SONG: Lady at the Generator


“Lady at the Generator” [Download]
. (available as .ogg here)

ARTIST: grant.

SOURCE: Based on Amsterdam UMC, 4 Jan 2024, “Tiredness Experienced by Long Covid Patients Has a Physical Cause,” as used in the post Here’s why long covid makes you tired..

ABSTRACT: Maybe I should start by saying who or what the lady at the generator is. Would that count as a spoiler? The “wet machines” are cells, specifically skeletomuscular cells, and the generator is what powers them, which is the mitochondria. The research here is about coronaviruses slipping into cell membranes and replicating, which they do by hijacking cells’ DNA, in effect, and something in that process gums up the cell with amyloids and makes the mitochondrion break down, or at least not work very well at all. That’s what this song is about.

I really thought I’d have this one done for January. I knew what it was going to be, and I jotted down lyrics before the deadline, even. But I was trying to make it into a … let’s say a standard indie-pop song. A major, E major (maybe add a 7th), D. Simple chords, bouncy rhythm, and nothing sounded right. Didn’t work at all.

It didn’t help that I’d managed, weeks before my birthday in mid-February, to earworm myself with the Soviet birthday song called alternately “Crocodile Gena” or “Russian Birthday Song” or “Пусть бегут неуклюже…” (“Let them run clumsily…”) or “Cheburashka Song” (thank you, Talia Lavin). It came from a short, stop-motion animated film and is sung by a crocodile playing a garmoshka, a Russian concertina, and has lyrics about people slipping clumsily in the rain and the wistfulness of one’s birthday only coming once a year. The chords are deceptively complex – it sounds like there are only three, but then you realize it’s really like seven.

Somewhere in learning how to play that song I realized that if I just turned my malfunctioning song’s indie-pop chords from majors to minors, I could change the whole lyric of the thing I was working on into a faux-Balkan stomp like Camper Van Beethoven. And it worked. Thematically, it was fine. The rest was just tightening it up, stealing a Bb from the crocodile, and working out instrumental parts. The soloing at the end, just so you know, was originally twice as long. I am not any kind of virtuoso, so that got cut. If I was really fluent in this style, I would work in a gradually speeding-up tempo which then slowed right down at the end of each chorus, as the generator speeds up and breaks down … but that got too hard to play multiple parts on.

For most songs, I seem to start with a drum track, but for this, it was the rhythm guitar, playing this Eastern European stuff practically by reflex. The drums were the very last thing, and I’m still not sure they’re necessary. But they sound like I wanted them to. All the strings are real instruments – the balalaika is an electric guitar with a little slap-back delay run through an effect that pitches it up an octave, but with the clean, un-shifted sound as well (which fakes the double-string sound of that family of instruments pretty well). The bass is a bass. The accordion is not my accordion, but a bandoneon SoundFont, meticulously painted note by note on a MIDI grid (my fingers can’t arpeggiate like that). The vocals are all mine.

I suppose I should also tip a hat to Annemarie, an old college friend, who mentioned something about the mitochondrion story being a good one for a song. She and I both have family roots toward Czechoslovakia, which is probably not far east enough to really sound like this song, but you know, it’s getting there, right? Mitochondrial DNA passes down unchanged through the mother’s side of the family, if I remember right, so maybe we both have many-times-great grandmothers who would not find this song entirely alien, even if it is about 21st-century microbiological research.

This song is either late for January or early for February, but either way, I think I owe two penitential covers now. I have an idea.


(Am E Dm Am-E x2)
The wet machines are keening
With the viral strain that made her
Cope with open membranes
As she worked the generator…
Worked the generator, worked the generator
The viral strain slipped in where she worked the generator

(G-G-C-C-E-E-Am-Am x2)
And the amyloids … fill up her home
She can’t sleep where the muscle meets the bone
And exercise … only breaks things down
Takes power from the source.
(Bb-E-Am-Amx2 vamp)

(Am E Dm Am-E x2)
Like Job suffered with boils,
Smearing unguents, useless oils,
DNA unwinds in coils
Where it betrayed her generator…
It betrayed her generator, betrayed her generator
The viral load exploded and betrayed her generator

(G-G-C-C-E-E-Am-Am x2)
And the amyloids … fill up her home
She can’t sleep where the muscle meets the bone
And exercise … only breaks things down
Takes power from the source….