The music you run to isn’t the same as the music you do other things to.
I taught spin classes for several years and had the same sad, tired playlist for almost the entire time. It was almost all top 40 pop, with a few random alternative songs thrown in from a friend who does ultras in Alaska and has a fair amount of time to really think about what she’s listening to. Every week I would think about updating my playlist, and every week I would forget until I plugged my ipod into the stereo in the spin room.
It wasn’t the same music I would choose if I were sitting on the back deck with a glass of wine and the sun going down. That’s Wilco, every time.
Or if I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, writing. It depends on what I’m writing. A piece of fiction I’ve been working on for six months and have about 200 pages of? Then it’s six Cat Power albums on rotation, each one sadder and slower than the one before. It’s unobtrusive and beautiful.
Am I staring into space? Tom Waits, usually “The Heart of Saturday Night,” because it’s a little lounge-y and a little gravelly, and every song is a story. I used to be a smoker – a pack of Malboro reds every day for a decade – and that’s what he reminds me of. Or of my dad, who smoked Pall Mall cigarettes, used to love bars and still loves casinos. He probably doesn’t like Tom Waits because he already lived it all. I like it because I hear his stories in there.
In college, I wrote paper after paper listening to either NPR or Bob Dylan or Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “Déjà Vu” on repeat while I sat in a secondhand gold chair with the stuffing spilling out and spit out essays comparing poets and novelists in one take, leaning back and pulling my feet up to smoke between thoughts.
It all sounds so sad, but it isn’t. Your life takes on a soundtrack, and sometimes it’s because you played it and sometimes it’s because it was someone else’s background music you got to hear.
I grew up in Cleveland. Most artists tour through the area, and my dad always took us to concerts. He would see whoever we wanted to see – took me to see Sinead O’Connor and U2 and 10,000 Maniacs and anyone else my teenage heart was in love with. And he took me to what he wanted, too – Joe Walsh and Jimmy Buffett. Then Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed and Chuck Berry in a 1995 concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We watched Bob Dylan at Blossom Music, and that’s where I learned about Ani DiFranco, who opened for him.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about music and my dad, who still lives in Cleveland, basically a shut-in, watching The History Channel and waiting for one of his daughters to call.
It started when I found out Paul Simon was coming to Sioux Falls. I called one of my best friends. “Paul Simon is coming. We were just talking about this.”
We had been. Some random live music discussion, where I said he was one artist I just wanted to see. It’s been more than 30 years since “Graceland,” longer since Simon and Garfunkel. I spent many hours driving with my dad and listening to Paul Simon. When he bought me a CD player, “Live at Central Park” was what he bought me to play on it. (Memory all happens at once, sometimes, and when he bought me a tape deck, he included Chuck Berry’s greatest hits with it.)
I got tickets at a presale. Paid as much as I could afford for decent seats. It’s worth every penny to me.
In the meantime, I downloaded the albums I used to have, music I lost over the years and never found the time to gather again. On a recent Sunday, the kids and I overslept – some glorious thing that happens now that they’re a little older – and we made eggs and toast together. “Cecilia” came on, and Viv, 6, and I danced our way around the kitchen. I realized I could still sing every song on these albums, even though I hadn’t heard them in their entirety for years.
It had happened again a few months earlier, when I heard The Beautiful South again after years of not hearing it.
How does it all come back to you like that? But it does. You find yourself singing along, word by word, remembering the language and the nuances and the times you heard it.
Lately I’ve done more running alone than I ever have, a lot of it on my treadmill in the basement. I don’t love it, but I’m getting used to it. This is how it is, and you just make do. Sometimes I just turn on something and listen to all of it – a 2-disc Queen compilation – which isn’t terrible to run to at all. A stack of Velvet Underground, which is – imagine running in a dirty ashtray. That’s kind of what it feels like. There’s something incongruous to getting in better shape while lamenting heroin or cocaine addictions. All Lucinda Williams all the time, the grit and the twang kind of perfect for a Tuesday night when you have all your demons to get out.
Or a mess of Prince dance remixes, each version about 8 minutes long, and you tell yourself, if given the choice, always, always choose the extended dance remix.
Or one day last fall, I went to Good Earth State Park, where I know all the trails by heart, where I can just run and not think. And I put on Neil Young, and his high, thin voice and it was all so spare and it was just me. The lookouts I didn’t step out on, the views I didn’t want to see, the vastness of it more than I could handle. I named my run on Strava that day after one of his lines from “Star of Bethlehem”: ‘All your dreams and your lovers won’t protect you.’ It’s a great line. It’s probably true.
I tried not to think that hard. Instead I just ran. I got lost in his stories. In his voice. In the moments back in college when a friend would play “Campaigner” on his guitar, of southeastern Ohio and mountain biking and trails and the Hocking Hills and this tahini and tofu breakfast the local co-op made.
As Viv and I danced in the kitchen, and later when Jack, 8, figured out that “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” is a great song, I wondered what their soundtrack would be.
Maybe it will be the sound of their mom, singing in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the oldies stations I play in the car and say to almost every song, “Your Grandpa Jack loves this song,” as I choke back tears and Otis Redding plays. Maybe it will be the sound of my feet slapping and slapping and slapping the treadmill after they go to bed. Maybe it will be all of it.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.