Thursday 14 January 2010

Road Songs (Special Edition)

If roads were stick insects, I would not be a driver. Give me a fleshy, curvaceous motorway and I am a happy man, turn it into a size zero paved surface and I will be hanging my car keys forever and ever.

A bend doth a road make. The way this man-made, asphaltic curve winds and wraps itself around the landscape is the reason why I love being behind the wheel so much. It is also the reason why I derive a greater pleasure from driving around the British countryside than in urban London. The streets in my adopted city are too narrow and even broad avenues that arch left or rightwards lack the necessary angular space to enjoy the manouevring around a particular bend.

And the most important element of this peculiar and, possibly, whimsical fancy of mine is the synergy between braking, the bend as such and my hands holding the wheel. The first was analysed in detail here, the second one is the subject of this post tonight and the third one will be discussed in another column very soon.

When you find yourself behind the wheel, steering your car on a long, flat piece of tarmac, at some point your brain begins to beg for a change. That's where bends, chiefly conspicuous ones, come into play. Brake slowly, shift into a lower gear as you go around and let your hands slide on either side of the wheel. Bliss.

In music, too, I love this symbiosis between tempo, musicianship and creativity. And I will use the examples below to illustrate the relationship between road bends and musical ones.

My first clip is by Maestro Astor Piazzolla performing a song that is as rhythmically exquisite as it is curvaceously adorable. Here the bandoneon is the simile to that stretch of road that meanders and zigzags whilst the violin and piano represent the foot on the gas pedal. Touching.

The second clip is by The Beatles and it is also a timeless tune, 'A Day In the Life'. It, too, is my favourite song from their renowned "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album and no, this is not the official video. In fact there's a disclaimer on the author's profile on youtube that reads thus: 'Beatle clips I put together to "A Day in the Life". I made the picture at the end too. I've been noticing that some sites have been using my video and I would like to say that although I like the idea of my video being liked it is not the original.' And you could certainly believe that this clip was the work of John, Paul, George and Ringo, couldn't you? Such a good quality.

'A Day In the Life' is actually two songs in one. Apparently Lennon finished writing the first part and spoke to Paul about finding a filler for the second section. The latter had scribbled another melody and agreed to add it to John's bit. The result is the union of scattered pieces of news and domestic life. John's view can be interpreted as the sum of disparate world and regional events. Paul's is mundaness at its best. And you notice that at 2:17 (clip below) when McCartney's part kicks in. To me it is the equivalent of driving through the Dartford crossing en route to Kent. There's the bend curving seductively upwards and then downwards, the barrier that separates the metropolis from the countryside, order vs freedom. As an addendum, let me tell you that the Dartford crossing is not always that romantic. In fact, it is a nightmare most of the time, but last summer it provided me with one of those priceless moments when, queue-free, I cruised downhill with Nina Simone on the car stereo belting out 'I Put a Spell on You' and if there's a more magical and serendipitous moment, I'd be glad to hear about it. On a postcard, please. And handwritten, nobody writes cards by hand anymore.

But I digress. Sorry. 'A Day in the Life' is a monster of a road song that symbolises bends at their most beautiful and chaotic, like that middle section. Genius.

Last but not least an artist who has been featured four times on this blog in less than three months. Some people might be wondering whether I have suddenly become a Billy Joel freak or if I'm being paid by his record company to upload his music. No, it has all been very fortuitous. There was that link to his song 'The Stranger' because the post in which the track appeared was related to whistling, then there was his song 'Vienna' used as one of my Sunday clips. A couple of weeks ago I confessed to being bowled over by the lyrics of his timeless 'New York State of Mind' and I now I bring you 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'. All this has been rather accidental, not intentional. In the song below, the road bend is symbolised by the changes at 1:41 and at 2:44. The first one is a smooth shift from a higher gear to a lower one, as the car effortlessly moves uphill, zigzagging carefully, whereas the second one is akin to going down and around a pretty bend at full speed, window open, wind massaging your temples. And by the way she is having a ball, isn't she? And so is the saxophonist. What do you mean who is 'she'? She, at 2:42; 2:59; 3:57; 4:08 and 5:01. Have you been paying attention? Anyway, what I would like to know is, what were you doing in the summer of '75? Going steady like Brenda and Eddy or driving around and enjoying road bends? Thanks and enjoy.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 17th January at 10am (GMT)


  1. I am so grateful for the musical education that I'm getting at your blog. This might be my favorite so far. The first piece is so beautiful and juxtaposed with the driving metaphor was perfect. I also felt like I'd heard it somewhere -- in a movie perhaps? "A Day in the Life" is also one of my favorite songs -- it makes me almost cry every time, up to that last fading wail. I used to love to drive this certain stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) in southern Cal, down near San Diego. As you drive south, down and around a bend you come upon this stretch of coast where the sun is sparkling on the water and surfers dot the waves and people run and walk on the sand and if you get it just right you can listen to the Mamas and the Papas "California Dreaming" and it's so great that it goes beyond cliche. Thanks for sparking that memory...

  2. What a lovely selection.
    And as someone who's been out of love with driving for a lot of years now it's good to read a different view.

  3. I'm so glad to see billy joel on your blog. I often think of two things related to your topic today. 1. When did recording become so addicted to the metronome? Most "pop" radio today has no room for rubato.
    2. I teach my students pianistic rubato using a similar analogy of being in the car and coming up to a red light. It depends on how fast you were going as to how much brake should be applied. All of them seem to be able to relate to Mom or Dad needing to slam on the brakes. They feel the safety belt press against their chests. We talk about that abruptness or the slow crawl when you saw that the light was red from quite a distance.
    Great post as usual. Peace

  4. Hey Cuban, dear friend:

    In the prairies where I live in Canada you can drive forever and ever and really never hit a bend. But you cannot drive without your music. That I couldn't do.

    But it is beautiful nonetheless, it always feels as if the sky is right there and you are driving into it.


  5. Amazing, this has been an education. I love driving, but bends have just been something to go round, albeit carefully, to see what comes next.

    Musical bends, now there's something I will have look out for.
    The Piazolla piece was new to me, I have heard his music before because I live in a musical household, not because he is played at all often in the UK.

  6. Hello London,
    This is a most enjoyable post - for the quality of the writing and for your quirky take on roads and music. (That is supposed to be a compliment, by the way)
    The Piazzolla piece was heavenly and brought back some good memories - it was my first discovery of his music and one I taught to a number of piano students. Makes me want to get it out again and memorize it so the next time I walk through a ritzy hotel lobby with a grand piano in it, I can play something!

    You're a very good read, indeed.

  7. Not a day tripper, but a time tripper for me..what a movie you've taken me to, especially the hyper-space section of A Day in the Life. I'll never be old as long as I can play this!! Thank you!!!!

  8. Driving and music, what a combination. I admit I had not put the two together before either. But the music that's a different story. Thanks for this.

  9. Somehow - no idea how - I ended with the last two playing together. Interesting result. (You might like to try it!)Interesting post which had me thoroughly immersed in it from the first. I agree with Chris on the Billy Joel front, though.

  10. Like you, I am an avid fan of sitting behind the wheel and hitting the open road. I love to drive on winding bending crazy roads, and I do not know why, I love to drive at night. Your post almost made me cry... the tears sat in my eyes and pooled, but they did not quite fall. I read while listening to Piazzolla. He is such a skilled musician, isn't he? His music comes from the gut, and always leaves me feeling a numb ache inside my own gut. A lovely thing you have done here, Cuban. I loved this post completely!




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