Posts Tagged ‘escape’

It is no surprise that an American band who has toured as extensively and endlessly as the Grateful Dead would write a song about traveling the American roads. However, the Dead’s view of the promise of the American road is far bleaker than the vision of the Beat generation before them. In 1970, on their song “Truckin’,” Jerry Garcia and his bandmates draw a parallel between physical traveling and drug usage to show how something which initially appears to be liberating can lose its initial pleasure and become something utterly grueling.

Guitarist Bob Weir’s opening lines in the son, “arrows of neon and flashing marquees down on Main Street” reveal the initial promise that the road holds over its travelers. These inherently American images of flashing lights have a hypnotic hold over the song’s speaker as they imply prosperity and opportunity awaits. However, the glitz and glamor of these symbols of promise dissipates as Weir goes on to describe these images as “your typical city involved in your typical daydream.” In other words, after traveling from “Chicago, New York, Detroit,” the hopes of the road and of the American city in general are revealed to be chimerical fantasies and it loses its appeal. In the song’s alternating choruses, in which the Grateful Dead describe the action of “trucking,” this action of “trucking” down the road is not a liberating experience. Instead, it is more of a necessity. For instance, the line, “takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin’ on” sounds like more of a taxing experience than a pleasurable one. Touring the country and traveling the country generally is no longer an alluring experience. Rather, “trucking” is a monotonous grueling experience. As the song progresses, they list more and more cities to show how much time they have spent on the road. At each allusion to a city, the lyrics become more and more jaded to the hope of the road. The Grateful Dead seem to view the road as a sort of cyclical maelstrom much like the typical daily life from which the road initially appeared to be an escape.

It does not exactly take a genius to figure out that a Grateful Dead song is about drugs. However, in “Truckin’” the road itself is a rather clever metaphor for drug usage. Initially, psychedelic drugs such as LSD and marijuana appear to be the perfect escape from reality, much like the road itself. However, after years of drug usage, the Dead no longer see drugs as the same blissful egress from reality as they originally were; now, it has become an addiction that must be satisfied. When Weir sings, “what in the world ever became of sweet Jane? She lost her sparkle you know she isn’t the same,” it is clear that just as travelling across the country has become debilitating and monotonous, drug usage has taken its toll on him as well. Well over a decade after Kerouac and his cohorts initially purported that the road and drugs are two perfect modalities of escape, the Grateful Dead are acknowledging the bleak reality that the bliss of escape via travelling or drugs will inevitably fade into a hazy mess.

At the end of the song, Jerry Garcia sings, “truckin’ I’m a goin’ home.” Now, the dream is no longer of going home. Now, the true end goal for him is to just go home and “patch my bones.” Ultimately, the bright lights and glamor at the beginning of the song are swapped images of rest and relaxation. While the road may be a great vehicle for temporary liberation from reality, its beauty and majesty are important. In fact, it is dangerous to live within this escapist daydream for too long, as it will begin to take a physical toll on your mind and body. Once again, another American Dream-the dream of psychedelic escape on the road- is shot to flames before Hunter S. Thompson’s drugs even began to take hold.

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The mythic idea of the road is everywhere in America, even today. Reading Eyerman & Lofgren’s Romancing the Road, one realizes just how prevalent this idea is in his or her own life. Even favorite songs, evoke the road without notice. Tracy’ Chapman’s Fast Car is one of these favorite songs.

Fast Car is a celebration of the road as an escape. The road becomes a chance for a new life. It also is a journey between two people and possible romance. It evokes traditional views of the road, but it also speaks to mainstream America, known more often than not as the opposite of the road – opposite of freedom.

From the beginning of the song, Fast Car takes on what Romancing the Road describes as, “car travel itself becam[ing] an adventure saga of magical quality”. (59) The car for Chapman is an escape, a magical thing that is “fast enough so we can fly away.” Fly away like Peter Pan flying away from adulthood. The article states, “Road’s liberating potential…. [is] possible to push the accelerator to the floor and leave all that was petty and bourgeois behind” (58). Like films in the road trip genre, Chapman’s car is an escape. Instead of escape from “claustrophobia of petit-bourgeois life” (62), Chapman’s escape is from, “injustice and from an intolerant ‘normality’” (62). This injustice and intolerable normality is her father’s drinking problem, her mother leaving and the responsibility she must take on by quitting school to take care of her father. Chapman’s responsibility of taking care of her father represents the traditional role of women as caregivers. Here she is escaping the confines of mainstream culture. The escape is so urgent Chapman sings, “Leave tonight or die this way.” The road takes on “a therapeutic role” (64).

I want a ticket to anywhere

Any place is better

See my old man’s got a problem

He live with the bottle that’s the way it is

He says his body’s too old for working

His body’s too young to look like hi

My mamma went off and left him

She wanted more from life than he could give

I said somebody’s got to take care of him

So I quiet school and that what I did


Is it fast enough so we can fly away?

We gotta make a decision

Leave tonight or live and die this way

By the end of the song, the car becomes yet another way to escape Chapman’s disappointment in the new life. She has yet again become the caregiver. Her partner does not have a job and drinks, neglecting his family. Chapman sings:

I’d always hoped for better.

Thought maybe together you and me find it.

I got no plans. I ain’t going nowhere.

So take your fast car and keep on driving.

This part of the song also takes on the risk of the road. In stating:

So take your fast car and keep on driving.

You got a fast car. Is it fast enough so you can fly away?

You gotta make a decision.

Leave tonight or live and die this way,

Chapman alludes to her desire for the car to become another escape; only this time the car will take the problem away. She will not be taken away from the problem. “Leave tonight or live and die this way” can be seen as a challenge for the presumably male partner step up, mature and be a man.

You got a fast car

I got a job that pays all our bills

You stay out drinking late at the bar

See more of your friends than you do of your kids

I’d always hoped for better

Thought maybe together you and me find it

You got a fast car.

Is it fast enough so you can fly away?

You gotta make a decision

Leave tonight or live and die this way

The American tradition of mobility, in the physical sense of the mythical road is a huge part of Chapman’s song. Romancing the Road describes this mobility: “movement itself became a symbol of hope. Going down the road, symbolized not only a way out, a going to and getting away from, it represented possibility, risk and romance” (57). Chapman’s desperate need to find a way out is expressed in the beginning of the song: “I want a ticket to anywhere…any place is better than here.” The lyrics “starting from zero got nothing to lose,” ushers in the road’s symbolism of possibility and opportunity. Chapman sings about the possibility of making something, getting jobs in the city and finally being able to live. Evoking the city as a place to experience life and acquire a job is a common American phenomenon. Throughput history the city has been the place of jobs. And as youth culture came into existence, the city turned into a place of adventure. It was and is a place to experience while you are young. “We go cruising, entertain ourselves,” represents this carefree attitude and continues to paint a picture of the car as an escape, as a way to have fun.

As the song goes on Chapman’s vision of life matures, representing the idea that the road fosters experiences for, “a new person…new sides to their personality, mellowing, maturing” (67). Chapman sings:

You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted.

We’ll move out of the shelter.

Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs.

This idea represents social mobility as well as physical mobility. Chapman dreams of being promoted and making enough money to achieve the American Dream –moving to the suburbs. No longer does she fantasy of freedom on the road. In its place is the dream of settling down. The desire for maturity can also be seen as Chapman sings, “I’d always hoped for better. Thought maybe together you and me find it. You gotta make a decision. Leave tonight or live and die this way,” urging her partner to mature.

Throughout the song, the subtle hint of romance is witnessed:

And your arm felt nice wrapped ‘round my shoulder.

And I had a feeling that I belonged.

I have a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.

These lyrics also describe the feeling that the beat generation was looking for on the road in the 1950s and 1960s – acceptance.

If we presume Chapman’s companion is a man, the fact that Chapman is a woman also plays on the traditional idea of the road as a man’s world. In the beginning of the song, she is the one asking to hitch a ride and get away. She has the plan, not the man. By the end though, tradition and mainstream gender roles seems to win out. Chapman wants to settle down in the suburbs with a family. The last two lines, “You gotta make a decision. Leave tonight or live and die this way,” suggest the man will get back into his car and drive away, continuing the idea of solace for outsiders.

(Even the video has roads in it!!!)

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The song “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson is a great example of the idea of romancing the road. For Nelson, the road means bonding with friends, a nomadic lifestyle, and new experiences. Nelson specifically likens him and his friends on the road to “a band of gypsies”. This implies a certain nomadic lifestyle or a lack of a home. Being with his friends on the road like a band of gypsies, for Nelson seems to imply a lack of normal daily responsibilities. He sings of going places that he’s never been and making music with his friends. These ideas of a lack of responsibilities and new experiences are part of the larger idea of a road trip, which is explored through many movies. This idea that you can find out who you really are by taking a road trip and a break from your daily responsibilities is an idea that is played out quite often in American media. There is some part of this nomadic lifestyle, which for short periods, is very appealing to Americans. I have a tough time figuring out why this idea is so appealing to us, but one explanation may be the fact that Americans work longer hours than people in other parts of the world. Also, many Americans cannot even escape work while at home and often bring their work home with them. This can possibly force Americans to want become homeless and nomadic for some period of time, and take the road with friends or family as an escape from their myriad of everyday responsibilities. Willie Nelson plays out this image beautifully.

Adam Naughton

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Escape on Two Wheels

Escape on Two Wheels

In class we talked exclusively about how the car was the means of escape on the road. But in my opinion we excluded the one vehicle that epitomizes escape from civilization through the road, the motorcycle.

One can justify the purchase of a motorcycle by saying it gets better gas mileage or that it’s better for the environment, but in reality most people buy motorcycles because they like the sense of freedom that comes with riding a motorcycle. On a motorcycle you’re free of both the confines of a car and the confines of society because motorcycle riders are a minority population, making you an outsider and therefore outside the rules. In today’s society motorcyclists are the ones who find the most escape on the road.

Claire Stoms

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