For many years, I sincerely believed Elton John’s song, “Bennie and the Jets,” had a line that went, “She’s got electric boobs, and more air soothes, you know I read it in a magazine…”
Even if someone not stoned had patiently explained that the words were “electric boots” and “a mohair suit,” I would have just given them a blank stare, let the hair flop over my eyes, and put my headphones back on. Thank goodness I never caught the part about killing a fatted calf.
I’m not alone in my misunderstanding. There’ve been numerous articles written on the topic of the unintentional misinterpretation of lyrics. Some Web sites, such as The Archive of Misheard Lyrics  and Am I Right , collect examples. Sir Elton’s diction on his brilliant 1973 multi-disc Goodbye Yellow Brick Road alone has given the world a cornucopia of passionately mangled phrases.
In any case, I rather prefer boobs over boots. And as a teenage virgin in sunny Southern California, I didn’t know mohair from Martians. I was convinced the song was about me and my buddy, Benny Bergman, hanging out with cool, naked chicks at the beach, on a windy day.
Sadly, it would be many years later, and on a different continent, before I was privy to that sort of experience. By then I’d lost track of Benny. (Hey man…I hope you got your driver’s license, the acne cleared up, and you eventually got some, too.)
Somehow, when other people misinterpret song lyrics, they’re laughably pathetic—but when I do it I’m just investing my personal sensibilities in something that was clearly open to interpretation. I’m an artistic collaborator engaged in an important post-avant-retro, de-constructed, parse-y, pomo, gestalt-meme-Harold-Bloom-thingy—and all those other people are jerks.
So let’s set the record straight. Where can you get reliable lyrics to popular songs? How can you compare your sincere beliefs against the originals, settle bets, win at trivial pursuit, and maybe even learn a bit about the literary quality of lyrics that usually whiz by at 90+ bpm?
Er, the Web? Bingo! But there are several ways to go about it.
Forget the CD jewel-case paper inserts. Even when they try to print lyrics it’s like reading microfiche without a magnifier. Most music publishers don’t even bother to print lyrics these days.
Obviously there are the big compilation sites that try to be encyclopedias of lyrics. Many are OK, all are incomplete, they’re all wrestling with copyright and artists’ rights issues, and if they’re free you’ll get pop-up ads and middling site quality.
But for a quick look-up of why Sinatra thought thirty-five was such a very good year, you can’t beat them. They usually distinguish themselves with better or worse look-up navigation and broader or narrower artist lists. “Who owns the domain name owns the market” doesn’t apply here, so skip lyrics.com (Just one Willie Nelson album, and a non-functioning site search dialog box!?)
Give it a go instead at: seeklyrics.com , oldielyrics.com  or azlyrics.com .
Yahoo seems to be hiding their old directory these days but you’ll get a good list of similar sites in their Entertainment Directory .
Now, you can always do the old “throw it at Google and see what comes up” trick, and this works surprisingly well if you pick a distinctive short phrase from the lyrics. But as a map is useless without knowing where you are, if you’re starting out with a full-on bad interpretation of the song you’ll wander around a bit before you hit pay dirt. Though you might find kindred spirits who have posted the same goof-ball misinterpretation you cherish.
If you crave background info in addition to lyrics, Wikipedia is still piling it on. That is, if you really want to know if “Mellow Yellow” dated from before or after Donovan was hanging out with Mia Farrow, The Beatles and the Maharishi in India, Wikipedia’s entry on Donovan  is as good a place to start as any.
But what of specialty sites devoted to single artists? The near infinite universe of Bob Dylan lyrics is mostly available at Slopbucket . The Book of Bob there offers a “Frisk Bob” search tool that’s loads of fun. (Hey! I don’t get out to those windy beaches with naked chicks much anymore, so “fun” is where I find it.)
Never neglect going to an artist’s own site or the official fan site. Self-made figures in hip-hop like Sage Francis  are generous with lyrics that warrant study and sometimes publish only outside traditional distribution channels.
I have one strong warning for you:
If you truly love Led Zeppelin (or are just pretending to love Zep so your boyfriend will stop bugging you) don’t look up their lyrics on the Web. Total buzz-kill. Some mortal voices are only meant to be heard in the presence of their guitar god overlords. “We come from the land of the ice and snow/From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.” I really wish there was an easy misinterpretation for that line! Maybe if the hot springs were blowing on a really nice pair of … nah.