Friday, January 20, 2012

Dirty Jokes and Lemonade

"I told you dirty jokes until you smiled."

That's a quote from a song. Billy Joel's "You May Be Right," to be precise. A line from a song about telling dirty jokes is relatively harmless, but it led to one of the funniest instances of impromptu censorship I have ever seen.

(Just to be clear, I'm NOT going to tell you dirty jokes. Mostly because I don't know any.) (Well, there is this one: A pig fell in the mud.) (Some would argue that's not even a joke. I would argue that the fact it's NOT a joke is what makes it funny.) (I would probably lose that argument.)

My story of censorship happened at a Youth Conference dance. For Mormons, a youth conference is a two or three day gathering of all the 12 to 18 year-olds from a region for the purpose of spiritual and social enrichment. For this particular Youth Conference we were cloistered (if I may use the word "cloistered") (which I just did) for a couple of days on the campus of Utah State University. (It was an adventure in the "big city" for us small town kids.)

The main activity for one of the evenings was a dance. For Mormons, a youth dance is a delicate teeter-totter, balancing between getting boys and girls to actually interact with each other on one side, and not having them interact TOO much on the other side. (No slow-dance bear-hugs allowed.)

At this particular dance, the music was provided by a live band. Looking back, they were probably just a bunch of scared college kids with dreams of being rock stars. At the time, I thought they were a pretty good band. (What did I know? I struggled to play "Notre Dame Victory March" on my trombone, so anyone who could play guitar and sing at the same time had my admiration.) I was watching them as they played one of my favorite songs at the time, "You May Be Right." (Was I dancing? Are you kidding? I was only 14 years old. I wouldn't be ready for meaningful contact with girls for another 25 years!)

They were doing a pretty good job with the song. The next line was, "Remember how I found you there, alone in your electric chair. I told you dirty jokes until you smiled." As the lead singer approached these lyrics, I could see the wheels in his mind turning. It was one of those moments when time seems to slow down and you can tell exactly what a person is thinking: "This is a Mormon Youth Conference dance. I shouldn't be singing about telling dirty jokes. I've got to think of something to change it to."

Unfortunately for our well-intentioned lead singer, the line he was trying to avoid was coming at him at a speed faster than he could think of an alternative. He ended up singing, "I told you dirty...stories 'til you smiled." The pause between the words "dirty" and "stories" was barely noticeable. I noticed it, and so did a couple of my friends, but most of the crowd remained oblivious. (They were probably too busy having actual social interaction with members of the opposite sex.)

In the hopes of making the lyrics less salacious, the singer changed "dirty jokes" into "dirty stories." It was an epic fail. (And we would have called it just that if the term "epic fail" had been in use back then. Instead, we just called it "funny.") (That's how we rolled back in the day.)

The NEXT time they played the song, the singer was better prepared. (Yes, this band was SO good that they had to repeat songs in order to fill the allotted time for the dance.) The second time, with confidence, he sang, "Remember how I found you there, alone in your electric chair. I gave you lemonade until you smiled." He was quite proud of himself, and he certainly succeeded in making the lyrics more innocuous, even if it was rather silly.

No dirty jokes. No dirty stories. Just some good, wholesome lemonade!

I could empathize with the singer, because I, too, had sometimes used impromptu censorship to change song lyrics that I thought might be inappropriate. As you know, Mormons don't drink beer. In one of my favorite songs, Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," he sings: "Cold beer, hot lights, my sweet romantic teenage nights." Thinking it wrong to sing about beer, I used to change the words to: "Root beer, bright lights, my sweet romantic teenage nights." (For some reason I didn't feel the need to change the lyrics to reflect the fact I never actually had any "sweet romantic teenage nights.")

In another Billy Joel song, "Big Shot," he sings, "Go on and cry in your coffee but don't come bitchin' to me." I altered this to be: "Go on and cry in your coffee but don't come fishing with me." (Mormons don't drink coffee, either, but for some reason I didn't find the coffee as "offensive" as the beer from the other song.)

Billy Joel wasn't the only artist who had his lyrics changed. In Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" he sings: "What does it matter to you? When you've got a job to do you've got to do it well. You've got to give the other fella hell." I always changed that last line to: "You've got to make the other fella smell."

And, in "Life In the Fast Lane" by the Eagles, I changed a certain line to say, "We've been up and down this highway, haven't seen a goll-durned thing."

On "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins, I used to change the words without even knowing I was changing them. In the song, Phil repeats the phrase "Oh Lord" at least 22 times. (Yes, I counted. And that's as many as I got before the stupid DJ cut off the end of the song.) (Stupid DJs.) I used to sing "Hold on" instead. But, I wasn't doing it on purpose. For several years I actually thought the lyrics were "Hold on." (And to be honest, I liked the song a lot better when I thought Phil was singing "Hold on.")

Maybe I shouldn't be changing the lyrics to songs to serve my own purposes. Maybe doing so damages the artistic integrity of the song writer. Maybe I should be concerned. Maybe I should stop doing it.

In the meantime, maybe I should tell you dirty jokes. Or maybe I should tell you dirty stories. Or maybe I should just give you lemonade until you smile.

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