Trying hard not to get the words wrong

Trying hard not to get the words wrong

One of the great things about popular music when I was growing up was the way artists would just drop in a line or two, seemingly out of nowhere, and the way it would make you stop and stare at your transistor radio, thinking, “Did I just hear that right?”

It happened all the time.

For example, in “California Dreamin’,” by the Mamas and the Papas, there’s this line:

“Well, I got down on my knees

and I began to pray.”

Except that wasn’t what John Phillips actually sang.

It wasn’t “began;” it was actually “pretend.”

This was a big deal when I was back there in Catholic grade school, a place with priests and nuns and commandments, a time when we went to church every blessed morning of every last week.

Boy, did we have to pretend to pray.

I had a teacher — the only non-nun on the staff — and he was cool in ways they weren’t or could ever be. He’d wheel in a TV set when there was a World Series game on and do the same thing when astronauts were shooting for the moon, making sure we saw history. He also was a disciplinarian of the first degree — no question about that — but he’d also call for an unscheduled recess in the afternoon, knowing it was a good time to get outside.

He also played the guitar, a five-string acoustic, and once I had the temerity to ask why he didn’t have that sixth string. Seemed kind of odd, but he said something like, “Can you tell the difference?”

An excellent question, one that has stayed with me, one that illustrates the difference between getting it right and doing something just a little off the accepted avenues of thought.

So when he stopped class one afternoon — think we were watching a filmstrip on the Civil War and the song “Eating Goober Peas” kept playing over and over — he decided to veer from the main road.

This was back when a made-for-TV band called the Monkees were outselling the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — combined — and every few months another one of their songs would hit No. 1.

He pulled out his five-string and started to teach us the words to “Daydream Believer,” including the line, “You once thought of me as a white knight honestly,” but I knew that wasn’t right. I had the single at home and played it all the time, over and over again.

It was that good.

“Well,” I said, raising my hand, knowing he’d appreciate my contribution, “it’s actually ‘on his steed,’ not ‘honestly.’”

He could have gotten mad, thrown an eraser or a piece of chalk, as he’d been known to do, but he seemed fine with my correction.

Years and years later, I made a point of stopping in and paying him an unannounced visit, out there in God’s country, a place where he and his wife still lived after raising a bunch of successful children.

I was more than a little nervous when I parked the purple pickup truck — a generous welcome-home loaner from my fiancée’s father — and walked up the driveway, watching my former teacher as he sat on a riding mower, enjoying the sunshine as he tended to a chore I’m sure he looked forward to every week, doing it well.

Despite the fact he’d been my teacher for three years — fifth, sixth and seventh grades, an eternity in parochial school — I wasn’t sure if he’d know who I was, so I was prepared to introduce myself.

“Hello, Mike,” he said, stepping off his mower and, as if reading my mind, adding as he walked over, “Of course I remember you.”

We spent an enjoyable hour or so, sitting in his screened-in porch, sipping sweetened tea, and at one point, I asked him if he still had that guitar, the one he played as he taught us songs like “Lemon Tree” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and, yes, “Daydream Believer.”

“Never did get that sixth string,” he said after he’d retrieved it from a closet and agreed to pose for a picture, one I treasure.

It was a different time, with codes of behavior that have long since gone out of fashion, but I retain a lot of the lessons he imparted.

For one thing, you should always be looking for answers, even if the questions are hard. For another, don’t be afraid to be smart.

I remember getting a test back from him, and he’d circled “105%” at the top, which confused me, since, well, it was impossible. So I asked him about it.

“Someday,” he said, “you’ll deserve a 95 and you won’t get it.”

Let’s close with a line from “Wichita Lineman,” the one that goes, “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.”

I’ve studied that Mobius strip of a lyric for years, but I’m still not sure what it means. It’s quite complex in its baffling simplicity.

One thing I know to be true: At least I’ve got all the words right.

Mike Dewey can be reached at or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where lyrics are often misunderstood.

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