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April 27th, 2011:

How Music Really Oughta Work

I just got back from Big Family Easter In Chicago, where it rained eight out of the ten days we were there. So I’m drying out, catching my breath, tinkering with the outline of Ten Gentle Opportunities, and trying to iron out a long list of wrinkles in several ebook projects. I’m crosseyed from poking at details, so I’ll take ten minutes out for a slightly tangled story. This may start to sound like an episode of James Burke’s Connections after awhile, but bear with me.

Marci Braun (scroll down a little) is a popular country/western DJ on Chicago’s big country station US99.5. She’s also Carol’s sister’s husband’s cousin’s daughter, and we’ve seen her here and there at family gatherings on Carol’s side since she was a pre-teen. The first time we took Dash to Chicago (he was nine weeks old at the time) he was a big hit at our nephew Matt’s college graduation party, and he bonded with Marci in a country hemidemisemiquaver. So I listen to her when I know she’ll be on the air, and she has a lot to do with my growing affection for country music. Oh, and the fact that pop music is now completely incoherent, lacking warmth, melody, harmony, and just about everything else that I value. Several of my friends among the Educated Elite grumble at me for listening to country music (“It’s so, so, well, Republican!“) but I just tell them that if they can bring back close harmony and clever lyrics to pop music, I’ll jump. In the meantime, I listen to country and classical. Draw whatever conclusions you wish. (No points for the obvious one that I take great pleasure in annoying the Educated Elite.)

Anyway. A week ago Monday night, while I was driving from our condo in Des Plaines to Crystal Lake after not seeing Carol for three days, I punched the 99.5 button on the car radio, and Marci was there. (Actually, odds are that she was a digital audio file at that moment, but that’s just how the radio business works.) She ran a commercial, and then introduced a song: Darius Rucker’s “This.” Great raving upbeat piece, celebrating a life that turned out very well somehow, in spite of all the mistakes we make and the bad luck that comes as a side dish to life’s main course, generally right there beside the lima beans.

Brilliant lyric, which you can read here. The gist:

I don’t really know how I got here
But I’m sure glad that I did;
And it’s crazy to think that one little thing
Could’ve changed all of it.

Maybe it didn’t turn out like I planned–
Maybe that’s why I’m such, such a lucky man!

For every stoplight I didn’t make;
Every chance I did or I didn’t take;
All the nights I went too far;
All the girls that broke my heart;
All the doors that I had to close;
All the things I knew but I didn’t know
Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me here to
This.

If you like feel-good music, go buy that song, which will cost you the same as a small Diet Coke at McDonalds, and will stay with you a lot longer. Just as the song began I was coming out of the Union Pacific underpass on Northwest Highway just west of Des Plaines, and there was a freight train heading by overhead. At the song’s inspiration, I was reflecting on how much I like my life. I’ve gotten almost everything I’ve ever wanted, granting that some of it took awhile. I found my soulmate at 17, and my life’s work at 33. That may have been optimal: Had I not met Carol that early I would probably have lost her to someone else, because at 16 she didn’t know yet how hot she really was. (And anyone who knew me when I was 17 will recall how hot I wasn’t.) If I hadn’t worked at technical pursuits before I discovered that I was an editor and a tech writer, well, I might have tried to make a living on SF (ha!) or given up on writing entirely. Everything just seemed to flow, one small success from another, with equal parts luck and hard work to drive the machinery. I had it: Dogs, houses, sunsets, tube sockets, saints up and down the family tree, everything. (I even had a pickup truck once.)

Luck. Trains. Whew. In 1977 I was driving home from my mom’s house along Devon avenue, and I raced a train to a crossing. I made it by two car lengths. Why? I don’t know. It was by several orders of magnitude the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, and if my dad’s anemic, beat-to-hell ’74 AMC wagon had been just a little bit out of tune, I would have died in 1977. I had been married to Carol for less than a year, and had not yet completed wire-wrapping my first computer. I was just getting out of first gear. Damn, I’d barely gotten out of park.

Stupidity comes in smaller containers as well. I told my broker to buy $5,000 worth of Microsoft stock a month after they went public in 1986. She offered me a limited partnership instead, and I took it rather than chewing her ass to go back and do what I told her. But compared to being splatted by a General Electric U23B, hey, small potatoes.

Like I said, great song. I got home to Colorado, fired up Firefox, found the song among Amazon’s DRM-free 99c MP3s, and ninety seconds later it was playing. It’s not tied to a particular player or DRM technology, so there’s no reason to think I won’t be playing it twenty years from now. Certainly we’ll play it at our 40th wedding anniverary party in 2016, where I will wear my expensive cowboy hat and dare y’all to dance.

That’s how music ought to work: You hear a song somewhere that you’d like to hear again, so you find it online, pay for it quickly and easily, download it, and keep it forever. I remember 45s and LP vinyl. (Hell, I remember 78s.) I remember 8″ reel-to-reel. I remember 8-tracks and cassettes and CDs. I remember my Diamond Rio. I still have an iPod. Maybe we had to pass through all that to get where we are today, and maybe it might have turned out differently had some engineer been brighter or Sony not as dumb as they always turn out to be. Doesn’t matter. The message hasn’t gotten out to every last corner of the world, but as long as Amazon’s system or something like it exists, music is where it needs to be.

Play it again. Play it forever. We’ve arrived.