“What is that Feeling” takes its title from a passage by Jack Kerouac in On the RoadOn the Road is one of those books that it seems every teenager or college student has a passionate infatuation with, and I was determined to be “cooler than” liking it myself, but – gosh darn it – that Kerouac fellow can write. It was this passage in the middle that really got me:

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

There so much interesting here – firstly, I love that Kerouac recognizes that there’s a feeling that he can’t name – something too big or confusing or complex for a single word or term to capture it. I love that he asks, “What is that feeling…” instead of attempting to name it.

Secondly, there’s this amazing way he has of zooming in and out, and here he does it to exaggerated degrees – first the “specks dispersing,” then the “too-huge world” and “beneath the skies.” We’ve gone from  microscopic level and all the way to planetary levels in a matter of a few sentences.

Lastly, I loved how he captured the mindset of a traveler, and how beautifully it relates to the psychology of a touring musician. As a touring musician, on each stop, you meet special people, and perhaps visit special places. Just today, in fact, I was in Skagen, Denmark, and visited the country’s northernmost point, where two currents violently collide above Jutland. A generous man named Larss took us to admire this point, which was an important strategic location during World War II, as it is necessary to control trade to the Baltic states. Yet, even as you settle into a memorable spot, you also maintain the excitement to visit the next, place, meet the next group of people, and see something else special. There’s a frantic energy that encompasses this flurry of “hellos” and “goodbyes” that Kerouac captures so well here – a somehow hopeful nostalgia.

Lyrically, I stole a lot from the passage where Kerouac contemplates these mysteries, and the next, in Kerouac, in which Dean and the boys drive through a somewhat haunted terrain. Below, you can see the passage with all the text underlined that I stole from. I tried to find language that fit the song rhythmically and that seemed suggestive in terms of an image.

1b What is That Feeling Source

Musically, the piece is a highly altered blues. The form is still twelve measures, and most of the arrival points remain the same (for example, we still start on the I chord and make it to the IV chord in measure 5), but there are a lot of additional colors in between, and the chords change every two beats. It wasn’t intentional, but the sounds and the approach maybe slightly resemble the work of Charles Mingus. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat comes to mind as at least a conceptually similar tune. The one time the harmony slows is when the “refrain” comes in (“Switching off the headlights”).

Lyrically, there are three verses – we do the first and second at the beginning, then Lucas plays a solo, then the second (again) and third at the end. The longer we’ve played this tune, the more that we’ve emphasized the spaciousness in the last verse, which has my favorite lyric (“the stars are pins”), which I like to play in the top end of the piano for a word painting effect. This third verse is the moment where things zoom in – they go from very general to very specific, mostly because a mysterious “her” is finally introduced into the song, which clarifies the scenario as – likely – one of romantic loss.

I suppose all of life is a bit like being the touring musician. In order to achieve another level or pursue another ambition, you have to leave something else behind. Therefore, in some way, each step in a journey is simultaneously a hello and a goodbye.

Download the sheet music for “What is that Feeling” here.

Download the free “at_Home/at_Play” EP here.

What is that Feeling?

An apparition, to curse and praise,
the face receding on the plain;
The specks dispersing, the inky skies,
what is that feeling you feel?
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?

The yellow foglight, the rainy bridge,
you cross eternity again;
The two-lane highway is endless night,
the center line is a dream;
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?

You knew you’d leave her, but who knew when,
tonight you’re driving through the fog;
The sky gets bigger, the stars are pins,
and in that instant, it’s real;
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?



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