Monday, December 13, 2010

Carrying a Tune

Last week, among the many mentions of and references to John Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his death, I spotted an interesting thread on facebook. Okay, using 'interesting' and 'facebook' in the same sentence shows a lack of qualitative judiciousness, so let me say instead that it was simply amusing. Of course, the thread became instantaneously more amusing once I jumped in. (I believe, by believing this, that this puts me in the self-aggrandizing facebooking majority.)


So in this thread on or around John Lennon's tragic anniversary someone mentioned the song 'You Won't See Me,' which was written by Paul. I don't recall the reason or significance of the song with regards to the original conversation, I only remember how the mention of the song was meaningful to me. (This because I am in the self-absorbed facebooking majority.)

My brain, like God and Google, works in mysterious ways. The connections that form up there in my spongy gray matter fall well within the cross-over realm of miracles and algorithms – or, in non-believer math hater terms, coincidental, self-deluding hooey. Usually these associations arise in the context of riding my bicycle, when my mind is clear of needy kids and writer's block and basic traffic safety rules. And, usually, it involves a song I haven't heard in years.

Biking through the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, fresh off a spectacular wipeout involving a preoccupation with my rear tire and an old man with astonishing powers of spontaneous materialization, I was beginning to worry. Back on Koh Chang Island in Thailand I found out that my derailleur was sorely misaligned. Trying to shift onto my Frisbee (the largest chain ring on the front half of the chain drive) my chain refused to catch on any of those forty-eight teeth and wedged itself quite impressively down in between said Frisbee and the middle chain ring. Thirty minutes and a dozen bloody knuckles later I finally pried him free. Less than an hour later I'd forgotten it all – Koh Chang is quite nice – and ended up leaving more blood and shreds of skin in the sand on the side of the road. Small miracle and a fortunate turn of physics that I didn't then snap my newly-gouged chain pushing my loaded tandem up over mountain roads that make Lombard Street in San Francisco look like a wheelchair ramp. I had a chain tool, so mechanically I was ready; thing was, I had no idea how to use it. Nor did I have the slightest idea how to correctly replace a broken spoke (or ten) if I happened to get another close-up of an old man doing his Star Trek thing. By the time I busted the cable on my drum brake in the Vietnamese highlands I was already hearing the first notes of a melody that would remain with me for the next two months.

Quick, name a song by the SOS Band. Here, I'll give you a hint: 'Just be good to me, in the morning. Just be good to me, in the afternoon...' The song came out in 1983 and I might not have heard it since, but there it was in my head, the chorus going round and around and around. 'I'll be good to you, you'll be good to me, we will be together, be together...' The cool part is, all the begging and pleading worked. My bike carried me through the rest of Indochina with only a flat tire in Vientienne and a sticky brake cable, the plastic casing having partially melted somewhere among the sado-masochistic road system in northern Thailand.

On a scorching afternoon in Cambodia, on the same trip, I was pushing down an endless dirt road searching for a place I could get some water – preferably the bottled, non-malarial variety. I didn't want a coke; I didn't want to stop for a coke-sized water that I would completely sweat out just getting my loaded tandem moving on down the road again. I wanted the until-then ubiquitous liter size. And, evidently, my brain thought singing about it would help me deal. This time, not only did I get a song, I got two verses worth of original lyrics to go with my burgeoning dehydration.

The next time you have Bonnie Tyler's 'Holding Out For A Hero' stuck in your head, try these alternate lyrics:

I need a liter!
I'm holding out for a liter till my throat runs dry.
It's got to be fresh and it's got to be cool
And it's got to attach to my bike.
I need a li-TER!!
I'm holding out for a liter if the price is right.
I'll give you the cash put your fingers up fast
But it better not have parasites...

Okay, I'll concede it's not as poetic as the original but this was not something I worked on. You (I) can't come up with stuff like this with a parched throat, angry legs and a sore butt surrounded by nothing but the Cambodian countryside. Hooey on the surface maybe, but miraculous somehow underneath.

Every time I bike through a fishing village in Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, one particular Japanese song gently, merrily explodes in my head. Translation: 'Fish, fish, fish, when you eat fish, head head head, head gets smarter.' I usually head for the mountains when I get on my bike now.

In Nagano Prefecture there's a scenic mountain road called the Venus Line. Guess what song I had in my head for all 32 kilometers of it? Heading out of Malacca, Malaysia I passed a street vendor selling bread and rolls and such, which got me hooked on 'Do You Know The Muffin Man?' That was a fun four hours.

Despite my general innocent disregard for safety I rarely forget to bring my headlamp with me when I am heading out on the bike at night. I do, however, sometimes forget to recharge the batteries. And there are days when I leave with plenty of daylight left but still end up not making it home until after dark. Of course, having a (working) headlamp helps me see all the cracks and potholes and curbs in the road before I hit them, but for the most part it is much more important in its function of letting other people know I am about to slam into their fender. (The same goes for the headlights on your car; if you don't believe me try it sometime.) Thus when my headlamp is less than fully operable (or fully present) I have to keep in mind that while I can see that car pulling out of that side street five yards up ahead, that person can't see me. And my brain, ever on the lookout for opportunities to drown me in songs I would otherwise never hear, in or out of my head, starts in with that Beatles song again. But only the one line, repeated over and over and over and over because it is the only line I know. Of course, it is the only line I need. If my wife suddenly starts ignoring me then maybe the rest of the song will come to me. Though more likely the words to 'I'm Free' by the Rolling Stones would fill my head. 'Yes I'm free, to do what I want, any old time...'

Winding up yet another blog post reminds me of one other example of a song in my brain melding seamlessly with circumstance. This one too involves a Beatles song – specifically, the only line in 'Eleanor Rigby' written by Ringo.

'Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear...'

Because I suspect I am alone in the Kevin Kato-absorbed facebooking minority.