If you sit or stand next to me on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or at the gym, I will try to peek at your iPod playlist. It’s just a thing I do, in much the same way my dad will peek in your medicine cabinet if he goes to the bathroom while at your house. Do you know what your playlist says about you?
My iPod playlists read like a porn catalog: Short and Hard, Long and Hard, Long and Easy, Tempo, Super Intensity. The reality isn’t quite as titillating (and is it a coincidence the word titillating starts with ‘tit’?) – they are playlists created for different types of runs, which vary from distances of 5K to 100K.
In San Francisco there is no shortage of scenic runs. One of my favorite runs is down by the bay, running around the Marina Green and Crissy Field, out to Fort Point, and then back again, this time along the water. It’s a 5 mile run and I always use my Short and Hard playlist. The songs on the playlist are selected for their tempo at a particular point in the run, but me being me, they of course remind me of things, so I can simultaneously run and be other places, a form of musically-enabled time travel:
Dance The Night Away (Van Halen): I hear this song and I am not warming up for my run with an 8:30 pace, I am laying in my back yard in southern Illinois, on a lounge chair, the summer sun sinking into my coconut-scented and oiled skin. The sun makes orange dots on my eyelids. I hear the screen door slam behind me and my mom descend the concrete porch steps, then the clickety sound of the wooden clothespins rattling together as she hangs the wash on the line. My father, home from lunch, will speak suddenly from the other side of the door: “You’re going to have a face like an old baseball glove by the time you’re 40, if you don’t watch out” (You were wrong, dad). The big black bees hum with mild threat in the huge honeysuckle bush at the corner of the house, the one that pushes against my screen at night with its scent and tendril fingers, the one where some of the younger neighbor boys sometimes gather to peek at me, thinking I don’t know.
You Shook Me All Night Long (ACDC): I’m in the backyard of a friend’s house in east central Illinois, the ex and I are newly married and the corn grows high all around us, a green smell that is as much a part of the summer landscape as the sky. Some thirty people have collected for an impromptu barbeque, and one of the guys who is a DJ (which in that time and place meant spinning records at wedding receptions at the local VFW Hall out by the highway) brought his set up and we had music. I was standing in front of one of the eight foot high speakers the DJ brought when the ex arranged for this, one of my favorite rock anthems, to blast into my face. I swear it lifted the hair right off my shoulders and blew it back in a wind of rock and roll righteousness. I hear this song anytime, any place and I am back there in the corn smelling heat, dancing in the hot August sunlight of my twenty sixth year, a red Solo cup of keg beer held high aloft.
St. Elmo’s Fire (John Parr): This is a good song to run to, but it’s kind of dumb, and it really only reminds me of the movie which I also thought was kind of dumb – I hate drama queens like the one that Demi Moore played, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the character Kevin McCarthy played, the one with a coffin for a coffee table, the odd duck who finally let’s the Ally Sheedy character discover that he’s loved her all along. The sex in the shower scene that follows is very poignant because we know, as he does not, that he will never be anything but a rebound for the Ally Sheedy character, who just broke up with her serially philandering asshole entitled boyfriend played by the mysteriously alluring Judd Nelson
Road To Joy (Bright Eyes) – this has a great marchy rhythm that helps me settle into a fast pace. I like the wordplay lyrics: “The sun came up with no conclusions / Flowers sleeping in their beds.” He also lays some truth out there which contrasts oddly wit the bright rhythm of the song, and turns it into something else, an honest statement about the search for if not happiness, contentment: I have my drugs I have my woman/ They keep away my loneliness/ My parents they have their religion / But sleep in separate houses. Recently Conor Oberst and the Felice Brothers played at Mountain Winery and most of their songs were existentially depressing, so when they started this song I almost didn’t fight off the urge to run.
Song For The Lonely (Cher): what can I say? I like Cher, it’s got a great beat and you can run to it. Once my ex and I were at his high school reunion which was held at the Elk’s Hall in town (the town had a population of 3,000). The (same!) DJ (see above) had a fog machine that got out of control and set the fire alarm off and so we cleared out into the parking lot with the keg and a boom box, and this was the song that was playing. I remember dancing in the parking lot to it, surrounded by all the sleeping houses, windows lighting up here and there like startled yellow eyes opening in the night.
Closer To God (Nine Inch Nails): The ex and I were in our 20s and just discovered that Nine Inch Nails was coming to a crappy bar in a really dangerous neighborhood in St. Louis, where we lived. We showed up and there were maybe one hundred people more than the fire code would allow, all men, all jammed at the door like lemmings. “You can’t stay, I can’t protect you,” the ex told me, and put me in a cab. I protested, but not too much – it was raining beer bottles and broken glass and the mosh pit inside was making the whole place practically bulge with violence. The ex got to see NIN on their meteoric rise, and all I got was this song on my iPod.
Best of You (Foo Fighters). His voice is so full of raw animal pain. I know these words are about a guy and his feelings about a girl, but they always make me think of me and my father and the angry energy that was between us like a cloud during my adolescence. It became the anthem of my recovery from anorexia I swear I’d never give in / And I refuse.
Jet Airliner (Steve Miller Band) Now for pathos of a different kind. I love me some Stevey Guitar Miller! It’s easy to run to, whether you’re going 8 minute miles or 7 minute miles. “Riding along on this big ol’ jet plane I’ve been thinking about my home…..Big ol jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away….” I always wonder what that would be like, to think of home as a place you really want to go back to, for home to be a place that you really miss. Not the place that Frost wrote so coldly of, the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Our Lips are Sealed (Go Gos): At this point I need concentration to keep the pace. This song helps – my speed is suddenly bouncy instead of working to stay steady. Doesn’t matter what they say / they’re the jealous games people play, hey hey hey!!!!
Let’s Get Rocked (Def Leppard) – Excellent 30 second vestibule to this song, the guitar always puts a sense of purpose in my stride. It’s an anthem to teenage laziness, immaturity and hormones. My ex once bought me tickets to go see Def Leppard with my sister. But he forgot to set the tickets out and when it was time to drive to the concert, we couldn’t find them anywhere, so we went to see the Lion King instead. We were bummed. Let’s get the rock out of here!
Ray Of Light (Madonna) A fantastic running song, and by this point in the playlist I am at mile 3 moving into mile 4 and the song itself seems to be about me: Faster than the speeding of light she’s flying/Trying to remember where it all began…
Since U Been Gone (Kelly Clarkson): This is the kind of song that I would have loved when a heartbroken teenager, and when the song came out I was a heartbroken adult, so naturally I loved it. When this song comes on I am running along the edge of Crissy Field, along the side of which runs a road that is often used by the double decker tour buses that busily crawl major San Francisco streets. Once, when running along, the tears flying into my slipstream, I glanced over and saw a group of tourists putting along in traffic at roughly the same speed, solemnly watching me. I wonder what they thought as they watched me zoom along next to them, my lips grimacing in the effort to not wail aloud, my brow thunder as I sternly told myself to run faster, and faster yet, as if I could outrun my sorrow with Kelly’s voice in my ear….
Even Now (Bob Seger) When this song kicks in I’m kicking it down to finish the run. I am a Midwestern girl through and through and Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band were there for me way before Bruce Spingsteen and the E Street Band. Not for me the the elegiac wailing of Clarence Clemons horn…it’s motorcycles roaring off in the distance that make me reminisce. I hear “There’s a highway, a lonesome stretch of gray” and I see it clearly in my mind’s eye, a sight so common where I am from: a two lane highway running between the tall rows of endlessly marching corn, the horizon nothing more than just another place on the same road, between the fields.