there’s a bathroom on the right

Many songs have commonly misheard lyrics. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t saying ‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy and Elton John is not imploring hold me closer, Tony Danza. AC/DC did not write an anthem about dirty deeds done to sheep and The Beatles did not sing a girl with colitis goes by.

What about the songs, though, that are complex metaphors? Or the ones that deal with adult subject matter or themes? I got to thinking about this the other day, when I heard my four-year-old singing the chorus to Space Oddity as background music for the elaborate game he was playing with his space Lego.


Major Tom, apparently

I was amused to realize that there are a lot of songs I sang along with as a child while yet having NO IDEA what the real meaning was, or how inappropriate it was for me to be belting them out in the grocery store. And so, without further ado, I give you Songs I Shouldn’t Have Learned As A Child, Probably.

Space Oddity, David Bowie

So, my boys love Space Oddity just as much as I did when I was a kid, because it sounds like a sort-of scary song about an astronaut named Tom who flies into space and is lost. It tells a story, and what kid doesn’t love a story?

I was in my 20s before I started to wonder about this one. Then one night I heard Ashes to Ashes and it hit me like a ton of bricks: Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / we know Major Tom’s a junkie / strung out in heaven’s high / hitting an all-time low.


This makes the song a brilliantly-crafted metaphor and helps account for its enduring popularity, but it also makes me wonder at what point I should enlighten the kids so they can avoid embarrassment at some future university trivia night.

Horse With No Name, America

I loved this one. So much going for it! Nice clear vocal track so you can learn the words, beautiful harmonies, a chorus where you get to sing “la, la, la-la la la” over and over again. Plus, horse.

I remember once pestering my dad for a good many minutes about what he would name the horse, if the horse belonged to him. Why no name, poor horse? Horses should have names.

When Trainspotting came out in 1996 I was eighteen – just the right age to not be horrified by the message but instead attracted to Ewan MacGregor, teenagers are weird. I suddenly got Very Informed about heroin culture and with dawning horror I realized that “horse” is a slang term for “heroin”.

Dammit, were all songs in the 1970s about drug overdoses??

Sam Stone, John Prine

OK, if you’re familiar with this song or you just clicked on that link to read the lyrics, you are asking yourself why is she so stupid, good lord, this song isn’t even a metaphor, it’s explicitly about a wounded war vet suffering from drug addiction. In my defense, my parents listened to a lot of John Prine when I was preschool age. I didn’t learn every word, because I simply didn’t have the life experience to even understand lines like there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. I would cheerfully sing along, thinking that a purple heart and a monkey on his back sounded VERY cool.

At the end of the song, the titular character is alone, when he popped his last balloon and because I was five and dumb, I honestly thought that he had started out with a bunch of balloons, and now the last one was popped. How sad! I vaguely remembered thinking that Sam Stone was a clown in a circus, or something (purple hearts! monkeys! balloons! he climbed the walls while sitting in a chair, for heaven’s sake!) and that he was too old to be in the circus anymore.

I don’t remember when I suddenly became aware of what I was actually singing, but it was a pretty sobering moment. I still love the song, but only when I’m feeling melancholy.

99 Red Balloons, Nena

Now, I freely admit I didn’t – and still don’t – know all the words to this one, but it’s such a happy song! Who doesn’t like the image floating in the summer sky / 99 red balloons fly by? I can’t remember who first told me that a) this song was originally written in German or b) that it was an anti-war protest song, but I know it was pre-easily-searchable internet, and that I didn’t believe them. I have a history of being extremely gullible, and this smacked of “someone’s trying to get Hannah to believe nonsense again”. When I finally had it all laid out for me one day, I was kind of horrified, and I still feel a little glum whenever I hear it.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Private Dancer, Tina Turner

Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album came out in 1984, so I was six. My dad bought a copy and it was in heavy rotation there for a while. I haven’t tested the theory recently but I’ll bet I can still sing the whole thing (or at least mumble along phonetically).

I clearly recall twirling around the living room, singing Private Dancer and pretending I was a ballerina… because that’s what I thought it was about. A beautiful lady who was locked in a tower and only danced for one man.

I can only imagine what it was like for my parents to see six year old me singing I’m your private dancer / a dancer for money  while pirouetting in front of the stereo, but I’m sure they were relieved when that phase passed.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles

Probably the most classic misunderstood song. The original and still the best. I was in grade seven when someone pointed out that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was almost certainly not, as John Lennon claimed, based on a drawing by his son Julien. I refused to believe it, and held on to that for many years, because SERIOUSLY, WHY ARE ALL THE SONGS ABOUT DRUGS. Eventually I gave in, but I’ve always been kind of disillusioned by it all. I’ve never done LSD myself; I tried mushrooms once, and while it certainly made me feel shitty I didn’t see anything even remotely like the wonderland described in this song. I just got very paranoid, and twitchy, and ended that particular ill-fated experiment having a terrible fight with my then-boyfriend that ruined my weekend.

In short, kids, don’t do drugs!

Any songs you radically misunderstood as a child? Or an adult? Any songs you won’t let your kids listen to because you don’t want to have long involved conversations about the lyrical content?





9 thoughts on “there’s a bathroom on the right

  1. This post has REVOLUTIONIZED my understanding of Horse with No Name. I always pictured a lovely desert scene with a horse galloping along and some cowboy on its back, sun setting gloriously in the west. Is it seriously about drugs? I am ASTONISHED.

    Also, love your Private Dancer story. My personal parallel is She Bop by Cyndi Lauper, which I sang at full volume for my grandparents in one distinctive memory, and only much, much later learned it is a song about masturbation. You’re welcome for the show, Nana and Papa!


    • Oh god, She Bop I also had no clue until much later. Other things that totally went over my head: the fact that Turning Japanese was a song about masturbation. Dancing With Myself too. I really missed the boat entirely on a LOT of 80s songs.


  2. I REFUSE to believe that about A Horse With No Name. Nuh-uh. In the desert you can remember your name cuz there ain’t no one for to give you no pain, heroin addicts don’t remember their names! Wait, do they? I’m okay with Space Oddity, oddly. I can’t think of any songs that I misunderstood, probably because I still misunderstand them, as this post amply proved. Clearly I need to interrogate lyrics a little more closely. Wait – does Chris Hadfield know about the junkie thing???


  3. John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed” was really popular in our house when I was growing up, which is at least fairly age appropriate. But when he sang “I’d trade ’em all, plus cow down the road (for Grandma’s feather bed)… well maybe I’d better reconsider about the cow down the road” – I thought he had to reconsider because the cow down the road WASN’T HIS COW. I was in my thirties before I realized he was singing about the GAL down the road.


  4. I remember where my niece was about 4 or 5 there was a Shaggy song with a chorus that said something to the effect of “we were banging on the bathroom floor.” my niece kept saying how weird it was that they were in the bathroom with hammers making a mess.


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