Forecast: Snow, Ice, Slush, Snow, Slush…

Six inches of snow, followed by several days of temperatures in the teens or 20s.

Rinse. Repeat.

That’s January in St. Louis so far. Or at least the last couple of weeks. And although the driving portions of the roads have been cleared nicely, the edges of the roads and the sidewalks have been covered by a layer of snow and slush. And mostly, in the prime early morning running hours, ice.

I’m getting old. I have to worry about things like falling down and breaking my hip.

All right, maybe not THAT old. But I do hate the uncertain footing, that feeling of never knowing how solid the next step is going to be. So it’s to the treadmill I go.

Now, before a couple of days ago, I hadn’t been on a treadmill for nearly a year, and I was of course dreading it. If you’re used to running outside on the streets (or better yet, trails) in beautiful weather, there’s not much to like about grinding out the miles on a treadmill.

It hasn’t been a very good January for me for running. I took the last three weeks of December off after the Pere Marquette Trail Run (What a crazy race! Check out these two videos!) — a planned break to give my legs some rest after a busy 2010 — but then it took longer to get back into the groove than I’d expected. That’s OK, though; it’s just January. Still, through the first three weeks of the year, I was behind even my meager mileage total from January 2010, a month that had me recovering from some nagging injuries from late 2009.

Fortunately, last weekend brought some good news in terms of motivation: entries opened for the Quivering Quads Half-Marathon, to be held March 20. I ran this race last year (and wrote about it here), and it was both a fun race and a great kickoff to what turned out to be a good racing year for me. I wasn’t in shape last year, so I’ve been looking forward to this year so I can hopefully destroy my time from 2010. I’m now officially entered, and counting down the weeks ’til the race.

Finally, some real motivation to get back into training!

But there’s still that treadmill business to deal with. Fortunately, ‘mill running does allow me to indulge in one thing that I normally shun: my iPod. I never run with an iPod on the streets, because I want to hear the cars coming up behind me. I have as much of an aversion to being run down by a car as I do to slipping on ice and breaking my hip.

But on the treadmill, if a car’s gonna hit me, it’s getting me whether I have the headphones on or not. So I’ve pulled out the trusty old iPod, and I can rock while I can roll. I can bump while I grind. I can … well, you get the picture. I honestly don’t have a whole lot of use for the iPod except for running, so it had been a while since I’d used it, and I’d forgotten what a joy it is to listen to music through the headphones. The first time I wore it, I listened to DMB’s Before These Crowded Streets straight through. The second time, a couple of Beatles Albums. Last night I had an exceptional run, with some vintage Rolling Stones blasting. (In what was supposed to be kind of a long run, I had to crank it up to basically 5K race pace during the guitar solos on the YaYa’s version of Sympathy for the Devil. Maybe not the smartest workout strategy, but you have to go where the music takes you.)

So anyway, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting back into shape. Even though last night’s 5.73 miles was my longest run since Pere Marquette in mid-December, I am confident I’ll get the mileage up to be able to do the half-marathon in March.

Longer-term, though, I’ve pretty much discarded the idea of running the New York City Marathon in 2011. I’m not saying I won’t do ANY marathon this fall, just that if I do crank it up for a second shot at 26.2, it will be in some less logistically challenging event closer to home. New York, Boston … they’re out there, but not for this year.

Meanwhile, I have a list of shorter races I’m aiming for this spring and summer, and with the iPod strapped on I’m ready to crank out the miles inside if necessary. Let it snow!

Refreshing My Music

At the beginning of this week, I trashed my entire iTunes music library on my computer at work. It consisted of 4,077 songs, which, if played consecutively, would go on for 13 days, three minutes and 20 seconds, according to the application’s statistics.

Over the last couple of years I’ve imported a number of CDs into the library. I don’t think I’ve actually bought more than two or three songs from iTunes in my life; if I want music, I’ll generally just get the CD. I guess that makes me remarkably old-fashioned, but let’s remember that CDs didn’t exist before about 25 years ago. Even though they now appear to be going the way of the 8-track tape — judging by the shrinking bins at music stores (remember music stores?) — I have managed to compile a pretty good number of them over the years.

But I digress. Even though I have a comfortable collection of CDs, I hardly ever listen to CDs anymore. Generally I just fire up the iTunes on random play and let it run. That keeps the collection alive, because you never know what song, or even what style of music, will come next. Just yesterday, for example, iTunes gave me “Four Horsemen” by the Clash, followed closely — surprisingly closely, in fact, because by default iTunes uses a two-second crossfade between songs — by James Taylor’s “Sunny Skies.” Strangely enough, the transition worked.

If it ever doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to hit the “skip” button — the Macintosh keyboard even provides a key for this — to go on to the next song. It’s really a great way to listen to music, since I’m stuck at the computer anyway.

My problem was that, in addition to all those CDs I imported, I also got into the habit of downloading whatever free music was being offered up by various vendors. Amazon, in particular, sends out scads of free music each week through its MP3 store. I think you have to sign up for their newsletter or something, but each Tuesday they send out an e-mail with links to a bunch of giveaway songs and samplers, which, when downloaded, conveniently drop right into the iTunes library.

Some of them are great. Most aren’t. And usually I didn’t take the time to weed them out when I downloaded them, so over time my iTunes library got more and more polluted with songs that I had no interest in.

So, with the new year, I’m starting over. I dumped the library, and have been re-importing my music from my CDs. And what’s cool is that I started from the beginning — the first batch was artists from the 1960s and 1970s. (OK, it’s the beginning for me, anyway.) I’m mostly through those discs now, and working a little up into the 1980s. And frankly, it’s been great to hear the older stuff — and only the older stuff — come through the computer speakers. Eventually I’ll get back to the point where a Derek and the Dominoes song will be followed by a John Mayer song or something, and that won’t be bad, but for the next few days it’ll go from Derek and the Dominoes to Little Feat or the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel or someone like that. Next week U2 will make its way into the collection. After that, it’ll be Dave Matthews and his ’90s brethren. After that, Amos Lee and the rest of the new generation (much smaller in number than these earlier artists) will join the party.

And yes, sure I could have just deleted the offending songs and gone on with my just my own music, and saved the trouble of having to reimport all my CDs. But I’m also a geek for statistics, and iTunes kindly compiles information about how often songs are played, when they were last played, etc. For example, in that old iTunes library, the song I ended up playing the most was “Night Train” by Amos Lee. Not my favorite of his songs, but random-play doesn’t play favorites. In fact a good number of the top songs were Amos Lee songs, because for a while there I was in a big-time Amos mood, just selecting his three CDs and letting them run. (As of January 25, by the way, he’ll have a fourth album out, which I’m definitely looking forward to.) Other times, I’d play the Who for a day. Or the Beatles, or, like last fall, the Rolling Stones. Still other times, I’d turn on my instrumental playlist, which contained all of the instrumental songs from various artists; sometimes it’s just easier to write or edit when there are no words in the background music. “The Rock,” Quadrophenia” and “Underture” were way up on that play count, benefiting from being both instrumentals and also Who songs.

But anyway, with the new year, everything’s reset to zero.

Speaking Of The Rolling Stones…

A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook, and I just had to pass it along.

At various times, I have tried listing my All-Time-Top-Five-Favorite-Songs (try it sometime; it’s a lot harder than you think), and I usually come up with two Rolling Stones songs—Sympathy for the Devil and Gimme Shelter—in that list, even though I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Stones are one of my top-five favorite bands. Strange, innit?

Anyway, the link leads to a multiple-track “deconstruction” of  the studio recording of Gimme Shelter. Enjoy.

Lyrics In Exile

One of my favorite lines from a music review comes from way back in 1977, after Linda Ronstadt released the Simple Dreams album. About her version of the Rolling Stones’ song Tumbling Dice, the reviewer wrote something to the effect that “the lyrics meant so much more when when we couldn’t understand them.”

I’ve thought about that line a bit lately, as Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ album where Tumbling Dice appeared, has been in pretty much constant play in my car for the last few weeks. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it has been at least three decades since I last gave Simple Dreams a spin.)

The lyrics throughout Exile on Main Street are for the most part unintelligible, even more so than on most Rolling Stones albums. But for me, they gain more and more meaning every time I listen to the disc. It is by far the most deeply felt album they put out, but that comes through more in the music than in the words, such as they are. It is impossible to listen to Let It Loose, for example, and be unchanged by the experience. But I’ll bet I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics to that song … let alone what it’s “about.”

I’m more or less a word guy. I spend a lot of my life either writing, reading or editing. But oddly enough, song lyrics generally aren’t that important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure them out, and even if they are printed in the album notes or somewhere, it’s rare that I’ll actually go and read them. If there’s a song I like, it’s almost always because of the music, not the words.

So in general, I’d have to agree with that reviewer from three-plus decades ago; sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.


A very personal postscript: in December of 1977, I came home for winter break after my first semester of college. My brother Jim came home as well, from wherever he was living at that time. We had a cheap old stereo, but little music to speak of. Our other brother, Phil, who was by then living in an apartment, let Jim pick out a few albums for us to listen to during the break. Exile on Main Street was one of them, but they also included such other classics as Who’s Next, Songs in the Key of Life, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, and a few others. I was vaguely familiar with some of them, but most of what I had been listening to in those days was stuff like Boston, REO Speedwagon, the aforementioned Linda Rondstadt, etc. That handful of music courtesy of my two older brothers brought about a lifetime change in my listening habits. Each of those albums would be included on any list I would make of the greatest records of all time.  I latched onto Who’s Next, of course, and it instantly became my favorite album … and still is. I’m certain I didn’t care for Exile on Main Street that much at the time; it’s not a record that allows itself to be discovered easily. But over time, the music becomes more and more  a part of you, no matter what the words may say.