My Musical Map
Some music just sounds better in certain settings. Like seeing an animal in its natural habitat instead of in a zoo. For me, the Grateful Dead just sound better, more vital, on the Pacific Coast Highway than the New Jersey Turnpike. The opposite, Springsteen.
Over time, I have developed a musical geography of sorts, mapping the places where I hear certain songs more clearly and which, as a result, have become inextricably bound up with those songs in a way that is now impossible to untangle. I can no longer hear these songs without being transported to a particular place; I can no longer visit these places without hearing the song playing in my head.
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is one such tune. My family has a ritual of listening to it when driving at night along the empty, rolling back roads of California’s Central Coast. There is no better setting for experiencing the song. It is invariably clear at night and the absence of any light emanating from the rural landscape gives full stage to the moon and stars. When there is no moon, the Milky Way shines bright. We open the sun roof and croon along, looking up at the real-world planetarium above our heads. Hearing my nine-year-old son sing the song’s words of celestial travel while gazing at the riot of stars makes me believe his future is limitless. The setting allows that belief to feel real, even if only for the length of the song.
While it is not surprising that I find the perfect setting for “Rocket Man” to be underneath a star-filled sky in an empty patch of California, other places on my musical map are less intuitive. One of my most jarring cartographic musical experiences was listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety while driving the length of Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park. Hearing that album uninterrupted on that stretch of road was surreal, mind-altering, and, surprisingly, life-affirming. The album’s devastating reflection on humans’ destructive power was both amplified and redeemed by the rugged beauty of nature’s destructive power on display in those massive Montana mountains cut by glaciers.
But no other tune is as wrapped-up in place for me as the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man.” There are many reasons why I love the Velvet Underground, but mainly it is because I so clearly identify them with my hometown of New York City. To me, the raw, clattering, staccato-like backbone of that song, in particular, celebrates the deafening shrill of the subway and the city’s dirty underbelly. There is a physicality to the music that stands my hair on edge. It transports me “up to Lexington, one-two-five,” where, as a kid, I was occasionally propositioned by the dealers after missing my subway stop on the express line. I chose to leave New York City many years ago. But when I play that song in the cab riding up Third Avenue from JFK, as I do on every trip back, my soul is lifted because I know that a vital part of me has returned home.
These are just a few of the places charted on my musical map. Check out this week’s Playlist for some others. And leave a comment about your favorite destinations on your own musical map.