Lonely Planet's U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid presents his Top 5 Rock ’n’ Roll Guidebook Songs
Rock'n'roll will never die. How else could we live without its little sub-genre of the "roadtrip song?" Many are great – "I’ve Been Everywhere" popularized by Johnny Cash, or the enduring "Route 66." But, as a nerdy travel writer, I can’t help but be a little unsatisfied by most (and not just because Bob Seger misspells the Nepalese capital as "Katmandu"). Rather than giving any sense of place, they just list places to be ticked off, not taken in. How touristy.
So here are five that give a real, deeper narrative of a place, songs that can be followed like a guidebook to the places they sing about.
1. Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset" (1967)
There is no band more English than the Kinks, who’ve made concept albums about drinking at pubs, longing for Oklahoma life from up on North London’s Muswell Hill, and village greens in country villages. None compare to this one, picked by Time Out London as the number one London song in a list of 100.
The song gives a rewarding dusk-hour walking tour. Its author, Ray Davies, asks of the Thames, "Dirty old river, must you keep rolling?" as busy people and traffic make him dizzy. "But I don’t need no friends, as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am paradise." He then switches to Terry and Julie (supposedly based on his sister and husband) who meet on Fridays at Waterloo Station, where millions swarm like flies, but leave it to cross the river, with the silhouette of the Parliament in the distance, and reach their own paradise.
I followed the lyrics a couple years ago (after staying in Davies’ old neighborhood Muswell Hill). From the station’s buzz, I followed a brick walkway to the gray bridge, and walked opposite of the hordes leaving work to cross to south London. I’ll never hear the song the same way again.
2. Billy Joel, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" (1977)
It’s hard to listen to the "Piano Man" offer you a "bottle of red or a bottle of white" without wincing a little, but the three-part medley for Brenda and Eddie offers a fun map of blue-collar Long Island where Joel grew up (and few people stop en route for the Hamptons).
Most of the places in the song are there. Past the still-going Sears where the song’s newlyweds bought home furnishings, the "village green" in Billy’s old hometown Hicksville is now called Neighborhood Park (proving "you can never go back there again" I guess). Bonus points if you show up in "engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans." The Shoppe here is a funny bar Billy went to long ago; the jukebox will ignore you if you "drop a dime" in it though.
And the Italian Restaurant itself? It’s possibly based on Christiano’s in Syosset. (Joel dedicated the song to it when he first played the song live in the ‘70s.)
(Here’s my video of the road-tested Billy Joel trip: http://reidontravel.com/2010/05/18/76-second-travel-show-billy-joels-long-island/)
3. Stephen Malkmus, "Trojan Curfew" (2001)
The leader of indie-rock heroes of the ‘90s, Pavement, struck out his solo career with playful songs like this, led melodically with drippy slide guitars and a pair of verses that comically gives two tales of the Greek island of Ios.
The song starts a couple thousand years ago, with Greek gods dreamily debating the meaning of life ‘beneath a Doric arch’ while sheep graze in a field of green. The second verse teasingly follows like a deadpanned post card from the pre-Internet Eurail backpacker era. It begins: "So we got smashed on Ios, down around some Doric arch." Then the narrator falls for a "trashed Scandi" and her "slurred medieval accent" and "chopped tobacco in her teeth."
Not what the parents had hoped to highlight a summer trip in Europe.
4. Lou Reed, "New Sensations" (1984)
Most people equate Lou Reed with seedy, but colorful New York scenes like heroin dealers, transvestites and Tompkins Square riots. But his best travel moment is the last verse of "New Sensations," written after Lou had cleaned up, got married and moved to Jersey. He sings about taking his GPZ motorcycle in 40-degree weather to Pennsylvania near the Delaware Gap. ("Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map.") He stops at a diner for a burger, where country folk were talking about a wedding, a death, and a football game. Lou plays a "hillbilly song" on the jukebox, then waves and goes outside and "headed for the mountains feeling warm inside."
Anyone who’s been in New York long enough knows about that gooey bliss that only comes from quick encounters in slowed-down towns of the Delaware Gap or Hudson River Valley.
5. Chuck Berry, "You Can’t Catch Me" (1956)
Every Chuck Berry song is filled with a real sense of place and juicy details (like "coffee colored Cadillac") any writer would coo over. And many are about roadtrips. The king of the bunch, and perfect for your next zip across the New Jersey Turnpike, is "You Can’t Catch Me." Chuck sings in a rapid-fire, rap-like vocal and paints a scene later borrowed by John Lennon for the Beatles’ "Come Together."
On a slow turnpike drive, things change suddenly. Chuck sings: "Here come old flat-top, he was moving up with me, then come waving bye-bye in a little old souped-up jitney." When Chuck tries to race him he hears the state patrol’s "moaning siren," so he "let out my wings and then I blew my horn, bye-bye New Jersey I become airborne." I sure could use wings like that in my ’96 Sentra.