The first music I ever owned was a cassette of John Denver’s Greatest Hits.
I had a mono cassette player of the type you used to find in school libraries. I would hold it to my ear, transfixed by “Country Roads,” riding around Leavenworth, Kansas, in the back of my Mom’s boat-like, green, 1976 Oldsmobile.
I remember as a six year old being mystified as to why anything would be so compelling as a song could be. It didn’t make sense to me.
By the time I was ten, even my Mom’s ABBA was hipper than John Denver; I was into Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, Christopher Cross, and the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie. By the time I was twelve, it was Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, and, until recently, that’s when I thought my musical existence began.
At 21, I was living in an apartment on Elizabeth and Spring Street in Manhattan. It was a shity neighborhood then. There was a crack spot down the street, a fake bodega with a severed pig’s head in the glass case. It wasn’t NoLIta then–it was nameless. It was no longer Little Italy, it wasn’t quite Chinatown or SoHo or the LES. It occurred to me that nearly everyone in the neighborhood would consider themselves to be in a different neighborhood than the next guy.
My stoner friends and I called it Laundrytown, because there were sacks of laundry stacked in the windows up and down Elizabeth Street–many of which had fake old-timey signs that said “Antonelli Musical Instruments,” or “Fine Meat Purveyor,” that the crew of Godfather III had put up when shooting in the neighborhood a year or two ago, which no one bothered to take down.
I lived with a 34 year old computer programmer. He would come home every night with two quarts of Olde English and a pesto slice from Ray’s on Prince Street. He had a giant collection of vinyl LP’s, of which I listened to two, obsessively: Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston, on which the Maytals cover “Country Roads.”
Somehow the hipness of Toots outweighed the “corniness” of my childish tastes. I listened to it, again, obsessively. I taped it and listened to it at work, driving around Manhattan in a van, delivering gourmet ice cream.
Sometime after I quit Soul Coughing, I went out and bought John Denver’s Greatest Hits on CD. I listened to it nearly non-stop on my first solo tour; I had a tour manager that drove the rental car on that one, while I sat shotgun, getting drunk the whole time.
I stopped the liquor, and ended up firing the tour manager in favor of driving myself, but I still went through obsessive periods of “Country Roads.” I still do, actually.
I wrote this in an earlier entry: in August of this year, on one of my last nights in Ethiopia, I went to a bar in the town of Bahar Dar with a bunch of waiters, drivers, and guides from my hotel. They got shitfaced and danced; I didn’t get shitfaced, but I danced with them, or watched them dance in the dim space walled with warped mirrors and lit with Christmas lights.
At one point, after an Aster Aweke song, or maybe R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” (a ubiquitous hit in Bahar Dar), a cheesy house version of “Country Roads” came over the soundsystem. The whole place surged out onto the dance floor with wild energy of abandon.
What an incredible tune, even in that weird Eurodisco version. All of those Ethiopians were shouting the lyrics, or syllabic approximations of the lyrics. I was sitting on the couches in a dark corner, with the only other guy in our group that wasn’t drinking, a guide named Genanew.
Mid-song, I turned to Genanew and sang along with every word of the bridge. Much to his astonishment. Because no one else in the whole fierce, crazy, drunken place seemed to know that part: “I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me–radio reminds me of my home, far away…”