In advance of America's Dec. 21 show at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, singer-songwriter Gerry Beckley discussed a hodgepodge of topics, including the band's sometimes puzzling lyrics, its notorious cover version of Muskrat Love, upcoming record projects and whether Sister Golden Hair and Daisy Jane are the same person.
Like many rock groups, America has its share of misheard lyrics, or mondegreens. "Chewin' on a piece of grass" from Ventura Highway has been misinterpreted by some listeners as "Chewin' on a pizza crust." And "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name" has been variously misconstrued as "a horse named Jose" and "a horse with no legs." Beckley's favorite mondegreen: Mishearing "Ventura Highway" as "Bench on a highway."
The Seinfeld Connection
America spends about 200 days a year on the road, occasionally sharing the bill with such bedfellows as magicians Penn & Teller (which required signing agreements not to reveal any of their tricks) and comic Jerry Seinfeld. Beckley recalls being backstage with Seinfeld after the comedian's TV pilot, then titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, was picked up. When Seinfeld said he was thinking about shortening the series' name, Beckley replied, "Works for me."
Contrary to widespread belief, America isn't entirely responsible for unleashing Muskrat Love on an unsuspecting public, although their version did inspire the much-maligned Captain & Tennille cover. The original incarnation of the song, titled Muskrat Candlelight, was recorded by Willis Alan Ramsey. "It's a polarizing little number," Beckley concedes. "After concerts, some people tell us they can't believe we didn't play it, while others go out of their way to thank us for not performing it."
'Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things'
America's signature hit, 1972's A Horse With No Name, has become something of a cultural touchstone, popping up in movies, TV shows and the video game Grand Theft Auto. Beckley's favorite cameo is an episode of Breaking Bad in which the main character sings the tune at the beginning and end of the show.
Over the years, the song's lyrics have both confounded and amused ("the heat was hot") listeners. Singer Randy Newman called it "a song about a kid who thinks he's taken acid."
And musician Andrew Gold, referring to the line "There were plants and birds and rocks and things," told Beckley and songwriter Dewey Bunnell he didn't mind the plants, birds and rocks, but was annoyed by the "things."
Sister Golden Jane?
When asked if Sister Golden Hair and Daisy Jane were the same person, Beckley said, "I've been asked a lot of questions in interviews, but never that. The answer is no." He said both songs were about "composite characters -- or, if not, I'm not owning up to it."
As a side note, Beckley said his favorite pop culture use of Sister Golden Hair was in an episode of The Sopranos, when a character was shot in a car while the song played on the radio.
'Alligator Lizards in the Air'
The reptile line from Ventura Highway was inspired by cloud formations near Vandenburg Air Force Base, where Bunnell lived as a child. And what does the song's pre-Prince reference to "purple rain" mean? "You got me," Beckley says.
Beckley, Bunnell and Dan Peek were all Air Force brats who met as teens while their dads were stationed in London. Did growing up in military families influence their music? "Yes," Beckley says, noting that the frequent moves and travel gave each band member "a far wider scope" of inspiration when writing songs.
In January, the group tours Canada, followed by New Zealand in February. Also on the drawing board for 2013: a possible rarities record, and a volume 2 of last year's Back Pages, in which Beckley and Bunnell covered favorite songs by other artists.
Beckley says he wouldn't undo anything from his past because life is a "long, involved puzzle in which every [event and decision] got us to where we are now." It's like the game Jenga, he says: If you pull out one piece, it may all come tumbling down.
- Beckley's favorite non-Top 40 America song: It's Life, written by Peek, who left the group in 1977 to become a Christian recording artist and died last year at age 60.
- America is based in Southern California these days. Beckley lives in Sherman Oaks and Bunnell in Palos Verdes.
- Currently on Beckley's nightstand: Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin.
- Bunnell's parental instincts kicked in when the makers of Grand Theft Auto first asked to use A Horse With No Name in their game. He was concerned about the game's violence, Beckley recalls. But Beckley's son told him, "You've gotta do it." As a result, a whole new generation has been introduced to the group's music, Beckley says.
- When Magician Penn Jillette asked the band about the odd lyrics in A Horse With No Name, Bunnell reportedly admitted being high on marijuana while writing the song. Beckley disputes the story: "I don't think Dew was stoned that day."
America, with Dan Navarro opening, plays the Coach House at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21. Tickets are $75. Although billed as a "holiday show," the set list will mainly feature the group's classic hits, Beckley says, although "there might be a song or two of holiday cheer."