Buddy Guy’s “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me” lives on a curve next to Sagehen Creek, the volume turned up too high, the curve taken a little faster than my truck could handle comfortably. A bass solo of acrobatic agility by Edgar Meyer off Skip, Hop & Wobble lives on that part of Grizzly Peak where eucalyptus trees give way to houses clinging nervously to the cliff over Oakland, tempting disaster. “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project hovers over Sevier Lake; a compact storm approaching from the south as I step on the gas to outrun it to the Nevada border along US 50.
Before I ever thought to write a word about travel, songs and places became linked in my mind all on their own. I can show you the exact twist of road where I realized that The Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” wasn’t about a person who was literally transparent. Later, in the very same spot, a deer jumped off a hill into the road, and in a split second I crushed its head with the front of my mom’s Volvo. I can show you the spot, but only I get to experience the bizarre, dissonant memory cocktail of a funny musical aha moment with an instant of pure horror.
The fact that I don’t remember what I was listening to during an act of vehicular deer-slaughter only shows how the music-place connection isn’t absolute. If I had to bet, it was probably Jimi Hendrix, the B-side of the Electric Ladyland cassette that I wore thin in high school, but I couldn’t say with any certainty. And yet some songs and places of no particular import are forever etched in my memory. Why is “The Way” by Fastball lurking at the entrance to the Webster Tube? Apparently I don’t get to determine what gets accessioned into my own library.
I understand that some competitive memory trainers use tricks like this, piggybacking on the brain’s natural ability to store massive amounts of detail with place and sensory memories, but I don’t want to know exactly how they do it. I’d like to keep the serendipity of stumbling on the right song at the right place and time; peering at the inner workings risks spoiling the trick. I enjoy finding out that Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town” lives perched on a levee road in the Sacramento Delta, that Sylvan Esso’s “Coffee” squats in a spindly burnt forest in southern Oregon, and that Tellico’s “Backstep Blues” has a nice piece of land on the road from Klamath Falls to Mt. Shasta.
That hasn’t stopped me from trying, in my own way, to use songs as a tool. When I go out chasing a travel story, I try to pick the perfect music hoping it will put me in the right headspace or help me catalog rich, sensory memories that will enhance a story. This reliably fails.
When I set out across California to research a story on the trains of the Feather River Canyon, I put on Shine a Light, the Billy Bragg and Joe Henry album of train songs recorded live in railway stations and along the tracks on a journey across America. I remember the fact that I put the album on and nothing more. Instead, “Compass” from Sierra Hull’s Weighted Mind, which came on by chance, now forever resides on a soaring bridge east of Paradise. The river canyon was filled with a low fog, the light was all wrong for photos, and “cool” would be a polite way to describe the reception I received in the first place I stopped. I was at the point early on in a research trip when there is no story, and for a moment — maybe for quite a long while — it feels like there never will be. Here I am, now what the hell do I do again?
I’ve thrown away my compass
Done with the chart
I’m tired of spinning around
Looking for direction, a northern star
I’m tired of spinning around
I’ll just step out
Throw my doubt into the sea
For what’s meant to be will be, will be
Is it possible to be comforted by the sudden appearance of a song about someone else’s discombobulation? Apparently so.
The synchronicity of songs on the radio or iTunes shuffle can be a bit eerie at times. For every meaningless place-song intersection, there is at least one song that couldn’t have fit the moment better if I had tried. I know I’m not alone on this. Those windshield wipers slappin’ out a tempo, keepin’ perfect rhythm with the song on the radio-o. Eddie Rabbitt understood.
It happens more than it should. I had been thinking back on my grandma while driving to work one morning, when Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife” came on at random — the live recording from Berlin where she forgets the lyrics in the middle of the song and makes up new ones on the fly. For years, my grandma would write Ella letters, and each time she would write her back longhand. I couldn’t finish the song because I was suddenly crying at the wheel.
To say that songs dredge up memories only half captures the reality in the moment. When the bucket comes up from the well, it pulls up forgotten senses along with it: flavors, smells, or some other chimeric sense that seems to blend the ones we know but has a certain dull itch of something else we don’t quite have a word for.
Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” not only resides in a place I can never get back to — taking shelter from the wind blowing sand off dunes along the California coast in my family’s long-gone truck bed camper — it also tastes like peanut M&Ms, it feels like vinyl piping around a seat cushion, it smells of kelp. I don’t know who put the song on. At the time, it probably would’ve been the next song on the radio: utterly out of my control, not what I would have chosen, but the exact song that needed to be on right then, right there.
Listen to the songs and places playlist from this story on the Statesider’s Spotify channel.