Chapter 2: Impulse
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The sky is blue—but not peaceful blue—more like, potentially threatening blue. You’d know it if you’ve seen it. I’ve crossed the Ohio River into Indiana, and have roughly four and a half hours until I reach Chicago. I stop in a town called Zionville to fill my tank with gas, grab some coffee and write for an hour. They must breed beautiful girls in Zionville, because dozens pass through Starbucks while I try to concentrate on drinking a vanilla latte and wrapping up some detailed post-Louisville thoughts. As I write it begins to drizzle outside, eventually growing to a steady shower. When my cup is empty and several pages have been written, I rise from my seat and leave.
Indiana is openness and farmland. If Ohio’s landscape is mostly yellow, with cornstalks like blonde hairs raised on end, and if Kentucky is electric green with big, healthy trees encroaching on passing cars from the sides of the highways, Indiana falls somewhere between the two. There’s a lot of farmland. Almost no one is on the road today. After listening to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, I play Suicide’s eponymous first album. A soundtrack of jarring electronics juxtaposed to endless double yellow lines and cornstalks; the repetition is hypnotic. I start to daydream.
I had an idea during my senior year of college to write an article that would serve as a guide to music in various US cities. This idea came about while I was reading an old issue of VICE—the issue with their “Guide to Canada”—and listening to the Rodan album Rusty. Somewhere on my computer screen I had minimized a new Microsoft Word document that was supposed to be a paper on Twentieth Century Media. Instead of dissecting territories based on the people who lived there like VICE had, I would focus on music. I was excited about the prospect of the guide. I even traced a map of America, sectioned it off into random regions, and then reified said regions by highlighting acts you’d find there. Although I was purposely including bands with similar sounds in each region, it struck me how each place had nuances that set them apart from one another. I wondered—is this an ideological thing? Do different geographic locations lend themselves to different cultural influences? How does one explain the presence of bands like Calexico, Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez in Arizona, and bands like Lightning Bolt, Daughters, and White Mice in Rhode Island? On the surface there appeared to be a few answers (Is a city heavy on art-schools? What class of people make up the majority of the population?), but I wasn’t content with glossing over these issues. I scrapped the article, because I found it impossible to continue on such a small scale. No matter how long I spent trying to write my way into answering these questions, the article seemed incomplete. I kept the map, though. I’m really proud of my tracing ability.
A confluence of unrelated fears and desires led me to think up the idea that would become this book. The unfinished magazine article turned out to be the catalyst that, although on extended (read: permanent) hiatus, set the rest of the events into motion.
The first time the thought of a cross-country road-trip ever crossed my mind was during high school. I was out to lunch one day at Livingston Bagel in my hometown of Livingston, New Jersey with a group of friends. It was springtime, so the local eatery had tables set up for patio dining. As we ate, someone noticed a startling sight that appeared to be coming towards us in the distance. Growing up in an affluent, largely Jewish suburb of New Jersey, this sight—a long-haired, shirtless man walking down Northfield Avenue carrying a large wooden cross on his back—wasn’t exactly a regular occurrence. As he headed down to the road, he deviated from his path and approached our table. He asked what town he was in, and which streets he should take to get to the highway. After directing him, he thanked us and walked away.
My friend Matt wasn’t content. Matt was the kid who never shied away from potentially awkward moments. He jogged after the man, and stopped him in his tracks maybe twenty yards down the street. They stood talking for a couple of minutes, the large wooden cross dwarfing them both. After shaking the man’s hand, Matt raced back to the table.
He said he couldn’t let the man get away without asking what the hell he was doing. Apparently, this guy was trying to spread the teachings of Christ by walking back-and-forth across the country hauling his handmade, giant cross. He was right now on his second or third trip, and Matt made sure to let him know that passing through Livingston on future trips isn’t going to stir much Christian pride. As a table, we laughed about the irony of what we just witnessed, and for the rest of the day I thought about the wild uncertainties of a solo trip across the country.
I didn’t want to attend my college graduation. I’ve never been a fan of the pageantry, the self-aggrandizing and all the “Commencement is not the end of one’s education, it’s just a stepping stone on the path to…” speeches. Plus, I transferred into college, and lived in an off-campus house with four seniors during my first year there, so I never had much of a feeling of community or belonging. By now the prospect of spending my summer on the road was a viable option—it’s not like I was graduating with any job prospects. I wanted to spend as much time planning and coordinating as possible. While my classmates were reveling and preparing to receive their diplomas, I was making contacts with bands across the country and hypothesizing potential itineraries. Do I want to catch any big festivals? Should I coordinate my trip so that I stay in a particular city when the local baseball team is schedule to play at home? Early versions of my itinerary had me spending no less than two nights in each of thirty-five different states. Of course, finances played a large role in scaling back the duration and scope of the trip. Thankfully, my parents offered to help bankroll my travels. My mother would pay for lodging in cities where I had no friends with couches or floors to sleep on, and my father would handle gas costs. Everything else was my responsibility. Eventually I settled on a forty-day, twenty-one state itinerary.
On my first full day home from college, I sent about twenty embarrassingly long e-mails to various musicians informing them about the project and asking permission to either mention them by name, or interview them. I made phone calls to contacts I had at record labels Sub Pop, Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Secretly Canadian, and Temporary Residence. I called Rob Grenoble at Water Music, the recording studio at which I had held an internship the previous summer. Of the twenty e-mails I sent on day one, I received only two responses, from Jefre Cantu and Andrew Kenny. I’ve still yet to meet with Andrew Kenny.
The fact that I ended up taking the whole trip by myself was an accident. There were two different points when I was to be joined on the road by friends, and both eventually fell through. I consider these to be beneficial accidents, because they granted me the opportunity to spend six weeks navigating the entire country by myself, finding my way into and out of trouble, and exploring both the world outside and my own mind.
My travels were not just an excuse to leave home. I was not running away from anything. I’ve never been afraid of growing up or finding employment, so it would be untrue to say that I was hitting the road in the hopes of finding myself, a place to belong, or any of those cliché reasons a person uses as incentive to live on the road for an extended period of time. Honestly, I treated the experience like a temporary job, and was pleasantly surprised when I (and others) began to notice subtle personality changes taking shape as I made my way south, then west, then north, then east. It’s like I kept speaking into my tape recorder during car rides, “Then again, 142 hours alone in a car will do that to a man.”
Above all, this is a book about American cities. I chose to interview people who I felt could render an accurate description of life in the cities they call home. There is a lot of talk about music and personal history, but for me the insight I was offered about Louisville, Chicago, Austin/Dallas, Tucson, and San Francisco left me endlessly more impressed than anything else I learned. Still…some of the other stories were pretty fucking cool to extract from people.
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