On Playlists and Ergometers- Favorite Things

Scrolling through my Nano on the plane(black, 4 gb, already scratched), I realized that there is one playlist — consisting of twenty songs — which I have listened to, nearly every day, for the last ten years. It’s titled ERG II and it is a masterpiece of musical ugliness.

Any fan of the John Cusack film, High Fidelity, (an excellent soundtrack and great example of the perfect mix) has heard the protagonist’s theory of building musical mixes. In the old days — pre-MP3 and shuffle mode — the perfect mix was defined by what would fix on a 90-minute Maxell cassette. One would drag out the old vinyl, or use a double-cassette deck to dub a mix for that upcoming road trip or as a cheapo birthday gift with a personal touch. Twenty-year olds in the 80s depended on mix tapes as a prime gift source. There are some lost mix tapes in my past that were true gems — I remember a reggae mix that was universally acclaimed for its brilliance, compiled by my musician brother Henry when he did a University of Colorado reggae radio show under the air name of Highly Unlikely, the Redneck Rasta. Alas it is lost. Victim of being parked on a dashboard on a sunny summer day.

The art of the 90-minute mix was taken to a new high by Time Editorial Mandarin Norm Pearlstein in the early 90s when he set out to build the ultimate 90-minute rock mix. Think about it — what would have to reside on the perfect mix? Would you open with Bill Haley and the Comets? Would Elvis make it? What Beatles song? What Stones? This is the sort of metaphysical argument that can whittle down the tedium of a long car ride faster than a hundred games of Twenty-Questions.

But I Digress (I want to launch a new blog just under that title). Back to ERG II. This mix was born in 1994 when I decided to get into kickass shape and return to rowing. I bought the world’s finest piece of exercise equipment, a Concept 2 Model C Rowing Ergometer, and started seriously training, posting my scores on Concept 2 Online Ranking site and getting very competitive out in the garage with virtual opponents like the legendary Ad Bax, and other names with faster times than me.

Ergometers are hellish beasts, they are the sort of machines that a NASA flight surgeon would use to determine the VO2 Max level of a candidate for the first mission to Mars. Olympic rowers hate them but live on them. College rowers make their boats largely on the basis of their scores. The machines are so simple, but so accurate, that an entire sport — Indoor Rowing — has taken grip, with non-rowers competing against “water” rowers in massive indoor championships like the CRASH-B sprints and the European Indoor Rowing Championships.

You can’t read while erging. Your head is swinging back and forth and you can’t take your hands off of the handle to turn the page of a magazine or book. So music is the answer. I started off in the mid-90s listening to highly syncopated Disco or House music, relying on mix tapes in a Sony Sportswalkman, the unit shoved down the back of my sweaty rowing shorts and the wire run up the inside of my t-shirt and out the neck so I wouldn’t run over it with the wheeled seat. The problem with old analog mix tapes is they can’t be easily edited. So I’d be flying along, cranking away at 30 strokes a minute, maintaining a 1:45 split at the end of a 30 minute piece, driving hard to break 8,300 meters and move up a notch on the virtual ladder, when the snappy songs would give way to some horrible sap music like James Taylor crying about Fire and Rain. It was the athletic equivalent of seeing a naked old person.

Then came the MiniDisc — a nice little format that at the very least was good for building custom mixes. I soon discovered the Napster thing in its earliest days, and started trolling other people’s hard disks for true erg music.

What resulted, over the next ten years, was ERG II. The music on ERG II is best characterized as demented head banger. This is not easy listening. This is music for people in anaerobic shock, people pretending to be human motors, nut jobs who like to pretend they are diesel engines in a diving U-boat escaping a British corvette dropping depth charges. Indeed, a look at the set list shows a lot of songs about misery and suffering.

First the list, then an expiation of why they are on the iPod and why they are essential to a proper ergometer session, a workout that usually takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to complete.

  1. Scum of the Earth: Rob Zombie
  2. Who Was in My Room Last Night: The Butthole Surfers
  3. Jesus Built my Hot Rod: Ministry
  4. Ain’t my Bitch: Metallica
  5. Rusty Cage: Soundgarden
  6. Sex Type Thing: Stone Temple Pilots
  7. New World Order: Ministry
  8. Hey Man, Nice Shot: Filter
  9. My Own Summer – Deftones
  10. Astro-Creep: White Zombie
  11. Them Bones: Alice in Chains
  12. Time Bomb: Godsmack
  13. Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards: Scissorfight
  14. Du Hast: Rammstein
  15. God Save the Queen: Sex Pistols
  16. You Think I’m Not Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire, Queens of the New Stone Age
  17. Jump Around: House of Pain
  18. Liberate: Slipknot
  19. She Sells Sanctuary: The Cult
  20. California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys

This is not easy listening. Women hate this music. Children dig it and slam dance instinctfully to it. Play it through ordinary speakers and the neighbors will call the cops. Guaranteed. This is music soccer hooligans and skin heads listen to before beering up and terrorizing the 5:15 from Manchester to Leeds. Music to drive drunk to, a soundtrack for vandalism, music for a LA highway highspeed chase with the helicopters hovering overhead. This is not Michael Bolton, American Idol music. But if you want to bust a nut and get all jiggly with your theoretical maximum heart rate, this is the music for you. My son calls it Stoner Industrial. I call it Ergathon.

This is not my favorite music. That would be Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. This is what I just happen to listen to every day, for 45 minutes.

What the music has in common, aside from lead singers who sing like the Cookie Monster, is a particular beat that ties nicely to the cadence of a rowing stroke. For those who have not pulled on an oar, just think in terms of fours.

The stroke consists of the catch, when you’re all scrunched up with your knees around your ears and your arms outstretched, coiled for a rolling horizontal squat jump — the drive, when your legs do most of the work and send you rolling back on the rail, the finish, when your back and upper body and arms take over and bring the oar handle into your lap, and then, gratefully, the one moment of slight rest, the recovery, when you roll back down the slide to start it all over again.

Some rowers, and I am unfortunately one, count. Like Rainman, I count. It’s an old bad habit. The coach would say through his megaphone: “Build in four to full power to a 34 for two minutes.” Which, translated, means, in four strokes I want you start honking as hard as you can 34 strokes a minute for two minutes. And then I’d start counting, one-two-three-four on every stroke, then another count for the strokes pulled, so at stroke number 68, I’d know I could ease off and pant for dear life to get some air into my lungs.

These songs are great for the four count. You can really get moving to the music, breathing twice on every stroke for syncopation’s sake, once at the catch, the other at the finish.

The problem is racing. Those events are 2,000 meters long and last, if one is REALLY fast and in Olympian condition, around 6 minutes. My fastest time is under 6:30, like 6:24 at my last CRASH-B sprints (the true world championships of indoor rowing, the acronym stands for the Charles River Association of Sculling Has-Beens). The problems of listening to a real psych-up song during a 2,000 meter race are manifold. One, you have your hands full of oar handle and can’t be dicking around with iPod buttons before the start. Second, you can’t start a song and sit there, the good parts will be playing while you wait for the starting signal. And finally, who records six and a half minute songs?

So, this set list is a training list, and sure, after a while it gets old, but like the order of the songs on a favorite CD, I always know what is next, and have mixed the sequence to perfectly coincide with the predictable phases of an ergometer workout.

There’s the first five minutes, which are usually kind of a bummer because I’m not warmed up, I dread the hell to come, and some weird aerobic transfer phase has to kick in, which generally happens right around ten minutes when the sweat cocks get turned on and I begin to turn into Aqua Man. At 15 minutes things are getting interesting. The heart rate is over 160 and it’s time to decide whether this piece is going to be one for the books, or just another good day of exercise. If I cross 4,000 meters at 15 minutes, then the good news is I am fast, the bad news is I have to do 4,000 plus in the next 15 minutes to make the 30 minute piece notable. It’s at twenty minutes that one enters the phase of utter desperation — what my erg buddy Dr. Dan calls “The Talk with God” when you start bargaining with yourself and slicing time into 15 second increments, doing frantic math in your head and trying to solve a hopeless equation of how many more strokes need to be yanked, at what split (pace) to overtake the next loser on the online ladder.

This would not be considered a musical listening experience like settling in for Yo-Yo Ma playing Schubert’s Trout Quarter.

I hate my erg. Love my Nano, and pavlovian creature of habit that I am, listen to ERG II (Erg I is lost to time) even when not erging, like now, on the 6:10 Delta from Raleigh to Cinncinati, the noise leaking out of the ear buds causing some suspicious sideways glances from the tired looking propeller salesman in the aisle seat.

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