IN 1972, Dewey Bunnell was living in a cluttered cowman's house on a farm outside London and trying desperately to tap into some musical inspiration. Bunnell and his band, America, were fresh from their debut album and its No. 1 hit "A Horse With No Name," and the pressure was on for a new single. That's when Bunnell latched onto an old memory of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Bunnell, like his bandmates, was a military brat, and in the early 1960s his father had been stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. On weekends, the family of five would pile into their Ford Country Squire station wagon and head south for a day at the beach or Disneyland. "One time, it was 1963 when I was in seventh grade, we got a flat tire and we're standing on the side of the road and I was staring at this highway sign. It said 'Ventura' on it and it just stuck with me. It was a sunny day and the ocean there, all of it."
They came together in "Ventura Highway," the hit Bunnell was searching for:
Ventura Highway in the sunshine
Where the days are longer/The nights are stronger
You're gonna go I know
The song is structured as a "Go West, young man" conversation between a hopeful kid and an old man named Joe whose "feet are nailed to the floor," Bunnell says. Joe was modeled on another memory from Bunnell's itinerant childhood -- the grumpy old codger who worked at a bait shop in Biloxi, Miss.
Chewing on a piece of grass/Walking down the road
Tell me, how long you gonna stay here Joe?
Some people say this town don't look
Good in snow
You don't care, I know
And what about that one curious line about flying reptiles -- "Seasons crying no despair, alligator lizards in the air" -- where did that come from? Bunnell laughed. "The clouds. It's my brother and I standing there on the side of the road looking at the shapes of clouds while my dad changed the tire."
-- Geoff Boucher