Allora

I’ve been hearing a lot of Italian and Sicilian over the past few days. They are lovely languages to listen to, even if I don’t understand much: rhythmic, fast-paced, and almost lyrical. It’s like listening to a song where you don’t know what is being sung, but you really like the melody. If you like Louie, Louie by the Kingmen, for example, who cares if the words are so slurred and garbled you don’t understand any of them?

One word you hear frequently in Italy and Sicily is “allora.” It often appears at the beginning of sentences, such as when a guy sitting at a table next to us the other day began his apparent order by saying “allora” and then launching into the selections for his table. It seems to be sprinkled liberally into many Italian statements. What does it mean? The Capo dei Capi and the Swiss Shutterbug translate it as meaning “so” or “then,” and it also can mean “well.” It’s a kind of Italian gap filler that gets the tongue going while the brain is still considering exactly what to say.

Imagine how much more pleasant listening to the English language would be if we all were in the habit of saying “allora” instead of “uh” when we were a bit stuck on what to say next!

Louie, Louie

The man who sang one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs in history has died.  Jack Ely, the lead singer for The Kingsmen who delivered the definitive vocal rendition of Louie, Louie, died recently at age 71.  His song is an acknowledged classic that is instantly familiar to every rock music fan and was memorably sung by the frat boys in Animal House.

What makes a song great?  The Kingsmen’s version of Louie, Louie is only 2 minutes, 46 seconds long.  It features a cheesy organ intro, a simple beat, crashing drums, and an off-kilter guitar solo, but what makes it unforgettable are vocals that sound like they were recorded at 3 a.m. in a bus station bathroom by a drunken guy who is singing in a rare Martian dialect.  The unique sound occurred because Ely, who was wearing braces at the time, was placed in the middle of the band by the recording engineer to achieve a “live feel” in the recording and had to scream out the lyrics into a microphone located several feet overhead.

The deliciously slurred, garbled result was an immediate hit, in part because you could dance to it and in part because teenage boys across America had heard that the “real” lyrics were “dirty” and bought the record in droves trying to decipher them.  In fact, Louie, Louie, which was written by Richard Berry, is a simple, sweet song about a man thinking about the girl he is going to see when he returns to Jamaica — but good luck figuring that out from Ely’s howling, boozy-sounding vocals.

The rumors of a dirty meaning to the song were so persistent and widespread that the FBI and other law enforcement entities actually looked into the issue to determine whether Louie, Louie violated then-existing obscenity laws. They ultimately concluded that The Kingsmen’s version was “unintelligible at any speed.”  And that’s what made it great.