Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mondegreen, Pt. 4: Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds

A few weeks ago I began to explore the mondegreen, the unintentional mishearing of a verbal utterance enabled by homophonic ambiguity. The first venture, "Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind," was followed by a second entry, "Betty and the Jets." The third, which I wrote on Easter Sunday exploring the implications of the Biblical mondegreen, I titled "Melon Calling Baby." I have said throughout my discussions of the mondegreen that I'm not so much interested in it as a form of "error" as I am in the way it is a sort of creative interaction with the song's actual lyrics. In my “Betty and the Jets” entry, I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.

If information available on the web is correct, then the origin of John Fred (pictured) & His Playboy Band’s marvelous #1 hit of early 1968, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” was the result of John Fred's (actual name: John Fred Gourrier) mishearing The Beatles' lyric, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," as "Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds." Hence, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” is one song, at least, that we can definitively point to as a song actually invented or created through mondegreen deformation. The relationship between the two songs is rather obvious, with "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" being a pastiche of the earlier tune. There is a match between the bi-syllabic names Lucy/Judy, in which the glyph "L" of Lucy is turned around in mirror-image form to become a "J" (as in "John"), while the phoneme "d" in Judy (and also "Fred") nicely alliterates with the "d" in disguise, just as the "-cy" of Lucy alliterates with the "s" phoneme of “sky.” Additionally, "With Glasses" is a sort of deliberate devaluation of "With Diamonds" (glass being a sort of cheap imitation of a diamond).

Many websites are available that contain the lyrics to "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," but I'll present the following lyrics as being a faithful transcription--with one exception, clearly indicated. Highlighted words or phrases are glossed below:

Judy in disguise, well that’s what you are
Lemonade pies with your brand new car
So cantaloupe eyes come to me tonight
Judy in disguise with glasses

Keep wearin’ your bracelets, and your new Rara
And cross your heart, yeah, with your livin’ bra
A chimney sweep sparrow with guise [guys?]
Judy in disguise with glasses

Come to me tonight
Come to me tonight
Taking everything in sight
Except for the strings on my kite

Judy in disguise, hey that’s what you are
Lemonade pies, you got your brand new car
So cantaloupe eyes come to me tonight
Judy in disguise with glasses

Come to me tonight
Come to me tonight
Taking everything in sight
Except for the strings on my kite

Judy in disguise, what you aiming for
A circus of horror, yeah yeah,
Well that’s what you are,
You made me a life of ashes
I…guess…I'll…just…take…your…glasses

Lemonade Pies: At the very least, this phrase is a pastiche of "marmalade skies" of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (LSD), although the phrase may be a reference to the sheer size of Lucy's stylish (and presumably yellow) sunglasses, possibly large hooped (yellow) earrings, or perhaps even the characteristic color of her clothing. An inevitable association, I'm somewhat hesitant to mention, is the word "Pie" with female genitalia. The slang phrase, "Hair Pie" (cf. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica), is a slang term for female genitalia that one may "eat," that is, perform oral sex. The meaning of "lemonade" given the terms of this reading hardly needs to be made explicit.

Cantaloupe eyes: Again, a pastiche, this time of of the collocation "kaleidoscope eyes" of LSD. The word kaleidoscope is derived from the Greek words kalos, meaning beautiful, and eidos, meaning form, and hence does not refer to colors as such, although the child's toy referred to as a "kaleidoscope" often produces startling color combinations. Actually, the word "kaleidoscope" refers to the shifting colored shapes one can see at the end of the scope, not the colors themselves. "Cantaloupe eyes" therefore seems to be a surreal metaphor at its farthest reach, but in any case refers to the shape of her eyes (or perhaps her glasses) and not their color.

Your new Rara: "Rara" is a reference to a chic brand of women's clothing, particularly a stylish kind of sexy dress. Hence "new Rara" reiterates the "new car" of the previous stanza, suggesting the vast disposable income of the femme fatale's parents. The implication is that she is spoiled and pampered, like the "rich bitch girl" in Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl" ("You can rely on the old man's money").

Cross your heart, yeah, with your livin' bra: A reference to the "Playtex Living Bra," that is, a brand of brassiere introduced in the mid-60s employing an innovative "cross your heart" means of breast support (as the adman's slogan went), meaning a brassiere that could provide more comfortable and more shapely support. In 1968 this particular lyric was quite provocative, although it may be hard to believe now. My wife Becky and I both remember the "livin' bra" lyric to be the subject of sensational conversation when we (at the time) were still in junior high. As my friend Tim Lucas pointed out to me, John Fred ventured into territory with this lyric that The Beatles wouldn't tackle until "Ob La Di, Ob La Da" ("Life goes on...bra!") in late 1968. "Burn your bra," was a feminist slogan in the 1960s, the symbolic casting off of middle-class, bourgeoisie repression. Our femme fatale is not a feminist.

Chimney sweep sparrow with guise: Most sites containing the lyrics to this song have the word "guise"--but is it actually the homophone of "guise," guys? For me, this is probably the most elusive line in the entire song. If the word is "guise," then to what does the metaphorical phrase, "Chimney sweep sparrow," refer? But if the word is "guys," then the lyric is more intelligible, the swift, swooping, darting flight of a chimney sweep sparrow being the key image. "Chimney sweep sparrow with guys" would then be descriptive of her behavior, flitting from one "guy" (boy) to the next, the repetitive behavior of our femme fatale to "seduce and abandon" the boys who fall under her spell. She engages in "serial dating," but is loyal to no one boy--"guy." Mary Wells, in "My Guy," sings, "I'm stickin' to my guy like a stamp to letter/Like birds of a feather we stick together." Not so of our "Judy in disguise."

Except for the strings on my kite: Perhaps an oblique reference to The Beatles song, "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sgt. Pepper's. It seems more likely, however, that "the strings on my kite" is a metaphor for male sexual arousal, the erection our narrator has whenever he's near our femme fatale. Thus the utterance, "Taking everything in sight/Except the strings on my kite," means she's quite willing to "make out," indeed, is quite aggressive when doing so, but refuses to "put out," or engage in sex. Hence our narrator is turned on by her behavior, but complains of the lack of sexual fulfillment, of consummation. In other words, she's a "tease."

What you aiming for: Our narrator's admission that he's suspicious of her motives, that is, is fundamentally afraid of her. That she's a mystery to him is suggested by her (sun)glasses which disguise her, not her appearance, but what she actually desires "in her heart."

Circus of horror: Circus of Horrors was a British film released in 1960, a loose adaptation of Phantom of the Opera set within a circus. Interestingly, several of its characters figuratively wear masks: either disfigured or seeking a disguise, their visages are restored and/or modified by reconstructive surgery. Additionally, the film featured prominently the pop song Look for a Star on its soundtrack. The lyric, "A circus of horror...is what you are," is actually the most explicit lyric in the entire song in terms of its characterization of the femme fatale: she may be beautiful in appearance, but in reality she is a monster, hiding her real nature by means of her disguise.

You made me a life of ashes: The goal of the femme fatale may or may not be conscious, but in any case she initiates a series events that result in the complete destruction of the male--not his death, but the complete destruction of his world. Her objective is not to destroy him, but rather his world, to initiate in the male a crisis of subjectivity, the ontological destruction of everything he believed to be certain. Hence the appropriateness of the metaphor, "life of ashes." While I cannot "prove" it--nor do I have any inclination to do so--I choose to believe that John Fred had in mind the famous image of Sue Lyon from Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), which seems to me an image which sufficiently captures the femme fatale he was trying, impressionistically, to sketch.

One final remark: "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" is referred to by some as "bubblegum," but I think this incorrect. Prior to recording the song, John Fred had worked with several prominent New Orleans musicians, including members of Fats Domino's band and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John). I agree with those who see the song as R&B with psychedelic features; its overt allusion to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" also recommends it as an example of psychedelia.

Exergue: For those interested, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" is one of the mid-60s Top 40 songs "covered" (as it were) on the Residents' album "The Third Reich 'n' Roll," apparently because the Residents were from Louisiana, as was John Fred.

7 comments:

Tim Lucas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Lucas said...

Ahhhhhh! You did it, Sam -- this is your best entry to date! A delightful breakdown of a song that's been perplexing me for most of my life. Now I want the entire "33 & 1/3" book on the song!

An additional observation or two:

I suspect that "canteloupe eyes," like "lemonade pies," has a veiled erotic connotation referring to the nipples on the subject's breasts. If so, this would lend an interesting dimension to the song's closing line ("I guess I'll just take your glasses"), implying that Judy's "glasses" just might be her Platex living bra... if they cover her "cantaloupe eyes."

With this in mind, the song can be interpreted as a cryptic prelude to rape. The singer tempts the temptress as he has been tempted ("come to me tonight") and closes by saying that, since he has nothing to lose ("you've made a life of ashes"), he might as well "take her glasses."

You didn't address the song much musically, but one aspect that has always intrigued me about it are those fugue-like inserts of the sawing, tortured violins played over fairly explicitly sexual male moans. While these passages could illustrate the singer's sexual torment by this succubus, heard again in the context I have outlined above, these sounds may suggest that the sexual assault is already in progress, if only in the singer's rapturous imagination.

Tom said...

You guys are killing me. First off, you put waaaay too much into the interpretation... female genitalia, lemons and nipples, phonemes, a cryptic prelude to rape, sexual assault!… are you kidding? Have any of you ever been infatuated with someone then experienced the helplessness and frustration of being jilted?... This song is so cut and dried it’s ridiculous. I was gonna make it short but I’ll break it down for you:

The lemonade pies and cantaloupe eyes simply refer to the size of her glasses and the attitude that came with them...

The new Rara, livin’ bra and brand new car are other aspects of her new look.

Chimney sweep sparrow with guise: is simply an insult as a chimney sweep is not the most prestigious job one can have and a sparrow is a pretty common, small and weak bird.

Except for the strings on my kite: just states she took EVERYTHING; emotionally, mentally, spiritually and possibly physically.

What you aiming for: is just a desperate attempt at understanding her change and possibly a plea for clarity so he may have a chance at reconciliation… you’re upset, but always feel there’s a chance.

Circus of horrors: is simply another insult.

You made me a life of ashes: is simply an expression of his broken heart.

Sure, there are references to The Beatles tune, but it's just a song saying: she’s "changed," dumped him, and now he's pissed about it. Although he insults her, he’s desperate and infatuated and still wants her. In all his confusion and frustration, he feels he'd deflate her out-of-control ego if he simply takes her glasses. He could have taken her bra, “rara” or car; but the glasses were the most prominent, and so the song is about that. If you want to speculate, you can say her parents bought her the car and helped clean up her appearance so she’d disassociate herself with him. Otherwise, it’s just another “I got jilted song.” On a personal note, it’s a great song; the melody, lyrics and arrangement made it more than just another pop song of the 1960’s.

B said...

Your reference to the Beatles tackling the social taboo of talking about bras is completely erroneous. Rather, the term 'bra' is a Jamacan pronounciation of the word bro as short for brother.

Kathie said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Kathie said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Xanga.com/Kevin72 said...

Thanks. For 43 years I suspected that "Life goes on bra" wasn't really about brassieres. I can go to bed happy tonight.