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Music and the Road
I have been trying to expand my musical horizons lately; I have been listening to nothing but Tom Waits for two weeks. Funny thing is I always knew I would like Tom Waits, but it’s been one of those things that took me a long time to arrive at. The trouble with Tom though is that he isn’t really cycling music, and I have noticed that these days my best chance to really listen to music isn’t at home when I am always fiddling away with some writing or some other such distraction, it is in fact when I am in splendid isolation on my bicycle.
While I have a strong bent towards songs by men with deep voices and less than sunny dispositions, that kind of stuff just doesn’t work when you are trying to put one pedal in front of the other.
I have been trying for many years to work out the key ingredients to the type of stuff I can listen to while I train. I’ve spent so many days trying to get it right and too many days putting my faith in the ‘shuffle’ function of my iPod which, of course, doesn’t shuffle at all. It merely seems to find tracks that I don’t like and play them when I am climbing and can’t possibly get to my iPod to change tracks.
I read Brian Eno once saying that the hardest thing to create with music is joy. I would say that elusive element is exactly what makes the kind of music that you need in the saddle. Yet as my fruitless attempts at listening to reggae on the bike have proven, it has to be the right kind of joy.
I’m not really into any music in the "euphoric"-type genres, nor do I want the kind of thumping tunes I would sweat to in a club invading my earphones on the road. I know that many do, but that is just not me. I have this thing about listening to a voice, I don’t care what language it is in, I just need a voice; I need some direction from a human being.
While a voice is good and I enjoy the mental stimulation of some clever lyrics, I don’t need to listen to wordy folk songs about a civil war or some such challenge. Directness is key with words; I like them, like my riding, to be efficient, as opposed to rambling, which is something you do when you go walking.
So, for me, it can get quite precise: I want something uplifting and I want to hear someone singing with feeling, but without taking too many words to do it. The things that seem to fit the bill oddly are still quite diverse, and once I find something that works, I can tend to play it to death.
Cycling music is something you have to be able to play over and over without getting sick of. It reminds me of when I was young and would only have one or two cassettes to my name (things are a lot easier when you only have a cassette of ‘Born in the USA’ backed up by Dire Straits ‘Making Movies’ to your name). I remember talking to Jez Hunt about this late one night, and I wish I could remember the name of the cassette he said he had with him at the Junior Tour of Lorraine - he told me he loved it so much that he only took the one cassette with him and just played it over and over. He also won the Tour of Lorraine, just for the record. It was just what you did when you were a kid. Like life, though, it just gets more complicated.
Choices can also depend on my general mood (which, if I’m honest, doesn’t really change much - I ride happy, not angry) and what type of riding I might be doing. Contrary to many peoples idea, I don’t ever use music if I am doing an effort or a hard session. I find that I really have to concentrate if I’m training hard. On those days it’s just a quick loud burst of something with at least three guitars while I get changed and out the front door.
Most of my music listening is done either in the brief twenty minutes it takes me to get to the bunch in the mornings (for the record, anyone who continues to listen to music in one earphone on bunch rides – you should be ashamed of yourselves) or on the long sorties I make alone into the country on my endurance days.
Music will always be such a personal choice, but for me there is one track that I could loop ad infinitum to accompany me on any ride: Minstrel Boy by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros. It is just perfect for me: a few sparse barked vocals and an incredible piece of music that just seems to fit the sum of the conditions, my particular humour and the motion of bike riding.
While old Tom Waits might make me feel uneasy in the saddle, it’s good to know there are plenty of other tunes out there that can be the perfect compliment to bike riding, and that I know I will thoroughly enjoy the continuing search of those ideal cycling tunes.
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