BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
NAIVENESS = “an artless anglicization created by simple, unaffected people deficient in worldly wisdom and informed judgment.” –Bryan A. Garner Garner’s Modern English Usage. New York, Oxford 2016.
The title here is a throwback. A sudden reminder of the past–for some. Someone or something that seems to belong to an earlier period of time or that makes you think of an earlier period. Now I have done it: I have made it come alive! Memoriesofatime. More specifically, it usually means something that is nostalgic, with memories, something back in the day, something old school, say Animal House? 1978? “A lot of his work is a throwback…” “Nostalgia does not have eternal life. I use nostalgia when I’m in a bad situation, when I’m feeling stressed, or when the world is an ugly place to read about or to watch on television. I use nostalgia to escape. But my own kids are not nostalgic in the same way. They’re nostalgic if something is trending. And then they’ll go back and look it up and learn about something that happened a long time ago.” –Steven Spielberg. “A New Reality Reveals Something Classic” by Stephanie Zacharek. TIME, 9 Apr. 2018. 48.
How naive was I? Was I a naive naif? [naive adj. naif noun.]
Once upon a time, years before I became a high school classroom teacher, I was doing a course research paper on metaphysical poets and the Bible’s Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon. There I sat, often for hours in the library, without Google or the Internet “back in the day,” my self surrounded by stacks and piles of books, reading, copying, digesting, writing, taking notes, formulating, explaining, preparing a paper.
Student doing research
I learned that Song of Songs has a long history of interpretation. The Song of Songs can be a challenging read, like the true poems of the metaphysical poets whose words are read on different levels of understanding: meta-physical. How does one explain “Batter my heart, three-personed God . . . / . . . ravish me”? (John Donne) Imagine being ravished by God? Researchers know how “one thing leads to another,” one topic moves, suggests, or links to another. Soon, a researcher might be “off topic,” but is enjoying the readings that have now melded into a new area, causing research-distress: “Should I pursue this? This is really interesting.” Soon time becomes an enemy as it presses-presses-presses to get something done before deadlines are missed.
“Cavalier” poets and metaphysical poetry and erotic Bible verses and commentators, who, “seeking the literal sense of the book of Solomon, have explained it as a celebration of conjugal love in marriage,” then little by little began to touch on the topic of censorship. I was writing about a love song in the Old Testament, simple enough, so I thought.
Occasionally, though, an article would refer to the erotic nature of the work–and how it was censored, forbidden, removed from a certain edition, or “emended.” On the other hand, Jewish and Christian scholars often took an allegorical view of this book of the Old Testament as a mosaic of love poems that has a loosely defined plot. (The “literal” subject is about love and sexual longing between a man and a woman–and it has little [or nothing] to say about the relationship of God and man.)
Nevertheless, I was slowly being drawn into the censorship issue, about which I knew so little, was so “naive.” I wanted more time; I needed more time for this “sidebar.” NO! I completed my poetry paper (B+/A-), and thought no more of
“And as you prepare your lesson plans and syllabus, please do remember not to say anything about or even mention the book The Catcher in the Rye,” my department chairman cautioned me during our first meeting: new teacher (naive naif), teacher-boss. So I did not, and Holden Caulfield stayed under wraps–until I had to read the book for a graduate course later that fall in contemporary American literature.
For the three years I taught at the all boys-to-men Catholic high school, I followed and selected from the prescribed readings lists, including Life on the Mississippi, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Red Badge of Courage, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I/we did all right with the reading lists while I taught grades 9, 11, and 12. No troubles. The troubles came from elsewhere: the radio, school dances, record stores, The Top Ten.
“What was that dirty song we’ve been hearing about?” parents asked. “Did you play that song at the school dance?” “Louie Louie, me gotta go. . . .” “Who are the Kingsmen?” So there was going to be a Parents’ Night in the school cafeteria to discuss the song and the music, assuring them that the lyrics were dirty and should be banned (CENSORED) and re-assuring those parents that the music would never be heard in the school. “Louie Louie, me gotta go / Me see Jamaica moon above / It won’t be long, me see my love. . . .”
Whatever made this song the victim of censorship was a cultural phenomenon. It is a mystery. The song has remained a cult favorite since it was top-o-the charts from the ending months of 1963 through 1964, then continuing with its revivalism in the rebelliousness of Animal House, with John Belushi and Company, in 1978.
“Louie Louie, me gotta go / Three nights and days me sail the sea / Me think of girl constantly. . . .” “Slow down the record! Hear the dirty lyrics, the dirty words!” “Iiiii taaaaakke herrr innn myyyy aaaarrrrrrmmmms aaannnnnnddd thhhhheeeeeennnn / Meeeeee teeeellllll heeerrrr I’llllllll nnneeeeeevvvvvveveeeevvvrvrrvvrr llleeeeeaaaaaavvvvveeee aaaaaaggggggaaaaiiiiinnnnn / Looooooeeeeeeee Looooooeeeeeeyyyyyy, meeeeeeee goooooottttttaaaaaaa ggggooooooo.”
The nearly unintelligible (and innocuous) lyrics were widely misinterpreted as obscene, and the song was banned by radio stations (and in Catholic schools). The FBI concluded, after thorough investigations, dragging on through 1965, with each laboratory examination of the record deemed inconclusive. “Oh, oh, me gotta go.” So the record couldn’t be declared obscene. Nearly four hundred versions of the song have been recorded since then, many easily found in sing-along versions on You Tube!
Its original author, Richard Berry, who wrote his song’s lyrics in a fake Jamaican vernacular, attempting to benefit from the American calypso craze of the mid-fifties, could hardly have predicted the longevity of “Louie Louie” as a rock-and-roll anthem. “In 1955 I was performing in California with a Latin band. While in the dressing room, I heard instrumentals. I took a piece of toilet paper and wrote the lyrics on the toilet paper. . . . The singer is a sailor, and he’s talking to Louie. . . . I never could understand the popularity of it. [And the comma?] Louie Louie. No comma.”Richard Berry [1935-1997] died in his sleep; he was 61. He had sold the rights to “Louie” and other works for $750. In the mid-1980s, Berry was living on welfare in South Central L.A. A drinks company wanted to use “Louie” in a commercial, and needed the rights. Through some legal help, Richard Berry was able to obtain royalties worth about two million dollars.
I still have some of my old censorship notes, and notes from later incidents of censorship that I became involved in: library banned books, classroom books, elementary school sex education programs, videos and films, and even the topic of censoring works of art while I was teaching humanities and art history. And what about 1984? Brave New World? A Handmaid’s Tale? Also, even, Song of Songs? But it was the ‘60s culture, my being right in it all, that “Louie Louie” survives as part of my memoriesofatime of censorship.
I sat through the Parents’ Meetings, keeping my mouth shut, keeping quiet. This storm will pass, I thought. It did. And the last week of school, in 1966, at the Senior Class Party, “my” seniors played me a post-teenage-alienation song, against a very restrictive society in thought and behavior and dress. They knew I would like it: built on variants of the “Louie Louie” riff: “Get Off of My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones. Oh, oh, me gotta go. . . .
© JAMES F. O’NEIL 2018
—Bob Greene. “The Man Who Wrote ‘Louie Louie.’” Esquire (September 1988).
—“Writer Couldn’t Grasp Popularity of ‘Louie Louie.’” Chicago Tribune (19 Feb. 1997).
—“Richard Berry, 61, Wrote ‘Louie, Louie.’” Associated Press Service. L.A. Times. 23 Jan. 1997.