They say your sense of smell is directly linked to memory, but I can’t be the only one who finds certain songs transport me to another time and place, and not always the songs I would choose. In this headspace, cheesy melodies that filter into our consciousness while we’re wandering through a shopping mall or standing in line in a bus station have just as much currency as the carefully curated tracks on a personal holiday playlist.
1. America – Simon and Garfunkel
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America. . .
In September 2001, I was staying in an apartment on Staten Island, USA. It was my first time in New York. I’d swapped my place in Paris for a stay in the city that never sleeps. Staten Island lies to the southwest of the city. The apartment block I was staying in sat on a hill, giving views across New Jersey and Manhattan’s financial district. Planes took off and landed over in New Jersey’s airport. I could see them day and night. And below them a constant stream of car headlights as commuters flowed over the New Jersey Turnpike.
I’d been waking early for the first few days since my arrival, due to jetlag. I’d explored a nearby park. I’d taken the Staten Island ferry past the green salute of the Statue of Liberty and walked around a surprisingly immaculate Lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Centre Plaza where I’d craned my neck to see the Twin Towers glow in the sun. I’d even stepped inside the World Trade foyer to be faced with a queue of at least 50 Japanese tourists waiting to buy a ticket and go up in the lift. I left, telling myself if I woke early again the following day, I could come back and beat the crowds to the top.
The next day was September 11th.
I slept in. I woke to the phone ringing. It was my boyfriend, calling to tell me to turn on the television. With the rest of the world I watched in horror as footage of a plane flying into one of the towers played on repeat. As I watched, the pilot of the second plane attacked. I got in my car and drove to Staten Island harbour, which was in chaos as people arrived to try and collect loved ones escaping Manhattan, pouring across the water in ferries.
I parked by the water and watched the towers fall.
Ways on and off Staten Island were restricted for the next few days. I took a long route via the Verrazano Bridge and Brooklyn and eventually saw with my own eyes the missing posters covering walls and lamp posts, the mountains of dust on car roofs and inside closed shops. The normally busy junction of E. Houston and Lafayette was almost empty apart from a lone skateboarder and a convoy of diggers returning from a gruelling shift at Ground Zero. Further north, in Central Park, small groups of people sat on the grass in the September sunshine. A kind of hush lay everywhere but in my mind a song, catchy and melancholy in equal measure played on repeat – and still plays to this day: They’ve all come to look for America…
2. A Galopar – Rafael Alberti and Paco Ibañez
It’s 2006 and I’m in a car driving through the night, through Spain. The motorway is new and empty and smooth and serpentine. Three friends and I are on our way to Granada, to see the Alhambra – aka the Red One – one of the world’s greatest palace and fortress complexes. I’m excited. I can’t wait to experience the Alhambra’s cool tiled courtyards and silver-tongued fountains. What’s more my Spanish friend has promised to take us to a natural thermal spring out in the countryside, where anyone lucky enough to find the place, tucked away between farmers’ fields, can wild-bathe naked in headily sulphurous waters. Andalucía’s rocky foothills flash past, darker than the darkness, and all four of us sing at the top of our voices: A galopar / A galopar / Hasta enterrarlos en el mar.
A legendary anti-fascist anthem, A Galopar’s lyrics are taken from the poem Galope by Rafael Alberti and put to music by beloved folk singer Paco Ibañez. Spanish guitar as thunderous as hooves underpins Ibanez’s low and resolute verses, each an ode to Spain seen through the eyes of a wild horse, before the chorus bursts out in a defiant call-to-arms or, rather, a call to Gallop! Gallop! Until ‘they’ are buried in the sea!
3. Pink Moon – Nick Drake
My first solo trip abroad was when I went to live in the French Pyrenees for six months, aged 18. I made many friends, who were kind enough to take me on visits to the region’s sights in Carcassonne, Toulouse, Montpellier, Perpignan . . . But the most memorable trip was to see the Roman aqueduct: the Pont du Gard, an arch remnant of 1st century AD engineering, spanning the river Gardon at 48-metres-high to carry water to Nîmes as it was then. We arrived in the evening and set up a makeshift camp in a garrigue field that smelled of lavender and wild thyme.
I woke at dawn and swished alone through dewy grass and scrubland. Rabbits darted away, startled. Towards the edge of the field I discovered an ancient fruit orchard. Gnarly apricot trees stood like sculptures, changing colour in the sunrise, laden with small pink and golden fruit, and the moon – still in the sky – hung like another giant apricot over it all.
Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is supposedly one of the simplest of his songs to play, but even though it’s just him and a CGCFCF-tuned guitar that you can hear his raw fingers moving across, the track is somehow as lush as it is tender.
4. La Corrida – Francis Cabrel
During that same period, I went to Nîmes in south west France with the Geography teacher from the school I was working in. She and her husband left me to explore the Roman city during the morning. I went to an exhibition in the brand new Carré d’Art, the result of recent cultural decentralisation in France, before meeting the couple again in the afternoon ‘for a surprise’.
That surprise turned out to be a ticket to a bullfight, a junior championship. What possessed my hosts to invite me, a young and idealistic vegetarian, to a bullfight, or me to accept their invitation, I do not know. I guess I was too inexperienced and polite to refuse. It was explained to me that the bull does not suffer, as the ‘perfect bullfight’ ends in a ‘standing death’ for the bull – a sword planted straight through its cerebral cortex. Of course, to get to the stage where the matador can do this to the poor creature, the bull must first be relentlessly teased by having spikes jabbed in its rear, until it is too exhausted to move. Unfortunately, the junior matadors in question were not skilled enough to achieve a ‘standing death’, taking multiple attempts to stab the bulls through the head. I spent most of the afternoon holding back tears.
Later that year, French musician Francis Cabrel released La Corrida, an animal rights song imagining the viewpoint of the bull as it waits at the end of a dark corridor, listening to the roar of a bloodthirsty crowd and vowing to make the matador’s wife a widow that night. It’s a powerful protest song whose line: ‘Can this world be serious?’ has been taken up by other causes.
5. Anything by Begum Akhtar
The ‘Queen of Ghazals’, Begum Akhtar was an Indian singer and actress born in 1914. Her voice is as unmistakeable as Edith Piaf’s or Shirley Bassey’s. A Ghazal is a type of amatory poem or ode, and although there is some dispute about whether Urdu or Hindi, the form originated in Arabia in the 7th century and was spread to south Asia by the Sufis. Akhtar’s voice is haunting and always takes me back to a night spent smoking an enormous shisha pipe among the glorious frescoes of the magnificent Surajgarh Fort (Castle of the Sun), a four-acre 18th century fortified palace in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan.
6. Africa by Toto
Naff it may be, but rest assured I do not associate this song with any travels in Actual Africa. Instead, it conjures images of Slovenian roads snaking through valleys and past flower-prinked meadows in the Julian Alps. Why? A very scratched CD had been left in the car I hired for the trip and Africa by Toto was on it. Many tired return journeys after some extraordinary hiking were soundtracked by my attempts to match the, ahem, let’s just say *unusual* scansion of lyrics such as ‘As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti . . .’. Needless to add, I did not do as well in my singalong as this choir.
7. Dembow Riddim – Various artists
‘Riddim’ (Jamaican patois for ‘rhythm’) refers to the instrumental backing for a ‘deejay’s’ vocal stylings in genres such as dancehall, reggae, soca, and grime. Dembow is a bouncy boom-ch-boom-chick beat with characteristic kickdrums, snare and timballroll. It was cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian artists in New York in the 90s, taking Shabba Ranks and Jamaican duo Steely and Clevie’s beat and turning it into Pounder for Dennis the Menace Thompson. It has now been widely appropriated into mainstream reggaeton (and thankfully rid of the homophobic content of some early tracks).
Every time I hear a track using dembow, I think of the music blaring out during a taxi ride from the charming old colonial city of Trinidad in Central Cuba to El Cubano Natural Park. There I walked across a ropebridge and along a trail under a verdant canopy of trees to the calm wild swimming pool of the Salto de Javira waterfall.
8. Ambient 1: Music for Airports – Brian Eno
The first album ever to be explicitly labelled ‘ambient’, Music for Airports was released in 1978 to a muted critical reception. Listening to it today, it seems scarcely believable that it was released nearly 45 years ago. Intended as a sound installation to counteract the uninspiring atmosphere of airports and instead ‘induce calm and a space to think’, Eno’s tracks feature slowed-down piano, wordless vocals, and sci-fi-esque synths, looping in irregular sequences that come together and diverge to make the experience of the album feel like a surreal passage of timeless time — blissed-out, icy-cool, somehow weightless – as if you’re floating above the Arctic or the surface of Mars.
Every time I hear the album, I am decanted into the strange state you inhabit when you enter an air terminal or step aboard a flight. Sadly though, I have never experienced Eno’s masterpiece in situ. La Guardia’s Marine Airport (the only still-functioning terminal from the first age of passenger air travel) installed Music for Airports in 1980, but every airport I’ve ever been in has been filled with the sound of commercial advertising and faceless flight announcements. Next time, I’ll take my headphones and Eno with me.
9. Mama Lauda – DJ Almklausi featuring artist: Specktakel
Earworm alert! This is a fully cheesy apres-ski hit, discovered when skiing in Austria. Or to be precise, I discovered this track in the Liftstüberl, a cosy bar with restaurant and accommodation at the bottom of the Wiedersbergerhornbahn gondola in the Ski-Juwel area near Alpbach, one of Europe’s prettiest ski resorts. Fuelled by mulled wine, schnapps-infused hot chocolate and large pints of beer, the crowd went crazy when this song played out, punching the air and yelling the lyrics. A hilarious and infuriatingly catchy ode to race driver Niki Lauda’s mother, it features a play on the English word ‘louder’, inciting happy skiers and boarders to sing at the top of their lungs: Wie heißt de Mutter van Niki Lauda?/Mama Laudaaa/ Mama Laudaaaa! What’s the name of Niki Lauda’s mum? Mama Lauda, of course. And for those who really want to know, her name was Elisabeth.
10. Tom Traubert’s Blues – Tom Waits
Riffing on bush ballad and Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, Tom Waits’ growling 1976 number tells the story of a hard-up drunk, stranded in a foreign land. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is Australian slang for an itinerant worker and rough sleeper: the ‘Matilda’ in your arms is your swag bag, your rolled up sleeping mat.
I’m lucky never to have slept rough, but during a trip to Australia’s ‘red centre’, I was taught how to navigate using the Southern Cross during a night spent under the stars around a campfire. Waits’ song never fails to make me think of the dingo that came sniffing around my sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Unlike me, that starving dog really was homeless.