I learned to depend on James Brown as a road music performer. And, as I worked my last summer job with the City of Halifax solid waste department in 1983, I needed him more than ever. I swung up onto a garbage truck every morning at six. My route included a dozen restaurants, a butcher shop and a biker clubhouse.
But I had my secret weapon - a Walkman packed with enough funk to melt down the Apollo Theatre. I might be slinging bags of rotting meat, but nothing could faze me: inside my skull, the Godfather of Soul was hammering the groove on Super Bad. Later on, I would go on to see James live two times (and interview him as a journalist) but nothing would top listening to him on the back of the truck that summer as we sped down Gottingen Street.
Music always seems best on the road. As a little boy, I strained to hear the Jackson Five over a fading AM station as my dad drove our 1963 Mercury Comet from Calgary to Kingston in the dead of winter. The Comet only had a single, tinny speaker, but the Jackson's never sounded quite as good as they did that winter day, their voices soaring over the hum of our studded snow tires.
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At 19, I drove from Halifax to Vancouver with my little brother in an Opel Kadett station wagon with no radio. We loaded up a box of cassettes, a cheap boom box, and hit the Trans Canada. The sound quality sucked, but that didn't matter - as we headed through Northern Ontario, we heard The Who like never before. We went hours without speaking a word, hanging on every note. Our little Opel was an Apollo capsule, carrying us through a lost universe of scrub pine and granite as we drank in every track of the Tommy album, then Quadrophenia.
Next came the prairies, and a highway so straight that I steered by watching the white line in the rear view mirror. My brother kept a lookout ahead and ran the tunes - Mozart for a while, then a quick switch to Jimi Hendrix when my eyes started glazing over. The sun went down. My brother put in Pink Floyd, and we rode through a velvet night that exploded with the colours of British acid rock. Days later, the Rockies hove into view, like the ramparts of a distant castle. We had moved on to Santana's Soul Sacrifice.
Life changed. I finished university, got married and had two kids. In my thirties, there was a period where our car had no music - my wife got sick of my constant hunt for stations, so we ordered a Honda Civic with no radio and sang ditties with the kids. Then we bought an Accord with a stereo and rediscovered road music in a major way. Every summer, we loaded with car with luggage and CD cases and hit the road to Halifax to visit my mother-in-law. Then it was off to New York City, North Carolina, and Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Each road trip had a musical theme. When my daughter was 14, it was the Spice Girls. ( Tell Me What You Want was burned onto our mental hard drives, never to be erased.) Then came my son's teen years, and our introduction to 50 Cent and Kanye West. My son carefully explained the significance of one of Kanye's key lines: "I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man." Got it, son.
The music education went both ways. As we drove through Vermont, my wife and I played Sergei Rachmaninoff for the kids, then Eric Carmen, pointing out that the opening chords of All By Myself line were identical to Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. Their reaction: "That guy copied Eric Carmen!"
As we learned, some of the music we loved as children appealed to a new generation: They loved the Jacksons, the Byrds, and even some of the Monkees - they sang I'm a Believer as we drove across the world's longest covered bridge in Hartland, N.B.
Neil Diamond also endured - we drove to Montreal and back listening to Kentucky Woman and Sweet Caroline, marvelling at Neil's musical hooks and his strange syntax ("Where it began, I can't begin to knowing….") Then it was on to The Temptations, Neil Young and Alice Cooper.
Over the past four decades, I have probably driven more than a million miles. And each road has a soundtrack. As I drive west from Vancouver, the Saturday Night Fever album plays through my mind, conjuring up the late 1970s, when I was studying English, working as a mechanic, and hitting the Vancouver discos. But as I begin the climb into the mountains I switch to Santana, the music that played through the Rogers Pass on that long ago trip with my brother.
Up near Wawa, I invariably think of Trooper - the keening guitar notes of The Boys in the Bright White Sports Car conjure up a timber wolf, deep in the pine forest, howling for his ladylove. (Trooper also comes to mind when I drive through Oshawa, Canada's mullet haircut capital - but this time, the song is Three Dressed Up As a Nine.)
Heading south on California's Highway One a few years ago, the perfect song was U2's Beautiful Day. Then I headed to Mojave Airport, home of aviation legends Burt and Dick Rutan. (Dick was the first man to fly around the world non-stop. His brother Burt designed and built the airplane.)
It was a long drive, and I considered a series of songs that were written for the road - like AC/DC's Highway to Hell, and Radar Love by Golden Earring. But I didn't have the tapes with me. What I did have was The Best of Rick James. I cranked up Cold Blooded and zoomed through the desert, flat out in my rented Ford. An hour later, I was finally at Mojave, the Vatican of high-performance flight. The runway was lined with fast-looking airplanes, and heat waves shimmered up off the tarmac. Then the air was split by a shriek that sounded like the end of the world. A dot in the sky suddenly expanded into a grey jet, arrowing down toward the runway. My Walkman clicked onto Rick's next song: Super Freak.
I'd added another road. Now it had its soundtrack.
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