English is a wild ride, a climb of clatter and cacophony as of skeletons in halters, a slide ride down flung with centrifugal force and out-of control collisions, slaps and claps. It is a welter of words taken from here and there and ricocheting against each other like so many billiard balls, harum-scarum. And references and references to references and lost and forgotten references all going around and coming around.
Take helter-skelter. Where do you know that from? How old do you think it is? Who came up with it? What does it come from?
The last two questions are easy to answer because they are impossible to answer. Helter-skelter existed in common use by Shakespeare’s time, to mean ‘pell-mell; fast and out of control’. Why helter and why skelter? Obviously it’s a reduplicating formation, like hurry-scurry and the other couple I’ve already used. The skelter may come from an old word skelte ‘hurry’, with the helter added for effect. But the word just lands in the printed record out of nowhere, as if it slid in from above and dropped with a thump on the page.
It’s useful, anyway. It got a good workout in literature: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Longfellow, Trollope… Jonathan Swift made it the title of a poem about lawyers on the country circuit. It carries so many echoes: not just halter and skeleton but welter, swelter, shelter, pelter, kelter (the word we know better as kilter, meaning ‘good health, good spirits’ and best known to us in out of kilter), skelper (from skelp ‘slap, strike’), skelder (‘beg, cadge, swindle’), perhaps Hitler and kettle and skillet and kelp and helper… If you listen with an interested mind, the chaotic clatter of this word may carry echoes of many things climbing up from your unconscious or dropping down from your surroundings.
Helter-skelter is a good term for the behaviour of children on a playground, if a little scarier than higgledy-piggledy. And so in the early 1900s, when someone invented a fun park attraction that is a tower (looking like a little lighthouse, perhaps) with stairs up in the centre and a slide spiralling down around the outside, they named it a helter-skelter. The first one was at that famous seaside place called Blackpool.
It seems to have been one of those that Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote the song “Helter Skelter.” McCartney wanted a truly wild and grungy sound, one that would soundly thrash musical expectations just as Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” thrashed exegetical expectations. He wanted to out-Townshend Pete Townshend. What is “Helter Skelter” about? It’s about the punkiest sound you can imagine, and not what one generally expects from The Beatles. It’s about four minutes and thirty-three seconds of quite the opposite of what John Cage did with his four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s skelping and out of kilter, it’s – here, listen. Listen to Paul McCartney singing it and his bandmates thrashing it out. Listen as it fades out and then comes back in at the end, with the shout (often thought to be from John Lennon, but actually it was Ringo Starr) “I got blisters on my fingers!”
What do you hear? What you hear and what you get from it will of course be conditioned by what you bring to it. What Charles Manson heard was his vision for a coming apocalyptic race war. The racket of the song echoed inside his head and mixed in with the other noises there and came out with murder. The song, for him, was apocalyptic violence.
Easy enough to hear it that way? Sure. Now hear it another way.