Travel Stories: Pico Iyer on the power of travel to make a forgettable Glenn Frey song last forever
03.15.10 | 11:21 AM ET
Everywhere I traveled across Asia 24 years ago, I was serenaded by the same unwanted bands, as if I’d never left home at all. Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing” was coming through the paper-thin walls of my little losmen in Bali, as I lay in my bed paralyzed by a spell placed on me by a local maiden, for night after day after night, unable to move and escape the thumping leer of the chorus. The Aussie band INXS shattered the quiet of the Tibetan night, and as I went out from my windowless closet in the Banak Shol guesthouse to watch the full moon above the Potala Palace, sitting on a ridge above us, overlooking the whitewashed, two-story houses of old Lhasa, I had to accept that “What You Need” would be the soundtrack of the moment. In China, a song that urged me to “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain” seemed as popular as Debbie Gibson, and spoke for the slow arrival of Hello Kitty purses and treacly pink teenage girls’ fashions around the Forbidden City.
But it was a quiet ballad, hopelessly romantic and almost unknown, by Glenn Frey that somehow became the one souvenir I brought back from my four months in Asia, and it made a special sense to me because it was just what I would never have thought to listen to—or been able to hear—at home. Nothing so imprints itself on memory as music, I had long found, and the exalting churches of Ethiopia, my days on Easter Island, would always be colored, unalterably, by the Tammy Wynette tape or the worn copy of “Four Strong Winds” that happened to accompany them. And when I got back to California, wanting only to be free on the backstreets of Asia again, the way I conjured up the East was by placing my dust-filled needle—those the last days before CDs—on a scratchy recording, newly bought, of “Lover’s Moon.”
Glenn Frey was, of course, the swaggering lead singer of The Eagles, whose “Hotel California” had been the inescapable album—and song—everywhere I went in Asia; in some ways, the Eagles’ mighty corporate blockbuster about the double-edged lure of California sounded to me like a perfect symbol of the ambiguous nature of dreams (everyone I met in the Himalayas or Southeast Asia seemed to long for the confinement of a place where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”), and of how ghostly songs about possession turn into misty hymns of longing when they’re translated to the far side of the planet. The Eagles were well on their way already to becoming the face of everything calculated, packaged and anodyne in America, and therefore almost certain to take over the world. The impression was only confirmed when, a few years ago, I saw the group, newly reunited, in Japan, woodenly sitting on stools and playing soulless versions of their hits to a sold-out crowd of 30,000 in the Osaka Dome, so beyond caring that they seemed to leave the solos on “Hotel California” to a young buck who was better able than the stars to move.
But Frey had a solo career, too, and somehow his plangent, croony ballad about a romantic night (“There’s a lover’s moon tonight/ As I look back over my shoulder…”) found its way instantly to the heart of the Philippines. Music was everywhere as I crisscrossed the most heartbreaking country in the East, often reproduced to dazzling perfection by local singers; and all the rending laments the Filipinos so beautifully delivered seemed at once to speak for their shining talents and to stand for something orphaned in their culture. There was an undefended, unhardened, open-hearted quality to the country—poignantly ready to believe that dreams could come true—that grabbed me and stayed with me long after I had left the broken streets of Ermita behind.
So there I’d sit in the quiet nights of comfortable Santa Barbara as I tried to put my memories of Asia together in a book. I had letters that arrived daily from friends in Burma and Guangzhou; I had the few local tapes of folk music I’d bought in a Lhasa market; my notes were atmospherically covered in stains from cups of chai at the Hotel Eden on Kathmandu’s Freak Street, and with a runaway chili from New Road in Bangkok. Some of these tastes I could almost reproduce in a California that was beginning to become an outpost of Asia.
But in the midst of all this it was “Lover’s Moon” that took me to a little cafe in Baguio, where pretty kids were getting up onstage and adjusting their guitar straps while the streets around them collapsed. “Lover’s Moon” was what I heard when I wanted to remember going out onto a terrace in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, to look out on the lights of the harbor. It was Glenn Frey’s aching voice of transport—“I’m dancing with a memory”—that reminded me of the many (too many) lovely new friends and hopes I’d met along the way, so many of them ready to hitch themselves to a star if only it could carry them away from what they knew.
We change our dollars into rupees as soon as we arrive at the faraway airport. We switch the voltage on our electric shavers. We put away our watches and get out our worn flip-flops at the beach. But the biggest and most important conversion of all takes place in some invisible currency exchange. The same song we’d never think to listen to at home becomes so charged with an almost unbearable burden of memories and fumbled hopes and unexpected sweetness that it can bring us to our knees. Travel takes the completely forgettable—“Lover’s Moon,” by Glenn Frey—and makes it last forever.