Tag Archives: music

With the flow

Sometimes you find the right song and it matches whatever internal rhythm you have at that time, and you flip it on repeat and let it escort you through the work day (except during the meetings, I guess, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to try):

We've talked about this before to some extent—Minor threats. I don't really go searching for music to listen to during work. That turns out to be work itself, and the Right Song is ever out of reach, out of mind. It's only disappointment to go looking.

Better, in my opinion, to be satisfied with a random song selection or wait for the song that wants you to find you. Let the magic of serendipity serve you. You don't need control over all of the variables. Let some of them float and find their own level. Then go with the flow.

You can't be what you were

Starting point: Fugazi, "Bad Mouth", 13 Songs (1989)

Casual regret: Why didn't Fugazi appeal to me back in college? The DIY approach. The round, colorful, driving bass guitar. The message. I don't know—really seems like it would have been the time for it for me. Like ships in the night, I guess. There was a ska phase in there, and then Ween, and then indie rock. I think I would have really gotten into it. But if it took into the late 2010s for us to find each other—so be it.

"Bad Mouth" isn't my favorite Fugazi song, but it's the one getting on-repeat play at the moment. For several months it was "Waiting Room" on repeat, but I don't feel much like a patient boy anymore, no matter how much I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait, no matter how much my time is water down the drain. I'm really thinking about second acts now—not quite redemptions necessarily but course corrections. On the conveyor belt to Age Forty, the personal pasts aren't being reassessed as much as they are just starting to smell in all of the places where I hid them. (Descendents: "Shove all your problems under the rug / Then you wonder where the smell came from.") It's not bad, necessarily. Some of those pasts ferment into something new, something interesting, something better. Some of them don't. Most of them die unknown deaths.

You can't be what you were / So you better start being just what you are / You can't be what you were / The time is now / It's running out / It's running out / It's running, running, running out

Concentrate on the daily whatever with that drilling a hole in your mind—ain't gonna happen.

I recently introduced my wife to the movie Groundhog Day. I haven't seen it myself in this millennium, although I did visit the park in Woodstock, Illinois, where much of it was filmed in 2003 for a wedding. (Strangely, many details are missing from that visit—weird, etc.)

I felt like she needed to see it because it's a metaphor for Every Single Day in 2020. I can't possibly be the only person having this experience. Mind you, I don't set an alarm anymore, but when I wake up every day with the sun, it feels like I'm having "I Got You Babe" piped into my consciousness as I build the resolve to get out of bed.

Honestly, I remember the movie being much more depressing than it is. I remember most of all the mornings that Phil wakes up, dead-eyed, numb at the prospect of facing the same day again. I remember the failed romance scenes. I remember the suicide scenes. I remember the frustration at being stuck, repeatedly, day in and day out, in a loop without end.

(You can't be what you were)

Watching it this time was different. The moral aspect seemed more pronounced, and the arc of growth was more obvious—think: Ebenezer Scrooge after three ghosts.

(So you better start being just what you are)

The truth is that I enjoyed the more negative version of the movie that I remembered. (And it seems like it was supposed to be darker.) I suppose that's the passive aggressive desire for justice for the jerks who walk among us. So Phil has to live the same miserable day being his miserable self? That's a shame.

(You can't be what you were)

The final arc is mighty saccharine, but it doesn't bother me much because it comes after Bill Murray has been whipped thoroughly for his sins. By the time the final transition comes, it doesn't feel like a cheap It's a Wonderful Life turn of fate. It's one day. But it's many one days. And there's some work involved. And there is the dip—after almost succeeding at getting what he wants, he has to fall back into the abyss before climbing out again. And when he climbs out he is different—an improved man or a psychologically damaged man, or both.

(The time is now / It's running out)

Time doesn't really run out in Groundhog Day. Imagine a dark version of the movie that never ends. Imagine a more stubborn version of Bill Murray or—pans camera to self—myself. How long would you keep messing around with what doesn't work? Wake up ("I got you babe"), do this, do that, reap marginal results. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. But—the rest of us wake up one day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older.

(I deleted a lot of attempted lines here that refer to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. "A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man." Had to delete it all. The abyss gazes back at you.)

(It's running out / It's running, running, running out)

Second act... what is the second act? Is this the second act? Was that long break from 2010 to 2012 the intermission, followed by the second act? I think I can believe that. That long strange interstitial period between jobs was also an exercise in isolation just as 2020 is. If I really put my mind to it I could reconstruct those 16 months. (Stare into the abyss.) There was no point to that time, but there was... depth. There was no purpose, but there was... discovery. And there was the abyss.

I think the underlying thought I'm trying to hold onto is that there was no meaning that emerged from that time in that physical and mental wilderness—there was only aggregated experience. There were mountains and valleys—literal and metaphorical. Some of that experience was directed, and some was not. What's the point in expecting something different now? It doesn't make any sense. Have some direction, sure, but know when to let the reins go slack, when to put the map away and follow the terrain, when to stop and just allow yourself to feel the wind as it goes by—when to know that the destination was the journey. You'll know when the Second Act is over and the Third Act has begun. Prepare and prepare and act and act—it's all just rehearsal until it isn't.

Happy music

Starting point: Steve Backshall, Explorer, Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4 (2020-08-02).

(Side note: This is the first podcast episode I've listened to in over two months. It used to be a commuting activity, then a while-using-the-rowing-machine activity, and now that I'm still not commuting and running outside instead using the infernal indoor exercise equipment, I just don't listen to podcasts anymore.)

There was a moment about halfway through this episode that I thought was good advice—the sort of advice I've been looking for recently, really:

[15:12] I spend a lot of time on my own. I spend a lot of time in my own head. And I've become quite good at finding ways of manipulating my own mood. So I know that if I'm feeling a little bit down, then I can take myself out for a bike ride in the driving rain, or get up early to see a sunrise, or use music. I find music incredibly powerful as a way of turning my mood the way that I would like it to go, particularly if I'm feeling lonely or sad or down, I can listen to certain tracks and I can make that just go away.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot recently. Every time I make a post about some music—e.g., "Higgs Boson Blues" or "Hurt"—I can't help but wonder why I don't ever think about writing about some happy music. Surely I must listen to some... right? I went on a quick dive into my music files—which are a total shambles now, after years and years of switching from computer to phone to computer, years and years after college where we all had so much music in that short strange window when it was easily available with dubious legality—and, frankly, I don't have much happy music. My most-listened-to R.E.M. album is Automatic for the People ("Everybody Hurts", "Monty Got a Raw Deal", etc.). And there's Tom Waits ("Misery Is the River of the World", "Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)", etc.). And the Beck album I have anymore is Sea Change (where did the other albums go—this is definitely a job for Midnite Vultures).

I don't have a lot of overtly sad music—but I don't have much happy music either. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I don't like it. The closest I get to happy music is, I suppose, Ween or Camper Van Beethoven, but those songs that I'm lumping into the Happy Music box are really more like Silly Music. (Fantastic find: Here is David Lowary with an extended riff that discusses "Take the Skinheads Bowling".)

Too many words. Too many words. Especially when I know what the Point is.

If you don't like riding it out through the low spots, and you knew you could hack your own mood with the Right Song—why the hell wouldn't you do that? I'm going to rummage around in my head and see if I can find one—it must be in there somewhere.

A million miles away

It seems to be a new feature, borne of these viral times, that I find a song to listen to—and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it.

For the most part, this behavior is benign. It's just a song that I remember from the 90s. It's just a song that I remember from the radio that was released before I was. I mean—it's just a song, and there's no slippery slope into the abyss.

It's not always the case, though, right? All music is sound. Some of that sound digs into some emotion. Some of those emotions are connected to a root nerve that convulses when it's touched. It can't be helped.


I don't remember how this got started, but I've been listening to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"—and watching it, too. If you listen to it, you'll hurt enough. If you watch it, you'll hurt all the way.

For me, "Hurt" was a minor song on The Downward Spiral. The disturbance in the right channel was a distraction, the last two or so minutes of noise was an indulgence. Besides, the album has "Closer" and "March of the Pigs", and, frankly, you could hit the square stop button before it got to "Hurt" with nothing lost. When you're younger, at least, before the scars feel more like persistent aches than proud markers of having lived a life.

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. I don't know what Trent Reznor's problems were like. There are enough interviews out there, if you search for them, that answer enough of the questions that you might have, if you have them. I don't have any. I don't want to know. Let him have his problems. Let me have mine. I don't think of those problems specifically when I hear these songs, but the weight is there, and the muscles in my body tense as though even they know it's time to jump for something higher, to reach for something else—for Something Else.

Are there any other original/cover duos that manage to exist together with such effect as the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash versions of "Hurt"? Maybe—there's probably some Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen masterwork out there that I'm forgetting. But, damn—the regret that drips off of these two versions of "Hurt"... There's Trent Reznor's apologetic offering on one side, Johnny Cash's broken nostalgia on the other.


I'm trying to think of another song that gets me as close to tears as Johnny Cash's "Hurt". I had one earlier but it's escaping me now. I keep listening to Cash's version, knowing that he's only got a few months left in the world after the video, and it throws a bucket of cold water over every other thought. I don't think a man could write a final chapter of his life like that if he wanted to—it just has to happen, and be like that.

What have I become / My sweetest friend? / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end / You can have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt

You know... some dust in my eye... just a second...

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. And I'm not interested, really. I don't need any encouragement to stay away, but Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is enough of a straightarm to stay away—the song drips regret for having fallen into that hole, for having gone that direction, for having been that person. That song really does hurt. And, listening to it 25 years later, the persistent scratchy noise in the background seems less like a kitschy feature and more like an honest reporting of what it's like to live with that flavor of regret—and when that distorted guitar rips in after...

If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way

...you can hold both the regret and the possibility of redemption in your hands—even if the mass of the regret hand far outweighs the redemption hand.

But when Johnny Cash sings it, and the video zooms in when he closes the fallboard at the end... that's it.

2020... If we're going to have to live in isolation while the virus does what it does, I don't know if I can keep listening to songs like this. It's a weight to lug around. But these songs keep rising out of the background to find me. And once they find me they follow me around until another song finds me, then they compete among themselves for the privilege of following me around. The upshot of this is that I get to become more familiar and acquainted with a few songs while we walk together about the house—upstairs and downstairs and sitting and standing and so on. But why, in this neverending day, can't it be something light and sparkling. Let us all deal with our addictions and darkness later when there are more options to deal with them—who can we even offer our empire of dirt to at this point?

Finite Element on WEFT Sessions, 1 Dec 2003

In 2003, my band during grad school, Finite Element, played live on 90.1 FM WEFT, Champaign, IL. It was a three-piece band consisting of Sunil Chopra, Kevin Welch, and I. I'll use the phrase "my band" loosely here -- Sunil wrote all of the music, Kevin had some musical talent, and I was... the guy who would talk on the microphone in between songs, and that was only because I wouldn't shut up.

I had some kind of grandiose plan to post all of the songs from that concert one-by-one, describing each of the stories behind the songs. You can see the detritus from that if you follow the tag WEFT Sessions 1 December. Don't follow it; I'm not sure what I was thinking. I didn't write the songs -- Sunil did -- so I'm not qualified to explain much. Dumb idea. So, I've uploaded the remainder of the songs, and I'll let this post serve as the gateway for the whole concert, which is what I should have done from the beginning.

So, if you -- yes, you! -- would like to download our music, here's the whole album. It's not a torrent or anything useful like that; I've just posted them to my wiki and you'll have to save them to your computer. I'd feel bad for you, but I'm posting them mainly for archival purposes and your enjoyment is secondary. If you really, really want to know more about any of the songs, please post a comment and I'll track down Sunil or Kevin to talk about it. They're more interesting than me anyway.

Finite Element: Live at WEFT, December 1, 2003

Download the mp3's from this event:

  1. Turning Into Energy
  2. The Patterns of Her Eyes
  3. Under the Steps
  4. Don't Believe It
  5. Pull the Knife
  6. Behind Your Eyes
  7. You Could Be Mine
  8. Stay Awake
  9. Feedback
  10. I Know Everything
  11. The Beauty of Lies
  12. I Don't Want to Know
  13. Forget About the Sun

You may ask yourself: "What is on the cover of that album?"

It's Quaoar, kids, a trans-Neptunian object. Nerdy, yes, but cut me some slack. I'm an aerospace engineer -- and cut Kevin and Sunil some slack: this wasn't an album we released, and the image is something of my own doing, they didn't have any say in the matter. Then again, our band was named Finite Element, an eye-rolling experience for those that knew what it meant, an "is that the movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich?" experience for those that didn't know.