I’m a creature of repetition. I’m a beast of habit. I am a record with a single groove. I admit that here, up front, before I extoll the virtues of a grounding song. So know that before I go any further – I like things I can count on.
It started about four years ago. I was in New York for work for about the tenth time in as many months. I had a night off and decided to go see my friend, editor and brother from another mother Adam Korn sing with a friend of his at a basement club in Greenwich Village. It was his friend’s show, but he joined to sing Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” I’d never heard the song, but loved it immediately and downloaded it to my phone before I made it back to the hotel.
I was just starting my traveling back then, just getting going with my crazy Sky Miles lifestyle, and I often found myself homesick and feeling alienated. There’s so much time alone when you travel like that – airports, cabs, anonymous hotel rooms and waiting rooms. I’d often get antsy, jittery, anxious. I felt surrounded, engulfed in strangeness when I traveled like that. I just wanted to be home. I just wanted to explore. I needed a friend and, frankly, there were only so many times I could call my wife before it became disruptive to her day.
With two more days in New York and a lot of time to myself, I found my thumb unconsciously hitting repeat on the song. I listened to it until I memorized the lyrics. I listened to it until I didn’t hear it anymore. And as I walked the city and sat in cabs, I didn’t feel quite so alone. I didn’t feel as anonymous. I felt like I was walking through a movie, like I was on an adventure, not just a stranger in a stranger place. It was like my trips had a theme song.
Since then, I’ve found a grounding song for almost all my trips.
Romania – “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
Japan – “Beth/Rest” by Bon Iver.
Sao Paulo – “Everlasting Light” by The Black Keys
Singapore/Kuala Lupur – “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and The Heart
London – “Blackbird” by The Beatles (duh)
San Francisco – “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots part 1” by The Flaming Lips
Raleigh, NC – “99 Problems” by Jay-Z (no official video available on YouTube)
Toronto – “Ends of the Earth” by Lord Huron
The songs aren’t always good and they usually aren’t the same just because I go back to a place. It’s different every time I’m in New York or San Francisco, Atlanta or London. And they aren’t always good. This last Tuesday, during my 21-hour there-and-back odyssey to New York, I listened to “The Promise” by When In Rome more than 20 times.
Yeah, that song.
The benefit of having a grounding song while traveling is a sense of familiarity when nothing else seems familiar. The benefits after I travel are that every time I hear the song, I remember specific details of a trip. Every time I heard the lyrics “and if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free…” I think of the cobblestone streets of Sighisoara, Romania, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, and the view from the top of the hill onto the bucolic Transylvanian valley below. When I hear “cause she knows that it’d be tragic if those evil robots win” I think of standing on the old battery, wind blasted and in awe of the Golden Gate Bridge. If I heard the opening riff of “Blackbird” I’m taken to Southwark and the little pub tucked down the alley where the drunken vet complained about British foreign policy to anyone who would listen – whether they wanted to or not.
There’s no science to picking a grounding song. In fact, trying to plan one out never works. It’s a discovery in your own song library. But having a song to play on repeat to set and capture the mood of a place and time, is like taking your blankie with you – a little piece of home wherever you are.