It’s necessary to be alone to become fully aware of the way that music recalls the past, provides a soundtrack to the present, and gives hope for the future.
For those of us who travel alone, music fills those empty nights closed in by the walls of concrete rooms. And it entrances us on long journeys by bus or rail, occupying the conscious mind and allowing insight to float up from the depths.
Some music is wrapped in memory right from the start. Those are the bits of local music you pick up along the way, the ones that trigger full stereophonic flashbacks of a particular bar, a beach or a dinner. Elvis Crespo’s Suavamente was the favourite of a waitress at a restaurant on a remote Caribbean island. Early Shakira brings back a barbecue party in Costa Rica where I was the guest of honour. And ‘Loleta’ by Eric Donaldson calls up ghosts of a Nicaraguan beach, where the beer bottles sweated cold drops of bottle sweat, and the pages of my book puffed with fine white grains; where sandflies bit our legs, but it was all too perfect and we’d drunk too much to care.
Listening to those songs back home in our hyper-cynical world of synthetic furniture and fake wood doesn’t cheapen sappy lyrics or reveal flaws in the mix. Instead, it brings it all back: the feelings, the slow lazy heatpace, the simplicity of life.
And then there’s the music you take along with you.
That music you’ve heard so many times that you know every note, every pluck of a guitar, and every tremor or hesitation in the singer’s voice. Those albums form the epic backing track of your trip. You listen to them over and over, and they soak up the landscape, the smells and the very feeling of the place. They colour the way you see it just as different shades of glass colour a sunny day.
My traveling soundtrack is invariably something by The Church.
Central America will always be Starfish and Gold Afternoon Fix.
My Mongolia is haunted by After Everything Now This and the b-sides of A Quick Smoke at Spots.
Japan is Remindlessness at 3am, when the writing was finished but I still couldn’t sleep.
Through the cracked dusty glass of so many jeep windows, the vast, meticulous soundscapes of The Church tinted my external landscape with emotion, even as the more poignant notes called up the melancholy of opportunities lost, of chances not taken, of phases recently come to a close.
The music imposed this on the countryside as it passed, and fused it into a total picture—a memory.