I’ll get to the music mentioned in the headline in just a bit. But first, a little treatise on the act of flying great distances.
The ability for anyone to travel to virtually any point on the globe is often as simple as getting on a plane and then getting off some hours later. But while the body may be transported reasonably effortlessly through time and space, I find that when it comes to certain elements of your consciousness, things are more difficult.
In William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, there’s a character named Cayce Pollard who makes this same observation. When summoned to London, she laments her out-of-sorted-ness by concluding that it takes the soul extra time to make the same journey as the body.
I know exactly what she means. We as a species have yet to evolve a tolerance for flying great distances in short periods of time. There’s something of your essence that remains delayed behind the body, like it was held back at customs or missed a flight because it lingered too long at duty free.
When the float plane finally touched down in the waters of Lhavigni Atoll in the Maldives, we’d been traveling for close to thirty hours. YYZ to JFK. Layover. Overnight from JFK to Doha, Qatar. Layover. Overnight from Doha to Male, the capital of the Maldives. Then an hour layover before a 40-minute prop flight to this island in the middle of nowhere. Added all together, these hops put my wife and I ten time zones into the future, causing whatever hormones that regulate our circadian rhythms to throw up a little. And then a lot.
Intellectually, I understood what was happening. “I’ can see that I’m on an atoll somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, half a planet away from my house. It appears to be rather pretty and very hot.” And despite all my efforts to take in the scenery, sensations and smells, there was an foggy unreality to it all. All I wanted was (a) air conditioning; (b) something to eat; and (c) to lie down for about four days.
Check-in at the resort was swift and we were shown to our accommodations. That took care of the air conditioning. A restaurant was open for lunch with pizza and samosas. That solved the need for calories. Finally, with everything unpacked, it was time for The Arrival Nap.
The Nap will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has gone to war with their personal circadian existence through long-distance air travel. After moving through multiple time zones–going east is the worst–it’s natural to say to yourself “I’ll just lie down for a bit and then get up to resume life as if everything was perfectly normal.” Instead you’re sucked into a sleep so deep it ranks somewhere between general anesthesia, a genuine coma and death.
At some point a few hours later, you awake groggy and confused at the bottom of a very deep, very dark pit. This is a feeling unlike no other–unless you suffer from serious migraines. If you do get crushed by those horrible headaches, you know that feeling that comes after the pain breaks, you stop hallucinating, finally fall asleep and then wake up feeling somewhat human again? It’s like that: a combination of full-body relaxation after a prolonged period of extreme tension and the ache of a punch-drunk boxer. You want to move but you can’t; it feels awful and blissful at the same time.
At this point, though, it’s absolutely bloody essential that you fight your way up through the darkness and somehow at least sit up. If you don’t, you’ll just fall back into the darkness , thereby allowing your body to think “Well, that was weird. I’ll just slip back into my normal rhythms.” Obey the body and you’ll find yourself wide awake at 1:43am craving a greasy cheeseburger. By 6am, your body will not-so-politely be requesting a large glass of vodka, hold the ice. Trust me: do not lose this battle with your body.
Instead, get up and have as much water as you can drink. Eat something. Go for a short walk. If the sun is still up, allow in as much light as you can. And, I’m told, expose the backs of your knees to bright light, which helps reset your body clock. I have no idea how that works.
As you’re doing this, keep in mind that the piece of your soul that has gone missing in transit will soon be on final approach, so make sure you give it a place to land. Repeat until it’s time to go to bed at the proper local time.
I bring all this up because when you do sync with your surroundings, there’s still the matter of figuring out where things are at musically. If you travel far enough from home, chances are you’ll find yourself in some kind of pop/rock afterlife–a place where the songs we’ve long discarded have gone to live. Unlike the concept of the soul being delayed in transit (of which I’m convinced completely), this music thing is one part of travel that I’ve never been
For example, whilst desperately noshing on those first samosas, I couldn’t help notice that the music wafting through the bar was Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes.” When was the last time you heard that song in a public place? It was followed up by “Baby What a Big Surprise” from Chicago, a song that deserved to die the moment it was recorded. Then came Men Without Hats. Not “The Safety Dance,” mind you, but the almost never-heard “Rhythm of Youth.” As I type this, I hear Elton John’s “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford.” I haven’t heard that one since high school.
Things got even stranger at the morning breakfast buffet when the featured music all came from some kind of Christopher Cross greatest hits collection: “Sailing,” “Run Like the Wind” and the execrable “Theme from ‘Arthur.’” Poolside lunch came with a side of Air Supply. Dinner was accompanied by “Heart of Rock’n’Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. A late-night drink saw a two piece-band playing the slowest, most languorous version possible of “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley.
Speaking of Marley, his music travels better than any other musician in history. When I was in a border city in Poland, I saw that someone had painted a mural of Bob on the side of a liquor store. Walking through a jungle village in the interior of Bali, someone had done the same thing to what passed for the general store. I’ve heard “Three Little Birds” in southern Tunisia where the Sahara begins; “Exodus” at a winery in South Africa; “Iron Lion Zion” in Vietnam; and “Get Up Stand Up” everywhere.
I find this fascinating, these ways the rest of the world picks up on music of the west long after we’ve thrown it away. What is it about these songs–especially the pop of the 80s–that causes them to take root in such places? Why do I never hear Led Zeppelin? Why are the Stones almost absent? And you’d think there’d be more Beatles, wouldn’t you?
Nope. Instead it’s like the Top 40 of the 80s up and moved below the Tropic of Cancer and started anew. I once asked a friend in Singapore to make me a list of his favourite songs. “It’s whatever is hot on the radio right now,” he said, “You know, Whitney Houston, Toto and Rick Astley.” Note that he said this without a trace of irony. Then I noticed that the driver of the cab we were riding in towards Newton Circus was listening to a radio station that had just played Michael Jackon’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”
The next time you do some serious traveling–any kind of travel to any destination–try to notice what songs are being played on local radio, in bars, in restaurants, in cabs and at your hotel or resort. I’ll bet that it’s stuff you haven’t heard in years.
Here in The Maldives, Arrow’s “Hot Hot Hot” has yet to make an appearance. But I know it’s coming.