I realize that summer is creeping by, but August always makes me think of our old family vacations. My parents always ended up playing a lot of Neil Young, especially what I realize now is Harvest Moon. So whenever I hear anything off that album or from Neil Young in general, I’m instantly transported to the backseat of our minivan, still fighting with my brother over who gets to play Tetris on the Game Boy. What music made for the soundtrack to your guys’ family vacations? —Lauren
I’m really wondering whether this question is going to be remotely relevant to half our readers. These days, doesn’t everyone have their own mp3 player or handheld gaming device or phone or laptop or whatever to plug themselves into on trips, such that nobody has to share music? And why can’t I travel back in time to my family road-trip days and give myself a laptop and an mp3 player, so younger-me can entertain myself with my own music, and not have to listen to every country-music radio station between Maryland and Oklahoma? We lived in the former state and my grandparents lived in the latter one, so every summer featured the 24-hour cross-country drive, with dad keeping himself awake with coffee, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Waylon ‘n’ Willie and the boys, and so forth. To this day, I’m vaguely disturbed by songs that don’t tell stories, and that don’t come with a hefty dose of twang and self-pity.
That said, the vacation soundtrack that most sticks with me today came from a college road trip where as far as I recall, the driver had exactly one cassette tape, as if he was a Steven Wright joke. He also had a “my car, my music” rule. So for around 18 hours, driving from our Iowa college to Rutgers, New Jersey to meet various people we’d gotten to know via this new-fangled Internet thang, we listened to a mix-tape of Rush—”the early good stuff, not that new crap they’re doing.” So to ease my painful memories, I’m opening up the question to memorable vacation music in general—the good, the bad, and the ugly throughout your whole life, not just what your parents foisted on you if you were ever road-tripping pre-mp3-player kids.
For most of the first 12 years of my life, music on vacations consisted of what our junker cars could pick up on AM, which meant listening to a lot of the stations where my dad worked as a DJ: first rock, then Top 40, then country. But then my mom and stepdad bought a car with a cassette deck, and I went with them to Wal-Mart to scour the bargain bins for tapes we could take on trips. When they picked up Steely Dan’s Aja, I was initially disappointed, because I thought they were getting Asia’s Asia (y’know, the one with “Heat Of The Moment” on it). But Aja quickly became my favorite tape in my folks’ collection. Those long, jazzy interludes! Those acerbic lyrics! Especially at night, when we were returning from a long trip and I was dozing off in the back seat, I could imagine myself crawling “like a viper, through these suburban streets.” My lifelong love affair with the Dan had begun.
Growing up, we had two cassettes on constant rotation in our family boom box come summertime. (Yes, cassettes. Google that word if you have to, kiddies.) The first was a fairly obvious choice: The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer. But it’s the second one that still reminds me of hot days in our backyard: the soundtrack to the film Good Morning, Vietnam. Not only did it have some classic Vietnam-era tracks, it featured lots of Robin Williams’ monologues from the film interspersed throughout both sides. Granted, I didn’t really know most of what he was referencing. But my parents laughed at it. A lot. That was enough for me. So I memorized each one phonetically, devoid of actual context, save what little I could splice together on my own. Eventually, I was able to lip-sync along with Williams’ performance, which increased my parents’ overall amusement. I didn’t know what I was mouthing, but I knew I was having a blast performing for them in our backyard.
Without exception, my dad exclusively tuned into 1010 WINS, the New York-metro area AM news station. I still remember some of the commercials that aired between redundant traffic-and-weather updates (I was obsessed with a preciously orated Golden Blossom Honey ad in particular), let alone their anchors’ stately monotones and the chattering hum of a background ticker. My mother, on the other hand, filled the vast cabin of her Pontiac Grand Prix with New York’s adult-contempo favorite Mix 105 FM, which specialized in the finest mainstream pop and lite-rock from the ’60s to the ’80s. Or as that era would now be catalogued in the terrestrial-radio wilderness, oldies. So it must be some kind of childhood road-trip Stockholm syndrome that explains why, as an adult with my own vehicle and control of the dial, I exclusively split time between 1010 WINS and my local “oldies” station. Or maybe it just reminds me warmly of an obscure, intimate dynamic in my family’s relationship that can never be re-created.
Our family wasn’t flush with cash, but that didn’t stop us from driving up and down the East Coast to see as much of the country as we could afford. As such, I spent a lot of time in the back seat of our family car. The soundtrack provided by my parents’ cassette collections, however, was decidedly disparate. My father loved his outlaw country, so Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and Waylon Jennings’ Greatest Hits got regular play, but oddly, he also had a soft spot for Al Jolson. (I still smile whenever I hear There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” and “Swanee.”) On the other hand, my mother has always been more of an easy-listening sort of gal, hence my ongoing appreciation of Barry Manilow’s Even Now and the collected works of Anne Murray. For reasons that rely heavily on sentimentality, however, the album that makes me smile the widest and instantly brings back all the fun we had on those trips is George Burns’ slight but delightful 1980 country album I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. Sing it, George…
Weirdly, the biggest vacation nostalgia trigger for me isn’t music, but the videogame Bump ’N’ Jump. I don’t even remember where we were vacationing, but my parents and I ended up staying somewhere with a Bump ’N’ Jump machine close to the pool, and I played game after game. It sounds sad, but it made me happy at the time. Mostly I remember our car rides being silent, though we must have listened to something, probably whatever AM station had the news. But here’s a memory from 1989, when I was 16 and had recently gotten my driver’s license: My parents reluctantly let me drive part of the way to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, then watched in horror as I almost immediately turned the wrong way on a divided highway. Then, in a panic, I drove up on a median strip, taking out a tree and a couple of our tires in the process. I didn’t drive the rest of that trip, but I did spend some time in the back seat wearing headphones and listening to a tape of Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session, which a friend sold to me on the cheap, complaining it “all sounded like one long song.” Maybe, but that long, moody song fit my mood for the rest of the trip. (And much of the rest of my adolescence, for that matter.)
Growing up, family vacations were the only time my family listened to music of any kind (not counting church); mostly, I remember Peter, Paul & Mary 8-tracks in our old Checker station wagon, which makes my parents sound like the hippies they emphatically weren’t. But my favorite vacation-music experience was the first time my wife and I went to stay with her parents at their place in the mountains above Vancouver. I hit up the used-CD shop the day before we left, and among a handful of purchases was Depeche Mode’s Singles 81>85, which restored to my collection a band I’d loved as a teenager, and subsequently purged in some regrettable phase of anti-pop purism. Perhaps I was soured by the Mode’s post-Violator turn toward self-important mopery. But 81>85 is the kind of collection for which the phrase “nothing but hits” was coined, a nonstop river of slick, flawless synth-pop, flowing from the bouncy anthems of the Vince Clarke days through the adolescent angst of “Blasphemous Rumours.” We brought other albums with us, including the then-new Icky Thump, which got a ton of spins as well, but as we drove our rental car up Canada’s western coast, Depeche Mode kept finding its way back into the CD player, the unexpectedly perfect accompaniment to a seaside drive.
While I remember many soundtracks to many road trips through the years, the ones that stick in my head the most are the country-pop songs that infiltrated the top-40 charts in the early-to-mid-’80s. My brother Rich and I heard a lot of them on our trips for a couple of reasons: a) because my parents would channel-scan during the road trips we took at the time, which mostly covered the Great Lakes region and the Bible Belt (though not at the same time), and b) my dad loved Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys, and my parents watched the Mandrell Sisters variety show every week. So when I hear songs like “Elvira” by the aforementioned Oak Ridge Boys, “Queen Of Hearts” by Juice Newton, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, or “Drivin’ My Life Away” and “I Love A Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt, I think of endless days on America’s interstates, Rich and I whining to my parents about eating soggy bologna sandwiches instead of McDonald’s for lunch, and that the roadside motel we planned on staying at (thank you, AAA Tour Book!) had no pool and was so damned far away from where we were at that moment.
We couldn’t agree on much in my family in terms of music on car trips. Typically at home, we listened to oldies in the car (my mom preferred classical, I wanted the pop/hip-hop station, so oldies were what we could compromise on) but of course we lost stations as we crossed state lines. So we listened to old-time radio shows in the car instead. We gave Amos N’ Andy, the Shadow, and the Lone Ranger listens, but everyone’s favorite was Jack Benny, I think in part because something about his humor didn’t seem as outdated as white men performing in blackface. And we just liked him and his gags about being cheap and terrible at playing the violin. My brother would reprise the “Your money or your life?” gag whenever possible, and we got so into him that at a fairly early age, we each read Sunday Nights At Seven, written by Benny and his daughter Joan. It seems like we’re living in an era where comedians love to dissect comedy, and Benny’s name still comes up to this day, so I’m thinking maybe it’s time to give some of those old shows a re-listen. Only this time, I’ll probably download them instead of borrowing tapes from the library like my dad did.
My wife and I like to drive in the middle of the night, and we’ll frequently leave on long trips at odd hours just to be able to do this. For one thing, it gets us out of Los Angeles that much quicker—leaving any time during the day is a recipe for disaster. For another, there’s something weird and oddly mythic about driving through the middle of the night out west, like something out of a Bruce Springsteen song. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many more great late-night call-in shows or talk shows, outside of the old ubiquitous standby, Coast To Coast AM. Fortunately, we’re both big fans of the program and host George Noory, not because we necessarily buy a single thing the program’s guests are trying to sell, but because we really like hearing the mindsets of the people who’d stay up late enough to converse with George about the imminent end of the world, the aliens hidden in a mountain in Utah, or the shadow people leaking in from other dimensions. There’s something perfect about driving through the desert or mountains, radio tuned to a fuzzy AM station, listening to someone rant about the gold standard. And I’m glad there’s one part of pop culture still dedicated to kooks, weirdoes, and people who’d rather be awake instead of sleeping.