Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Songs that Take me Back

Many things bring back memories but for me, the one thing that can conjure up any memory, good or bad, is music. Every good relationship I’ve been in has a theme song. Some of those theme songs came about from a specific moment in the relationship or is just a song that reminds me of that person. Every bad breakup also has a song (unfortunately, one particular song, which happens to be one of the favorite songs of all time, reminds of a person I’d rather forget!) and hearing that song brings me back to some not-so-great times or, occasionally reminds me a rare good moment I had with that person. There are songs that remind me of my childhood friends, people who passed away, people who moved away, moments I never want to forget and moments I wish never happened but can laugh at now. There are also those songs that remind me of memorable things that have happened on the road or while traveling abroad and it is those songs that set the backdrop for some interesting, sometimes funny and always unforgettable moments where a song united people from different backgrounds and cultures in a moment of togetherness even when language wasn’t a common factor.

I can trace the correlation of music and travel back to my grade school years when my class would pile into an old school bus and travel to various places around Cape Breton for field trips. All the way to our destination, we sang songs at the top of our lungs. Even the bus driver would join in. Road trips with my parents were much the same thing until I hit my teenage years and music took on a different form. It was no longer “cool” to sing along to campfire-like songs in the car; My Walkman (yes, Walkman – it was the 90’s) became my sanctuary on those long trips and I often retreated into my own little world as I watched the world go by through the car window. Back than, it was MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, C+C Music Factory and Technotronic that played on that early 90’s version of the modern Ipod. My parents hated this because they saw it as me removing myself from their circle and being anti-social. I saw it as me discovering my own taste in music and setting my own background soundtrack to the memories that were being made.

As I got older, I did start leaving the portable music players at home and chose instead to listen to the radio. By that time, I had developed a taste in music that was similar to that of my mother’s. Dwight Yoakam, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Garrison Brothers, The BeeGees, Sheryl Crow and pretty much anything that had real instruments and people who could actually sing and write good lyrics. I remember one particular week many moons ago, my mother had developed an obsession with the song “All you Ever do is Bring me Down” by The Mavericks and she played it over and over again at top volume while we drove around town, bonding over our Tim Horton’s tea. “Streets of Bakersfield” by Dwight Yoakam was another song that always brings back memories of my mother behind the wheel, music cranked and singing at the top of her lungs. Over-synthesized pop music, rap and needless screaming were never really pleasing to her sensitive ears nor to mine! When I acquired my first car, the first thing I did was make a bunch mix tapes and CD’s. At first, they were thrown together messes filled with timeless favorites and one-hit-wonders that I would get sick of after a week. Over time, I perfected the art of creating what I call The Ultimate Road Tripping Playlist…and it hasn’t changed much since I first created it except now it is on my Ipod instead of a cassette tape or CD. Hotel California, Tequila Sunrise, pretty much anything by Bon Jovi, The Cult and Pearl Jam. Of course, Johnny Cash’s epic road tripping anthem, “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” are mainstays on that list.

When it comes to memories made on the road, there are many and each and every one of them can be paired with a song that brings me back to the very day when the event occurred. I remember the day I got my first car quite well. My parents surprised me with a white 1989 Honda Accord a couple of weeks before graduation. Mom went out that morning to run errands and when she came home, she yelled into the house for me to help her carry groceries in. There was nothing unusual about this as I always helped with the groceries but when I went outside, there she was standing next to that beautiful car, holding the keys out to me. “Wanna take it for a spin?” she asked with a huge grin on her face. I must have looked dumfounded or confused because she added “it’s yours by the way. Here’s the keys.” That was the defining moment in my future desire to always be out on the open road. I grabbed some tapes from my bedroom and jumped in the car to embark on my first solo mission behind the wheel…in my very own car. I still remember the song that was playing when I pulled out of the driveway; Ozzy Osbourne’s “Perry Mason”. Mom warned me not to go into the city because I was not used to the roads. I guess she assumed I would stay around town and close to home but to me “don’t go to the city” meant I could go anywhere except the city…so I drove to St. Peter’s, 2.5 hours away. Technically I didn’t disobey her. A few months later, I furnished that car with a brand new, state-of-the-art sound system with amps, subwoofers and a CD player….top of the line in those days! That faithful little Honda was my sanctuary for 6 road-trip filled years. I figured I had put that poor car through enough when the odometer reached 425 000.

The summer before I moved away for college, I took one last trip around The Cabot Trail. I was on my way home after a wonderful weekend spent in my favorite haunts. I got to the Red Barn just outside of Baddeck and was about to turn onto the highway 105 to head home when I noticed the evening sky starting to turn a fiery red – an indication that there would be a spectacular sunset. I also remembered that the moon would be full that evening and these were my two criteria for a perfect night spent by the ocean. Being the restless soul that I was (and still am), I turned that car around and headed back in the direction of Inverness Beach. Actually, it was more like the car turned itself around…like it knew I was meant to be there at that moment in time. Although that was almost 15 years ago, I still remember the song that was playing on the radio when I found myself back on that lonely country road; “Strawberry Wine” by Deanna Carter. That entire weekend was an unforgettable one but that impromptu detour back to the coast made it simply magical. I parked the car near the sand dunes at the end of one of the side roads that lead to that long, sandy stretch of beach, got out, stretched out on a blanket in the sand, watched the last of the suns rays sink into the Atlantic Ocean and waited for the moon to rise into the sky above with the sounds of some young people singing and playing guitars a short distance away. Over the course of my life, I have had many such unplanned and unforgettable moments and I feel fortunate to have those memories and to be able to remember the songs that bring me back to those special moments frozen in time. Someday, I may forget those memories and I can only hope that the sound of a particular song will bring me back. I believe music has that much power. I’ve experienced that power many times.

When I moved to Newfoundland at the young age of nineteen, my car came with me and those road trips continued except they were with different people in a different landscape. I will never forget the emotions that were stirring in me the day I left Cape Breton, my family and friends behind me and boarded the Joseph and Clara Smallwood to cross the gulf to my new home. I was sad to leave but excited at the new prospects ahead of me. As I stood on the outside deck of that ferry and watched my hometown get smaller and smaller and the waters around me become dark and rough as we crossed into the open ocean, loneliness swept over me. I stood there alone for what seemed like a long time until I heard the faint sounds of music coming from the inside lounge. The house band was getting ready to start their set. While they tuned their guitars and tested their mics, I heard another sound coming from above me in the shadows of the upper deck. It sounded like a harmonica. It was a harmonica. I followed the sounds until I noticed a shadow on a bench in a far corner of the upper deck. That young man hammered out a tune on that harmonica like a pro. Turns out he was a pro and that night that started out as a routine sail across the Gulf of St. Lawrence ended up being one that I will never forget. I traveled on that ferry many times over the years and that house band never sounded better than they did that night when that lone harmonica player joined forces to create a powerhouse of sound. To this day, I consider that night the beginning of my independence…a proper send off into adulthood.
Not long after settling in my new surroundings, I developed a whole new circle of friends who also shared my love of the road and my love of music. One of the first trips I took outside the city of St. John’s was a camping trip to Northern Bay Sands. It was on that trip that I first heard the song that would become one of my favorites of all time, “Bad Timing” by Blue Rodeo. Every time I hear that song, I am taken back to that memorable little road trip. Unfortunately, the song came to remind me of a person I didn’t particularly want to be reminded of and I didn’t listen to it for a number of years. Strange how a song can evoke so many emotions and either pick us up or knock us down.

I eventually sold that old Honda and didn’t bother buying another car because I didn’t really need one in the city. Whenever I wanted to go on a road trip, I rented a car for the weekend but I also started acquiring a taste for traveling to places far away from home. My first real trip on my own outside of Canada was a trip to Las Vegas. At the time, the song “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga was immensely popular (coincidentally fitting considering I was in Vegas) and was heard coming from every casino, bar and car stereo on The Strip. Now every time I hear that song, I am reminded of that memorable week. During that same week, I took a side trip from Vegas to Death Valley. I rented a car and since I was on a huge Alice in Chains kick at the time, I had a playlist with just that bands songs on it and the song “Down in a Hole” is the one I remember playing as I drove through that desolate stretch of lonely desert.
In late 2010, I mistakenly got in contact with an old flame. I say mistakenly because I dumped him years before for many valid reasons I won’t get into. He sent me an email out-of-the-blue asking me out for a coffee. I saw no harm in having a coffee because, as far as I knew, he was in a steady relationship so there were no worries in him trying to get back with me. Well, I was wrong. Over that coffee, he told me it was over between them and he was interested in maybe trying with me again. I was reluctant and stuck with a firm “no” but still accepted the invitation to go on a trip to Mexico that Spring because we agreed to remain good friends and what’s wrong with going on a trip with a friend especially if they are offering to foot the bill. It was on that trip that I realized he had not changed one bit. In fact, he was worse than ever! The trip was a disaster and in the background of every moment spent arguing and babysitting him while he got plastered to the point of oblivion, the song “We no Speak Americano” by Yolanda be Cool was blaring through the speakers in the common area. I’m not sure why the staff had such an obsession with that particular song but even when I hear it today, I have flashbacks to that ill-fated week in Playa Del Carmen.

My trip to Cuba the following year was on much better terms. For one, I was traveling alone and not with a drunken idiot set on ruining a beautiful week in paradise. The only problem? I had the song “Mambo #5” by Lou Bega stuck in my head for weeks after I returned home! For some reason, this song was played over and over again at the resort disco. Perhaps the staff thought the patrons too drunk to notice that the playlist only consisted of that one song and it was upbeat enough to keep people drinking and dancing throughout the evening.
And than there was Costa Rica, my most recent big trip…and most memorable one. A week spent at a yoga retreat in paradise. I took this trip at a somewhat stressful time in my life. I was about to be unemployed and undecided about what to do with my life in terms of staying in Atlantic Canada or moving away again to find better-paying opportunities out west. The moment I walked into that yoga retreat, a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. A saltwater infinity pool overlooking the spectacular coastline, a bed facing glass doors overlooking the Pacific Ocean, delicious and homemade organic meals three times a day and the most soothing music I had ever heard setting the mood for the week. But there is another musical memory that stands out on that trip and I still smile to myself when I am taken back to that moment. I was too tired to walk back to the retreat after an evening spent wandering the little surf village of Montezuma so I hailed a cab. It was evident that my driver couldn’t speak a word of English as we both struggled to communicate. After some pointing and hand gestures and broken words in English and Spanish, he understood where I wanted to go. We started the short journey up that steep hill to Anamaya Yoga Retreat in silence until he turned on the radio. One might assume that a Spanish song would be playing on a local station in a Spanish-speaking country but it was an English song by a British artist that I was quite familiar with. My driver recognized it too and that man who could not speak a word of English only a few minutes earlier began to sing along to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” at the top of his lungs….in clear, unbroken English!

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