Tom Waits first album

Tom Waits album cover

Want to have some fun?

Make some mistakes.

Last week I wrote a column about a politician who played fast and loose with the facts, particularly facts about who said what and who didn’t.

To summarize, Gov. Abbott sent out a tweet purportedly with a quote from Sir Winston Churchill that turned out to have nothing to do with the great cigar smoker.

I chastised our governor, and many others, for not checking their facts. Of course, as they used to say on Laugh-In, the fickle finger of fate was waiting in the wings for me.

After writing about the Postal Service doing Maya Angelou a disservice by printing a stamp with a quote that she liked, but didn’t say, I tossed out that I loved Martin Mull’s quote: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” but that I didn’t want it on a stamp bearing my photo.

Of course, I was completely wrong. Comedian Martin Mull didn’t say it. As was pointed out by several people, the quote is often attributed to one of several witty folk from the 1930s. The credit is primarily given to either Dorothy Parker, who is given authorship on 90 percent of the witty things that were said in the 1930s, or Fred Allen, a radio and movie personality. “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue,” is attributed to Parker, while Fred gets credit for “Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted.”

But was I totally wrong to attribute this quote to Mull, a slightly off-kilter comedian who seemed to add a weird vibe to any sitcom, talk show or film in which he appeared? This spoonerism of a sentence apparently has a long history. A spoonerism, by the way, is itself attributed to Rev. William Archibald Spooner, an English priest known for his verbal confusions. His verbal malapropisms were later dubbed "spoonerisms". These included "it is kisstomary to cuss the bride,” among others.

During an appearance on Fernwood Tonight in 1977, hosted by Mull and Fred Willard, Tom Waits is a guest. He sings a great version of The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) and then joins the hosts. At some point, he says, in his laconic style, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” receiving a lot of laughter from the hosts and maybe the audience, or the laugh track, whichever it was.

There’s the Mull connection. You can find the whole episode on YouTube.

Waits is a student of language, particularly American vernacular, which he used to great effect in many early songs. He often used a litany of hip slang from the 20s, 30s and 40s in his songs and concerts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Waits heard or read the “bottle in front of me” quote in his research. That doesn’t absolve me of the error but, heck, it was fun to research my mistake. I should make mistakes more often.

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