Music and Traveling
Anyone who travels knows the importance of music for a good road trip. We'll spend hours creating mix tapes/CDs/playlists for our next journey. Sometimes we pick just the right music, and a particular song or songs will become permanently linked in our mind with a certain stretch of road.
In my recent travels I can think of some (at times surprisingly) perfect match-ups between tunes and landscape: opera for the mountain forests of New Mexico; Miles Davis' On the Corner for an L.A. traffic jam (almost home!); the long feedback section of “Diamond Sea” by Sonic Youth as I coasted down the far side of the Grapevine. Even going back to my childhood, I remember a trip to Florida where my brother and I had a cassette tape with Aftermath on one side, and The Doors' first on the other; either album can still evoke memories of that trip.
But here I am more interested in when a journey finds its own music. When a certain song pops up repeatedly. In 1984 I traveled to Peru. I went to see the Amazon jungle; music wasn't even on my mind. But, inevitably, there was music. There is music everywhere. The music I heard was pretty random (it being 1984, there was a lot of Michael Jackson), but a couple of songs stood out.
The first was “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel. Well, not their version, but the Peruvian folk song it was based on, a pleasant flute melody. I heard it everywhere. Most memorably on an overnight bus trip through the Andes; it seemed somehow very fitting for a journey through black, snow covered peaks.
(Speaking of S&G, one of the women at a jungle camp I stayed at claimed you could attract the pink river dolphins by playing them. She brought out a little cassette deck and a tape. Sure enough, within a few minutes there were dolphins swimming just off the dock. But they disappeared as soon as I took out my camera; something she had also told me would happen.)
But one song was ubiquitous, and for no obvious reason. I heard it everywhere, in the marketplace, on the bus, even on the radio in my hotel room. It seemed vaguely familiar; I had probably heard it before, just never paid attention. “Major Tom Coming Home” by Peter Schilling. I have no idea why it was such a hit, but I immediately loved it. It still evokes that trip when I hear it today.
However, there was one curious thing about that song. I did not know the words at all. Also, it was originally recorded in German, later released in English. I may well have heard either, or both versions there. And the sources I heard playing it were not exactly high fidelity. So, as we often do, I made up lyrics. Except I made them up in Spanish. My mind, immersed as it was in Spanish, heard the unintelligible vocals as Spanish. Although, as far as I know, there is no Spanish version.
One final irony, had I been able to understand the lyrics, I might have appreciated how apropos to my situation the song was. A follow-up to Bowie's “Space Oddity,” it is about someone trapped in an unfamiliar world. And there were certainly times I felt trapped in Peru. But that's another story for another article.
Another way particular music becomes ingrained in a travel memory is when a favorite artist turns out to be playing in your destination city. This became especially important during my years in Idaho, where I was cut off from much of the music I loved. Travel became a way to see artists I'd never get to see in Idaho. Although, other than hitching to Seattle for King Crimson (also a story for another article), I rarely got to pick the bands I would see. That was up to fate. Although fate did a pretty decent job of it.
In the spring of 1982, I went back east, a trip which included Northampton, MA, and Hampshire, New York City and Rochester, NY. During that trip I managed to catch Snakefinger at CBGBs, and Jim Carroll in Rochester.
Snakefinger was part of the Ralph Records stable; Ralph being the home of the Residents, possibly the weirdest band ever. Snakefinger was, in a way, their in house guitarist. Extremely talented, he mostly put that talent to the service of their weirdness, but he could play great, straightforward rock guitar as well. One does need to be able to play well in order to play weird well. The show certainly exhibited his talents on guitar, as well as his talents at weirdness. The highlight, for me, was his cover of Kraftwerk's “The Model,” with a spine-chilling slide solo.
Although, to be honest, what I remember most about that show was buying a bag of weed at St. Mark's Place, and rolling joints on the table in the bar.
Jim Carroll in Rochester was even more of a surprise. Any punk band in Rochester was always a surprise. At this point, Carroll was trying to prove he could establish a real career as a rock star, beyond the one novelty hit about dead people. For the most part, he succeeded. He started out a bit rusty (and even acknowledged it with a “sometimes the best rock 'n' roll is sloppy” comment), but once the band hit their groove, they rocked hard. “People Who Died” was not the highlight of the show, although he certainly had fun with. No, two longer, more introspective pieces shone the brightest: “City Drops Into the Night,” off his firt album, and a new one (at the time), “Lorraine,” which started with pure poetry, and built to a rocking climax.
Also on that trip, I raided several friends record collections to put together a couple of mix tapes of music I simply could not get in Idaho, musicians such as Jonathan Richman, Buzzcocks, John Cale, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Johnny Thunders. (Tapes which I still possess.)
Two years later, on my way back from Peru, I spent a couple of months back in Rochester. Another long story of how that happened, but I will say that Rochester was no more exciting than the last extended stay I spent there, during my college years. Still, I managed to catch a solo Elvis Costello concert, with T-Bone Burnett opening.
It was an interesting show, which demonstrated both his strengths and his weaknesses. As for the latter, he was only a competent, not a great musician. He played guitar and piano, both acoustic and electric (for both), decently, but nothing more. However, he is a great songwriter, and the stripped down format demonstrated that clearly. The songs succeeded or failed on their own merits, and most succeeded wonderfully. Many songs, such as “Shipbuilding,” “Everyday I Write the Book,” and “Kid About It” seemed ideally suited for the solo format, while he rearranged others, notably “Motel Matches” and “Riot Act,” to draw new power from them. Also memorable was how Costello held the crowd enthralled throughout the show, with just his solo presence on the stage.
T-Bone Burnett also put on a great show, again emphasizing song writing talent. Nowadays Burnett is a well-known name, mostly due to his work on movie soundtracks and as a producer. But I already knew who he was, because of this work as the musical director of Bob Dylan”s Rolling Thunder Revue, ten years earlier.
One final, random memory, which doesn't fit this chronology at all, but is a case of stumbling upon a great concert while traveling: in 1995 I took a cross country journey to see the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, MI,. Coming back to SoCal, we stopped in Memphis. One of the bars on Beale Street had huge picture windows behind their stage, and broadcast the concerts inside into the street. We saw the majority of a George Thoroughgood show from that street.
One further trip during my Idaho years stands out because it combined theme music and a concert in the most serendipitous manner. In the summer of 1985 I traveled to SoCal with a couple of friends for a mutual friend's wedding in Santa Barbara. It was just how a good road trip should be: a leisurely couple of weeks, over to Oregon, down the Pacific Coast, through San Francisco and down to L.A. A day at the beach, a day at Disneyland, then up to Santa Barbara for the wedding, and across Nevada back to Idaho.
We had an unofficial (or maybe even official) theme music for the journey, although it was one we chose, rather than one revealed to us. Sting had just released his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles. We loved it, and played the cassette at least once a day the whole way. We found the jazzy take on the basic Police sound fresh and exciting. (In my opinion, whatever you may think of Sting's later solo work, that album has stood up well over the years.)
(The other soundtrack of that trip was Bobby McFerrin's new album -- yes this was the age of “Don't Worry, Be Happy.” My friends actually liked the rest of the album much better; they enjoyed his vocal talents and stylings. But they never won me over. I have never willingly listened to anything by him since.)
When we got to L.A., we found out Sting was playing the Greek Theater. The next night! We had to get scalped tickets of course, but we felt it was worth it. This involved traveling to some very nondescript part of the city, all low lying buildings with mostly blank storefronts. Since this was only my second time in L.A., I really donÕt know where we were, but somehow Pico Blvd. sticks in my mind.
The concert rocked. He had an all-star band of mostly jazz players behind him, including Branford Marsalis (saxes), Omar Hakim (drums), and Kenny Kirkland on keyboards. It was actually more of a jazz concert than a rock one. The arrangements were all jazzed up, and everybody had more than enough opportunity to solo. They played a mix of Blue Turtles and relatively random Police songs -- the hits, but also “Driven to Tears,” “Tea in the Sahara,” “Demolition Man.” In my journal I commented that Sting did everyone a favor by introducing his audience (myself included) to such great jazz players.
To tell the truth, I remember that concert much better than the wedding we went to.
One of the great things about travel is how it heightens our awareness of the wonder of life. Things we normally pay no attention to, or dismiss as mundane, become significant. Things like the view through our windshield. We normally ignore the scenery on our daily commute, yet the same scenery might strike us as beautiful if we see it as a tourist.
So it is with music. Certain songs can be enhanced, both at the time and in our memory, by being connected to the scenery, the events, even just the excitement of travel itself. We often hear them in a new way.
Seeing Sting in concert would have been a great memory whatever the circumstance, but the fact that he happened to be playing in L.A. the day we were there made it extra special. The melody of “El Condor Pasa” becomes extra special when it evokes a bus ride through the Andes.
“Major Tom Coming Home” is now one of my favorite songs.