Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Songs for Stranded Motorists

For the past ten days or so, I’ve been trekking all over the state of Missouri promoting my book, with radio and TV appearances in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. It’s not exactly glamorous (imagine eight hours of round-trip travel and an overnight stay for a three-minute interview before the Today show comes on), but it beats the hell out of real work. That is, it did before the biggest snowstorm in a decade hit the region and trapped me in Columbia for a couple of days, as I lived out of vending machines and walks to the Waffle House, and I, um, recycled the limited amount of clothing I had packed.

When the roads finally reopened, travel was mildly treacherous, and the view was beautiful, surreal and a little frightening. Deep, powdery snow blanketed hundreds of miles of rolling hills, giving the landscape a crystalline beauty appropriate for the holidays, but the initial crush of ice cut a wide swath of destruction. Interstate 70 was littered with abandoned cars and trucks, each in its own precarious predicament. Semi-trucks buried in snow banks and tipped at 45-degree angles. A pile of snow that looked like an igloo until I saw the license plate where the door should be. A car standing on its passenger side, like a coin that was flipped and landed on its edge. The scene was repeated dozens, even hundreds, of times.

The slow-going gave me plenty of time sample CDs (I packed more music than underwear, sadly). I managed to gain a deeper appreciation for the new Decemberists’ offering, and took my first crack at recently-acquired new releases from the Pernice Brothers, Portastatic and Los Lobos (all of which I can recommend). But my general fatigue and concern over the conditions led me away from new and exciting music and toward old and familiar favorites. Tom Waits’s The Heart of Saturday Night did the trick for a while, but I found that for the traveler who just wants to get home, nothing can touch Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. The lush, swinging arrangements. The honey-rich voice. The masterfully executed songs of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and the Gershwins. The cares of the day melt away when the Chairman sings “Pennies from Heaven.”

So from here on, the winter disaster kit will include, boots, jumper cables, a bag of salt and a copy of Frank’s greatest achievement. And maybe a fedora and a cocktail shaker.

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