10 Music Life Lessons I Learned on My Summer Road Trip
How I spent my summer vacation: Listening to music and killing bugs.
This summer, I took a trip of epic proportions, leaving the hot, sweltering desert for the cool, mosquito-filled vastness of Alaska and points north. I saw amazing sights -- bears, whales, glaciers, rain forests, and rivers two miles wide -- before school forced my return to this urban existence.
All told, I drove 12,335.6 miles door to door. That's a lot of time behind the wheel -- especially considering many roads were unpaved and exceedingly slow. So there was a lot of time to contemplate life, curse the bugs covering my windshield, and, of course, listen to music. I listen to a lot of music anyway, but when we you spend 10 or 12 or more hours over repeated days behind the wheel, the discoveries one makes can be, well, a little more far out or profound.
At least, they seemed that way at the time.
1. The Beatles really are good.
I know, it's silly to say that. Yet after listening to dozens of songs and absorbing the sweet harmonies, complex arrangements, tongue-in-check phrasing, wild psychedelics, and gritty guitars -- and always within a pure-pop context -- I came away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of just what a great, inventive band this was, and why it had such a musical impact on so many diverse acts.
2. Sandinista works in alphabetical order.
This discovery came by accident along the Cassiar Highway, which runs between the Alaska Highway in the Yukon, and Yellowhead Highway in British Columbia. By selecting the "punk" genre option on my phone, I assumed it would play a random mix of punk songs. Instead, all I got was The Clash's epic triple-album masterpiece Sandinista in alphabetical order -- and it worked! The sprawling set is up and down, loud and soft anyway, and it just happened that the breaks segued smoothly together without diminishing the impact and importance of the original tracking order.
3. Every animal is also a band.
It seems that if there's an animal on this planet, then it must have a band named after it. With that in mind, I frequently played music related to animals I saw along the way. It seemed like a fun thing to do. There was Grizzly Bear, Freelance Whales, Buffalo Springfield, The Bears (Adrian Belew), Rabbit, Gram Rabbit, The Eagles, Modest Mouse, Leftover Salmon, Mountain Goats, Raven, and, of course, The Animals. No, I did not play Phish.
4. Support local bands where there are few bands to support.
While my journey took me across many states and provinces, in only two places did I feel truly compelled to spin bands I find synonymous with their states, given the lack of other known musical entities. Crossing into Idaho (both ways) I felt a need to play Built to Spill. Likewise, it seemed fitting to crank up Portugal. The Man entering Alaska.
There are too many bands to choose from Washington, of course, so I chose The Sonics.
5. Sometimes no music is the best music.
Considering much of my trip was solo with two dogs, sometimes it was important to just hear another human voice. But with news so depressing these days I turned to sports -- sports I don't know.
I listened to a cricket match (England vs. Australia, which was deemed quite important) for about an hour and had absolutely no idea what happened. It was bloody good fun nevertheless. Golf on the other hand, is more boring on radio than TV -- which is saying something.
6. Grunge still has a place -- at dusk.
As my drive time began to approach 8, 9, 10 hours and the day was dimming, a pick-me-up was in order. But Starbucks are few and far between up north, so I turned to vintage grunge from the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and Nirvana. (No, I could not listen to Pearl Jam, having tried to listen to the band's satellite radio station for several hours once and became utterly bored out of my mind.)
The rumbling edginess was enough to keep me alert long enough to find a campsite where I could don my own flannel against the mosquitoes.
7. Johnny Cash is Yukon-style country.
I tried being cliché and playing Johnny Cash as I rolled through Idaho and Oregon farmlands. It didn't work as well as I'd hoped. Cash's music worked better in the vast Yukon Territory where his oft-anguished cries of desperation, heartbreak, killing, and loneliness fit the open landscape and big skies perfectly, and was deeply satisfying.
8. Dub rolls across the farmland?
While Johnny Cash proved surprisingly wrong in farm country, Jamaican dub was surprisingly right. Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Skatalites, Sly & Robbie all worked beautifully, a rolling beat across the rolling farmland, an echo across empty spaces. Given that many a reggae artist came from the country, it makes sense dub fills this void so supremely.
9. The Grateful Dead played "Sugar Magnolia" and "Sugaree" too much.
I like the Grateful Dead. The Dead channel is programmed on my satellite radio, and in a void, I often go to it. However, I am now convinced the band must have overplayed "Sugar Magnolia" and "Sugaree" during its 40-plus year career -- one of those came on almost each time I tuned the channel in.
Really! I started keeping track. Now I can never listen to these songs again, no matter what era they are from, no matter how hot the band sounds, no matter how far from civilization I've wandered -- silence will be a better option.
10. But silence is deafening.
Sometimes the loudest sounds I heard on this trip involved no music or voices at all -- just the silencing roar of the road. Sometimes it was better to just turn it all off and let that cosmic hum fill my head and clear out the reverb, symbols, bass bombs, shrieking voices and metal guitar squeals, so thoughts could once again flow, and ridiculous blog pitches like "What I learned on my summer road trip" could gestate inside.
Hmmm . . . Where was that power switch?
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