Tuesday, October 15, 2013

TMFW 2 - The Pompatus of Love is a Pilfered Mondegreen

The Steve Miller Band had a number 1 song (for one week) in 1974 with The Joker, a terrific song about a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner all rolled into one.  (Not as terrific - the album cover above, for the record of the same name.)
One of the most famous lines in the song deals with The Joker's various nicknames - the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Love, and Maurice (an odd nickname for sure).  The nickname Maurice  is allegedly earned due to the singer's tendency to "speak of the pompatus of love."  Putting aside why you would call a guy Maurice for that reason - and why the existing alternative nickname The Gangster of Love would not work - the lyric raises the question of just what the heck the "pompatus of love" is.  (The "pompatus of love" lyric was not limited only to The Joker, it also features in another of Steve Miller Band's oeuvre, Enter Maurice, and it is spoken by Wolfman Jack in The Guess Who's "Clap for the Wolfman")
"Pompatus" is not a real word, and its meaning is a common enough question that it formed the MacGuffin at the center of a 1996 movie named, appropriately enough, The Pompatus of Love (trailer).  But it turns out that "pompatus" detectives were on a false trail: Steve Miller didn't write the lyric; he lifted it from a 1950s Doo Wop song by the Medallions called "The Letter" (lyric at 1:43).  In that song, the speaker is writing a letter to a love interest, and - in what seems like an attempt to sound like a romantic, poetic fellow - he asks her to "let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality, and discuss the puppetutes of love." (see "Enter Maurice," above, where the line is repeated almost verbatim, but with the equally-nonsensical mondegreen of "epismotology" rather than "pizmotality.")           
It is said that Jon "Duckie" Cryer - a producer and star of The Pompatus of Love movie - discovered "The Letter" only while the film was in postproduction.  He mentioned the song in a TV interview, and Vernon Green (the songwriter and singer for the Medallions) was watching and surprised to hear mention of his 40-year-old song.  Cryer allegedly played The Joker for Green - who incredibly had never heard it (!?!) - and Green "laughed his ass off."  Green confirmed that pizmotality and the puppetutes of love were his creations in the original song.  
BONUS FACT 1: the borrowing of the famous line about the pompatus/puppetutes of love is not the only line borrowed from a 1950s Doo Wop song.  The opening lines of The Clovers' "Lovey Dovey"provide some (perhaps even more blatant) "inspiration" too.  
BONUS FACT 2: be sure to check out Fatboy Slim and Bootsie Collins' cover of The Joker, which does not disappoint.
BONUS FACT 3:  surely "pompatus" would be a first ballot entry for "famous made up words in pop songs," along with the great Phil Collins' classic - I feel so good if I just say the word - "Sussudio."

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