I have Natalie Merchant to thank. If you don't remember Nat, she was the distinctive voice behind 10,000 Maniacs and a solo artist in her own right. The other day I picked her out of essentially thin air to be the artist whose music began our morning. This included a cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity. As she was easing into the second verse when I heard these words: "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear."
I'm about to turn fifty-seven. I have listened to that song, mostly the original Bowie version, for fifty of them. I never knew what those words were. They were the part of the song through which I mumbled tunefully until I got to the next line about "time to leave the capsule if you dare." In this age of Al Gore's Internet and Google Home Assistant, there really is no reason for me to go without any knowledge. Ever. And yet, there I was, missing that line from a rock and roll classic for a full fifty years, even after the death of its composer. Until an American songstress did me the favor of enunciating that one bit just a little differently than I had always heard it before. The scales fell from my eyes and suddenly I could draw a direct line between that song and The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." That man on the TV who tells you how white your shirts could be but he can't be a man 'cause he does not smoke the same cigarettes as me. That came four years before, but it wasn't until DEVO covered it that I felt compelled to learn all the words. That was in 1978, when I was a teenager and not a toddler, ready to soak up pop culture that wasn't Snoopy.
Once upon a time I gave a revelation similar to this to a professor of mine, who had never fully grappled with the lyrics to Mairzy Doats. He was seventy-two before he realized that those nonsense words were really about farm animals and their diets. I have had more of these moments of clarity thanks to earbuds and repeated listening to a limited number of songs, but it never ceases to amaze me when I discover that Green Day was not singing "tongue grabs you by the wrist" but rather "time grabs you by the wrist." Much better metaphor, and even works thematically with the song.
So if any of this comes as a revelation to you, you're welcome. And if it helps at all, I'm still not a hundred percent sure about Bismillah, but since most of Bohemian Rhapsody is a linguistic flurry, it will have to wait until I have more time.