Driving with CDs

When I find myself in times of trouble, CDs in the car can be very comforting

My apologies for no newsletter last week and the somewhat fluid schedule of this month. As I mention in this week's piece below, this is owing to a family illness and is sadly unavoidable at present. Please bear with me and I will continue to bring you my best work on a restored schedule as soon as I possibly can. Thank you.

I find myself driving an hour-plus commute twice daily most days of the week. This is not something that I would have predicted a year ago because first, I hate to drive, and second, I live in a major urban center and don't own a car. 

The reason for my daily drive is not a happy one. My mother, who is eighty-five years old, has been diagnosed with cancer that has already spread to her bones. I drive out to her home in the suburbs and take care of her, help her with the house and the mail and all the hubbub of this life that covers up the fact that we are marching inexorably towards our own decline and death. I'm exceedingly lucky for this time that we get to spend together; I have friends and loved ones who would have given their own teeth to have been able to spend time like this with their mothers before their death. 

But that's not what this piece is about. What this piece is about is my notes on listening to various music on my drives to and from my mother's house. The first time I drove her car I hit the eject button on the CD player and out popped a disc labeled 'Pancho Sanchez/Out of Sight!'  It was a disc I had burned for her and my dad from a review copy I received back in 2003 when the album was released. I listened to the radio that time, and next time, on my trip out, I listened to some streaming playlists, and while they weren't bad they were frankly unsatisfying. I was in a car that had a CD player, which is a rarity in these days when tape players and CD players have been replaced by Bluetooth reception, and I was blessed with some seven cartons of CDs that I had recently moved from a previous apartment to storage space, and I wanted to listen to music on CD. 

I'm not sure when CD players stopped being standard in new cars, but this is a 2000 Toyota Camry, so it's equipped with one, the first in a Bowden family car. The idea of slipping in a disc of music, knowing the program ahead of time, and being committed to hearing it, is alluring. It helped me to appreciate the beauty of the CD, which didn't destroy the music industry or create an archive of 'perfect sound forever,' but which remains an excellent physical medium for storing and playing back music. 

One rainy Saturday evening I slipped in Terrapin Station by the Grateful Dead and let it wash over me, listening to it twice back to back on my drive into the city. "Estimated Prophet"--that Tom Scott Lyricon solo! I remember when the Lyricon came out--it was a big deal, a real game-changer. It had the amplification and ability to manipulate sound like an electronic keyboard, but it was responsive to the player's breath and breath control, with the attack and living voice of an acoustic saxophone. Scott, who led an L.A. band of studio musicians known as L.A. Express, was the early master of the new instrument, and this solo is one of the best known and most heard of any solo played on the Lyricon. 

"Passenger" is a cool driving song, makes you feel like you're cruising on autopilot. Then there's that Side One coda track, 'Sunrise', the most evocative vocal Donna Godchaux ever put down on tape. It's everything: incantation, tribal ceremony, art song, coda and prelude. It is the gateway to "Terrapin Station" which constitutes the entire second side of the vinyl record. And that suite is unlike any other Grateful Dead track in the studio catalog. Featuring a full orchestra and chorus, it is prog Grateful Dead, right down to the 'Terrapin Flyer' section featuring Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann's drums and percussion, Jerry Garcia's guitar, and a string section. 

I also spent a morning drive with the second disc of What a Long Strange Trip It's Been. This is my favorite Dead collection in large part because I first became familiar with these songs, which include 'Jack Straw," "St. Stephen," "Truckin'", and "Playing In the Band", by listening to a taped library copy of this compilation. 

What could be better than driving than Steely Dan? A polarizing statement perhaps, but I am a huge Steely Dan stan. Of course, I prefer to travel with the complete four discs of the Citizen boxed set, but that's stored away at the moment, so out comes a cheapo two-CD compilation that MCA released in Great Britain and I found at a discount mall store in southern Indiana. It contains 18 tracks from across the seven original albums that defined the band, and it's a pretty good selection. Nothing unexpected, although it does include faves like "Haitian Divorce" and "The Fez" that lesser collections ignore. I do miss deep cuts like the debut's "Midnight Cruiser," "Kings," and "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" or Pretzel Logic's "Barrytown" or "Parker's Band." Still, this collection, with its odd cover art, sounds terrific on the car stereo and makes tense driving situations much more bearable.

And, you know, I have to mention the disc I dragged out that includes the B-52s Party Mix and Mesopotamia EPs on one CD. If you love the B-52s, especially their first two albums, you owe it to yourself to seek out a copy of Party Mix. As the name implies, it's a series of songs from their debut album and Wild Planet seamlessly tied together as though a DJ were playing them, with some beats and added sonic effects. Admittedly, some of the songs are edited so that we don't hear the whole song ("Dance This Mess Around"), but you can't deny the power of tracks like "Party Out of Bounds" or the garage girl singer powerhouse vocal of Cindy Wilson on es"Give Me Back My Man." And I came to the realization that the pile-driving "Private Idaho" is one of the great rock songs. 

And then there was the day I listened to the first disc of Miles Davis' The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions on the way out and the second disc on the way home. The actual playing that the musicians did on this session has become more apparent to me over the years of digital releases and remixing that have happened to the Miles Davis catalog. My first ever listens to this came from a cassette tape of a vinyl copy of the album made on a handheld Sony cassette recorder so that the whole thing sounded dark and ominous. But the music is unlike anything else, a combination of the often spontaneous parts that the musicians were playing in the studio and Teo Macero's tape edits that gave the tracks much of their structure, after the fact. And the music encased me in my own little bubble, not unlike Miles tooling around Manhattan in his Ferrari. 

That bubble is what the automobile has always represented to a large part of the population: a place to escape from the world. I read a Twitter post recently where it was suggested that the whole phenomenon of people videotaping themselves in their cars comes from the fact that it is the one place that is left where we have some degree of privacy to act like ourselves, or to rant, or whatever. We eat in our cars, sleep in our cars, sing in our cars, and yes, blow off steam because we are angry or frustrated or sad or just really can't believe the things that have happened in the past couple of years. 

All I know is that, as usual, music is one of the things that can absolutely keep me sane when everything else in life is going full bore out of control nuts-o. 

I leave you today with one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs, “Sitting” from the Catch Bull at Four Album. This is a recent performance—it’s nice to hear him singing these songs so beautifully once again.

Have a great week. See you all soon.