My memory of the 452 miles of interstate between Toledo, Ohio, and Syracuse, New York, is desaturated and brushed with a Gaussian blur: gray concrete, barren trees, and generic hillsides.
I drove that stretch dozens of times in college; my father lived in Toledo, my brother lived in Cleveland, and I lived in Syracuse.
My Chevy Celebrity Eurosport (which we called the “New York-o-Sport due, presumably, to its complete lack of even one stitch of European design) came standard with a four-speaker, AM/FM stereo and cassette deck (remember auto reverse!). The compact disc, after all, had not penetrated the mainstream. And so, when I climbed into those cloth, bucket seats for that long drive, I armed myself with a small suitcase full of cassettes.
In the late twentieth century, magazines — Rolling Stone, Spin, Raygun — were still the primary means of record reviews and artist information. I read Rolling Stone religiously, searching — like so many other college music fans — for something new, something cool, and something still below the mainstream radar.
I picked up a lot of good stuff based on the recommendations of reviewers like David Fricke, Tom Moon and Jim Derogatis, essential albums from bands like Husker Du and The Replacements. (Years later, while interning for Men’s Journal, and prior to writing for Rolling Stone Online, I would ask RS founder and published Jann Wenner if he bore any responsibility for the affects of his positive/negative reviews. “Well, we have no evidence to suggest that our reviews have any affect on sales.” Whatever.)
I also picked up tips from the members of my favorite band, R.E.M. I had a manila folder full of photos and articles on the band (remember, these are the early nineties: they had just signed to Warner Bros, Bill Berry was still playing drums, and Peter Buck was still playing guitar). Those clippings provided all sort of clues on influences (Wire, Television), inspirations (Pylon, Love Tractor), current favorites (Chris Isaac, KRS-One), and collaborators (see below).
Uncle Tupelo was a perfect storm. I read a review of the band’s “March 16-20, 1992” in the back of Rolling Stone. Peter Buck produced the record. Uncle Tupelo, of course, sparked the “alt country” revolution, later splitting into Son Volt and Wilco. At the time, the record — ” a triumph of austere, delicately embroidered acoustic atmospheres that put the emphasis on the narrative” — seemed right in my wheelhouse. So I picked up a copy.
“March 16-20, 1992” is a far more challenging listen than the review suggested. The sounds are familiar: crisp, strumming acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo. But Farrar’s songs are steeped in dusty miners, and union protesters. They’re more Woody Guthrie than Toad The Wet Sprocket. And Jeff Tweedy’s songs — fewer and further between than Farrar’s — lack the intimacy and lyricism of his later work.
One song, though, struck me then, and has stayed with me since.
“Sandusky,” a sweet but substantive 3:43 instrumental, is the last song on “March 16-20, 1992.” It begins with an open-tuned strum, and then is quickly joined by a mandolin, and then a bent-string acoustic hook. Verse by verse, the song builds to its multi-instrumental climax at 1:38 when it’s all hands on deck: acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, bass and drums. Just as quickly, though, the bass and drums recede for a verse, then rejoin for the rousing conclusion.
Sandusky, Ohio, as it ends up, lies on the shores of Lake Erie just west of Cleveland on one of the best-protected harbors on the Great Lakes. The one-time hunting and fishing outpost was transformed to a resort town in 1870, when local businessperson Louis Zistel opened a small beer garden, bathhouse and dance floor. In 1929, the classic Cedar Point Cyclone roller coaster — “Scientifically Built for Speed, Thrills and Safety” — opened along the beach. Seventy-seven summers later, Cedar Point amusement park boasts a world-record-breaking collection of 16 roller coasters. The town’s 22-miles of shoreline hosts nearly four million visitors a year.
Chris often regaled me with stories of speedboats and Budweiser. Pictures showed he and his bikini-clad girlfriends leaned back in vinyl seats, cold beers tucked into their coozies. The sun, it seemed, was always setting in Sandusky.
I’m not one for roller coasters, resort towns, or pleasure boating, and I never pulled off Interstate 90 to have a look for myself. Somehow, though, the song and the place and the time fit well together. Every time I hear the song — and I heard it four times on my commute this morning — I am elsewhere. I am gathered up in the arms of great, billowing clouds, and whisked off to an empty beach with a fire pit, a group of friends, and a warm, Indian summer sunset.