Grumpy Old Man: Loud, but not entirely clear

Coalition agreements can be a lot like ‘Louie Louie,’ an early-1960s American hit that caught the attention of the FBI.

Likud and Bayit Yehudi sign coalition agreement (photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
Likud and Bayit Yehudi sign coalition agreement
(photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
On April 28, in Redmond, Oregon, a gentleman named Jack Ely died at age 71. He lived on a nearby farm, where he raised and trained horses. And there the obituary would have remained were it not for the confluence 52 years ago of uncomfortable orthodontia, a lousy microphone and a tune about a lovesick Jamaican sailor unloading his anguish on a bartender, or perhaps a barber, named Louie.
The tune in question, “Louie Louie,” was penned on a few sheets of toilet paper in 1955 by Los Angeles rhythm and blues musician Richard Berry. In 1957, he and a doo-wop group called the Pharaohs recorded it as the B-side for their cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” Although the A-side was an American classic, the record sold perhaps 40,000 copies, not enough to gain any kind of national attention.
In the end, short of cash and having to pay for a wedding, Berry sold the rights to “Louie Louie” and several other songs he had written for $750. In 1963, members of The Kingsmen, a teen combo out of Portland, Oregon, noticed that a newer version was getting a lot of play on local jukeboxes.
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The lyrics, structured in a Caribbean patois, were nothing special:
Louie Louie, me gotta go / Louie Louie, me gotta go. Fine little girl she waits for me / Me catch the ship for cross the sea / Me sail the ship all alone / Me never think me make it home.
Louie Louie, me gotta go / Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Three nights and days me sail the sea / Me think of girl constantly / On the ship I dream she there / I smell the rose in her hair.
Louie Louie, me gotta go / Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Me see Jamaica moon above / It won’t be long, me see my love / I take her in my arms and then / Me tell her I never leave again.
Louie Louie, me gotta go / Louie Louie, me gotta go.
But the song’s melody and beat just oozed the hot musical DNA of the era – the guys noticed that every time the record came on, the dance floor was mobbed. So they and their manager booked an hour of recording time.
The Portland studio was hardly stateof- the-art; it had just three microphones to pick up all the instruments and vocals in one go. Beyond that, The Kingsmen were not much better than your garden- variety garage band, and what little could be done in one take came across like the recording of… well, a garage band, which is to say not particularly professional but sufficiently rough, rowdy and rockin’.
And then there were the vocals.
The microphone for the lead singer, 19-year-old Jack Ely, was suspended from the ceiling, meaning he had to rear back and project his voice upward in something of a raspy shout to be heard above the instruments. Rounding out the deal were the uncomfortable braces on his teeth, which in places rerouted his tongue in such a way as to render the words to little more than a drunken slur, if not totally unintelligible.
The final product was two minutes and 42 seconds of primordial rock ’n’ roll, with some lyrics so slushy that rebellious teens and anxious parents heard whatever their desires – or fears – told them to hear. Things got so out of hand that outraged moms across the nation embarked on clamorous anti-smut campaigns that even garnered the attention of the FBI, which opened an investigation in a search for subversive messages.
At the beginning of the rambunctious, rebellious 1960s, there couldn’t have been a better way to get a teen to rush out and plunk down a week’s allowance on a disc of black vinyl – and slowly but surely, The Kingsmen’s cover of “Louie Louie” moved up the charts and into a solid, starring position for just about every social anthropologist recounting the era.
THERE’S A WORD for lyrics that sound different to different people. They’re called “mondegreens,” a term derived in the mid-1950s, harking back to a verse in an old English ballad that went: They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green, the last part of which, over time, came to be heard by many as And Lady Mondegreen. (Say it out loud and see for yourselves.)
Perhaps the most famous mondegreen in rock music has been ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy (rather than ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky) in “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. I had a couple of my own: I guess it rains down in Africa (and not I bless the rains down in Africa) in Toto’s “Africa”; and Right now, all hate ice cream (instead of Rip down all hate, I scream) from The Byrds’ cover version of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (I’ll come clean here: Until I was well into adulthood, just about every one of the Minnesota troubadour’s songs I knew was thanks to a cover version by The Byrds. I simply couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice).
So mondegreens, as you can see, are pretty harmless. They’re the lyrical equivalent of the Kissingerian penchant for “constructive ambiguity,” where mediators come up with wording for agreements that can mean various things to the various sides, the only difference being that mondegreens generally are unintended.
A particularly wonderful example of constructive ambiguity is UN Security Council Resolution 242, which might have Israel and the Arabs arguing till the end of time about whether the absence of a definite article means that all the territory won in 1967 will have to be relinquished, or just some. It has kept much of the dispute and the resulting diplomatic endeavors rolling along for 48 years, in the process enriching airlines, hotels and the manufacturers of ink, paper and large tables.
It’s the same with politics, which is a lot like what J. Edgar Hoover thought he might be looking at in “Louie Louie”: How can I come across as a warm, even loving political partner while really just looking to screw everyone? The beauty lies in the wording of deals between otherwise disparate sides, much like the agreements we heard leaked or reported right up until Wednesday’s deadline for Benjamin Netanyahu to form a governing coalition.
The lack of a definite article here or a tad of ambiguity there can leave potential loopholes for a coalition partner that becomes aggrieved sometime down the road to flex its muscles by threatening to withhold further votes on crucial legislation or bring its supporters en masse into the streets. It’s a lawyer’s primeval tug of war in which the objective is a watertight contract that protects a client while being just loose enough to threaten to sink the other side, all while getting the opposing lawyer to urge his or her client to sign.
Why, after all, do politicians drag along their attorneys to all the late-night haggling?
ONCE THE agreements are made public, which more or less is supposed to happen once there’s a coalition, a lot remains unsaid, signed with winks and nods and other unmistakable forms of body language that can later be used to justify internecine conflicts with rival partners.
Think of all the acrimony that evolved between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who started their tenure in the last coalition embracing like brothers, but eventually began bickering over issues they thought had been covered in their respective agreements with Netanyahu.
For that, we might wish to thank the lately departed Mr. Ely, a teenager’s braces and an Oregon recording studio’s cheap, dangling mic.