IF I LIKE A SONG, I listen to it 10,000 times. As a result, the songs tend to stick in my head independent of where I first listened to them. But every now and then something clicks and a song and a place become totally inextricable from one another. There’s at least some science behind it — psychologists have found that “the songs we love become woven into a neural tapestry entwined with the people, seasons, and locations throughout our lifespan.”
It’s why a song can almost make you smell barbecue hot dogs, or can make you feel summer warmth on your skin in the dead of winter, or can raise emotions that you haven’t strongly felt in ages. When you travel, it’s inevitable that some of these songs will become inextricable from specific locations, even if there’s no great meaning behind it. This happens to me from time to time, and it’s an immense comfort — in the worst of times, I can listen to a song and be transported somewhere else.
1. Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones — The South China Sea
I was on a ship that was sailing into Ho Chi Minh City. We’d just come out of the Straits of Malacca, where we were told we had to go full-speed “to make us hard for pirates to catch.” It was the dead of night, and the wind was blowing too hard for anyone else to be out on the front deck.
I’d watched every Vietnam movie known to man, so I put on a 70’s playlist and stared out to sea. As we got close to shore, I saw the lights of tiny fishing skiffs drifting dangerously close to the ship. In the pitch black, they sped out of the way, trying not to be swamped by the massive cruise ship barrelling towards the mouth of the Mekong. “Gimme Shelter,” the Stones apocalyptic classic from Let it Bleed came on, and I suddenly felt like I was a part of something far too big and sinister for me to ever fully understand.
2. Goin’ Out West by Tom Waits — Meatliquor, London
In one of the more famous scenes in the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt walks through a dingy bar to the tune of Tom Waits’ 1992 song “Goin’ Out West.” The song sounds like it’s being played in a warehouse, and Waits sounds, as Patton Oswalt puts it, like he’s been “gargling hot asphalt.” It looks like the type of place you don’t leave without a couple of stab wounds.
There’s a restaurant in a fairly posh part of London called Meatliquor. It serves meat and liquor and not much else. It’s decorated like the inside of an abattoir, with Ralph Steadman-style drawings on the wall, skulls all over the place, and with a soundtrack that consists almost entirely of grungy blues and country. It is the best American dive bar I’ve ever been to, and it’s 2 blocks from Oxford Street. When I walked in the first time, “Goin’ Out West” was playing, and I felt a jolt of electricity shoot down my spine. I had just walked into Fight Club.
3. Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival — Dale Hollow Lake, Tennessee
Dale Hollow Lake is one of the places that was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Depression — it’s a dammed up river that has filled a valley. As you boat across its murky waters, you are always aware that there are hundreds of homes and abandoned villages flooded a hundred feet beneath the surface.
My dad used to take me and my friends to an island in the middle of the lake where we could drink booze and maybe shoot off guns or fireworks at night, and ski or tube from during the day. He started every trip with Creedence, and now I can’t hear “Green River” without feeling the steamy heat rolling off the Tennessee lake in mid-July.
4. All These Things That I’ve Done by the Killers — the Outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa
The ship was docked in the ritzy part of Cape Town. We’d stumbled back at 2 in the morning, our stomachs full of fishbowls. At 4 a.m., we had to wake up in order to catch a bus to a cage-diving expedition out past the Cape of Good Hope. We were all hungover. Some of us were puking out the windows of the van.
I sat in the back and tried to sleep, earbuds in, when The Killers’ 2004 song came on just as I felt a bit of warmth on my face. I opened my eyes just as the sun had started peaking over the coastal mountains of South Africa. I felt a pit in the bottom of my stomach. And then, over the song, I heard the sound of someone barfing out the window.
5. Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen — I-71, Just out of Cincinnati, Ohio
It was June 18th, 2011, and Clarence Clemons had just died. Clemons was the massive saxophonist who formed the heart of Bruce Springsteen’s heart-stoppin’, pants-droppin’, love-makin’, earth-shakin’ E Street Band, and I’d never heard him live in concert, having only really discovered The Boss a few months earlier.
I was living at home with my parents, and I was miserable. I hated my hometown, and I wanted out. It was the type of youthful discontentment that made me very, very prone to listening to Springsteen music.
I did not know that in just over one year, I would be watching Bruce in Hyde Park, London, with a belly full of Meatliquor, and with the girl I would soon marry on my arm. I did not know that in three years, I would move to Asbury Park, the home of the E Street Band, and I would walk the same streets as Bruce and Clemons (or “the Big Man,” as the Boss called him).
I just felt discontented. So I rolled down the windows of my 1996 Toyota Camry and blasted the sax solo from “Jungleland,” here on the highways I knew so well, and felt that maybe, maybe, there was a future ahead of me.