Subcontinental Homesick Blues
Speaker's Corner: From a balcony in Sri Lanka, surrounded by AK-47-toting soldiers, Anthony Bourdain reveals why music can make a travel moment
12.15.08 | 12:36 AM ET
I‘ve found, after years of traveling, that I choose the music on my iPod, the selection of the moment, for one of two reasons: to make myself happier, or to make myself feel bad.
Right now? The Indian Ocean is crashing up against the seawall below my balcony. Somewhere, they’re toasting spices: cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and clove I think. Two young men in jungle cammos chat amiably above the narrow strip of beach that flanks the hotel, their AK-47s slung low at their sides. A few hundred yards to my left, at the top of what looks like an abandoned building, three more soldiers man a heavier, belt-fed weapon suitable for shooting down airplanes. Every once in a while, a baby-faced soldier pokes his head around the corner from next door and smiles at me.
I’m listening to Depeche Mode’s “World In My Eyes” and sipping gin and tonic from a tall glass and feeling kind of sad about things to be perfectly honest. The roadblocks, checkpoints, and omnipresent security in Colombo—an otherwise perfectly lovely, friendly city—have been bringing me down.
I’m not really a Depeche Mode fan. I certainly didn’t listen to them in the ‘80s when they were at the height of their popularity. In fact, I believed at the time that they and their synthesizer-driven ilk had pretty much destroyed music as I knew and loved it. But more and more these days on the road, I find The Dead Boys and Richard Hell to be inappropriate to how I’m feeling and what’s going on outside my window. I’m listening to stuff I would never listen to at home like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk and the Cure. Like poking an old wound, I keep coming back to them because they remind me of sad or troubled or long-gone days, or because in their own cheesily atmospheric way, they’re about sad, even more atmospheric situations. The way I want and need to feel when far from home.
If we are all heroes of the movies constantly unspooling inside our heads, then mine is apparently the protagonist from Graham Greeneland: a world-weary fellow, resigned to his tragic (but invariably aesthetic) fate in some beautiful place on the other side of the world, far from those he loves. And most times, I choose music that enhances that over-romantic conceit.
I’ve slowly built over the years not a collection of favorite tunes, but a soundtrack to a film in which I am alternately hero, villain or victim—depending on circumstances.
The scenery becomes more dramatic, more charged with pathos with the right music pumping into your head in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that they crank up the strings and horns in a movie score—ratcheting up the melodrama as the hero, bleeding out from nobly acquired wounds, slumps over and blinks his last, looking back at lives lived, loves lost, loved ones left behind, head finally coming to rest on some lonely rock in the Pyrenees. Well, I’m doing the same thing when I knowingly inflict (for instance) Pearl Jam’s “Black” on myself (a sadder song surely never written) while looking out over jungle canopy from Angkor Wat. Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” while gorgeous, doesn’t make me feel exactly ebullient—even when gazing down on Machu Picchu. One my favorite songs, “Anemone” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre frankly makes overdosing on heroin seem like an attractive late-afternoon recreational activity—it’s that cheerful. But I can’t keep away from these songs.