Think About Direction
A collection of thoughts about where you live, where you're from, and what you're forced to listen to as you travel between the two
Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 album Songs for the Deaf is gapless, meaning each song blends into one another. But unlike other gapless albums where the instrumentals of one song give way to the instrumentals of the next, many of the songs are tethered together through radio vignettes meant to depict the “protagonist” of the album driving from Los Angeles to QOTSA hometown Palm Desert.
The first of the many radio DJ’s we meet throughout the drive is Kip Kasper from KLON Radio who demands, “Give me a saga! What’s the saga?” The saga is, of course, Songs for the Deaf, which is, for my and others’ money, the best QOTSA album and a high point in 2000’s rock music. Even 2002 Pitchfork at its snootiest gave it a 7.9.
I recently had to drive from my home in Philadelphia to visit my parents in my former home of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
The drive from LA to Palm Desert is 122 miles. My drive was just shy of that at 107. Worthy of its own saga, then, I say.
When I got in the car, which was not mine – a metallic pea green Kia Soul that I rented on Turo for the sole purpose of this drive – the off-brand iPhone dongle that I bought last-minute at CVS proved ineffective.
Panicked, I alternated between pushing the cable as hard as I could into my phone’s proprietary Lightning Cable jack and very gingerly trying to find a perfect position for it, as if I were holding a flimsy television antenna affixed with aluminum foil and wire coat hangers, something I’ve only seen on tv and in movies considering I was born in 1992.
As I got on the highway near 30th Street Station, still without iPhone audio, I knew I had no choice but to face this drive with nothing but terrestrial radio.
When I started driving in 2008, my 1997 Ford Contour (“The Condor” to me and my friends) was equipped with that cassette tape that connected to an iPod. Since that point, I’ve been able to DJ for myself during just about every music-listening moment of my life.
As the initial panic of being without my own music or podcasts subsided, I embraced the challenge and geared up for the hour-and-a-half-or-so that I’d basically spend driving manual transmission: One hand on the wheel, one hand on the “seek” button. There were moments here and there where two songs in a row were good, but, for the most part, I was jumping around as I passed through wealthy suburbs, smelled the late-summer farmland (shit) and took in the views of the familiar cooling towers of Three Mile Island.
Since I was traveling alone, I had some time to think about each song, each turn of the drive, each moment of the various broadcasts more than I would have if I were able to talk to someone or choose my own music.
Mostly it was boring, but like any time people of my age are deprived our constant stream of content, we can find things become more profound than they really are.
Join me as I recollect my own saga, not through the California desert, but through my own familiar stretch of highway between Philadelphia and Camp Hill.
In my opinion, “The Anthem” by GoodCharlotte is the best song that includes the lyrics “Shake it once that’s fine / Shake it twice that’s OK / Shake it three times, you’re playing with yourself again.”
That’s a hill I’m willing to die on.
For non-Philadelphians, the Schuylkill is a heinous portion of highway that serves as one of two of the city’s primary entry/exit points, and is built onto the side of a cliff, making it impossible to expand behind two lanes for a lot of it.
While still within the range of Philly radio, I was happy that Radio 104.5 had seemingly taken a break from playing old Mumford & Sons or new handsome indie bands whose names I don’t know. In this moment I had hope for the rest of the trip.
I used to listen to Radio 104.5 when I would commute to my internship, which was in King of Prussia. When my phone battery was low, meaning I couldn’t use the aforementioned cassette adaptor in the aforementioned Condor, I would rely on the radio. I actually won Pearl Jam tickets once by being the 104th texter. I didn’t know people ever actually won those. Sometimes listening to the radio pays off. In this moment I am optimistic, as the blue Philadelphia skyline shrinks behind me.
Exit 312 - Downingtown
As streaming services and, before that, satellite radio services like XM or Sirius, eclipse FM radio in popularity, you’d think the radio stations would do more to keep up out of fear of becoming antiquated. But, for the most part, they’ve remained the same. To be more precise, the humor of the radio is the same. The DJ’s have the same cadence they’ve had for decades. The morning shows rely on the same types of jokes and topics. And they use the same weird bumpers between commercials and music. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a rough estimation of one I heard:
“My doctor says I should eat healthy. *record skip noise* So I’m eating this deep fried extra cheese burrito! *Crunch noise* … Radio 104.5. Philadelphia’s alternative.”
Who makes these? Who are they for? Is one radio exec just pushing these? Is it a tradition thing?
Is there one single comedy writer whose whole niche is radio bumpers?
When I was in college, I took a class called Writing Humor. The teacher was an older woman who was nice enough, but never really showed her comedy bona fides. I think we just had to trust her that she was funny and qualified to judge our own senses of humor.
One time I wrote a satirical public service announcement from a fictional medical authority warning people of a serious new disease called the Harlem Shake. That’s not a great joke, even for 2012 or whatever. I know that. I certainly wouldn’t write it now. But this teacher, when it came time to critique my work, just did not get it. Any of it. Since it was written as if it was a totally sincere news release, she couldn’t find any the humor. Instead, she suggested (with animated delivery) “What about, like, ‘Harlem Shake - you can’t get that at McDonald’s!’”
What I’m getting at here is that sometimes terrifically unfunny people manage to find themselves in decision-making positions about publishing humor. But, it’s all subjective. Maybe I’m just not funny. I’m actually kind of chuckling thinking of the McDonald’s joke now.
Exit 298 - Morgantown
I don’t need to hear more than about two seconds of a song to know it’s Christian rock. There could not be a single mention of God himself or his associates, but you know it when you hear it. It’s like Congress’ recognition of pornography.
This is not meant to slam Christian rock, but it’s not what I want in this moment of the trip. My scans are coming up increasingly bereft of acceptable songs, even my diminishing standards as the silos rising alongside the road become more common.
I break my own tacit rule of my “game” here and scan to the Central PA WXPN station, where they’re playing “Old Friend” by Rancid.
I love Rancid. I really love ...And Out Come the Wolves, the album that “Old Friend” appears on. This album was a staple in the “Manhouse,” aka my shed where my friends and I used to hang out, and on drives through town. I’m glad I cheated at this game, because “Old Friend” complements the farmland nicely, and makes me feel nostalgic. Something about those songs about gritty life as Bay Area punks just clicked for my group of middle class kids in a suburban-bordering-rural town.
I only wish my speakers in this car weren’t so good. The Condor’s crackly speakers were much more punk.
Exit 286 - Reading
The gaps between stations is growing wider now, and I try to once again adhere to the parameters of my own experiment. Those Philadelphia stations I could just make out with fuzzy fidelity were now gone anyway.
I know most of the words to “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley mostly because I always had a weird soft spot for the cover version by The Ataris and its accompanying music video. It’s a wonderful representation of early aughts pop-punk, complete with neckties on shirts that don’t warrant neckties, alternating between warm gold and cool blue video color temperature, big leather bracelets, and grown men with blond hair and bangs brushed to the side.
I got to thinking about when bands end up with a cover as one of their major hit. Sometimes it’s their only major hit. Quick, name another Alien Ant Farm song.
There aren’t a lot of covers that end up as radio hits anymore. At least I can’t think of any. By that, I mean they were recorded by a band and put on an album, and released as a single – not some special radio session or live recording.
My favorite part about the Ataris cover is how they switch the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” line to “Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac.” I don’t remember whether in 2003 the Black Flag logo was overused like it is today. If not, the Ataris really called it. I can name more Black Flag parody stickers I’ve seen than I can Alien Ant Farm songs that weren’t written by Michael Jackson.
Exit 266 - Lebanon/Lancaster
I’ve been able to “learn” songs on drums by “playing” them out on a steering wheel or desk. I’ll figure out the patterns, timing, etc., and can usually translate that pretty well to the real thing.
After a few minutes of trying to perfect “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, I decide that the song is stupid anyway and isn’t worth my time, and that “Achilles’ Last Stand,” which I had heard earlier on WXPN, rips way harder.
Exit 247 - Harrisburg East
Almost there now. The generic “Real rock variety” station is playing “Stand” by R.E.M.
I’ve always liked R.E.M. within reason. My dad likes R.E.M. within reason – enough to own a couple of CD’s. I’ve always known a bit more than the hits – enough to say that I like R.E.M. and maybe have a conversation with someone who also likes R.E.M. within reason. I always think that if I really dove into the R.E.M. discography, though, tracing the band’s evolution and understanding full context of the band’s catalog, I’d become evangelical about them. I can’t exactly tell you why. It just seems like they have all of the fixings of a band that I’d get that way with, and I can recognize that.
I still might do that, especially as I approach 30. Even I 2022, it seems like I should become that kind of guy at 30. It’s either that or a Sonic Youth Guy.
As “Stand” plays, Michael Stipe instructs me to now face west, which I was as a matter of fact, and think about the place where I live, and wonder why I haven’t.
Pennsylvania is a funny state. Philadelphians will tell you that anything beyond the reach of SEPTA Regional Rail train service is “here be dragons” territory. Having grown up in that uncharted land, I know that it does, in fact, exist. There are people there. Schools. Restaurants. Yes, there are also cows and guns.
Another description of Pennsylvania that’s thrown around is that it’s Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in the middle.
Obviously, this is meant to demonize much of Pennsylvania and Alabama simultaneously. The gist is that it’s full of gun-toting, bible-thumping conservatives. Now, those people do exist. I’ve seen them. I’ve also enjoyed having the first day of deer hunting season off school. (As a non-hunter it was just a day off). There are also plenty of Amish people in that gap between major cities, including in the town of Gap, Pennsylvania.
But there’s also my family. My friends.
As I cross the bridge over the Susquehanna River, I can’t help but always appreciate the geographic beauty of the area, tucked in among the Appalachians. I think about riding our bikes to jump off a ropeswing, adventures in the woods at night, almost hitting countless deer on back roads.
Of course, that misty-eyed romanticizing ends when I hit the end of the bridge and I’m met with a billboard of Joe Biden in a turban and holding an AK-47, with “Making the Taliban Great Again.”
Central Pennsylvania, like most of the state, isn’t something you can nail down with one description. And to paint the city where I live now, Philadelphia, as some promised land with a monopoly on culture would be to oversimplify it the way so many kids who grew up in rural areas and moved to cities have done in the past.
R.E.M. have said that “Stand” is the “stupidest song [they’ve] ever written,” and was meant as a tongue-in-cheek ode to meaningless pop songs. It was not meant to induce conflicted feelings about your chosen home, the place you once called home, and your evolving perspective of it.
Shortly before this exit, there’s a rock on the side of the road that someone once painted to say “Freedom” in red, white and blue spray paint, except they capitalized the “D,” so it looks like it says “Free Dom.” It’s been there for as long as I can remember, and I hope that if it fades someone touches it up. It’s always been how I know I’m almost done with the drive.
Free the homie.
Exit 242 - Harrisburg West
My exit. My parents’ house is just a couple of minutes off the highway. Home stretch.
I left out one key detail of this drive that I feel is important as I draw this to a close. I made this drive on September 11th. That means that between music, bad jokes and commercial breaks, just about every station did some sort of tribute or recognition of the 20th anniversary of the attack.
As I rounded that turn after the bridge over the river, as “Stand” faded out, and as I left TaliBiden in the rearview (the billboard was double sided), the station aired a commemoration message that I’m sure you can imagine without me reciting it word for word. It ended, as much of them had, with “We will never forget.”
HEY HEY HEY HEY
My eyes get wide as I realize they’re playing Simple Minds’ 1985 hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and I turn the radio off.
Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is Snail Mail.
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