Twice Luba has surprised me. The first time was when she was on a Canada Day concert bill along with The Box, Tragically Hip, Kim Mitchell and (I think) Colin James. I’ll admit the Ukrainian-Canadian, whose last name is Kowalchyk, was the one act I wasn’t terribly keen to see. But she was probably one of the best.
The second time Luba surprised me was when I found out her hit Everytime I See Your Picture wasn’t just another breakup song. One of two big hits from the Daniel Lanois-produced 1984 album Secrets & Sins, she wrote it after the death of her father in 1980.
There are bushels of songs which probably aren’t about what you think they’re about. And I’m not just talking about the ones with misheard lyrics. Here’s one — Slide by The Goo Goo Dolls. I always thought it was a ’90s slacker anthem, but it’s actually about abortion. Behold:
“Don’t you love the life you killed?
The priest is on the phone
Your father hit the wall
Your ma disowned you
I wanna wake up where you are
I won’t say anything at all.”
There’s no Goo Goo Dolls in my collection, but thanks to my girlfriend, I do have M.I.A. Her big hit — the song you might think is called All I Wanna Do — is actually called Paper Planes. And it’s not about getting high and shooting guns. It’s about her immigration experience.
Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You — made even bigger by the late Whitney Houston — is not a breakup song. Well, not a romantic breakup. Parton wrote it for her mentor Porter Wagoner after she finally decided to step away from his marquee and try to make it on her own.
Darker still is Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People. It’s not about shoes, it’s about school shootings. How did I not notice this: “You better run, better run, faster than my bullet.”
I’ve heard Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) by Green Day in countless end-of-school slideshows over the years. It sounds like a sweet song, but Billie Joe Armstrong wrote it angrily to an ex who moved away.
Poker Face by Lady Gaga isn’t about cards, it’s about bisexuality. Again, no Gaga in my collection, but I do have The Beatles’ White Album. Paul McCartney has given a plethora of explanations over the years about the lyrics of Blackbird. No matter what you believe the truth to be — it’s clearly not simply about a bird, unless you’re talking about British slang for “woman.” Specifically, a black woman. Macca has been pretty consistent that the song was at the very least *influenced* by racial tensions and civil rights.
Speaking of The Beatles, I have another personal anecdote. When my elder daughter was born, I was a small-town newspaper editor. I wrote a column about her birth and the name we’d given her: Lucy Sky. The column headline was ‘the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.’ I thought it was a sweet, heartfelt slice of life to share with readers. But, in no time at all I received a letter to the editor condemning me for naming my little girl after an LSD song. Yeah — LSD, Lucy / Sky / Diamonds. Except, it’s not about that at all. Lennon’s son Julian showed his father a drawing he’d made of one of his classmates named Lucy and said the drawing depicted Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
One of my brothers was a huge Genesis, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel fan. I remember him telling me what In The Air Tonight was about. He explained that Phil had witnessed someone who refused to help their friend who had fallen through the ice. Cool story, but it’s not true. Actually, a lot of people believe this or a similar story but the truth is the incredible song is just one of a great many Phil wrote about his divorce.
I’ll throw my other brother under the bus now. One day, the other one was having a little dismissive rant about Bryan Adams’ hit at the time: Summer Of ’69. He had done the math and determined Adams would have been all of 10 years old at the time and probably unlikely to be in a band with someone who quit to get married. But the song is not about the year 1969, it’s about the other 69. It’s just Summer of Oral Sex doesn’t quite have the same commercial appeal.
We’ll end where we started, with a song of mourning. For many years I believed All Of My Love by Led Zeppelin was a romantic ballad. But Robert Plant actually wrote the lyrics for his five-year-old son Karac, who died of a stomach infection while Zeppelin were on tour in the U.S. I’d be willing to bet Plant never misinterpreted the meaning of the lyrics “every time I see your picture I cry” for anything else, given his experience.
It’s all in the ear of the beholder.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check out him out on Discogs.