Melanie and the Nickel Song

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.

15 Responses

  1. Sounds like a mind that is
    Sounds like a mind that is bursting at the edges with far too much crammed in, in a desperate desire to unload… the constipation of creation allows no further ideas to enter as the discomfort increases until the finality of “fuck it!” takes over and the mind begins emptying, so much, so little, so what, such a riddle. Time reduced to the minimum allows the constant of freshness to calm and the body to recuperate from overload.

    Spoil yourself with no-thingness until Now reacquaints you to purpose reimagined. See you when you’re ready, amigo.

  2. before you can manage the
    before you can manage the expectations of others you need to manage the expectations you have for yourself.

  3. Re: The Beats, but somehow
    Re: The Beats, but somehow seemingly relevant:

    You read them in your teens and you fall in love, and you leave them on your shelf in your twenties…In early middle age the question begs, “Just what the hell was the bother?” But your 40s find you fond of old jolt jolts, and you re-read Cassady’s letter…And you fall in love again, on a whim, and that’s what the hell was the bother!

  4. Thanks for the open, honest
    Thanks for the open, honest sharing of your feelings, Levi. I think we’ve all been there. I’ve noticed people using the term “epic fail” a lot lately. Coincidence? You know I don’t think so. It’s blowing in the wind. Of course, I think you know you are not a failure, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it once in a while. I’ve been taking a break myself lately, but will soon bounce back with a plethora of projects. I suspect you will do the same.

  5. Hello,

    you will never guess how and where I found your post today! It has been discovered by some Melanie fans and has been posted on the various official pages on Facebook! Her assistant even has shared the link, so I assume Melanie herself has read your post by now.

    Just wanted to let you know. I don’t know you and I don’t know anything about your struggles, but maybe this makes you feel a bit lighter, at least for a moment.

  6. Tranquilo is a must in this
    Tranquilo is a must in this hectic existence that never gets any easier…..enjoy those days off with no thought of the grind Levi 🙂

  7. yea dood i don’t know what i
    yea dood i don’t know what i’d do without music either.

    prolly be dead.

    anywho, the internet (and this crazy rock) is better for your presence. enjoy your vacation and i’m sure i’m not the only one who looks forward to your return. peace!

  8. peace and love to you, and
    peace and love to you, and what he said, music does take away the pain at least for a while, i’ve been praying for everyone and everything, hard to tell if it helps

  9. I really emphatize with your
    I really emphatize with your experience re: events that bring aging home. Good luck but there is one terrible truth: we are all getting old at the same rate.

  10. Levi, glad there are other
    Levi, glad there are other Melanie fans out there! Try not to get too cynical.
    We all have our “downtimes” & need for mental vacations as well as physical ones.
    Take care & enjoy “Firecracker” & your family…See you back soon. God bless…

  11. Hi, Levi. Coolness. Your site
    Hi, Levi. Coolness. Your site is sufficiently diverting to me that I bookmarked it. I only give that remark the ‘sheen of the notable’ because I’m a generally churlish jackass who thinks everyone is somewhere on the stupid spectrum. The breadth and ambition and quality of thinking and expressing is cool and surprising. I’m looking forward to delving, and thanks for your 20 years of explicating and digging the written portrait. More discipline than me by several orders!

    I would only caution that with this most recent Melanie post you seem to have achieved that writerly apogee, unique to the damnable online environment, wherein you feel complete comfort and zero apparent irony proclaiming your malaise from some rooftop or other, and for the edification of what appears to be a fan base. When an artist thinks his own ennui and announcement of same is of sufficient interest to his ‘followers’ that it merits standing up and actually talking about it? It’s a numbing ‘Blog Age’ trope, and a sign that the gears are slipping a bit. You surprised me with this pedestrian tactic. The blogger grown accustomed to the Veneration Cloud he inhabits is not in a good place. News Flash – we’re all obliged to blurt out dollar songs. At least you’re getting a nickel for them, reportedly.

    Anyway, Levi; this isn’t a rant, it’s a fan letter. You’re a cool writer. Stay grounded. “I’m off but, fear not, I promise I’ll be back” is the bane of the Info Age. You oughta know that. Also, the endearing tilt of your head in the bio pic is not serving your brand. Though it’s cool you and your son are featured together and both look like cool cats. You are not angry enough by half about DF Wallace, a towering uber-caffeinated phony who on his best days writes in the convincing guise of an oxygen-starved 8th-grader. And while I’m sitting on the fence about Cormac, your analysis would indicate you’ve not been apprised of the effect he seeks. If Blood Meridian is a creaky western bore, On the Road is a Hope-Crosby movie. ‘Blood Meridien’ maybe isn’t a masterpiece, but your weirdly half-speed critique strongly suggests you didn’t read much of it. Cormac’s stuff may be faked up and turgid, but it is not tumbleweed-swaddled. And you misspelled Meridian.

    Keep up the good work. I do love the blog, which I’m sure delights you. You’re smart and loquacious. But not angry enough by half about DF Wallace. Can’t say that enough!

  12. Dear Jeff — I love this
    Dear Jeff — I love this advice! Thank you.

    I don’t think I’ll ever agree with you about Cormac McCarthy, though I will fix the spelling of “Blood Meridian”. And of course I didn’t finish the book — as you know, I despised it!

    I would be happy to share more of my anger about David Foster Wallace’s bad, bad (really bad) writing but, really, how does one maintain their anger towards a writer who kills himself? He had the last word in that argument, in a way I never want to match.

    I really like your critique of the tilt in my head on my blogger photo and of my fashionable ennui as a blogger. But I’m taking it with a sense of humor and I’m not planning to change my ways. You know this entire website is for me an elaborate self-portrait, right? So when I feel ennui (and I do, I do) … my ennui is not besides the point. At these moments, my ennui IS the point.

    But I thank you for your honest feedback and for your pungent (and mostly correct) observations. You can comment here anytime and I hope you will.

  13. Thanks for describing so many facets of Melanie’s intent on writing. It was timely today.
    I sang her songs with exuberance‼️

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!