Sometimes shuffle mode on my iPhone really comes through for me. I was having a pretty bad day yesterday, and it found a song that cheered me up.
I was having a bad day for a few different reasons. The biggest is something that’s been going on for a while now. An older member of my family — a person who I really care about and have always had a great relationship with — has been stricken with a cruel health problem, and is suffering a lot.
This kind of ordeal puts other problems in a certain perspective, but not necessarily a perspective that’s helpful. For instance, I’ve been looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary of this website on July 23rd, but I’ve also been feeling very frustrated about my progress as a writer. During those poisonous moments in which everything on Earth seems pointless, I can only see this blog as a symptom of my chronic need to be idiosyncratic at any cost, and thus as a bizarre monument to my own lifelong failure.
Well, okay. Failure’s been in the air, and not just for me: failure to communicate, failure to reach, failure to deliver. Failure seems to have been trending lately, at least in my corner of the universe. An insane incident occurred yesterday involving one of my favorite people in the literary world, a person who must have been soaking in his own psychological poisons during the same moments that I was too. Everything turned out okay, but for a few moments the incident got frightening, and after it was over it all seemed like a sign of a sort of general despair among many of my writer friends, all of whom have moments in which we feel desperately starved for connection and validation. Another friend who was caught in this whirlwind summarized her takeaway from yesterday’s public drama with this accurate tweet:
Even before all this went down, the main thing that had me upset yesterday was my day job, which makes me very happy most of the time. I am the tech lead on a Drupal project for a cool new government-funded healthcare-related website that will launch later this year. Well, every web developer knows that it’s dangerous to feel too excited about any project with a high profile and a large team. As software developers, we are in the most vulnerable spot in a tech organization chart: caught right in the middle between the impossible expectations of what people think we should be able to do easily and the punishing truth that even simple technical tasks often devolve into colossal cascading misunderstandings. When these collisions occur we become angry, paranoid, defensive.
Mostly we become angry at ourselves, because it was our own mistakes that led us astray. These paroxysms of self-criticism often occur at moments when the pressure to deliver is highest, and for a software developer delivering means thinking, focusing. It is hard to think and focus when gripped by negative personal emotions. It doesn’t help that the demands to deliver are often accompanied by complete incomprehension as to how something that ought to be simple could possibly be so hard. There’s also often a complete incomprehension that we need a break, and this can be especially frustrating when we already feel that we’re putting in more than our fair share of effort with little recognition or appreciation.
All of these different feelings were swirling in my mind yesterday afternoon as I sat in my home office, trying to force my fingers to keep tapping, even though my brain had long since checked out … feeling angry and bewildered and sick of everything, wondering when the hell I was going to have time to churn out another Litkicks blog post too.
Then a song I hadn’t heard in a while suddenly popped up on my shuffle mode and penetrated my terrible mood.
This was “The Nickel Song” by Melanie, a minor hit single from 1971. The song amounts to a delightfully self-indulgent complaint, and it seems to indicate that people demand the same kind of impossible enthusiasm from bright-eyed hippie folksingers that they do from writers and web developers.
Well, you know that I’m not a gambler
but I’m being gambled on
They put in a nickel
and I sing a little song
Da da da, da da da, da da da da da
Da da da da da
They put in a nickel
and they want a dollar song
I paused to listen, grabbed as much by the bouncy rhythm and sly phrasing as by the words. It’s really just a casual folk ditty, or at least it seems to be when it starts, but I don’t think the song is actually about being an underpaid folksinger at all. On closer look, “The Nickel Song” actually seems to be about a love relationship that’s gone bad.
“They put in a nickel, and they want a dollar song.” Yeah, that’s about something more than singing. But then halfway through the song the tone shifts again, and at this point I don’t think it’s about a love affair anymore either. It’s about the entire world, about peace and war and poverty and injustice and all that stuff that singers used to sing about back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (I wish they would sing about it as often today).
Well, I don’t know so many things
but I know what’s been going on
We’re only putting in a little
to get rid of a lot that’s wrong
These words sure hit me — perhaps because of the innocent hope for change that the words betray. This helped me remember why I myself try so hard to express my thoughts and ideas on this blog, why I wrote long weird screeds about Ludwig Wittgenstein and pacifism and The Pushcart War. And I guess it’s why I work so hard at my day job to build websites that I think will be great, even though I always get blindsided by decisions made by committees that I don’t agree with and have little power to influence.
Maybe I related so much to this song because I’m familiar with Melanie’s body of work from my childhood, and I know that her deceptively cheerful Woodstock-era demeanor masked a body of personally expressive and exploratory work that often led, like the poet Robert Frost’s, to surprisingly sarcastic and dark places. The fact that Melanie’s howl of misery called “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” became a commercial for Ramada Inn (“Look What They’ve Done to Ramada”) is too ironic for words.
Melanie was roughly the same kind of highly original narrative songwriter as Joni Mitchell, though she was never as successful or as critically acclaimed as Joni Mitchell. This may be because she admittedly fell short of Joni Mitchell’s immense level of pure musical talent, not to mention Joni’s level of steady, focused ambition. However, as a lyricist I think she was Joni’s equal, and her words had even more bite. As she sings in “Cyclone”:
Sweat on my brow, blood on my lips
That pretty much captures her “all-in” performance style. My favorite version of “The Nickel Song” is the loose-limbed full-band rendition on her great 1979 live album Ballroom Streets, but I wasn’t able to find a video of that. I was able to find a good live performance of the original solo acoustic arrangement of “The Nickel Song” from the year it was recorded:
And I’m putting up this video today as a placeholder, because I’m going to take a short blogging break here for a week or two. Then I promise I’ll come back in full force, ready to keep giving it all I’ve got.
But I really need this little reprieve for the next several days, so I hope nobody minds if there’s no Philosophy Weekend for a weekend or two. I plan to spend some refreshing days out in a calm and relaxing spot next week, and I also plan to focus on getting my other work done so I can stop feeling so rushed and aggravated all the time. Because, really, sometimes it’s just hard to keep up the pace without starting to feel resentful about the effort I always put in.
Sometimes I just get sick of it all — sick of writing, sick of coding, sick of caring. And sometimes I just can’t help feeling like a lot of people around me have been putting in a lot of nickels. You know I’ll be back soon, because I always am. But right now, I guess I’m just all out of dollar songs.