My Favorite Song of All-Time

I carry a secret with me.  Maybe you know it.  Maybe I don’t hide it as well as I think I do.

It’s true that I am a happy man.  I enjoy life, I like doing things, I nurture a very healthy curiosity.  None of that is faked.  I am very happy to be alive.

But underneath, at the core of myself, the bits that make up the very nature of me, there rests a calm but persistent sadness.  There always has, for as long as I can remember; before I knew words to speak with, I knew the calm but persistent sadness.  Maybe you do too, maybe you don’t.  I don’t know much about you, it turns out.

I like waking up in the morning.  I am not depressed.  But in the silent moments, the tiny voids of life between when you pull the shower handle and when the water starts coming out, between when you turn the ignition and the engine turns over, between when you put the food in your mouth and you start tasting it, I can feel it down in there.  I can feel it now.

It is a sadness based on a few things.  It is, first and foremost, based on my acute sense of the presence of mortality, a sense I have had since I was two years old.  Intertwined with that sense of mortality has been an ever-present inkling that death is final: it is a blankness, an absence, a return to what was before we were born.  This is not frightening.  It is just sad.

It is also a sadness based on true loneliness.  Not that I am not surrounded by people; I often am.  And not that I don’t like people: there are plenty of people I love dearly (and still many more I do not), but the disappointing truth that we are all alone inside our skulls, our experience caged by physical limitations, all of existence boiling down to sparks and firing synapses that can never, ever be rightly communicated.

There is also an element to this rudimentary sadness that is more difficult to explain.  It is tied into the loneliness—being stuck inside your head—but it seems more specific to myself.  Like I am greater than anyone can ever know, but at the same time, also utterly despicable.  I am big like Jupiter, but when you look at me you see the moon, a pebble, a fucking yellow raisin, but I am also absolutely morally bankrupt: I am a black hole, a swirling vortex of bigness and littleness in constant and dramatic flux, an incredible elemental display, yet to all outward appearances I’m a schmuck riding a train, a short chubby guy eating a soft pretzel, a consumerist member of the bewildered herd.  I’m the ocean.  I’m the giant undertow.

“I’m the Ocean” by Neil Young is not a famous song.  It’s not even from a famous album of his.  But the first time I heard it, about eight years ago, I knew I had heard the song.  It is a song that communes with that core sadness of mine, the bigness and littleness, the mortality, the vortex.  It makes me feel like Jupiter.

The lyrics are extemporaneous stream-of-consciousness set to a thrumming repetitive rock riff and pounding piano keys that evoke the crashing of the waves of Young’s ocean.  I, too, am the ocean: vast, unknowable, terrifying, ultimately temporary.

Without any explanations, Young creates characters in a story he is barely even telling; a “rider” and a “her”.  The meanings of these barely-there stories can be (and should be) debated at-length, but to me they’ve always had very personal and very clear meanings.

“I’m the Ocean” crosses gulfs of time, space and mental and spiritual distance in no time at all.  It is a song outside of time, outside of feeling, outside of purpose.  The final verse is the penultimate musical moment of my life for me, every time I hear it.  I scream it, I yell it, I whisper it, and I almost always tear up.  Despite the fact that it mentions two kinds of cars, and I am not a car guy, nothing shines a light down the dark well of the sadness like that last verse.

There was not a single stream-able version of this song online when I set out to write this, so I went ahead and made a little video of it myself.  It is right below here.  I admit, it is self-indulgent.  It features two minutes of footage of me before the song starts.  It’s my own “Thriller” video.  But for this one, I wanted to do more than just “get it online”.  I wanted to show how, to me, it feels to be the ocean, to be the giant undertow:

“I’m the Ocean” by Neil Young

I’m an accident.
I was driving way too fast,
couldn’t stop though,
so I let the moment last.

I’m for rollin’.
I’m for tossin’ in my sleep.
It’s not guilt though.
It’s not the company I keep.

People my age,
they don’t do the things I do.
They go somewhere
while I run away with you.
I got my friends,
and I got my children, too.
I got her love.
She’s got my love, too.

I can’t hear you,
but I feel the things you say.
I can’t see you
but I see what’s in my way.
Now I’m floatin’
cause I’m not tied
to the ground.
Words unspoken
seem to leave a hollow sound.

On the long plain
see the rider in the night.
See the Chieftain.
See the braves
in cool moonlight.
Who will love them
when they take another life?
Who will hold them
when they tremble
from the knife?

Voicemail numbers
on an old computer screen.
Rows of lovers
parked forever in a dream.
Screaming sirens
echoing across the bay
to the old boats
from the city far away.

Homeless heroes
walk the streets
of their hometown.
Rows of zeros
on a field
that’s turning brown.
They play baseball,
they play football
under lights.
They play card games
and we watch them every night.

Need distraction,
need romance and candlelight.
Need random violence,
need entertainment tonight.
Need the evidence—
want the testimony of—
expert witnesses
on the brutal crimes of love.

I was too tired
to see the news
when I got home,
pulled the curtain,
fell on the bed alone.
Started dreaming,
saw the rider once again
in the doorway
where she stood
and watched for him.

I’m not present.
I’m a drug
that makes you dream.
I’m an Aerostar.
I’m a Cutlass Supreme
in the wrong lane,
trying to turn
against the flow.
I’m the ocean.
I’m the giant undertow.

3 Responses to “My Favorite Song of All-Time”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    If I don’t get to this by Saturday remind me. You can delete this comment.

  2. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    The song and your video seem to be indicative of my personal interpretation of music and movies. I enjoyed the sounds of the song and the images you filmed, but I can’t say I truly grasped the intention of either one. I’d imagine most anyone after only one experience would feel the same, but being that I don’t have the same initial reaction that you had it probably would never happen for me.

    That’s a shitty way to write up your very last entry in this series. Perhaps writing at 1:30 AM wasn’t the best timing.

    You’re done now! Do I get a prize for following the series to it’s completion? A bagel or something? When did you start the series?

    Despite me not connecting with it like you have I can see why you would enjoy this song. Seems like your flavor.

  3. […] one: Neil Young’s Mirrorball on vinyl.  It’s not my favorite album but it contains my favorite song.  Used would be fine but what I salivate over is the idea of a new, factory-sealed copy.  New […]

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