November 16, 2023
“Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum,
Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from”
– Bob Dylan
It was my birthday, but I kept to my early morning clockwork schedule: up at 5 AM for coffee and hobbies: French flash cards, ear training and writing. I cleaned up the following Saturday’s post.
I had the day off so I had a moment to catch up on writers whose work here I adore but have let slip. I almost missed my 6:30 Zoom call with my French teacher in Montpellier. I poured a second cup of coffee.
My company gives us our birthdays off which I love. For a few days colleagues had been asking me what I was going to do with the day and whether I had any plans. I didn’t and decided to fix that.
Melanie would be working, and it would have been easy to let the day slip by uneventfully, but the night before and a “Friday Night” Manhattan in, I decided to use the day to memorize the lyrics to a song. I’d have them forever. A sort of present for myself and a daunting challenge for the following day. I was listening to Thunder on the Mountain by Bob Dylan. The song is long, twelve verses in total.
“I got the pork chops, she got the pie,
She ain't no angel and neither am I”
My wife was off to work at 8 AM. Around 9 AM I took a nap that lasted over an hour. When I woke, there was a text from my daughter. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Are you up from your nap?” I sat up in bed, texted her — “Ha ha. Just” – and then we Face Timed. We talked about her next Substack post. She sent me a link to Google to read it. I did while she worked on something on her laptop.
Then there was a text from Daniel. Both kids had checked in early. He had a gift certificate for a coffee place in Williamsburg that he’d heard about all the way from Los Angeles. He needed my Venmo.
Later in the morning my best friend called me. He never misses a call for my birthday, Melanie’s birthday, or even our anniversary. As I always do when he calls, I answered the phone with an aggravated “what?” I say it like he’s called me multiple times in a row and he’s grown impossibly annoying. It’s an ancient joke. It still makes us both laugh. We’ve known each other for thirty years.
We talked about his kids, my kids, whether mine had called or not. We talked about his book that’s coming out soon. Then we talked about Mechanical Bull, an idea for a book I’m flirting with. We explored ideas for it together. He said he saw what I saw in the idea. It was generous of him, and he indulged me. I paced around the entire edge of the apartment room by room while I talked to him. I do this when I’m really locked into a phone conversation.
Towards the end of the call, I asked him how old I was, and he wasn’t sure. I asked him why he even bothered to call if he doesn’t know how old I am. I joked that maybe he should have the courtesy to put my age into the same automatic calendar reminder. We laughed and said goodbye.
Around noon, I printed out all twelve verses of Bob Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain. I sat at my desk with my feet up on my piano bench, tackling one verse at a time. It was going quicker than I thought.
“Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north,
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth”
I needed to get out of the house and get some sun. It would be a shame not to. So I walked down to the Brooklyn Bridge Park playing Thunder on the Mountain on an endless memorization loop, testing my memory against the song itself. It wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped against the recording. It was fast and Dylan seemed to come in singing at odd times, but I didn’t care.
I sat on a pier bench overlooking Lower Manhattan and had the simple lunch I’d picked up on the way over. There’s a stunning view of the city from there. I was enjoying my own company, my memorization project, the warm weather, my day off. When I finished lunch, I opted for a longer walk than planned.
I’d been listening to headphones for so long at such a high volume, I’d started to get mentally cut off from my surroundings. I started to raise my memorization singing/mumbling volume on the lyrics. I wondered if people passing were starting to hear me. They wouldn’t look anyway, I thought. I’d just be another oddball New Yorker.
Little by little I leaned into the singing volume as I made my way home in a large circle through DUMBO. I cared less and less. On a whim, I took a path through a tree-lined part of the park I never walk.
“Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches,
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages”
Back at the apartment I worked through Happy Birthdays on Facebook. Some really old friends showed up in there. I saw Mel had posted a picture of me that I liked. Lots of good wishes there, too. She had taken the picture during our anniversary trip when we were in France this summer. I look good in it. Happy. Smiling. Relaxed in a picture for once.
After she came home from work, Mel set down her things and immediately went out again. She was doing some shopping for my birthday. While she cooked a birthday dinner, I sat on a stool on the kitchen counter looking on, and we talked. We’ve settled into a nice groove recently and spontaneously hugged at one point while she was cooking. She asked me if I was enjoying my birthday. I told her I was.
While sitting at the counter, I played Jeff Beck’s Since We Ended As Lovers. That reminded me of a live blues song Beck played that I recently discovered, so I put that on afterwards. I told Melanie that Beck’s sound was why I learned to play electric guitar, and that it will also be why I quit. I wasn’t expecting much of a response to that, but I got the acknowledgment I wanted. She genuinely liked the song. It was on her iPhone. She’d heard me play it the other day.
A friend of Alannah’s who is coming to spend a couple of days with us next week unexpectedly texted me Happy Birthday while I was sitting there. We have a running joke that she’s our “other daughter.” So in her text she pretended to actually be my daughter and let me know she was bringing a friend named Alannah. “Hi mom and dad, I heard it’s someone’s birthday. Can’t wait to celebrate all together with my friend alannah as well. Happy birthday Adam!!” I played along and told her, “oh, we LOVE alannah. It’s so great you’re bringing her.”
She flagged my text with a heart. I read the exchange to Melanie and told her this was exactly why I liked Alannah’s friend so much, and that’s why she’s our other daughter.
Thunder on the mountain, and there's fires on the moon,
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon”
Melanie gave me my birthday card. The picture on the front looked like a painting we own. Mel said she saw the same thing, and that’s why she bought it. I loved her words inside the card. I told her I’m more and more moved by her cards these last few years. I staged the card on the dinner table next to flowers she’d bought while she was out on birthday errands.
Her dinner came out perfectly, a hit. We took turns hovering over the dining room table taking pictures and comparing them before each course. Sometimes we’re a bit competitive on pictures, but we weren’t. We toasted my birthday. After dinner I did a memory double-check on the Thunder on the Mountain lyrics, and they had already started to slip, but I told myself I needed to let that go. I’d still credit my birthday as the day I memorized them.
We watched a show on Netflix and then said good night. I thanked her for everything a few times so she knew I meant it. I told her my birthday was a special one.
In the night I was up for a bit. I was thinking how my work was going well these days. My writing is in a great place. I have friends I love. My children are happy. My marriage is happy.
Peace, in other words.
This is peace.
“Feel like my soul is beginning to expand,
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand…”
– Bob Dylan, Thunder on the Mountain
Feel something. Twice a week.
Bob Dylan: Thunder on the Mountain
Let me know when you’ve learned the lyrics, too. If you can get them perfectly in one day, then the “Friday Night” Manhattans are on me.
Jeff Beck: Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers
Lyrical and sublime. I’ve loved this instrumental since high school.
Jeff Beck: Brush with the Blues:
Set down your guitars for a moment. Here’s a recent Jeff Beck discovery. Imagine insane guitar playing without all the insanity.
The late Jeff Beck was a master of the sprung-spring tremolo pop, the high-E electric beehive, the G-string tritone gag, the steel-wound tiger snarl, the torn Stratocaster speaker cone, the fuzz box elevated kitten paw, and — obviously— electric zipper rodeo bull entropy.
Listen and weep.
RIP, Jeff Beck. 1944 - 2023.
And Me, Me, Me:
Yes, Adam: you, you, you.