it was my own invention…

The first version of this post appears as a comment at the wonderful More Words About Music and Songs, which is a song-by-song blog on the Talking Heads catalog. Phil talks about “What a Day That Was” (which is sort of half a Talking Heads song, in that the studio version is a Byrne solo track from his score to The Catherine Wheel, but Talking Heads covered it on Stop Making Sense).

The two key points of Phil’s post (in case you didn’t follow the link) are that he first heard the song in the Stop Making Sense version, compared to which he found the studio version rather listless; and that he’d always heard the lyrics in the chorus as referring to a “date” (rather than “day,” which is what the lyric sheet in The Catherine Wheel CD shows).

What I found most interesting about Phil’s post is that it demonstrates, twice over, the influence of first impressions, even when those impressions might be “wrong” in a trivial sense (as in the lyric mis-hearing). For me, the studio recording of “What a Day That Was” has always been one of my favorites in the Byrne/Heads catalog. Conversely, the Stop Making Sense version seems almost wildly extroverted, lacking the key quality of the original, which to me is crackling with a near-electrical sense of tension, a feeling of emotions held barely in reserve. (It’s also true that in the generally quieter, calmer context of The Catherine Wheel score, that version of “What a Day That Was” sounds far livelier than it does listened to immediately after the admittedly crackling live version. I suggest you listen to the studio version first…but then, see below.)

But then, I heard the studio version first. And I always heard the lyrics as “day” – and at first, I’ll admit, the notion that they might be “date” seemed laughable, a reduction of the song’s subject (which is, typically, vague but fraught with some sort of meaning) to a mundane, even trivial, experience. But then, I thought, maybe I’m wrong: maybe it really is “date” – and I’m imagining generality (“day”) where Byrne really is singing about a “date.”

In a sense, it doesn’t matter: “day” doesn’t rule out “date,” after all: everything Phil says could still be true. And – more importantly – probably is for him. And that might explain why the more direct, extroverted live version works better for him. If the song is about (for Phil) a date with a woman who “wasn’t all she was cracked up to be,” the song is heading in the direction of something like Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” perhaps, or Lennon’s “I Found Out”: the moment when the narrator realizes he’s misjudged the other party (and, however submerged in the song’s overt narrative, realizes he’s been a fool). So the song isn’t about “tension”; it’s about a sort of flailing, a trying to figure out what went wrong or why.

The great thing is that in a sense it doesn’t matter whether the lyric really is “day” or “date”: if you think the song’s about this sort of interpersonal (and intrapersonal) discovery, whether the particular “day” was also a “date” is almost irrelevant. But if instead, you read it as a sort of judgment day (note that, minus the apocalypticism of that phrase, the “date” interpretation still works in this light), with vague portents of power and reckoning being tallied and brought to bear, that sense of tension and foreboding – far more present in the studio recording – becomes more important than the near-celebratory sense of realization, of “I found out.”

And this is why I sometimes wish there were no lyric sheets anywhere, and everyone would be compelled to figure out lyrics on their own. People make their own meaning anyway, after all – ranging from the obviously and knowingly private (“this is our song”…) to carefully constructed overreadings posited as the one true meaning (“once you realize the whole song’s really about this guy he saw at his concert that he knew killed a guy”…) – so why not encourage that? Sometimes, the results are more entertaining, at least, and more poetic and evocative, at best.

In fact, I almost wish I had time to do a new (?) kind of specialized blog: dedicated entirely to wrong or misheard lyrics that, for the mis-hearer, are way better than the actual lyrics. My favorite in this category? Suede’s “Sleeping Pills”: I heard “you’re a water sign / I’m an asshole.” The actual lyric is “air sign” rather than “asshole” – but I think what I heard is a far better lyric, in that it simultaneously deflates the banal pretension that personality can be read through astrological sign, and it reinforces the narrator’s assholity – because telling someone you’re talking to that they’re an idiot (however indirectly) is a good demonstration of being an asshole.

David Byrne “What a Day That Was” (The Catherine Wheel, original score, 1981)
Talking Heads “What a Day That Was” (Stop Making Sense, 1984)

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