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The Thing About Time

03:30
Bill Sunkel
Bill & Rob Sunkel

Story

DECODING “THE THING ABOUT TIME”

“The Thing About Time” is a song about the passage of time and death, my own little Memento Mori.  I began writing it while riding in a car on the way back to Manhattan from a friend’s dad’s wake on Long Island.  I had seen a bunch of old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t seen for many years, and (apparently) I was in a particularly reflective mood.

The first chorus is just my internal monologue, set down virtually verbatim as I considered the invidious creeping effect of time on all of us:  “So, here’s the thing about time/It just keeps rolling on/Even as you sleep/Even while you mow your lawn/It doesn’t move real fast/But suddenly it’s gone/That’s the goddamned thing about time.”  The reference to “mow[ing] your lawn” is intended to acknowledge that time continues to pass even as we engage in the most mundane of activities.  The last line is meant to convey the grumpy tone of the crotchety old guy singing the song, i.e., me.

After I had the first chorus, I asked myself, “So, what happens next?”  And I decided to just tell the story as it happened, without embellishment:  “Went to a wake today/Saw some old friends of mine/Including several whom/I’d not seen for some time/But they didn’t look the same/One didn’t even know my name/That’s the goddamned thing about time.”  All of which was one hundred percent true.  So far, this lyric was writing itself.

The style of music similarly suggested itself.  It felt like a drinking song, to be slurred goodheartedly by a group of “hail fellows well met” gathered ’round a bar, maybe at a “traditional” Irish wake, where the guest of honor is laid out in the back room, and it’s not over until the inevitable brawl.  (Okay, I’m not Irish, but I dated a lovely Irish girl back in the day, and I have this on good authority, i.e., her sainted dad.)  So, the melody needed to be broad and simple, the instrumentation Celtic acoustic, and the rhythmic signature susceptible to faithful replication by heavy glass beer mugs thunking away on a wooden bar.  Both chorus and verse had to be punctuated by the vaguely pissed-off refrain “That’s the goddamned thing about time,” which I thought would help lighten what could otherwise be a pretty dark subject. 

Since the music was basic and the refrain repeated – and because I felt like I had more to say on the topic – I didn’t perceive the need for a repeating chorus lyric.  So, the second chorus talks about how, notwithstanding conventional wisdom, time cannot be “saved.”  “That’s the thing about time/You can’t save it in a box/It’s ever in decline/Whether you use it or not/Wisely or foolishly/It still treats you cruelishly.”  (I know it’s not a word, but I like it.)

Anyway, it wasn’t long before I started reminiscing about my own father, who died twenty-four years ago, at age 59.  Now, when I think of my dad, I remember the stupid stuff we fought about, and how many times over the past three decades I’ve wished he were still around, just so I could get his take on all the parts of life I didn’t experience until after he was gone, but know he would totally understand.  And this is how those ideas got expressed:  “I looked in the mirror once/And I saw my father’s face/Since he died in ‘91/We had a lot to catch up on/But this time, I didn’t disagree/With one word that he said to me.”  For every guy who’s ever thought, “I’m turning into my dad” – which, I’m willing to bet, is pretty much all of us – this verse is for you.

Well, as everyone knows, you can’t have too many drinks before you start to wax philosophical, and to ponder life’s really big questions, like “What happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil?”  And so the last chorus poses those kinds of queries, with all the soggy gravitas (soggravitas?) of a true pub pundit:  “One more thing about time/Does it continue when we die?/Do we remain aware/Of what goes on up there?/And, if so, do we care?/I can’t imagine why/That’s the goddamned thing about time.”  In other words, when our lives are over, time and other trivialities with which the living trouble themselves will become meaningless to us.  In my mind’s video of this song, the three “impact” hits at the end are accompanied by images of a coffin lid banging down with great finality (shot from the inside, of course), the rear gate of a Cadillac hearse slamming shut, and the ancient wooden door of our mythical bar closing out the rest of the world.

A final note (no pun intended):  If you think this song is disrespectful to the dearly departed, please let it be known that I would be pleased and honored if everyone sang it (just once, in unison) at my wake.  But if you’d prefer I don’t return the favor, I completely understand.

Lyrics

THE THING ABOUT TIME
 
So, here’s the thing about time
It just keeps rolling on
Even as you sleep
Even while you mow your lawn
It doesn’t move real fast
But suddenly it’s gone
That’s the goddamned thing about time
 
I went to a wake today
Saw some old friends of mine
Including several whom
I’d not seen for some time
But they didn’t look the same
And one didn’t even know my name
That’s the goddamned thing about time
 
Yeah, that’s the thing about time
You can’t save it in a box
It’s ever in decline
Whether you use it or not
Wisely or foolishly
It still treats you cruelishly
That’s the goddamned thing about time
 
I looked in the mirror once
And I saw my father’s face
Since he died in ’91
We had a lot to catch up on
But this time, I didn’t disagree
With one word he said to me
That’s the goddamned thing about time
 
One more thing about time
Does it continue when we die?
Do we remain aware
Of what goes on up there?
And, if so, do we care?
I can’t imagine why
That’s the goddamned thing about time