Archive for Music

Girl from the North Country

 

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I want to tell you a little bit about Annika, the pink-laced lass pictured above, whom I met on a recent visit to northern New York, or where locals refer to as “the North Country.”

During a period of downtime in the school library, Annika came to have her book signed. I had remembered her face from an earlier presentation. She had that kind of presence, the way she leaned in and listened. When I talk to a group, it’s natural to scan the gathered faces. The bored ones, the curious ones. I’m grateful when I find a student who is fully there, like a friend, smiling, enjoying it.

So now here she stood, still smiling, asking for me to sign her book. Of course, I was honored to do so. We got to talking. About movies and books and stuff. Neither of us in a particular hurry.

I later learned that Annika happened to be the daughter of the school librarian. “Ah,” I said, the pieces falling together. I was also informed that Annika was not merely an avid reader. She was a trapper, too. Like her daddy. “She earned $500 last winter,” her mother told me. “Skins ‘em herself, too.”

Really?

Oh, yes, really.

“She’s a real North Country girl,” her mother said. “Here, let me show you a photo . . .”

And so she did.

photo-10

That’s one of the reasons why I love to do school visits. They get me out of the house, out of my small world. I see new places, try to look around if I have some time, open my eyes a bit wider. Some days I get to meet seven-grade wonders like Annika, and I am always glad for it.

Meeting Annika reminded me of a favorite song by Bob Dylan, “Girl from the North County,” off the Freewheelin‘ LP.

The lyrics:

If you’re traveling the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair’s hanging long
For that’s the way I remember her best.

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day.

So if you’re travelin’ the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was the true love of mine.

Dylan wrote this song in 1962, soon after spending time with folksinger Martin Carthy, who introduced Dylan to a great many traditional English ballads. You can hear in the syntax of the lyrics, the entire setup of the song (the instructions to the listener, “If you’re traveling,”), and even in the song’s closing lines, borrowed verbatim from an old ballad, “Scarborough Fair,” later popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. Importantly, while the traditional lyrics of “Scarborough” call on the lost love to perform a series of impossible tasks, in Dylan’s tune he wishes only for her warmth and remembrance.

I love the understatement of this lyric, the quiet poetry, the things not said. Remember me to one who lives there. He wants to know, simply, that she has a coat to keep warm from the snow and howlin’ winds. He wants, only, for her to remember him, as he remembers her after all these years. Through time and absence and cold winds. Just beautiful.

 

RE-POST: Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 2012 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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Some Photos from Our Vacation in Ireland

We just enjoyed a dream vacation in Ireland and now, Dear Faithful Reader, sit back while I show you more than 700 photographs . . .

Wait, no. Just kidding!

It really was a special trip — a place I love in a very deep way, the literature, the music, the lanscape, the people, the beer — and I was so glad for my wife, Lisa, and our children to experience it.

A few shots:

My reading is usually thematic — I go on little jags, basically — and it’s been Ire-centric of late. Some highlights . . .

As for other matters, we are still conducting further research . . .

Here Comes the Sun: Flashmob in Madrid Unemployment Office

Know this: Unemployment in Spain is at 26 percent. The country, and its people, are going through a very tough time. High taxes, plunging salaries, confusion, bitterness, anger, fear, desperation — with record numbers applying for jobless benefits.

So one recent day at the unemployment office in Madrid, a flash mob of musicians came along to brighten the day, at least for a few minutes. Watch, please.

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My thanks to Lauren Frayer, at NPR, for first bringing the video to light.

Music Video Friday: Teenage Fanclub

I don’t know how I landed on this song, except that it always makes me happy — and Teenage Fanclub from Scotland is one of my all-time favorites. Here they are doing their Byrds-influenced, harmony-dripped jangle. Have a great weekend.

“I Don’t Want Control of You,” Teenage Fanclub, from their great CD, “Songs from Northern Britain.

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Inspiration: “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone

I’ve long been awed by the song, “Feeling Good,” as sung by Nina Simone. It slays me every time I hear it. The lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (I don’t know who to credit, exactly) are so simple, yet convey such depth of feeling.

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

(refrain)

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done
That’s what I mean

And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
For me

Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

And when the horns kick in, oh my.

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Anyway, I’ve been writing and re-writing a scene in a new book. So far, it feels like every decision I make is the wrong one. Every path, the wrong one. I try to squeeze some background information into dialogue, it sounds false. I try it with straight exposition, it drags. I’m wrestling with the problem of “set-up,” an issue I’ve faced dozens of times with Jigsaw Jones, and I’m still searching, slashing, deleting, surrendering.

But I did wake up this morning with that song in my head, and I thought about my main character, Samantha, looking up at the clouds — something I wanted her to do, an aspect of her character — and that’s the feeling in her heart. She sees a bird soaring high and she knows how it feels.

Over coffee, I scribbled on a sheet of paper:

Sam was a cloud watcher and a sky dreamer. She looked up to admire a red-tailed hawk soaring through the clouds, and sent a silent message to that bird: You know how I feel.

Will this solve my problem? No, it won’t. Will it make it through the revision and editing process? No idea. But I’m going back in again, this song in my heart, and I’m going to bring that moment with me.

FUN FACT: Newley and Bricusse also composed the original score and songs for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Which, weirdly enough, inspired aspects of the story I’m currently writing. There’s a Wonka-esque character in it. When coincidence comes together, I often think, “Somebody’s trying to tell me something.” I figure I’m on the right track. Time to grab a shovel and dig in.

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BEFORE YOU GO: The Imaginary Soundtrack to My Young Adult Novel, Part 1

No blogging for at least a week until I beat a deadline into submission, literally. So ’til then . . .

I’ve concocted an imaginary soundtrack that plays during the imaginary movie that’s based on my (real!) upcoming Young Adult novel, Before You Go (July 17, 2012) I didn’t sweat the details, such as, oh, there’s no movie and even if there was, we couldn’t afford many of these bands. Not going to worry about that. These are the songs I hear in my head as I move through the book, the songs that helped me as a writer.

Setup: For those who don’t know, the story opens with four unnamed teenagers driving on a dark road. The car spins out of control, hits a tree. One passenger dies. Next page, we rewind six weeks into the past, and gradually meet all the characters. The reader does not know who is going to be in the car, or who will die. The book catches up to the accident about 2/3 of the way through. So the book is in two sections: “Before” and “After.”

For purposes of length, and to avoid disclosing any key spoilers, I’ve limited today’s post to Part One, “Before.”

And away we go, chapter to chapter . . .

THE ACCIDENT

Tom Petty, “Here Comes My Girl”

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Probably not the hippest selection in the world, and surely classic rock isn’t the right note to start off with, but I always heard this Tom Petty tune blasting from the radio as the car races through the fogged, misty night. Anyway. Key lyric: “You know, sometimes, I don’t know why, but this old town just seems so hopeless.”

PART ONE: BEFORE

ONE

The Cure, “Pictures of You”

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This is Jude’s recent obsession as a guitar player, this exact tune, and the music plays when he shoves in the ear buds while riding the bus to his first-ever summer job. I see him staring out the bus window, crossing the bridges, the summer morning, the traffic and the water and the gulls.

TWO & THREE

The Head and the Heart, “Lost In My Mind”

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This doesn’t precisely connect to the material, but somehow reflects interior Jude, going through the motions at his new job, punching the clock, meeting the new boss, putting on the paper hat. It’s a mood thing. Key lyric: “‘Cause there are stars/Up above/We can start/Moving forward.” And also, “Put your dreams away for now/I won’t see you for some time/I am lost in my mind/I get lost in my mind.”

FOUR

Toro Y Moi, “Still Sound”

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Full on beach mode, Jude working hard now, the sun-burnt throng, great-looking girls in bikinis — and he sees Becka for the first time.

FIVE

Arcade Fire, “Suburban War”

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I see Jude returning home from work, walking the suburban streets, seeing his father out front, opening the door, going inside. Key lyric: “This town’s so strange/They built it to change/And while we’re sleeping all the streets, they rearrange.” There’s also a foreshadowing in a later line: “In the suburbs, I learned to drive/People told me we would never survive.

SIX

Big Star, “I’m In Love with a Girl”

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One of the all-time favorite songs, all that teenage vulnerability and yearning. We’ve got to find a place for it somewhere in the imaginary movie soundtrack, so we’ll squeeze it in here.

Ben Folds, “Not the Same”

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Jude and his best friend Corey climb the roof of his house, overlooking their suburban world. About the homemade fan video, above, made by two brothers, I love the vibe they created. Good, clean fun. Nice job, guys.

SEVEN & EIGHT

Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Me and Jane Doe”

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Cool tune, seems to be a conversation of sorts, and I wanted a female voice entering the soundtrack. I hear this with Jude and Becka outside on the bench in the open air, feeling each other out. Leads to this miraculous version of “Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman. All the lyrics to this song work for this character, “And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain/Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” Or this: “And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do/The movement you need is on your shoulder.

Wilson Pickett, “Hey, Jude”

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NINE

Teenage Fanclub, “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything”

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Fits with the feeling of time on the boardwalk, putt-putt golf, and talk about guitars. Sunny and happy, Becka and Jude. And I worship Teenage Fanclub.

TEN

Stornoway, “Fuel Up”

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The car imagery again, the youthful reflection, the open road — but not in the way that Springsteen writes about it, or even Kerouac, but here with a mixture of innocence lost and trepidation. Key lyric: “And your head’s on the window, your eyes are just closed/There’s a voice in the front and a hush on the road/You’re a passenger but your mind is travelling on.” Again with Jude, there’s this insular sense, lost in his mind almost regardless of circumstances. So many times he’s not fully there.

ELEVEN

Yuck, “Get Away”

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Just the right sound as the pace picks up, four boys in the car kicking back. But at the same time, a part of Jude will always, always, remain separate. He’s texting with Becka, thinking of her. Key lyric: “Summer sun says get out more/I need you, I want you/But I can’t get this feeling off my mind/I want you, I need you.//Oh, I can’t get away, Oh, I can’t get away . . .

12

Laura Marling, “Rambling Man”

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I kind of associate Becka with Laura Marling. I can imagine Becka owning some Marling on vinyl, spinning it in a candle-lit bedroom. Marling appears on this soundtrack in my head — lawyers be damned. This little scene between Jude & Becka at the beach has, like so many scenes with Jude, that underpinning of sadness to it. Key lyric: “Oh, naive little me/Asking what things you have seen/You’re vulnerable in your head/You’ll scream and you’ll wait till you’re dead.”

13

Rosewood Thieves, “Los Angeles”

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This song just brings the hip, cool vibe I needed to hear. But it also reflects absence and longing, Jude’s little sister, Lily, gone forever. Key lyric: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen her around here/I can’t remember if she’s real/Summer days spent walking around/And up all night yeah/Trying to remember if she’s real.”

14

M83, “Midnight City”

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Let’s party like it’s 2012. Good times, hanging out, knocking down the pins, drinking smuggled-in rum & coke. If this song plays when I’m bowling, hey, maybe I finally crack 150 if it’s cranked up LOUD enough.

15 & 16

Beirut, “The Rip Tide”

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Sun Kil Moon, “Floating”

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Joni Mitchell, “All I Want”

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There’s the beach, the sadness of their conversation, and then together entering the water, floating, faces turned to the sun, and liquid desire. These songs are those feelings.

17

Wilco, “You and I”

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Jude and Becka swapping songs on guitar, hanging out on a blanket, falling in love, together. If you don’t know this song, or the greatness of Feist, listen up!

18

Foo Fighters, “Home”

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A stunning and sensitive performance by Dave Grohl. At the end of this chapter, Becka wipes a tear from Jude’s face and tells him, “When you cry, I taste salt.”

19

The War on Drugs, “Brothers”

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Good times, Corey and Jude, gaming in the basement. Great friends, waiting for their ride, ready to hit that party at Gilgo Beach. As they are about to leave, four teenagers in a car, Jude’s father calls out, “Hey, before you go . . .”

20

Lana Del Rey, “It’s the End of the World

The original version of this song, by the great Skeeter Davis, ran through my head all through the writing of this book. I don’t think Lana Del Ray nails this version, by any means, but I like the idea of a hip update, sans strings, so submit that notion here. This is the chapter of the accident: “Don’t they know, it’s the end of the world? It ended when you said goodbye.”

Anyway, here’s the Skeeter Davis version — now imagine a more contemporary, stripped down take, without the syrupy excesses of the classic arrangement. Not criticizing Skeeter, btw, the original song is perfect. Just that for my movie, and for this song to reach a new audience, it needs a different take. IMO.

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Friday Video Weekend: “(Cups) You’re Gonna Miss Me” Cover by Anna Burden

Here’s 90 seconds of joy, a great voice and a great smile, to send you off on the weekend. I can’t wait to show this clip to my daughter. Thank you, Anna from Indiana.

Now get outta here!

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Still hanging around?

I guess you should know that the song is by Lulu and the Lampshades, and that you can see these two young women perform their original by clicking here.

Dream Guitar

I was happy to come across this article, “Revealed: The Real Guitar Heroes,” which features a new book,Instrument, by photographer Pat Graham. (Check out Graham’s awesome blog, here.)

In the article, various musicians discuss their favorite instruments. I particularly liked Peter Buck’s description of his beloved guitar, because it so closely matched what I’d already written in my upcoming Young Adult debut, Before You Go (July, 2012).

Before we get to Buck and his guitar, here’s a brief section from my book, written over a year ago. To set the scene: Jude and Becka are hanging out together for the first time after work; they’ve walked the Jones Beach boardwalk on a cloudy day and are now playing putt-putt golf. Becka tells Jude that she’s saving up for her dream guitar:

This could be what Becka’s dream guitar looks like.

What kind of guitar do you want to buy?”

“Rickenbacker 330,” Becka answered.

“You like that jangle sound, huh?”

“John Lennon, Johnny Marr, Peter Buck, they all played Rickenbackers,” Becka said. “You know Guitar World in Massapequa? That’s where I’m going to buy it. I’ve got mine all picked out.”

“Tell me,” Jude said, tapping the ball into the hole. He didn’t bother to fill in the scorecard. Jude hated those ultracompetitive guys who took things like P.E. way too seriously. He and Becka randomly cut over from the third to the eleventh hole. Nobody was around, nobody cared, and this one has a fake pirate ship in the middle of it to enhance the awesomeness.

“You should see it, gorgeous guitar,” Becka enthused. “Semi-hollow maple body, fireglo finish, rosewood fretboard with dot inlays, single-coil pickups –”

“Wow, you know your stuff,” Jude said. “That’s not a cheap guitar.”

“Almost two thousand balloons,” Becka said. “My parents are willing to go halfsies.”

“Halfsies?” Jude laughed.

“You know what I mean,” Becka protested, a hint of color rising to her cheeks. “I’ve been staring at that guitar for the past year. It’s my goal for this summer. I need that guitar.”

Jude knew exactly how she felt. He was always coveting a new guitar, or considering a trade-in. Every guitar had an individual sound, a character of its own, something that most people didn’t understand. Jude and Becka talked guitars and music, compared iPods and favorite tunes, thrilled to have that connection. “I’d love to hear you play,” Jude said.

I know, nothing fancy going on here, just two characters finding common ground, the beginning of something more. But I do love the setting, Jones Beach. I spent so much time there as a kid — hanging out and, later, working at the concession stands and washing dishes in the restaurant.

Now, from the article, here’s Peter Buck, name-checked in the section above (as is Johnny Marr, who coincidentally wrote the foreward to Graham’s book), describing his beloved Rickenbacker 360 JetGlo:

Buck & his guitar, 1983.

I bought my first Rickenbacker in about 1980. I love the tone. I love the history, knowing that Roger McGuinn and George Harrison and Pete Townshend also played Rickenbackers.

That one got stolen eventually, I think in 1981, when I was doing a show for $100. So we went to a tiny little guitar shop and pulled a Rickenbacker out of a box. It was in tune. I played it, it sounded great, and it’s the one I’ve used on every single record I’ve ever made. I’ve played it on stage my entire adult life and on every REM record except the “Radio Free Europe” single, because I didn’t have it at that point.

NOTE: I just triple-checked my Lennon/Rickenbacker reference. I know I got it from somewhere, that he played a Rickenbacker, but with Buck’s mention of Harrison, I started to wonder. Here’s a good article for guitar geeks, “The Beatles and Their Rickenbackers,” by Bjorn Eriksson.

And here’s Buck & company for your listening pleasure . . .

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Maggie’s Post-It Note Binder

My daughter is a slob. Let’s get that out of the way up front. She makes messes and moves on — blithely.

Yesterday she sat at the kitchen counter with a stack of index cards, Post-It Notes, tape, a laptop, a variety of colored markers, a clunky three-ring binder, and scissors.

“What are you up to, Mags?” I asked.

She grunted, shrugged, hummed and mumbled in a barely-communicative manner. Something about decorating the cover of her notebook. Whatev.

I found the result of her efforts amidst the detritus this morning: scissors and markers and scattered paper scraps on the floor from all that cutting, cutting, cutting. Here’s the new cover of my fifth-grade daughter’s black binder:

Maggie has always left notes to herself around the house, usually in her bedroom, usually of the inspirational variety. I guess it beats photos of Justin Bieber.

I think she’s going to live an interesting life. To me, there’s a lot of stuff on here that I appreciate. But the most telling is the simplest, that smiley face in the upper right. That’s Maggie’s attitude, always has been. She’s genuinely baffled by people who aren’t happy. And in her mind, there’s nothing she can’t accomplish. Ah, youth and confidence. I hope she stays that way forever.

Crazy about her. To the point where we can live with the mess — without too much yelling.