Lately I’ve been thinking about misunderstandings. Like, when you’re talking to a friend in your kitchen and she’s looking for something and you say “on the shelf,” and she hears “honest help.” Now she’s confused and you’re confused because she’s confused. Stuff like that. It’s especially common in song lyrics. I love Creedence Clearwater Revival and their song Bad Moon Rising is a true gem. But how many people spent years– years!– hearing “there’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “there’s a bad moon on the rise”?
Apparently misunderstandings of this nature, and the confusion they engender, have been the occasional focus of FBI investigations. I’ll readily admit I never really understood the song Louie Louie, made famous by the Kingsmen, but nor did it really stick with me. It just seemed like this ramshackle rock and roll song from the 60s that got people dancing and there’s a lot of howling and stuff but… the FBI?
So the story is, apparently kids were freaking out about this song and hearing all kinds of possible meanings in the lyrics. Eric Predoehl, a filmmaker working on a documentary about this whole Louie Louie kerfuffle, told NPR recently that “Kids would hear these versions of the song, and they would pass around these written notes of what they thought were the lyrics. And parents were concerned, and they figured ‘my gosh, this sounds like a dirty song, I don’t understand it — maybe we should have an investigation of this sort of thing.'”
And investigate they did! Like, a big, heady, robust investigation that reached some really high level people. Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover received letters about it, and Hoover responded to at least one parent with pamphlets entitled “Combating Merchants of Filth” and “Poison for our Youth”. The Indiana governor, Matthew E. Welsh, took personal umbrage and got all up in this b, lodging his own formal complaint.
The final and compete FBI dossier on the matter, which you can read in its entirety here, runs to 119 pages. A lot of stuff is redacted, of course, but there are many hidden gems for your perusal. The report kicks off with a little run-down of how kids were passing around obscene lyrics at Sarasota Junior High and parents were all up in a fit about it and so the FBI got on the case “to determine if the enclosed record, ‘Louie Louie’, can be considered obscene for purposes of prosecution under ITOM Statute.” I don’t know what ITOM Statute is but it sounds pretty serous.
The document itself is incredible– a feast of legal scrutiny with so many personal notes and scribbled marginalia. It makes me pine for my law school ship, long since sailed. If I went to law school it would, for real, have been for the sole purpose of working on cases like Louie Louie. I just love this stuff. America– you are so wacky! You love to talk about freedom and bravery and courage and rights and then you freak the holy F *OUT* about stuff like Louie Louie. You are bananas!
A crucial piece to hearing the supposed obscene lyrics was listening to the song at 33 RPM instead of the 45 on which it was released. The opening shot off the bow, addressed to Robert F. Kennedy, then Attorney General, is dated both February 4 and February 7, 1964 and poses the timeless question of a redacted parent: “Who do you turn to when your teenage daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every city, village, and record shop in this nation?” This parent sat down with the song and tried to work out what he or she described– not inaccurately– as a jumble of words. From this jumble the parent gleaned lyrics “so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”
This parent is ALL BUSINESS. I quote para 4: “I would like to see these people, the ‘artists’, the record company, and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Wowza.
The parent closes with what might be the one salient point he or she makes about the future of our nation, though I would argue that future had and has exactly nothing to do with the fine work of the Kingsmen or their rendering of Louie Louie… “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation… How can we stamp out this menace???”
Ah, sweet parent, are you still with us today? Do you see who our president is and what he does every single day? The things he says? The absolutely obscene things he says? Yeah… How CAN we stamp out this menace???
If you continue reading the FBI dossier as I did because, you know, it’s Sunday evening and I have a bunch of stuff to do but also sort of nothing to do and, well, anyway, there is an addendum to the letter and it does include the perceived lyrics. They are hilariously, precariously, obscene. There is something about feeling “my bone in her hair” which just sounds like horrible sex, all things considered. Here’s the full paragraph of “obscenity”, as quoted to and by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. It’s bizarre as hell:
“Tonight at ten I’ll lay her again.
We’ll fuck your girl, and by the way
And on that chair I’ll lay her there
I felt my bone.. ah.. in her hair.”
Holy moly. Is it obscene or is it just some really odd, awkward teenage idea of sex? Like, I’m a dude and you’re a girl and at some point I’m going to try to get this member of mine all up in your hair. I can’t even imagine. Lord, if a dude I was with was ever just like hey baby, let me just… like, have sex with your hair? It’s hard to say exactly what I would do. Gosh, now I’m really thinking about it. I just don’t see any allure in this AT ALL. I will admit that “hair” does rhyme neatly with “chair” however, so… yeah, there’s that.
Anyway, the FBI responded to this parent’s letter with the quickness. A full team was dispatched and for some reason the investigation migrated from Florida up to Indiana, over to Michigan, pit-stop in California, all perhaps owing to additional parental complaints being made in these states too? Unclear. A woman from the Flint Junior Women’s Club wrote a seriously exercised letter to Hoover in which she states, “someone has masterminded an ‘auditory illusion'” which is more than most artists can ever hope to achieve.
In 1964, FBI officials across the country started to seriously sit down and just listen– really listen— to Louie Louie. They were trying to decipher these lyrics and listened at all kinds of speeds. But they just couldn’t figure it out for sure. So the follow-up dossier reads, in part, “The Department advised that they were unable to determine any of the wording in the record and, therefore, could not make any decision concerning the matter.”
Long story short, this thing ricocheted around the nation and the desks of various investigators, who listened to the song at speeds ranging from 16 RPM to the ludicrously fast 75 RPM. All for naught. But they spread it far and wide for good measure. “An extra copy of this report is being furnished to the Bureau for dissemination to the Department of Justice, as instructed by the Bureau” the report concludes.
The whole thing came to a close nearly two years later when Assistant US Attorney Lester Irvin advised he would “decline prosecution in this case since the FBI Laboratory is unable to determine this record is obscene.”