Category: music

What I Listen To When Working and Writing

I am a child of the 80s. At least, I think I am. I was nearly 8 years old when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1980, and nearly 18 ten years later. In my book, the awareness of an 8-18-year old during the 1980s qualifies as being a child of that decade. It makes sense, therefore, that I like 80s music. It’s interesting what a difference just a couple of years makes. For instance, Kelly, who is just a couple of years younger than me, is not particularly fond of 80s music, but instead enjoys 90s music. My thoughts on 90s music can be summarized by a single word: meh.

I also go through phases. I listened to 80s music for a long time. This reached a kind of pinnacle a few years back when we got Sirius XM satellite radio1 and I could list to the 80s on 8 channel as much as I wanted in the car (and later, anywhere thanks to the Internet subscription add-on). I still like 80s music, but it is no longer what I generally listen to when I work.

Of course, it depends on the type of work I am doing and what my mood happens to be. My “default” these days is the 70s on 7 channel. I find this to be an almost perfect complement to work I do at my day job because it keeps my slightly off-balance. After all, I am typically doing things like storyboarding designs for user interfaces. I do this work on an iPad using the Paper app and a Bamboo stylus. And yet, in the background is the music of my early childhood when an iPad would have been some serious science fiction: Styx, ABBA, Eagles, Elton John, Bee Gees2, etc. It is like having hot water poured in one ear while cold water is poured into the other ear. I like that. It keeps me on my toes.

If I am not doing design work, but writing code, I often listen to something a little harder. This usually involves one or all of the first four Metallica albums, but may sometimes include Def Leppard.

When I write, things are much different. It is very difficult for me to write with music containing vocals when I am writing because the vocals jumble the words in my head and completely blow my concentration. I often do my writing in the evenings, after getting the kids ready for bed, but before actually putting them to bed. During this time, they each get to pick a cartoon to watch3. This means that there is a TV on. So I put on my noise-cancelling headset and listen to a white noise album that is mostly thunderstorms and rain. It is just enough to block everything out without screwing up my concentration. Sometimes I mix it up, however. Recently I have been listening to the excellent Hans Zimmer score for The Man of Steel.

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  1. Can I just say that I love Sirius XM. It is the kind of radio station I always imagined having as a kid, one in which you could choose the type of music you wanted to listen to and then listen to it to your heart’s content and without commercial interruption.
  2. I swear I typed the words “Bee Gees” here and “Night Fever” was the next song to play on 70s on 7.
  3. The Little Miss usually chooses Caillou, while the Little Man picks one of several superhero cartoons. Currently, it is a 2003 version of Spiderman.

Time Traveling with Bing Crosby

Sometime back in 1995, I was browsing a record store (remember those!) at the corner of Ventura Blvd. and Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and I came across a Bing Crosby boxed set called Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years, 1931-1957. I knew who Bing was, of course, and I’d seen one or two of his movies, but I wasn’t yet the fan that I am today. For some reason, despite the fact that the 4-disc boxed set was expensive for me at the time, I decided to buy it.

Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years

When I first listened to the music, a few of the songs stood out. Over the years, as I got to know them, they grew on me1. Eventually, I’d spend chunks of time listening to those discs, one after the other. Music has a strange effect on me. Hearing a song–even one I don’t like very much–can instantly transport me back to a time when I heard that song in some context, meaningful or innocuous. It is a kind of time travel, but an emotionally powerful one. But listening to the Bing Crosby boxed set2 has a somewhat different effect on me.

It does transport me back to those days when I lived in Studio City. Hearing certain songs, I feel whisked back to a sunny, mild spring day in Studio City, sitting at a booth in Swenson’s with a half-finished chocolate malt and a book spread out in front of me on the table. Other songs pull me back onto the balcony of my Studio City apartment, sitting under the shade of a tree and watching the cars go by. But more often than not, it does something more, something that no other music I listen to does.

It takes me back to a time that I never lived in.

There are four discs in the box set:

  1. Disc 1 covers the years 1931-37
  2. Disc 2 covers the years 1937-42
  3. Disc 3 covers the years 1942-45
  4. Disc 3 covers the years 1945-57

When I listen to these discs, I often get the eerie feeling of being transported back to the years in question. It is a kind of glowing-hindsight for the past without ever having been there. Except, I have been there. I’ve listened to my grandfather tell countless stories of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read histories of the time period. I’ve read books on World War II and heard the stories of veterans who went to war and others who stayed home. I’ve listened to people describe growing up in the aftermath of the war, and the boom of the 1950s. And I’ve seen all of the movies. Somehow, all of this mashes itself together in my brain, and like a spark to some primordial stew, the music brings it all to life. I could imagine myself living a life in the 1940s, raising a family in the 1950s. There is a pleasant (and certainly illusory) simplicity to it, as echoed by Bing and Louis Armstrong’s duet, “Gone Fishin’.”

If nothing else, listening to the album reminds me to slow down and take a breath every now and then. It’s been a while since I listened to these albums straight through. But I’m listening this morning.

  1. Indeed, I never sang traditional lullabys to my kids. Instead, I sang them Bing Crosby songs, and to this day, my little boy knows the words to many of the songs I sang him.
  2. I’ve been listening to it all morning, even as I write this.

The performer and the musician

In he the space of a weekend, I’ve read two profiles of musicians. The first was on Friday: the profile of Justin Bieber in Rolling Stone by Josh Eells. Then today, there was a 15,000 word profile of Bruce Springsteen by David Remnick in The New Yorker. I enjoy reading profiles and these two were timed in such a way as to lead someone like me to make comparisons. Recently I wrote about hard work and the musicians in the spotlight in each of these profiles seem to represent opposite ends of the hard work spectrum.

I knew almost nothing about Justin Bieber going into that profile. While the profile itself was well done, I came away unimpressed with Bieber. He came across as deliberately incomprehensible. In addition, he came across as being lazy:

Every once in a while, in keeping with his duties as a professional music star, Justin Bieber participates in the making of music. It doesn’t appear to take long–he works in chunks of 45 minutes or so–but it’s the part of the process he loves the most.

Contrast this with the portrait of Bruce Springsteen, who, at 62 years old, is pushing some of his shows to nearly 4 hours long and summoning high energy throughout the show. While I have never been a huge Springsteen fan, his work ethic impressed me in the same way the work ethics of actors and actresses of old impressed me; the same way the work ethics of some writers impress me. There is a notion, I think, that to be an artist requires creativity, but not much in the way of hard work. Perhaps it’s performers like Bieber who help to bolster this cliche; and musicians like Springsteen who tear it down.

I found the Springsteen profile fascinating. Indeed, it made me want to reconsider Springsteen’s music. I’ve never disliked his music, it just hasn’t been the thing that I reach for the way I will, say, Def Leppard’s Pyromania album.

Then, too, perhaps I am being to harsh. After all, I’ve passed that point where young musicians (or performers) look like my peers; now they look more like kids in high school. And older musicians like Springsteen have been around as long as I can remember. Perhaps I have simply grown conservative in my idea of what a musician and/or performer should be. It’s not like I’ve ever listened to a JB (as he refers to himself in the profile) song. So I did. I grabbed the song that the profile said was his latest hit, “Boyfriend.” It has a nice beat to hit, but it seems awfully repetitive. It certainly was no loss leader for me to pick up the album.

Perhaps more than anything else, the two profiles highlighted the difference for me between a performer (Bieber) and a musician (Springsteen). That latter is the full package. The latter is the guy who, like Bing Crosby, will be up all night working on his lines until he has them just right–then come to the set (or stage, as the case may be) bright-eyed and ready to go. The former seems to be just along for the ride. (“I love what I do. I love performing. I love being famous.”) There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but there’s something more appealing to me about the artist that has to sweat it out and give their all.

My 25 most-played songs

I was doing some pruning in iTunes today and happened to look at the Top 25 Most Played list. I present mine below with the following comment: many of these songs are on workout playlists which may explain their numbers. As always, my Rule 34 applies to the musical selections.

  1. Fix You by Coldplay (307 plays)
  2. Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits (247 plays)
  3. Gonna Fly Now (Theme from “Rocky”) (241 plays)
  4. Looking for Space by John Denver (190)
  5. Going the Distance (180 plays)
  6. The Final Bell by Bill Conti (178 plays)
  7. Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley (172 plays)
  8. Burning Heart by Survivor (165 plays)
  9. Tiny Tears by Tindersticks (145 plays)
  10. Eye of the Tiger by Survivor (144 plays)
  11. Training Montage (144 plays)
  12. Hysteria by Def Leppard (131 plays)
  13. Hearts on Fire by John Cafferty (127 plays)
  14. Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby by Counting Crows (120 plays)
  15. Have a Nice Day by Bon Jovi (119 plays)
  16. Lose Yourself by Eminem (115 plays)
  17. Angel by Sarah McLachlan (115 plays)
  18. New York Minute by Don Henley (114 plays)
  19. Run Riot by Def Leppard (108 plays)
  20. Jump by Van Halen (99 plays)
  21. Kickstart My Heart by Motley Crue (98 plays)
  22. Hold On Loosely by .38 Special (97 plays)1
  23. War/Fanfare from Rocky (93 plays)
  24. Women by Def Leppard (91 plays)
  25. Rocket by Def Leppard (90 plays)

What are your top 25?

  1. Alphabetically, this is the first song in the entire catalog I own. When the iPod accidentally starts playing the list from the beginning, which happens on occasion, this song gets played, which is why it makes the top 25.

Bing Crosby and me


I don’t know when it was that I first heard of Bing Crosby. I know that the name was familiar when I was younger, but only because it was distinctive. Who else in entertainment was named “Bing”? In college, I recall hearing one of his songs, “They All Laughed” but I don’t exactly recall where I heard it. I like it though, and I played it over and over again.

Sometime after graduating when I was living in Studio City, California, I walked into a record store (this was circa 1995: there were still big chain record stores in existence) and was browsing around and I came across a Bing Crosby boxed set. It was called Bing: His Legendary Years 1931-1957. At this point I’d only ever heard a handful of Bing’s songs, most of them seasonal songs. But I remember listening through most of the 100+ songs in the boxed set that first day, in my tiny apartment, and it felt like I was living in a different era. There was something magical about the songs, some kind of pseudo-nostalgia for a period I’d missed. I’ve been a Bing Crosby fan ever since.

bing box set.jpg

I have no idea of gauging what his most popular songs were, but I suspect they were the Christmas songs. My favorites run the gamut, but if I had to pick one absolute favorite, I think it would be “Far Away Places.” There is something magical about that song as well, not only in the way it is performed, but in the lyrics themselves. I liked the song so much that it was mentioned in my first published science fiction story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” when two people visiting an observatory on the surface of the moon dance to this song under the earth-light.

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MTV is 30 today!


I don’t remember what I was doing on August 1, 1981. I was living in Warwick, Rhode Island. I was nine-and-a-half years old. It was summer and school was out. We would  occasionally go to summer camp, but August 1 was a Saturday and there was no camp on weekends. We did have cable, so while it is possible I saw that very first video by the Buggles, aptly titled, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But if I did, it didn’t really stand out in my mind as an important day in music history. Of course, it was the day that MTV was born, changing the way people listened to music by adding a new dimension to it. You could now sit in front of the TV and watch your favorite bands perform the songs that made them famous. Eventually, music videos evolved into an art form all their own adding to the glamour or rock bands, but in those early days it was entirely experimental.

While I may not recall the day that MTV was born, it soon permeated my consciousness. I remember watching the station in those early days, either at my house, a friend’s house, or my grandparent’s house. Those early videos stick with me right down to this very day, three decades later. The Buggles, Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel, Devo, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, The Who.

For a period of 9 years from 1981 through 1990, I grew up with MTV. But that was a key decade in my life: third through twelfth grade. Years that are formative musically. I didn’t own very many albums (and in the early eighties, it was still albums and not cassettes). In fact, one of the few albums I managed to collect was Def Leppard’s Pyromania album. I would listen to the the radio. In Warwick, Rhode Island, my station of choice was 92 PRO FM. But I was influenced by MTV more than anything else.

After 1990, I went off to college and pretty much stopped watching and with very few exceptions, I haven’t gone back. MTV has morphed into something that I think wasn’t originally intended. They rarely play music videos these days. But those early days still provide fond memories, the music I saw performed on the station, the videos I watched influenced my musical tastes and most certainly had an impact on who I am today.

This morning, SiriusXM 80s on 8 has a special program featuring four of the original MTV VJs: Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn and Nina Blackwood. They’ve got a bunch of musical guests from the early days of MTV and they are recreating that first day of videos by playing the songs that were first played on MTV in the order they appeared. It’s making for a fun Monday morning.

So happy 30th birthday MTV! It’s hard to believe it has been 30 years.

30 day song challenge, day 30: your favorite song at this time last year

Really? This is the big category after 29 days of moderately interesting categories? We’re really going to end on this note? Ah, well, I’ve been going along with it for 29 days, one more won’t kill me. I have to say that my favorite song this time last year is probably still my favorite song (at my age, my taste in music has gelled). But what I will talk about is a song that I listened to more this time last year than I have listened to recently. That song is:

Fix You by Coldplay.

Again, this really wasn’t my favorite song, but it was a song I listened to over and over and over again last year. In part that was because I had built a story around the song. I liked the way the song builds up to this climax and then ends in a virtual whisper, albeit a revealing whisper. In any event, I’d written a novelette called “In the Cloud” the penultimate scene of which follow the pattern of Coldplay’s song. It is one of the few times that I actually listened to music while writing. (Usually I listen to nothing but the silence produced by my noise-canceling headset.)

I was never able to sell the story, although I got some positive feedback on it. And I still really like that scene.

30 day song challenge, day 29: a song from your childhood

I’m not quite sure how I missed yesterday. I was doing so well and then I woke up this morning to realize that I never posted day 29 yesterday. Not much I can do about that now, other than post day 29 and day 30 today. So you get two for the price of one. First, day 29, which is “a song from your childhood”.

There are many songs from my childhood, but one in particular stands out if only for having a mildly amusing story to go along with it. That song is:

Rhinestone Cowboy by Glenn Campbell.

I’ve always had the ability to hear and song and pick up the tune and lyrics pretty quickly, even when I didn’t know what the lyrics meant. For some reason, when I was quite young, five or six years old I’m guessing, I heard this song and it stuck with me, and for a while, I’d sing it wherever I went. It got to the point where my parents would ask me to perform on queue for various extended family and friends and I would oblige them, all smiles and volubility. Looking back on it I’m terribly embarrassed, but so long as everyone else thought it was adorable I suppose I can live with it.

What I think is more amusing is what I thought the sound was about. I didn’t know what a “rhinestone” was, but I knew what a “stone” was and I also knew what a cowboy was. (What six year-old boy doesn’t?) When I would go around singing the song, I imagined I was singing about a cowboy made of some kind of stone. Perhaps even limestone (since that rhymes with rhinestone). I never quite understood the appeal of a limestone cowboy, but I also never questioned the veracity of song lyrics at that age. The world was the way the world was. Still, hearing that song always reminds me of my six year-old self, playing in the backyard of our house in Somerset, New Jersey, and that’s a pretty nice memory right there, limestone or not.

30 day song challenge, day 28: a song that makes you feel guilty

Whew, I almost didn’t get this one out today. This was a moderately tough one because I can’t really think of a song that makes me feel guilty? Guilty of what? So I’m going to cheat slightly this time around and tell you about a song that makes me feel, well, awkward. And that song is:

Take My Breath Away by Berlin

First of all, I cannot think of that song without thinking of that love scene in Top Gun. Perhaps because that scene was so voyeuristic at an age when my hormones were raging, I think of that voyeurism as guilt, but it isn’t really guilt, since I paid by money to see the movie. While it seems like guilt, I think what I really feel about it awkward. It was an awkward time, that weird age when all kinds of new feels are stirring and a generally sunny personality becomes momentarily stormy.

I still shudder at the thought of it.

30 day song challenge, day 26: a song you can play on an instrument

Aside from being able to carry a fairly decent tune, I have no musical ability whatsoever. I think there are just some things we don’t have the skills for, even with practice. In junior high school, I had to take a music class in which we learned to play the recorder. We also learned how to read music. I never had any trouble learning to read English, but in attempting to learn to read music, I knew what it must feel like to be functionally illiterate in some language. I say “attempting” because I failed. I never could get it. I knew what a C-note was but I could never translate that to the proper sound on the instrument in any reasonable fashion. And I could never figure out the tempo part. I was awful. In fact, for one test, we had to play some song that I’ve forgotten. The idea was we would read the music off of the sheet and play the song, but the truth is that I memorized the finger motions and did it that way. If the teacher had swapped out songs at the last minute, I would have been helpless.

So it is a little surprising to me that at one point, I did learn to play a song and pretty darn well too. That song was:

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