The Music of Effort

I start paying attention after 17 minutes or so — the meter on the elliptical estimates that I am burning 24.3 calories every minute. I am about halfway through the current “run,” and I will burn through 720 calories in 30 minutes and well over 800 when I include the five minutes of cool-down time that the machine grants me at the end of the workout. I get pissed because the timer starts as soon as I start moving my feet, and the first 15 seconds are “slow.” I make up for it. After a five minute break, I jump on another machine that allows me to take longer strides, and run for 12 minutes, aiming for 7-minute miles. It’s a workout.

This is not about working out.

I listen to music while I work out. My playlist is a series of hard and fast (mostly) rock and roll songs. If you were in the gym with me, you would see me silently singing along. “Need a little time to wake up. Need a little time to wake up, wake up. Need a little time to rest your mind. You know you should, so I guess you might as well…” Or  “Save the strong, lose the weak—never turning the other cheek. Trust nobody, don’t be no fool. Whatever happened to the golden rule?” Or, “Touch me, take me to that other place. Reach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case. What you don’t have, you don’t need it now. What you don’t know, you can feel it somehow. What you have you don’t need it now, don’t need it now.” Or “We’re going boom, boom, boom, and that’s the way we live.” There are others.

This is not about the music I listen to while I work out.

When I was a swimmer—in high school, college, and after—there was no music in the pool—at least no music that wasn’t already in my head. I had a much shorter playlist then—just a four or five songs any given day that I played over and over again in my head while I churned through mile after mile. I had a little hortator pounding away, beat after beat, distracting me from the pain in my shoulders and knees, guiding me through the agony of hard work. When I took swimming back up, there was a waterproof mp3 player that took over that task, but by then, I felt swum out — besides, it’s hard to sing with your face in the water. Drowning.

Seriously, this is not about music and workouts.

Several years ago, I tipped my hat to loud music in a sermon that praised the virtues of Rock and Roll as a way to access the spiritual. I noted how Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” worked up to and encouraged a communal moment of dance/rave. I pointed to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” as a memoir about the discovery of the Ramones by someone “young, not dumb, and wishing to be blinded.”  It might as well be my memoir. Or yours. Rock and Roll has the power to blind us, the way a flash of lightning blinds us. There are times when we need to be blinded, when we need to erase all the sordid images of the day from our mind’s eye so that we can start fresh, and see with new eyes, hear with new ears, and feel with newly opened arms. Or something like that.

When I work out, I play music that beats back the exhaustion of the day, and that transports me into the steady hard effort that burns an extra few calories and raises my heartbeat to 170 beats a minute. I don’t want much—just a kind of blindness. And yet, I’m not blind to any of it. I feel all the effort—I love it—every ache, every heartbeat, every drop of sweat. The music helps me break through the “tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I sweat “with a decent happiness.”

I play music while I write. Listening to the same piece helps me reenter the dream with the same mood. Unlike Annie Dillard, who demands a Spartan silence while she works, I need the wall of sound. Maybe this is because I spent years with a sound in my head while I sped through the pool in repeated max-effort swims. I have an affinity for noise and the distraction of the world. After all, I am, always, writing about the world—how could it be a distraction? Yes, there are moments when the actual world fades, when the world made of words engulfs me, and when I get blinded, properly and completely blinded by the work.

I wish that experience for any and every writer. Whatever it takes to get you properly and completely consumed by the world that you strive to create, do it. If silence gets you there, find a quiet place. If noise and distraction get you into the state of mind that produces all the words, then find that noisy place and work it.

As I revised my novel, I discovered that my book needed a scene or two—how did I leave THAT out? (I know why. I wasn’t ready to write it, not yet.) And so, knowing that the magic of Gorecki’s Symphony Number 3 was not going to generate the energy that these scenes needed, I dug into the catalog and pulled out Led Zepplin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” because weeping and moaning were ahead. And, yes, that song is on the workout playlist. When it plays, I feel the story coming from the muscles in my arms and legs—not just my head. I breathe deep, my heart races, and the words flow like sweat. Fortunately, I like to sweat.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s goin’ to break. Let it break, I’m ready for the onslaught—bright and loud.


Stage Fright

Just over a year ago, I went to the LA Bar in Arlington and did karaoke. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had just come from a fairly routine party, where we had counted down the end of the old year and beginning of the new. It wasn’t enough. And so, away I went with my date, and we signed up to sing the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

I had never done karaoke.

I began to sing in elementary school. First in chorus, where we performed a melange of patriotic and Disney songs, along with the occasional show tune (think “Impossible Dream”). Later, I tried out for the musical Hans Christian Andersen. There were more performances in school, but music, such as it was, was not a priority in my family.

When I took up the trombone—I wanted drums, but the music teacher redirected me with “You have a trombone player’s lips”—there was no insistence on practice. Who could blame anyone for discouraging the initial rumblings of beginner trombone player from the evening routine? My father had a trumpet, which I switched to after a year of trombone. This too proved too much. A few years later my father gave away this instrument from his youth.

I liked music class though, which was almost entirely singing. I explored a bass voice as a counterpoise to my natural nascent tenor. It was fun to dig up those low tones. I also enjoyed singing along to songs on the radio and then to records. This persisted throughout my life, and I recall an incident in my 40’s when I regaled my passengers with “Get Me to the Church on Time,” following Stanley Holloway note for note and comic inflection for comic inflection.

I had long since stopped singing in public as part of a choir or chorus. I was strictly a car singer.

I was, and this surprises most, shy. After college, several years in the restaurant business took the edge off most of my shyness. I learned the value of being professionally—and personally—outgoing. But when I was doing something that mattered to me—interviewing for a position I really wanted, reading my work in front of a panel of judges, singing—the old reserve kicked in. In time, that abated. Mostly. Years in the classroom and standing in front of a congregation taught me how to perform. I may have had some nervous moments—leading “Jingle Bells” without accompaniment stands out—but I found my way. Once, I even promised my recalcitrant students that if they behaved for an entire class that I would deliver a solo rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” They did, and I did.

But singing, really singing, belting it out or digging it up? I still experienced stage fright.

So, fueled by champagne and scotch, I took to the stage at the LA Bar, and my date and I traded verses in and out of the Talking Heads. Whether it was the booze, the company, or my familiarity with the song, which I had sung since I was 20, we killed it.

A year later, I joined my students at the mic for John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” I had suggested the song to them months before, and they graciosuly allowed me to sing along. Not karaoke, but a couple of guitars and three voices weaving together the wistful “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” I had 40 years on my students but I remind myself that Prine was only 25 when he wrote the song. How did it turn out? Who knows? I think I stayed on key, and that maybe I added a proper sense of grey to the tenor.

I’m not sure where the shyness came from. Okay, that’s a lie. I know it it was one part nature and one part nurture and which of those parts was larger no longer matters. Derring-do, the genuine impulse to break the limits and cut loose occurs in my life in streaks—often at the edges. When I have been engaged in my most meaningful work (and yes, singing counts), an odd conservative bent takes over. The “Brian YaYa” that my friends called out seems to be replaced by a “Brian Yawn-Yawn.” Okay, it’s not that bad, but when you feel a wilder impulse in your guts, anything else—almost anything else, is a snooze.

Not any more. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as Warren Zevon said. Until then, I have things to do. I remind myself even now, with 60 around the corner. I have things to do. Best to do them wildly, bravely, and with the full potential of failure waiting. And more, always more. I live with the stage fright.

See the man with the stage fright

Just standing up there to give it all his might

And he got caught in the spotlight

But when we get to the end

He wants to start all over again.

Stage Fright


It’s time to start all over again. Again.

Loud (Happiness part 3)

Play it loud.

On May 20, 2015, Letterman’s last show ended with the Foo Fighters ripping into an extended version of “Everlong” while a montage of Letterman’s thirty-three years on television played.

And I wonder

When I sing along with you

If everything could ever be this real forever

If anything could ever be this good again

The guitars churn through the song, tearing as deeply into sadness and desire as can be imagined. It struck every chord with me then. Something was gone, but something was good. And loud—and it built, simple layer on simple layer.

Later that summer, I listened to the song in my car before work, before everyone arrived, and the minister for that Sunday (we had a different minister nearly every Sunday in the year of the aftermath of Jenifer Slade’s suicide) pulled into the space next to mine. When I explained the context of the song—briefly—her response was, “My son used to listen to them. I don’t like the Foo Fighters.” Several years afterwards, her name was floated as a possible minister for our church—I cringed.

I like to play music loud—scratch that, I love it loud. My rear view mirror vibrates along to the beat. I love to sing along until my voice is raspy (vocal fry be damned). Springsteen, Foo Fighters, The Pixies, Liz Phair, Aimee Mann (who doesn’t rip it up, but…), U2, Arcade Fire, David Bowie, PJ Harvey. There are others. My Bloody Valentine rang in my ears while seas chased my boat on the ocean.

This has been true for ages. When my coworkers drank their way out of a dinner shift, I got in my car and drove. Turning up the sound until my little Volkswagen caught the turns of country roads to swelling arpeggios. No DUI, just driving while loud. When I swim, I play music loud enough and vicious enough to make the pain in my arms and legs seem like an afterthought. It’s fuel, pure and simple. Fuel with a taskmaster’s beat.

Less never really captivates me. I can appreciate quiet and simplicity, but if I’m going to be transported—physically, spiritually, even mentally—I must crank it up. These days I don’t crack the sound barrier, and the music does not make me forget the limits—not the sensible ones. Still, it opens a gap, a crack in the hard stupid shell of “I don’t like…”

I was at a show for the band The Snails a couple of years ago—proto-punk silliness (they came out with trash bags full of balloons on their backs—like snails!). Everyone kept the beat, even this old man, especially this old man.

The only thing I’ll ever ask of you

Got to promise not to stop when I say “When”

Play it loud.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Road trips

I drove five hours to visit my family this week. Part of the joy of the long drive, besides the destination, is putting on the radio and letting someone else pick the music. I love the surprises, besides if I don’t, I have SiriusXM in my car, so there are many other stations waiting to surprise me.

The Groove station was a Prince tribute station.  Yes there was a steady stream of his early hits, but “Housequake“reminded me of his bravado and funkiness.  “Shut up already!,” signals the beginning of the song. He instructs: “Put your foot down on the two;” because everyone in the house knows what “the two” is; we know the beat. “Come on y’all  we’ve got to jam, before the police come!” he exhorts, because it really is a house party, and this is the culmination of the rousing wildness of the night.  The neighbors will call the police because we are making just too much noise. It’s  part of a tradition of calling out the house, and reminds me of John Lee Hooker’s “House Rent Boogie.”It’s just a few steps from the blues to funk, and what unifies JLH and Prince is the direct address to the house and the insistence on “Let’s get together and have a ball.”

On The Underground Garage, the Byrds covered “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It’s the Byrds, so there is an underlying sweetness, even with the bitter message. And the sweetness leavens the sadness and anger. The gently jangly guitars and harmonies blunt the edge of “The carpet too is moving under you.” The song feels at odds with itself, as if the fragility of the presentation cannot contain the message. Dylan’s original, with his blunt nasal voice, is a clear rebuke. Even the harmonica that frames the song wheezes acerbically. This is not a sad song at all, but a sharp slap.

And then, since I’m doubling up, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Of course Prince loved Joni Mitchell (and covered “A Case of You“).And Joni covered It’s All Over Now. Joni’s original “Both Sides Now” is a bravura performance of early wisdom. She was 26, and putting down a marker. Yes, by then she had, as we have, felt that “now it’s just another show. You leave them laughing when you go.” Her playing and voice are so fine and confident. She’s an amazement. Thirty years later, when she revisits the song her voice has deepened, and now all the youthful confident wisdom is fully colored by experience and doubt. “I really don’t know life,” she closes, “I really don’t know life at all.” Amen, sister!

What the Greeks got right–when grief has a funky beat

Heading home after work at church today, and part of that work is talking and processing with congregants and staff these days (how could it not be?), and put on Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ kickin’ retro funk song, Retreat. And then it hit me, the ancient Greeks got it right when they embodied human emotions and states-of-being into their pantheon.

Here’s a song about a woman scorned. She is challenging her lover to retreat in the face of her fury. Right now, it is kind of the same song that grief is singing to me. Yeah, I know, not, of course not. Grief is not singing to me in the form of Sharon Jones. No, no, no.

But maybe grief is palpable, and I fight against it at my own risk. The song is boisterous and giddy in its challenge: “Raise your white flag high ’cause I’m comin’ in blazin’… And I don’t care if it makes sense to you!” Horns blaring, percussion pounding. Bell tolling. Oh yeah, have fun with this.

Have fun (or funk?) with grief? Really? Tear my shirt! Throw ashes on my head! “Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” Sharon Jones channels the furies–let it all out. Because this time (and every time?), it won’t make sense. Because today I don’t have to declare victory. There will be time for that later, after this raucous (for me, perhaps not for you my quieter more solemnly disposed friends), exceptional event.

For now, maybe turning the dial to eleven, and letting the sea crest over the walls may be exactly what is needed. If that is what it takes, there it is: “Cause it’s my way baby, and I don’t care none about the rest of you.” Go for it, grief. I’m down. I’m dancing.