The Joy of Unplugging from My iPod

A traveler embraces letting random noise be the trip's soundtrack.

By Steve Burgess 1 Jul 2011 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and broadcaster -- ambulance chaser, really -- who writes for The Tyee on topics of travel, culture or stuff. His new memoir is Who Killed Mom?

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Drowned and silent, freeing my ears.

Last week I dropped my iPod straight into an Italian toilet. Damned if it didn't stop working. The toilet was full of -- hold on, now -- olive oil. This is Italy after all. I had just emptied the remains of a salad bowl into the porcelain one when my music player detached itself and followed. I had been told olive oil is good for anything. Not true, I see now.

It was my first iPod and this trip was really the first time I had used the thing. I didn't quite know what to do with this Christmas present. I am not one who wants to walk the streets in a sonic bubble that insulates me from birdsong and ordinary human contact, not to mention the horns of runaway trucks or warnings of plummeting pianos. At home my ancient but beloved stereo system does not seem iPod compatible. So where to use it?

Airplanes, and intercity buses. There's no doubt that an iPod can help the miles go by. And here on the road I have no trusty stereo to play. Far from home, the iPod finally made sense. Until the unfortunate disagreement with the salad dressing. Now it's back to the old days and the old ways.

But we old folk have a thing about the old days. We tend to insist they were better. Now that I am back to Travel Music System 1.0, I am remembering its charms. Like so many of the appealing aspects of travel, they are all about serendipity.

Lost in random music

Every trip I take has its theme songs. These are tunes that I happened to hear along the way, perhaps in a grocery store or on a rental car radio. Once while grocery shopping in Paris, I heard Last Christmas by Wham. It was July. That is no longer a Christmas song to me. Last year I noticed a certain video playing in a lot of coffee bars, and I also happened to catch a snippet of a song in a clothing store. I punched the overheard lyric into Google and up came Wild Young Heart by the Noisettes. The popular video turned out to be the Noisettes too -- Never Forget You -- which made last year my Noisettes European Tour. Had I spent the weeks lost in iPod World, I might never have been on the prowl for such random songs (which are now on my oily Apple player).

Rental cars are chariots of serendipity. I am too cheap for GPS, which means I get lost a lot. This week I have been getting lost on the back roads of Liguria, behind San Remo -- among the world's best places to get regularly befuddled. Two days ago, I drove down perhaps the single most breathtaking back road I have ever encountered. I had been trying to get somewhere else at the time.

Italian radio is an engine of random, too. A car radio is a mixed blessing here where DJs are the most annoying creatures on Earth. They talk like drunks in a theatre, regularly popping into songs halfway through and yammering away as if we couldn't possibly wait through the whole song before hearing their prattle again. They also tend to grab onto a few songs and play them to death, even more so than in North America, and it's usually something by Lady Gaga.

But they throw curve balls at you too. A couple of days back it was Louis Armstrong doing Mack the Knife, a moment of pure joy on a mountain road. Or perhaps not pure joy -- those winding roads create an odd sort of Italian mash-up where each bend flips you to a different frequency. Louis got incongruously mixed together with Little Lies by Fleetwood Mac. Happily, when the road straightened a bit Louis came out on top.

Louis's Mack the Knife will always take me back to Liguria now, whereas an iPod selection would have slid away from my memory, with no special connection to any of the places it happens to shuffle to the top. Serendipitous songs become part of the journey.

Free range tunes

Once upon a time, the radio was my telegraph, my musical lifeline. Lying in bed, the green dial glowing as I attempt to dial in far-off KSTP, WLS, or KOMA; waiting for a lame song to end, keyed up to hear the opening chords of whatever is my current favourite -- the stuttering riff of Reeling in the Years by Steely Dan, the anthemic blast of School's Out by Alice Cooper. How much more powerful they were when elusive and hunted. The music always sounded a bit less potent when captured, tamed, and played on my turntable whenever I chose.

This is something the iPod cannot replace -- destroys, in fact. The instant availability of almost any song is a positive good, for sure. But the songs lose something too. I would guess it is the difference between dating and marriage, had I ever been married. As it is, I really can't say.  [Tyee]

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