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
On the other hand—and entirely in keeping with my travel-related manic-depression—I do, on occasion, make myself feel better about this big, beautiful, fabulously messed-up world. And you need the right kind of music for that, too. A long train ride through India requires something a little sinister like Roy Budd’s opening theme from the soundtrack to “Get Carter,” or, on a long drive across the Western Desert, for instance, Prodigy’s “Narayan.” Or better yet, ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”
If you need to just feel better about where you come from—a plain old reminder that the West is the best when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll and soul and jazz and blues and hip-hop—falling back on the classics is great when, say, skimming across the African interior at treetop level in a chopper, doors open, one foot out on the skids. At such times, one could hardly improve on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Curtis Mayfield’s score for “Superfly,” anything from the early Dre/Snoop collaborations, or the Stooges’ “Funhouse.” I don’t know about you, but listening to any of these makes me feel pretty good about what I’m doing at the time—and as important—that I’m carrying an American passport. (Yeah, I know. The Stones are Brits. But they came up in the classic American blues homage tradition.)
When you’re seeing the strange, ever-changing and thrilling future promised by cities like Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, it feels reassuring to listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn. For that matter, when you’ve endured more than two weeks of even casual exposure to Italian or French pop music, even Hagar-era Van Halen sounds like the Best Music Ever. (An otherwise heretical proposition.)
Ultimately, travel music is and should be a solitary thing. In this respect, the iPod is the greatest and most indispensable of travel accessories. One needs to protect oneself should one’s companions want to slide the latest Coldplay CD into the car system.
It’s your head after all, wherever you go. And your sunset, whatever horizon it falls over. The music makes it your moment, your memory, whether simply juicing the view or summoning the more personal image of a child’s first stirrings in the morning, a longitude far from yours. Music only makes it better. Even when it hurts.