June 4, 2015 – Amarillo, TX
“Well we’re living here in Allentown,
and they’re closing all the factories down,
out in Bethlehem they’re killing time,
filling out forms,
standing in line”
Allentown by Billy Joel
The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing. We think of the mind in terms of consciousness; Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” Most of us probably consider our brains to be a necessary tool. We consider what our brain can do for us (help us solve math problems, read a book, surf the web for cute kitten pictures). It allows us, some of us more than others, to think about things, analyze them, and edit them for release to the public (e.g. Not telling the whole world that one of your brain’s top three functions is surfing the web for cute kitten pictures).
But our brains are involved in a great deal more than consciousness. If your brain is anything like mine (and I will not insult you by suggesting that it is) your brain has projects of it’s own; internal programs that it runs without your permission and sometimes without your conscious participation. And it seems to me that some of this behind-the-scenes work is actually very good and beneficial to us. It does (sometimes) prevent us from saying stupid things. It pulls our hand away from the hot stove. And it allows us to catch a ball thrown to us. Think of the physics involved in calculating the trajectory of a thrown object; adjusting for mass and velocity and wind and …. I bet you cannot do those calculations on a sheet of paper but your brain makes the necessary calculations and predictions and…..voila! you catch the ball.
Your brain, while an amazing and wonderful computer, does have it’s limitations. You can demonstrate this quite easily. Try this test sometime when you are in an airport or other locale which has “moving sidewalks.” When the moving sidewalk is functional (moving) you can walk onto it smoothly and confidently because your brain is familiar with this machine and makes the necessary adjustments to your stride to account for the suddenly moving floor. What is cooler is when you approach a moving sidewalk which is broken (not moving, which is sadly too common in airports). As you approach you will notice it’s lack of movement and you will (involuntarily) say “damn.” But that’s not the test. Here’s the test. Try to walk onto it. Just walk right along as you normally would on a regular concrete sidewalk. You know this moving sidewalk is not moving. You know this. You can see it. But I guarantee that you will stumble just a little as you take that first step onto this non-moving moving sidewalk. It is a case, apparently, where the brain’s amazing unconscious ability to analyze, calculate, and extrapolate override even the conscious brain’s solid and valid input. It is interesting.
Among these unbidden and unconscious brain functions that my brain wastes time on is what I call “The Soundtrack.” My soundtrack consists of songs that “run through my mind,” sometimes all day long. I know this phenomenon is hardly unique. But my ear worm is not just the latest Taylor Swift number that you would gladly lobotomize yourself to be rid of. Because I’m a pilot and travel for a living I suppose, my soundtrack is geography based. Let me explain.
When I take a flight to Allentown, Pennsylvania I can be assured that, before I leave the airport to get in the hotel van, the song “Allentown” by Billy Joel will be running on an endless loop inside my head until the landing gear are retracted after takeoff when I leave. During all my waking hours in Allentown I will hear in my mind and sometimes find myself mumbling
No they never told us what was real,
Iron and Coke and Chromium Steel…
This is relentless and it is exacerbated by sights and sounds which reinforce a city’s famous attributes. For example, our hotel in Allentown is actually right next to the famous Bethlehem Steel works which was once the largest steel mill in the world and now houses a casino. When I walk outside the hotel and see the rusting old hulk in the distance it is almost inevitable that Billy Joel’s booming voice will increase in volume (not to 10, mind you, but certainly 6).
Now, you may not think this would be a problem. As I said, everyone has ear worms whether they be ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, or Billy Ray Cyrus “Achy Breaky Heart.” (hah, hah! I got you, didn’t I.) How many songs could there be about cities, states, and landmasses? Well, as it turns out, A HELLUVA LOT! As I walk around downtown Wichita good old Glen Campbell is with me, inside my head, in fact, crooning Jimmy Webb’s great old lyrics.
I am a lineman for the county,
and I drive the main road,
searchin’ in the sun for another overload
Wichita Lineman by Jimmy Webb
I cannot overnight in Cincinnati, or even land there without this running through my head;
Baby, if you’ve ever wondered,
wondered whatever became of me,
I’m living on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati WKRP …
WKRP by Tom Wells
In New York City the unbidden voice of Sinatra intrudes, of course;
I want to wake up in a city,
that doesn’t sleep,
And find I’m king of the hill,
top of the heap…
Theme from New York, New York
by John Kander and Fred Ebb
And the thing is, I’m not really a big Sinatra fan.
It’s one thing to sing the wrong lyrics in public and fill in the unknown lines with dah, dee, dahh, dum. But what I find is that I do the same thing on my brain soundtrack. I know some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite “Oklahoma” which runs through my head when I walk through Bricktown in Oklahoma City ….
OOOOOOKLAHOMA! where the wind comes
sweeping down the plain,
and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet,
when the …..Dah, De, Dah, De, Dum Dum…
Yeah, Dum Dum is right. Is deluding yourself worse than deluding others?
(Small aside here. The song Oklahoma from the musical of the same name is actually the state song of the State of Oklahoma. It was adopted in 1953. That is one of those delicious little tidbits of fact that you run across from time to time which just make you smile. I would love to run into the crusty right-wing Senator James Inhofe sometime just so I could remind him that his bright red state’s state song was written for a Broadway play by a couple of New York composers.)
And on it goes. I was landing at O’Hare the other day and, yep, Sinatra again;
This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is,
My kind of people, too
People who smile at you…
My Kind of Town
by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen
Not always my experience in Chicago, but perhaps I don’t smile enough, either.
Over West Virginia, John Denver chimes in;
Almost Heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,
When I’m ordering a Filet-o-fish at a McDonalds in Denver he is back;
Colorado Rocky Mountain Hiiiiiigh,
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky,
The shadow from the starlight,
is softer than a lullaby,
Rocky Mountain Hiiiiiigh ….
I walk around the Grand Ole Opry and the Lovin’ Spoonful are inside my cranium;
Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar pickers in Nashville,
and they can pick more notes than the number of ants,
on a Tennessee ant hill,
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar cases in Nashville,
and any one that unpacks his guitar,
could play twice as better than I will…
Well, that one is just awesome, you gotta admit. I don’t mind that ear worm at all. Although, in the spirit of full disclosure I always sang it as “fifteen hundred and fifty-two” guitar pickers. John Sebastian’s line, I will admit, sounds better than mine. Imagine that.
I could continue my sad catalog of musical woe. There are many more geographical references in song than you might guess. Somehow my brain seems to know more songs than I do if that is possible and it cues up the right 45 at just the appropriate moment (Millennials, you’ll have to ask your parents to explain what a 45 is. No, it’s not a gun.)
When I’m walking in Memphis, of course, I’m Walkin’ with Marc Cohn. When I’m in Philadelphia Bruce Springsteen’s halting, haunting number is ever present. Unfortunately, when I’m at the Subway in Tulsa, I’m on Tulsa Time with Don Williams (Once again, not a huge country fan but, what are you gonna do. There it is.)
I take off north out of Hartford and bank left over beautiful western Massachusetts and I hear James Taylor;
Now the first of December was covered with snow,
and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston,
though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike
on account of that frosting,
with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go…
Sweet Baby James by James Taylor
I love that one, too.
So why are there so many songs about places and why do they ring through my head? It’s because we love places and the people in them. These songs bring back memories to us of the places we have been and the places we live and, of course, the places we would like to go. I love geography. I love maps. I love to travel. So, I guess it should not be a surprise that my particular species of ear worm is about places. If I could train my brain to redirect the energy required for my “soundtrack” to more meaningful activity I would probably be polishing my Nobel prize or, as Mark Twain said “Keeping store, no doubt, and respected by all.” But, as when Stephen Colbert asked neural scientist Francis Collins “where would I stab a pencil to get Call me Maybe out of my head?” I am unable to rid myself of my particular ear worm. I do wish that I liked all the songs on the album (Album? Again, millennials, ask your parents). That would make it more bearable. Fortunately I like most of them. I might as well embrace my soundtrack. At least I save a lot of money on iTunes.
P.S. I’m in Amarillo this morning. So I’m sure you can guess the playlist for Dustin’s head today.