Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


No surrender

November 22, 2009

The Bruce Springsteen song that I associate most with running is “No Surrender,” one of several hits from his hugely successful Born in the U.S.A. album.

It’s mainly the first line that speaks to me: “Well we busted out of class/ Had to get away from those fools….” While my own exits from academic buildings rarely are flamboyant enough to qualify as “busting out,” I often get a sense of liberation from breaking into stride after a long day in the lab. It’s a feeling I first noticed as an undergraduate when heading to cross-country practice after organic chemistry.

A recent discussion of the above with my friend Mary led her to send me a pre-JFK good-luck email with a link to a video of a live performance of “No Surrender.” It was an exceedingly apt choice. I had just flown to Washington DC for a five-day ASTMH meeting, but would briefly “bust out” of the conference — having to get away from those geniuses, I suppose — in order to run the race. And considering how the race unfolded, “No retreat, baby, no surrender” was a fitting refrain. Mary’s post-race email didn’t miss a beat: “Greg job Greg! There’s definitely no surrender in you!”

Or, as another Springsteen song might put it: biochemists like me, baby we were born to ruuuun.


Tell me more, tell me more

November 15, 2008

Warning: this entry quotes song lyrics deemed “explicit” by the Recording Industry Association of America.

2008 marks the ten-year anniversary of when Liz and I first dated (and then broke up). The first movie we saw together was a 20th-anniversary showing of Grease, so for Liz’s birthday this year, I made a music video using old photos and a parody of the Grease duet “Summer Nights” to tell the story of our romance:

Summer lovin’ — had me a blast.
Runner lovin’ happened so fast.
I met a girl — totally rad!
I met a boy; he knew my dad….

To record the parody, I obtained a karaoke version of “Summer Nights” from Seattle Karaoke Enterprises (which, despite its name, is located in Tukwila). Every time I go there, there’s a really young-looking kid named Joe behind the counter. I half-expect him to heckle me about my unhip music choices, like the Jack Black character in High Fidelity, but he’s actually quite helpful. He made sure I wanted a CD based on the movie version of Grease rather than the Broadway show, and when I expressed surprise at the “Parental warning: explicit lyrics” sticker on the selected CD, he said, “It’s because of the song Greased Lightning: ‘She’s a real pussy wagon’ and ‘The chicks’ll cream’.”

Joe’s depth of knowledge impressed me, to say the least. I’ve been a fan of Grease since I was five years old, when my mom and I would dance around the kitchen to “You’re The One That I Want,” and I had NO IDEA that it was such a minefield of vulgarity.

In any event, I took the CD home, made the recording with the help of my friends Do and Lori, scanned in some photos, and put everything together with Microsoft Windows Movie Maker. A wholesome good time was had by all.

Grease ticket stub


Questions you never thought to ask, part 1

June 26, 2008

Q. Greg, what is your favorite musical chord?

A. The suspended 4th, hands down.

This chord is kind of a guilty pleasure — one that may identifiy me as being overly sentimental and not in possession of the most sophisticated taste. So be it. With a CD collection dominated by artists like Billy Joel and Carole King, it’s not as though I’m fooling lots of people anyway.

The suspended 4th is ubiquitous in popular music as well as less popular music. As an example of the latter, Alex Stemm-Wolf has written a beautiful song (from the album Lisa Colorado) called New Mall which features suspended 4ths at the end of almost every line (coinciding with the words that rhyme with “mall,” among others). Just listen to that blend of piano and vocals — how it keeps you hanging on, waiting for the chord to resolve into its major-chord cousin….


Are my lyrics gonna fly?

May 31, 2008

The University of Washington just held a “Song of Washington” lyrics contest. The winning entry will be set to music by Bill Conti, who is best known as the composer of the training montage song from Rocky (“Gonna Fly Now”).

Having nothing better to do with my copious free time, I decided to enter. But it was hard to figure how where to begin. How exactly does one sum up a school of 43,000 students, 28,000 faculty and staff, and over 150,000 living alumni? I’m used to writing songs about much narrower topics, like my mother and my favorite metabolic pathway.

I eventually decided that, whatever the message of this song might be, it had to be delivered forcefully, confidently, and succinctly. In other words, the chorus of the song should be a call to arms — a command of some sort directed at the school’s personnel and supporters. Something like “Kill Wazzu!”, except not specific to sports and not conveying hostility toward another school. Something bold, yet wholesome.

I sat down with a piece of paper and successfully generated a bunch of lame ideas. “Study hard”? “Bark if you’re a Husky”? “Make new friends but keep the old; some are purple and the others gold”? Ick, ick, and ick.

Still, focusing on the school colors seemed like a step in the right direction. How about … “Wear purple!”? It sounds kind of audacious without actually being offensive, and it might help the University sell more of its officially licensed apparel. Yes — I had a winner! Maybe not an actual contest winner, but a hook around which I could build a set of lyrics, at least. I added a marvelous line about wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, sprinkled in some standard imagery (cheering crowds, raised glasses), and — voila! — I had an instant song.

Just add music.


Carol of the ills

December 24, 2007

Forgive me if I’m not in the mood to sing the usual holiday songs this year.

I’ll be home for Christmas;
You can count on me.
Please have meds beside my bed
And Kleenex by the tree….

Swaddled in wool blankets
On this Christmas Eve,
I’ll be home for Christmas…
‘Cause I’m too sick to leave.

Currently Liz and I both have some sort of stomach bug, as indicated by the usual disgusting symptoms. This comes on the heels of several other illnesses; since mid-September, I’ve had four colds and strep throat, while Liz has had three lengthy colds, strep throat, and a sinus infection. Can you guess when we started putting Phil in daycare?

Poor Liz has suffered more than I have. She spent months preparing for the Portland Marathon, but on race day she was too sick to reach the starting line. More recently, she competed at the USATF club cross country meet in Ohio just as a two-week-long cold started to recede. The outcome, while not disastrous, was a far cry from the performances she had delivered in August and early September.

Looking ahead to next year, it’s difficult to commit to any specific running goals when recent history suggests we’ll be fighting off one plague after another. For now, all we can do is run hard when we’re healthy and take it easy when we’re not.

To end on a happier note, here’s my favorite seasonally relevant YouTube video of all time, which was recommended by my aunt Beverly. If, like me, you have a dual fetish for a cappella singing and ’80s pop music, this one really hits the spot.


The singing centrifuge

November 9, 2007

Every so often you get ambushed by a song that you really, really were not expecting.

When I went to Scotland in June, Continental Airlines celebrated the arrival of my flight in Edinburgh by playing Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” It was like, “Welcome to Scotland — here’s a song about how much fun you’d be having if you were in Latin America right now.”

A more recent example occurred today, when I centrifuged my bacterial cell cultures in order to separate the cells from the medium in which they were growing. The centrifuge, a Sorvall RC-6, punctuated the completion of the spin with a quick verse of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.

It’s cool to have a centrifuge so enamored of its work that it sings to you. But couldn’t it offer a ditty more relevant to the task at hand? Perhaps these lyrics, set to the same tune, would work better:

My microbes lie in a vast ocean —
A broth that is known as LB.
To harvest my cells from the ocean,
I spin them at ten thousand g.*

Spin down, spin down,
Spin down my microbes for me, for me.
Spin down, spin down,
Spin down my microbes for me.

[*that is, a relative centrifugal force of 10,000 times the gravitational constant, g]


Sing a Song of Mom

May 12, 2007

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there! I’m hoping that my own mom won’t mind me sharing a song I wrote for her back in 2000, which might possibly resonate with other moms and their children.

My friend Do Peterson was the recording engineer for this project, in addition to providing backing vocals and guitar accompaniment.

In case they’re not clear from the recording, the lyrics are shown below.

“Are you really gonna wear that tie?”
“Are you really gonna to wear those pants?”
“If you’re gonna come home late,
Will you let me know in advance?”
She asks a lot of questions
To keep me from going wrong,
So I’ll sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.

“Did you bring Joe a present?”
“Did you remember not to gloat?”
“Did you help do the dishes?”
“Did you write him a thank-you note?”
She asks a lot of questions
To find out what’s going on,
So I’ll sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.

She’s my mom; on her I can depend.
Whether I’m feeling great or I’m on the mend,
My mom will love me right up to the end.

“Do you have to run so far?”
“Do you have to eat so fast?”
“Shouldn’t you be cleaning the bathroom
Instead of watching this telecast?”
She asks a lot of questions
To keep me from going wrong,
So I’ll sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom,
Sing a song of Mom.


I want my own theme song

April 21, 2007

On Friday evening we enjoyed a trip to Husky Ballpark to watch our Dawgs take on the Trojans of USC. Music is such an integral part of these games that each Husky player has his own theme song that is played as he steps up to bat. This got me thinking about how ultramarathon races could likewise be infused with song excerpts to make them more “fan-friendly.” Imagine this: about 50 meters before each aid station, a runner passes over one of those mats used for electronic timing purposes. The sensing of the runner’s chip by the mat then causes that runner’s theme song to be played automatically as he/she approaches the aid station, thus building excitement in a semi-informative way (e.g., “It’s that Guns N’ Roses song again — it must be Meghan!”).

The system would need to be set up to handle packs of runners in a reasonable way, rather than switching songs every second. Perhaps the arrival of the leader would trigger 30 seconds of music for that person, after which the system would reset and wait for the next arrival.

So what would my theme be? I’m not sure, but maybe “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr, or “Running Down a Dream” by Tom Petty. Or “Climb Every Mountain” by that nun from The Sound of Music. Or….


Playing a new game

February 13, 2007

As previously noted, Little Phil is often calmed by live singing. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to have strong musical preferences; any old tune will do, even if it’s one that he heard two hours ago. Song choice thus becomes a question of what the singer wants to sing.

In general, what I want to sing are songs for which I know all the words. This criterion is much more limiting than I would have guessed initially; I’ll start something like “Brown Eyed Girl” full of confidence, but by the second verse I’ll be scatting my way to the chorus: “What ever happened/ Tuesdays were so slow/ Goin’ down to the old mine/ With a transistor radio/ Laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey/ … Ah, rats, that’s the first verse/ Da da da da da da da da/ Somethin’ ’bout a waterfall….”

Then I’ll retreat to a song that I know really well, like “You’ve Got A Friend” or “Eye Of The Tiger.” But one can only sing those golden oldies so many times before boredom sets in.

My new strategy is to turn a boring song into an improv comedy sketch. Specifically, I’ll start singing the song that begins, “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word/ Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird….” and then, after Mama purchases the diamond ring, invent my own spontaneously generated list of items for Mama to procure (and possible defects thereof). So, for example:

And if that diamond ring won’t shine
Mama’s gonna buy you a copper mine.
And if that mine contains no metal,
Mama’s gonna buy you Hansel and Gretel.
And if those German kids get lost,
Mama’s gonna buy you tabasco sauce.
And if that sauce does burn your tongue,
Mama’s gonna buy you Aqualung.
And if you don’t like Jethro Tull,
Mama’s gonna buy you a hominid skull.
And if those bones are much too dry,
Mama’s gonna buy you a firefly.
And if that firefly won’t glow….

It’s not the stuff of Grammy nominations but does make the time pass more quickly.

Phil at 3 months


News flash: lullabies work!

December 30, 2006

Phil has been in good spirits for most of our vacation week here at my parents’ house in Rutland, Vermont. He was crying pretty hard a couple of nights ago, but he calmed right down when my dad did a banjo-and-vocals rendition of “Hobo’s Lullaby.” I thought that it might be just a coincidence until Dad achieved the same results the next night with “Midnight Special.” Reaction to my a cappella versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Blackbird” has been more equivocal, but overall, the little guy seems to be a fan of live music. I think he even made the “raise the roof” gesture with his hands during one of Dad’s performances.

Screaming for an encore, or just yawning?