Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Songs for the Road

     Music, an essential ingredient of any road trip, has the knack of crystallizing the mood of the moment and transporting us, even years later, to another time and place.

Open top driving in Hawaii accompanied by Tears for Fears

      While living the experience of your journey across the Nullarbor, to the back of Bourke, along the Birdsville Track or beyond the black stump, the car stereo pumps out the accompanying soundtrack. Whether going up the highway, along the coast, over the mountain pass or down through the valleys, the sing-along, the radio, the cassette and now the CD fills lulls in conversation, quiets the too talkative or acts as lyrical companion to the lone driver.

     Some songs, seemingly disconnected but somehow integral to the trip, are able to reach into a past we think we’ve forgotten. In the 70s, the guitars of the Allman Brothers and Derek and the Dominoes filled the sandy campgrounds of the Greek Islands. Olive groves wavered to the clatter and splutter of Volkswagen combi vans and Layla’s entwining guitars. In Spain, the single lane country road between Barcelona and Sitges, now a six-lane highway, strummed and hummed with Cat Stevens and on Mediterranean shores, young people got drunk, fell in love and danced in the moon’s shadow.
     As our open topped convertible circumnavigated the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the 80s, the palm trees swayed, the surf rolled in and the sun shone to Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears who topped the charts and chimed out of every doorway on Waikiki.
     Not that all road trips have to be exotic. Elvis Costello accompanied my sons and me on our drives to school in the 90s. During that 15 or 20 minute trip, depending on traffic, I listened to his quirky lyrics, instead of adolescent bickering. The man who sang, What a good year for the roses, many blooms still linger there, made for a little more harmony and soothed fragile morning tempers. Whenever I hear that funny old voice, dispensing one of his ironic narratives, I still see two stroppy teenagers, all insolence and spots, arguing over whose turn it is to have the front seat.
     When I left London for the Continent recently, my son thrust an eclectic collection of CDs through the window. Here, he said, you’ll need these. He was right. By the outskirts of Calais, Europop made station-flipping tiresome. The CDs became travelling companions and over the following thousands of kilometres, we rotated through them, testing and getting to know them until the songs and voices became inextricably entwined with place and experience.
Elvis' baritone is a wonderful driving companion
     That other Elvis, boyish and exuberant in his first Sun sessions, rocked us around Amiens and the Somme battlefields. Raw and untrained, his youthful and vigorous, That’s all right, Mama, could have been the poignant cry of any soldier buried in the cemeteries dotting the landscape. Instead of evoking connections with a swivel- hipped love hound with bouffy quiff, his molasses-dripping baritone now suggests the rumble of war and poppy strewn French meadows.
     The southwest corner of France meets Spain where the long black ribbon of the 
Poppy fields of the Somme Northern France 
tollway penetrates the mountains in a series of tunnels. Australia’s, The Dirty Three fits the mood of the Pyrenees perfectly.  Indian Love Song, quietly intense as we enter the gaping mouth of the tunnel, builds with energetic passion as the mountain consumes us. The soaring violins start to race with the traffic…150kph…170kph. It’s adrenalin-pumping music to accompany a fierce contest of who will reach Spain first, you or the monstrous Mercedes throbbing at your bumper daring you to go faster. Cars race by, big, black and powerful. The violins play a rousing accompaniment to the startling pace. A BMW races into the rear vision mirror, braking at the last minute before swerving to the outside lane and sweeping past in a dramatic overtake.
Serge Gainsbourg accompanied us along the Riviera
     All the way through Spain and Portugal we played the collection. From Lisbon to the Algarve, Johnny Cash played dry and mean. Tom Waits’ growled all the way from Valencia to Avignon. Serge Gainsbourg rode with us along the Riviera to Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo. Jane Birkin panting en duo avec Serge seems apt as we negotiate the cliffs leading to the playground of the decadent and infamous. Je t’aime, she gasps as Serge brings her skillfully to a breathless crescendo while below the fabulous yachts flaunt themselves on the azure sea.

     Ahhh…places in the heart made all the more memorable by the backbeat of songs. These are the road trips that live on in our memories. These are the places we remember all our lives.

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