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The tires sing, the wind hums, the radio rocks

A wanderer sets off on a blacktop odyssey, listening for the song of the open road.

June 03, 2004|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

The Road.

Do you hear the power of those words, all those songs pouring into your head like the dusty stream from a grain silo? Are you suddenly tangled up in blue on the lonesome highway to hell with white-line fever? Of course you are. Because life is a highway and every day is a winding road. In fact, why don't we do it in the road?

Well, we do. Americans took to the highways in record numbers over Memorial Day weekend -- according to the AAA, some 36 million traveled more than 50 miles for a holiday, defying unprecedented fuel prices (unleaded regular averaged $2.36 per gallon in Los Angeles). The summer peregrination is in full force. One thing we will find in abundance is blacktop: Federal, state and local governments will spend a dumbfounding $62 billion this year for road construction and repair. Wise investors will diversify their portfolios to include orange traffic barrels.

And yet, The Road is disappearing. Fading from popular music is the body of imagery, the poetic conventions that evoke the Mythic American Road. Where are the songs written in the cadence of white lines and the key of singing tires, like Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again"? Where are the songs about fugitive romance, like Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee"; about journeys of self-discovery, like Simon & Garfunkel's "America"; songs of asphalt adventure ("Take It Easy," written by Jackson Browne, memorably recorded by the Eagles)?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Road song credit -- An article on road songs in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section said "Take It Easy" was written by Jackson Browne. It was written by Browne and Glenn Frey.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Road music remarks -- In Thursday's Calendar Weekend article about American road music, Federal Highway Administration employee Richard Weingroff was quoted as saying, "In a lot of songs the road is a metaphor for drinking, getting laid and so on." His remarks were paraphrased and should not have appeared as a quotation.

These songs are part of the pop-music canon for a reason. Americans are pilgrims, historically and -- until recently, perhaps -- spiritually. From Lewis and Clark to Tod and Buzz and Thelma and Louise, movement and mobility have always been framed in metaphysical terms. Life on the road is morally superior to settled domesticity. The Road is a crossroads of self and space, where aimless wandering has a purpose and the empty horizon is full of promise. This is the big-sky universe of Whitman and Steinbeck and Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson (just don't let him drive). It's the wind-blown home of fugitive souls like Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and countless others.

As I rolled on, the sky grew dark

I put the pedal down, to make some time

There's somethin' good, waiting down this road

I'm pickin' up whatever's mine.

-- Tom Petty, "Running Down a Dream"

Songwriters and musicians have had plenty of real-life experience to draw on. "Musicians have always been the first ones to be run out of town," says T Bone Burnett, who put together the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- a picaresque film loosely based on Homer's "Odyssey," which might be regarded as the original road song. "To a musician," says Burnett, "the road is home."

Of course, some of the greatest road songs are not about the road at all -- any more than Kerouac's "On the Road" or the driving scenes in Nabokov's "Lolita" are about transportation infrastructure. AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" is a fist-pumping anthem of dysfunction. Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love" -- a song that bounces like a car on the expansion strips on the 210 East -- is a classic double-entendre:

We got some places to see

I brought all the maps with me

So jump right in ... Ain't no sin

Take a ride in my machine.

It's the imagery of the road that's so appealing. And it's this very imagery that is fading away.

Take the Google onramp to the information superhighway and do a search for "road songs." You will soon come across the Federal Highway Administration's road song list. Compiled by the agency's self-appointed and -- he is anxious to emphasize -- unofficial musicologist, Richard F. Weingroff, the list comprises almost 800 songs that mention roads or highways. When it came to picking out road songs, Weingroff had pretty high standards. "I didn't want a lot of rock songs about the weary travel of the road," he says. Weingroff also brought a bureaucrat's sense of propriety. "In a lot of songs the road is a metaphor for drinking, getting laid, and so on."

On Weingroff's list you will find the usual suspects: the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man"; the Who's "Going Mobile" and the ever popular and bombastic "Born to Be Wild" by Hair Club clients Steppenwolf. The pantheon of rock gods is well represented. "At first I was just listing songs I liked," the fortysomething Weingroff admits sheepishly. Also included are standards such as Bobby Troup's "Route 66."

What's interesting in Weingroff's list is the near absence of songs from the last decade. There are a few, to be sure, like Fastball's 1998 hit "The Way," a song about the mysterious disappearance of an older couple who abandoned their kids to take a road trip. But others only prove the rule. The Stone Temple Pilots' "Interstate Love Song" actually creates its lovelorn landscape around the anachronistic image of train travel.

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