There’s been no gray and only the slightest signs of a waistline spread, but the sensibilities of middle age mutate sufficiently these days, enough so that the time came to make a substantial adjustment. I bought a sports car: an Audi TT Roadster. Moro blue with vanilla interior, convertible, turbo engine, two seater, automatic with a secret “S” gear for aggressive driving purposes, and a remarkable stereo system with a volume that goes up to thirty, ignoring the fact that my ears bleed somewhere around twenty-two. The only unanswered questions remaining: (1) Where do I go; (2) What music do I take?
You need to keep in mind all this happened in late October 2003.
Born and raised in Ohio, I had not ventured from Arizona to the Buckeye state in twenty-one years, despite near constant longing for my artificial boyhood paradise. I already missed this year’s World Famous Annual Circleville Pumpkin Show, but there remained plenty to see and do in Central Ohioan bohemia, so I mapped out a rough outline of a route, threw three sweat shirts and a pair of jeans in an old suitcase and psyched myself up for the journey, mostly focusing on question number two: what would be the perfect sounds for this mid-life road experience? I immediately abandoned obvious selections, such as The Ramones’ Road to Ruin, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, and Dion’s The Wanderer, classics all, but a tad too predictable for my forthcoming nervous collapse. No, I needed music for both the general between-city-tedium, and locale-specific sonics, music and noise that would propel my traveling companion dog Molly and me through the stratosphere of interstate highway ecstasy. This was gonna be fun.
Remember that jive by Elton John about “Get back/Honky cat/Better get back to the woods”? Well, from my personal point of view, that notion stinks. The high point of my trip, as it turned out, was when having hooked up with my friend Ruth Ann, she and I motored stately into my old neighborhood--Jefferson Addition--for the narrow and specific purpose of taking a few pictures of my old house. The place looked pretty much the same, despite the thin and fractured roadways which had seemed so much wider before, and we pulled over alongside my former abode, the morning rain yielding to a brisk pre-winter cloud sulk, and I hopped out with my camera. There I stood, in awe of my former home, located at 367 Ludwig Drive, in case anyone wants to visit. Just as I was lining up the exposure, this craggily retiree came bounding out from my old living room and threw open the door. “Hey!” he hollered, for that is what one does to get attention in Circleville. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Looking over my shoulder, I noticed Ruth Ann slouching low in the passenger seat. Ah, the things friends must endure. “I used to live here and I’m taking some pictures of the house. Could you step out of the frame please?” The old guy was having none of this, but to my surprise, he did move out of the way so I could snap my photos.
“I don’t like people taking pictures of my house. Who are you?”
I explained that this had been my house long before he owned it and that I was indeed going to take pictures and thank you very much. He displayed a lot of flag decals on the garage, so he probably thought we were terrorists, staking out the structure of the house, all the better to position our surface-to-air rocket launchers. By the time I’d shot the third exposure, his glazed eyes were steaming, so I said “I suppose a tour of the place is out of the question” and hopped back in, spraying mud while Ruth Ann laughed herself silly. She is a good egg, that girl.
I'm going to mention again that this all happened in 2003. Spotify did not exist. Music streaming channels? None.
My trip from Phoenix began well enough. Having mapped out my destination and estimating my overnight cities, I popped the CD’s burned especially for the occasion into the compact storage case and plunged ahead down I-10 toward Tucson en route to the first night’s stop in El Paso, a mere 650 miles away.
The proper musical accompaniment not only provides a much needed surcease in the audial road burn; perhaps more importantly, it imposes upon the driver a vivid soundtrack with which to recall the trip, possibly many years later. And so I divided the CD’s into the general category--for those long stretches of interstate where nothing much more than tumbleweeds and rusted-out cricket pumps decorate the landscape--and the specific category--songs which made some implied or overt reference to the city or region through which I was passing. Sometimes those references boasted the glories of the area and sometimes they made their point with a bit less reverence. In either case, volume was key and the top was definitely down.
Just out from the biospheres of Tucson, as the road straightens and clocks its hours of monotony, I plugged in the ideal tune to launch the trip: “Highway Star” by Deep Purple. As the dust devils swirled up and above the copper-coated dirt fields, threatening to transplant dog, car and self into Oz the hard way, Ian Gillan’s counter-twister scream wail strangled up with Ritchie Blackmore’s controlled adrenaline guitar boxing match and propelled the Audi’s contents forward with such velocity that “airborne” fails to capture the sensation. My hair straightened, the hat I was wearing is now attached to some motorist’s CB antennae, my cheeks went taut and the feeling is just now beginning to return to my gums. There was nothing much to see along the southern border of Arizona anyway, except a few rattlesnake pits and the bursting tires of eighteen wheelers. Just as my heart palpitations yielded to police-induced paranoia, the irony of the next song’s title took hold: The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” There remains something about the line, “Strap yourself to a tree with roots,” that perfectly encapsulates the cartoon futility of the trip ahead.
The Sweetheart of the Rodeo album from which the aforementioned number came provided the ideal transition into the Flying Burrito Bros’ take on Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” the most often repeated tune here. From this, it was a cold water crash directly into the instrumental abutment of The Ramones’ “Durango 95,” the song that crashed down just as twilight warned that it was time to get specific.
The southern leg of New Mexico hasn’t lent itself to an overabundance of name-place musicality, primarily because nothing much between Deming and Las Cruces jumps up and demands attention, other than the occasional patch of fallen cattle, apparently either the victims of underground nuclear testing or a simple lack of imagination. Las Cruces itself was clearly a bi-pass town, although I did come up with a Geronimo’s Cadillac song called “Crack Up in Las Cruces” to get me over the hump.
About seventy miles beyond Las Cruces is the Southwest Texas town of El Paso, which presented more problems of an overnight nature than of musical. I flipped in the CD marked EP and charged up the intro mariachi slash flamenco chords of Marty Robbins’ classic, a tune local town folk were quick to point out they are so tired of hearing, a stay in the local jail is the proscribed punishment for blaring it past eight pm. Heeding this timely advice, I skipped forward to “El Paso” by the Gourds, from their Bolsa de Agua LP. This choice meeting with some favorable nods, I inquired where might be a nice place to stay the night. The look of alarm on the kids hanging outside the Dairy Queen spoke volumes. “You’re not gonna park that car outside a motel, are you?” one of them asked.
“Oh, no!” I assured him. “This thing disassembles in just a few minutes. Hey, you guys ever heard of Kinky Friedman?” Having not, I played them the classic “Asshole From El Paso,” which cheered them up so much that one young honey with a waistline tattoo offered directions to the local Holiday Inn.
I had not much more than checked in, watered, fed and walked the cocker spaniel, when the look on that one kid’s face started giving me the jitters. My room leaned on the first floor, the car rested right outside the window, and the alarm system screeched loud enough to unhinge arms from their sockets. But darned if I could sleep for fear of getting stuck for God knows how long in a Holiday Inn this far from home. Insurance is fine, but how long would it take for them to wire me the funds, get the check cashed, and hop a plane the hell out of here? Nope, better to take a quick shower and shave, grab a burger and get on down the road a ways.
This jittered-out paranoia settled into a warm place in my mind, becoming a defining element of the rest of the journey.
Just outside of Van Horn, I jotted up to I-20, climbing steadily on the overnight drive to Dallas, a little more than 600 miles in the distance. On past Pecos, Odessa, Midland and Big Spring I drove, a confused cocker trying to get comfortable on her small leather seat, constantly insisting on inspecting the exterior of every semi we passed. Between Big Spring and Abilene, I entertained my passenger with a variety of general Texas tunes, like the bassist Randy McDonald’s “Texas Flower,” Elton’s Merle Haggard parody “Texas Love Song,” Louis Armstrong and King Oliver’s “Texas Moaner Blues,” and Lester Young’s “Texas Shuffle.” It was the situationally appropriate “Texas to Ohio” by Damien Jurado that actually introduced me to trouble. I’d cranked those ghost guitars and gravel road vocals so high that my gaze wired itself to the highway and I didn’t detect the friendly Texas State Trooper until long after he’d seen me.
Imagine if you will: you’re a cop and you see a dark blue sports car speeding through the night at somewhere between 85 and 90 mph, temporary tags and out of state ones at that, plus the driver doesn’t even slow down when he passes you. The red white blue bubble lights did compel my attention, however, and I pulled over, lecturing Molly to be on her best behavior.
“Is your dog gonna bite me?” the friendly trooper inquired with what appeared to be genuine concern for his own safety.
“Not if you don’t bite her first,” I responded, all bleary-eyed with good humor.
He turned out to be a very nice guy, letting me off with a warning, all of which made what happened less than an hour later moderately embarrassing. Having stopped briefly at a McDonald’s drive-thru for a freshening cup of coffee, I revved the midnight beast up just past 125, the hazel stars sparkling in admiration at my inability to learn a simple lesson about local law enforcement. Somewhere between a replay of The Ramones’ instrumental “Durango 95” (the title lifted from a late-night drive in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and the Collins Kids’ “Hot Rod,” the unhappy contra flash erupted over the oncoming crest, a flash I passed as fast as it approached from the other side of the median. A quick glance in the tiny rear-view assured me of my toast status: the trooper-mobile spun across that divider and sprayed angry gravel in the air as it yearned for sufficient traction to end my careless ways. I eased off the gas, found a strip of shoulder, and reined the Audi in for a graceful stop.
It felt like a scene out of Les Miserables as the same trooper sauntered up, flipping the pages in his ticket book.
He explained that at the speed we’d been traveling, he had every right known to God and Man to throw my skinny ass in the pokey, but since that might not bode well for Molly the wonder dog, he would record the pace at 98, just low enough to keep the Spaniel from having to seek out food and shelter on her own. I admitted that I found his actions quite generous and wondered aloud if he’d be interested in taking the Roadster for a spin. I figured he wanted to, and the pause between my question and his answer confirmed my suspicions. He politely declined despite my offer to keep an eye on his short. As a result of this fine officer’s manners, I did indeed learn my lesson and that was my final speed infraction in the state of Texas.
After an upright two hour nap at a breezy roadside rest, Molly and I greeted the dawn with the multi-level hyper speed ping pong attack of The Who’s “Going Mobile.” The beyond perfect production from Glyn Johns--the most incredible separation in all of rock--in harmony with grand musical ambitions and acid-accurate lyrics that shot out like Kerouac, reminded me of something my friend Paul Hormick had told me years and years earlier: “The more you listen to Who’s Next, the better it gets. Forever.” Better advice I have never received.
As we roared on in search of our next major stop in Dallas, we punched up Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s teenaged eight-track classic “Roll on Down the Highway.” The song’s mechanical rhythm section, indecipherable vocals and moderately inspired lead guitar encouraged the dog and I to shoulder dance even as BTO faded and the Rolling Stones dirged into all eleven plus minutes of “Going Home.”
Neither Molly nor I had Mick Jagger’s baby waiting for us back home, but despite this social inadequacy, we were both dying to get back there, even though Molly had never heard of the place and the only thing I knew for certain was that I believed I had been happy living there. I did in fact have some splendid specific recollections, most of which centered around various bicycles I had owned and the places they had taken me. One of those places was The Blue Drummer Steak House. I was a frightened yet brash sixteen year old anticipating college with about as much clarity as I was old age pensions and my parents insisted I take the job not only to defray up and coming educational expenses but mostly as a way of guiding myself along the path toward some infantile form of maturity. And so for nearly two years I rode my ten-speed racer the two miles from our garage to the Bicentennial-appropriate steak emporium.
My friendships there weren’t lifelong, but they were deep. As The Beatles’ “Get Back” bled into Elvis Presley’s version of Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On,” some of those memory images came rolling back. Most stark was a kid about my own age at the time, just an average friendly kid named Jamie Welliver. One night Jamie and I were toking up in his Duster, listening to the soundtrack from the new Tommy movie, and he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. It was cold as a shit storm out, and I was already in enough trouble for one night, so I passed. The next morning, a Sunday, if memory serves, I came back to work at eleven, just a few minutes before the lunch crowds emerged from the various church services. I walked in, bebopping a whistle to some self-composed tune, when the look another co-worker delivered stopped me cold. “Jamie Welliver’s dead. He wrapped his car around a telephone pole.” Before I even had a chance to register the horror of this, our manager, Pat Bevan, charged in through the big metallic doors and ordered us to get ready for the lunch rush. Ms. Bevan knew what had happened. She knew that we knew. But she had an insignificant job to perform and nothing was going to get in the way of that.
The most peculiar aspect of the entire experience was that when I had first begun working there, my number one concern, fear, obsession, was that by earning an insubstantial living there I might lose the young kid in me that I so cherished. Every man in the world frets about this constantly. Lose that internal boy and prepare to crawl inside a box and pile on the dirt. I never did completely lose him, of course, but that Sunday morning, a little part of him died for the first time.
On the outskirts of Dallas, the pre-encore take of Gram Parson’s live version of “Six Days on the Road” filled the air for miles and my heart muscles tightened for the first time since the trip had begun. An ominous cloud clings over Dallas and always will. A lot of that, naturally, stems from the Kennedy assassination, and a lot of it sprouts from social conditions that could allow something like that assassination to take place. There was a lot I wanted to see in Dallas, but there was only one song I wanted to hear: “Willin’” by Little Feat. Sadly, the story of Alice--Dallas Alice--was nowhere in my collection. So sitting in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, I rolled up the windows and sang the damn thing myself. Molly wept.
By the time we checked into our room, we had been on the road exactly twenty-four hours. We had driven thirteen hundred miles. Giddy with exhaustion, I plopped Molly back in the shotgun seat and we set out to discover Dallas.
About a mile and a half from the hotel we found ourselves so hopelessly lost it took the better part of three hours just to stream our way back. We never unearthed Dealey Plaza. We did learn, however, that Dallas sports a lot of road construction that only slows down the out of towners. Prior to motoring along freeways reduced to one lane with unyielding SUV psychos and crypto-tank drivers both fore and aft, I would have sworn that Phoenix drivers are the most hateful pack of self-absorbed sons of bitches who ever lived. After three hours sweltering and choking in the blood pools of Dallas congestion, I can honestly report that Phoenicians are among the most polite motorists in the world. If I ever return to Dallas, it will not be unarmed.
One of the primary reasons for my purchase of the Audi TT was that it is the ultimate anti-SUV. Despite the fact that every one of my current friends drives one, I do not like SUV’s. Perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this story, many people who drive the rough-riding death traps do not like the occasional little sports cars that punctuate the road like dots at the end of exclamation points. In particular, they do not like Audi’s, probably because SUV drivers recognize that there are only three or four non-Audi’s that can outrun the Roadster and none that can are the modern day urban tanks that in reality have nothing to do with either sports or utility. They are, in fact, only marginally vehicular. They do, however, serve as excellent tools for committing interstate homicide. Just ask the guy in the onyx black Denali a few miles south of Little Rock who tried to stampede his moon-roofed marauder up and across my roll-over bars, or the tailgating Esplanade, both of whom endeavored to careen their armored kill machines up and over my back just because I had the audacity to mouth the words “stupid twat” in their directions as I passed them merging back onto the freeway. Like a breath of fresh air irony, George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” filled the Audi and I switched lanes just as the mini-convoy barreled boldly by.
Arkansas is the most beautiful state, blessed as it is with miles of aisles of cotton, soybeans, wheat, corn and stacks of flax. The unsettled purr of idling semis spills a churn of its own kind of symphony. Strangely, a lot of great music comes from Arkansas but there’s not tons of tomes about it. That may be because in the early autumn, the scenery is so splendid, nearly nothing could approximate the grandeur. The fading foliage from the Ozarks announce themselves modestly and the timber trembles in awe of its own multi-hued gorgeosity. If there were ever a region in which it is manifestly appropriate to put the top down on the car, this is most definitely that place. The dying allergens kissing tightly to forsaken cotton balls, the colliding spruce and pine perfumes, the lust grip of cones and cinders: the sights and smells alone make a majestic visual-olfactory orgy that mere music cannot replicate. So I settled--if one can call it that--for a smorgasbord of CCR’s “Cottonfields,” “Arkansas Hop” by Boz and the Highrollers, “Joan of Arkansas” by Dorothy Shay, Big Medicine’s “My Ozark Mountain Home,” Black Oak Arkansas’ “Jim Dandy,” “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” by Chuck Berry, the American Gypsies’ “Bottle of Hope” (get it?), and--may God have mercy on my weary soul--Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s duet of “A Little Girl From Little Rock.” Hell, I’m no snob. I played the latter ditty three times as I wound my way around and through LR (as the local signs refer to it) on my way northeast to Memphis.
No city on our trip boasted a greater selection and variety of place-specific songs than did Memphis, Tennessee. About twenty miles out from this remarkably friendly border town, I snapped in the first four versions of Chuck Berry’s classic: the first was by Chuck, of course; then came the slightly hokey rendition by Flatt & Scruggs (recorded, no doubt, because of its title), followed by the rave up instrumental take by Lonnie Mack and the sloppy but transcendent cover by Sandy Denny. “Long distance information,” I sang as loud as my frayed vocal cords would permit. “Give me Memphis, Tennessee!”
Flipping from manual back into automatic as I stretched my neck to find a place to eat that wasn’t part of the burger axis of indigestion, Dan Bern’s “Graceland” whupped me upside the head:
Well look at me, Lord
I’m at Graceland
On a Saturday afternoon
I threw up last night
At a rest stop
From eating cheese grits
At the Waffle House
The Memphis horns hit me like a Gospel brick house as the late Dusty Springfield cued herself up on “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” another place and another time belting out as real and immediate as front porch lemonade. Memphis Minnie sashayed in shout-singing the “Killer Diller Blues,” the guitar sounding just like a banjo. King Curtis spooned up today’s special of “Memphis Soul Stew,” and when those fat back drums strolled in, I swear the trees along the roadway actually bowed. The obvious Mott the Hoople number bleated like a dying calf, but that memory quickly faded with the authentically ridiculous “Memphis Train” by soul papa Rufus Thomas. “Whoo! Aw, shucks now!” And before I knew it, I was leaving Memphis behind, the tires twirling and oblivious as the steady country rhythm of Rosanne Cash’s version of daddy John’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” battered down on Molly and I like rain on the roof of a caboose.
Along I-40 East and slightly north toward the former country music capital, as the winds whipped and the sun brayed in harmony, the first genuine scenic rhythms of recognition gripped me like a corpse. Tennessee houses a thousand tiny towns, most of which are thoroughly ignored by the grand interstates that double-X their arms across the expanse. Jackson--one of the biggest names in all the South--retains a bear’s share of promotion, but real people also live and die in Brunswick, Rosemark, Gallaway, Braden, Keeling, Stanton, Shepp, Leighton (I been everywhere, man, I been everywhere): God, so many towns and people Molly and I will never meet, many of whom may well someday be doomed to course their ways on wheeled rafts between the banks of paved pathways, fishing for legal fireworks and dreading the oncoming hug of familiarity. That familiarity spooked me like a slime monster peeking from a hollow log as we neared Nashville, the world’s most down home town. As we strained our eyes for yet another Holiday Inn, we got caught up in the porcine okey-doke of “Nashville Cats” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, melted into the leather buckets with “Nashville Radio” courtesy of Jon Langford, self-paralyzed with nostalgia during a dose of Waylon Jennings’ “Nashville Bum,” damn near cried from the pain of Ringo’s “Nashville Jam,” received scads of curious looks throughout the playing of Godhead’s “Nashville Bust,” and felt like genuine cowboy punks as we blared Hank Williams Jr.’s “Nashville Scene.” I awoke a little after three the next morning, sweating like a fever blister, completely unaware of where I was. Molly jumped away from the wet foot she’d been aimlessly licking and stared at me as if I’d suddenly become real. “Nashville!” one of us said to the other, or maybe the word came from the radio alarm clock that some fool before me had set. Over that tinny radio transmission, Mississippi Fred McDowell, who surely don’t play no rock ‘n’ roll, reminded us we had to move, so after a quick run through the shower we did just that, with all the haste of unrepentant sinners fleeing the wrath of a jealous God. I dropped Molly a packet of dog glop and chugged my own magic milkshake as Chris Knight serenaded us with his eerily appropriate “Devil Behind the Wheel,” that Mellencamp impression never sounding better. We’d be in Circleville sometime within the next twenty-four hours and despite the dark thumb tapping its warning against my heart, I hastened us on, my own internal cruise control as unyielding as time itself.
Running on I-65 North en route to Louisville, the next major stop, we passed a sign that said “White House 18 Miles Next Exit.” We also passed a Tennessee State Trooper who was himself somewhat exceeding the speed limit, and both Molly and I realized that another citation lay in our progress.
This guy stayed parked behind us for at least five minutes--no doubt staring us down from the rear to see if we’d run--during which time I searched vainly for Springsteen’s “Mr. State Trooper.” The best I could come up with was Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” but by the time the cop swaggered up to our car, that song had come and gone. I smiled and killed the engine.
“You come up here from Air-ee-zonaw,” he began. “So I know you seen the sign at the state crossing that admonishes you to obey Tennessee speed limits, right? Zat your dog?”
“Yes sir, Arizona. On our way to Ohio. Haven’t been there in over twenty--”
“Ohio?” he queried, although when he said it, the state name sounded like “Ah-hi-ya.”
“Yes sir, Ohio. That’s where I’m from. Looking forward to--”
“I don’t have all day to hear about that. Sign this and answer my question. Zat your dog?”
I signed the receipt of citation without even looking at it. “Right, my dog. Molly.”
“She obstruct your view in that little thing you’re driving?”
I desperately needed a drink or a drug or something to blur out the shades of simmering paranoia.
“No. She sits still. Rides low. Rarely moves. No trouble.”
“This here ticket’s going on your driving record, boy. You’re almost out of Tennessee. You make sure you pay this when you get to Ohio or wherever you’re going. You make sure that dog of yours don’t obstruct your view. And you better make sure you don’t get no more tickets in this state. You follow me?”
“Assured clear distance,” I replied as I hummed up the engine and rolled on toward Louisville.
My ears popped and clogged steadily as we climbed the road altitude that glides one almost unconsciously into northern Kentucky. Late in October, the trees coughed out crackling colors like daytime fireworks, each leaf a silent harbinger and leaden weight. Law enforcement warnings and penalties to the contrary, I shot us up to ninety just after we crossed the Kentucky line and the music took over for the next hundred miles. The deranged banjo stomp of Danny Barnes’ “Life in the Country,” The Byrds’ “Goin’ Back” (with its self-referential and irreverent line: “a little courage is all we lack”), the unsolemn roll of BTO’s “Freeways,” Joe South’s high strung “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home,” the heavy-light xylophone of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Reunion Blues,” the harmelodic majesty of Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America,” the power and the glory of Phil Ochs’ “Power and the Glory,” the pop up grind and slash of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream”: aw, it was somnambulant, it was invigorating, it was a bunch of purple mountain majesty, it was pure and fleshy, and my terror finally backed off. We truly were, as Funkadelic promised, “One Nation Under a Groove.” A zombied-out nation in our protective shells sealed for our own sanity, but one nation nevertheless. “Here’s my chance/to dance my way/out of my constriction.” Rat own.
End of Part One.
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