorus. I mumbled the lyrics

I couldn’t understand, until I heard words I did know, then I yelled them out.

Like an amateur high jumper, I stutter-stepped over the verses and launched

myself at the chorus high bar. My friends begged me to either learn the lyrics

or shut up. I refused to silence my golden voice, and I swore that mumbling

was a tried-and-true method of sing-along.

After that, my friends bought me a Bob Dylan CD.

– end –

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