There’s something magical about driving on a highway in the middle of nowhere — like, say, Interstate 75 in Georgia, 180-ish miles south of Atlanta, where all the billboards are for strip clubs or stern reminders that god hates abortion — and somewhere on the radio dial between honky-tonk anthems and commercial-free Mexican banda you find a station playing Springsteen‘s “Thunder Road.”When this happens, as it does to me on almost every road trip I’ve ever taken, it feels like a victory. In any other situation, I can take or leave “Thunder Road.” I loved it when I first heard it at 11, but it’s become too familiar over the years, yet on a moving vehicle with no other source of entertainment, and the road ahead is starting to look like the River Styx, “Thunder Road” is a gift. An inconceivable gift. It’s a needle in the haystack, the golden ticket in a Wonka Bar, an over-the-pants handjob during church. The odds of hearing “Thunder Road” in a radio black hole like southern Georgia are just so infinitesimal that it makes the song feel special again. If I heard it blared from a jukebox in a city bar, I’d roll my eyes and make some snarky comment about heavy-handed lyricism. But if the next gas station isn’t until Macon and I’ve still got Egg McMuffin crumbs in my lap, I’ll roll down the windows and sing along at the top of my lungs “It’s a town full of losers, I’m rolling out of here to wiiiiin!!”
A few weeks ago, the Dame and I bought a new car. It’s a tricked-out Honda CR-V with gold trim, tinted windows, crushed velour seats, 30-inch chrome rims, and a custom chain steering wheel. No, actually, none of that. It’s just a standard Honda CR-V with enough trunk room for a stroller. But it did come with something that the Dame and I, during our 20-plus years as impoverished writers, have never been able to afford until recently: Satellite radio. Are any of you familiar with this? It’s fucking insane. There is more music being played at any given moment on satellite radio than I was aware existed. There is a channel, I kid you not, called “Deep Tracks,” and it plays only the songs on every album that nobody listens to. There’s a channel called “The Boneyard,” which I guess is just songs about boning, and “Studio 54,” which appears to be songs solely about doing cocaine and/or blowing Andy Warhol. There’s even a channel devoted exclusively to the music I listened to during the nine and a half months I lived in Burbank, California in 1999. That’s how crazy specific it is! There is literally no genre or time frame of music not represented here. If your musical tastes jump between Scott Joplin and LMFAO and 30-minute Grateful Dead jams, satellite radio is your schizophrenic id.
Which sounds great in theory. But when you’re out there on the open highway, on a road trip that’s taking you across eight states in four days, an overly-accommodating radio is a mixed blessing. It’s like dating a porn star. When everything is available, nothing looks as good. You lose touch with that primal hunter-gatherer part of yourself. Part of the joy of experiencing music is finding it. It’s not really the same thing to suddenly hear “Thunder Road” when you’re listening to the E Street Radio satellite channel. Because the odds of hearing “Thunder Road” on E Street Radio is pretty much the same whether you’re driving through the vast nothingness of northern Nevada or New Jersey proper. It’s 1:1. In fact, you also have a reasonably good chance of hearing the original creepy demo of “Thunder Road,” as well as live versions recorded in 1975 at Hammersmith Odeon, in 1992 for MTV Unplugged, and 2000 at Madison Square Garden, all in less than an hour. By the time you pull over to a rest stop to pee, you’ll want to punch Springsteen in his stupid fucking face for writing that song.
By day two of our road trip, the Dame and I were ready to tear out the satellite radio and take our chances with good ol’ unpredictable FM again. The only reasons we didn’t were A) we weren’t sure how to remove it without making it angry, like that HAL computer in the Stanley Kubrick movie, and B) we inadvertently discovered that satellite radio is kinda awesome after all.
At some point during the endless scanning of channels, punching in numbers like minimum wage workers on an assembly line, not really listening anymore just waiting for the end of the line, we stumbled upon Ted Nugent‘s “Cat Scratch Fever.” This was remarkable not because it’s a song I particularly enjoy, but because I haven’t heard it in almost ten years, and the last time I was even aware of the song’s existence, I was pretty sure I had Cat Scratch Fever.
It was the summer of 2001, and because of the warm weather, I’d taken to writing on the front porch, usually at night. I liked the solitude of starting my work day at midnight or later. My only visitor at that hour was a cat — a Maine Coon, I’m almost positive — who belonged to the redneck neighbors next door. It was an “outside cat” — meaning, it ate what it killed and kept its distance from people. But it liked me, and every night it’d crawl onto my lap and doze while I tapped away at my computer. One night, being in a particularly foul mood, I decided I didn’t care to be a cat’s flesh cushion anymore. I’m not a jerk — well, not to animals, anyway — so I tried to be subtle about it. I straightened my legs and pushed out with my crotch, trying to create a glissade effect. But the cat didn’t take the hint. Instead, it dug its claws into my leg, hanging to my thigh like Harold Lloyd on a giant clock.
Normally, a minor flesh wound like this would’ve been a minor inconvenience. But it was late and I was tired and the sight of my own blood makes me irrational and panicky. Also, nobody should be allowed to use WebMD if they’re alone on a dark porch, typing with one hand and trying to stop the bleeding with the other. Because you’re gonna discover diseases you never knew existed. Like Cat Scratch Fever, which is apparently a real thing you can actually get.
Did I have symptoms? Sure. Do you know how easy it is to give yourself a psychosomatic fever, headache and chills? What else was there? Backache? Wait for it … aaaaaand there it is. Malaise? Seriously, malaise? Who doesn’t have malaise at 3am? The only symptom I didn’t technically have yet was convulsions, and I figured it was only a matter of time.
I immediately woke up the Dame and introduced her to my cat-gash. “We need to go to the emergency room,” I demanded, my voice trembling.
“Did you say Cat Scratch Fever?” she asked. “As in the song?”
“Forget the song. I’m talking about bacteria, woman! A potentially life-threatening infection.”
They weren’t any more sympathetic at the ER. When I hinted at my condition to the nurses, they sneered at me like I’d claimed to have stigmata. After a ridiculously long wait, especially for somebody so clearly on the brink of death, a doctor examined my injury — or “graze” as he flippantly called it — and didn’t even consider the most likely prognosis until I brought it to his attention.
“Isn’t that a Ted Nugent song?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“That’s what I was telling him,” the Dame agreed, not helping matters.
He smiled, pushing my leg away. “How did it go again?”
The Dame reminded him, and they sang the chorus and guitar riff together — “Cat Scratch Fever, duh-duh-duuuuh, Cat Scratch Fever, duh-duh-duuuuh” — and then the doctor made rock horns and shouted “The Nuuuuuuge,” which is exactly the opposite behavior you want to see in a medical professional.
It wasn’t funny at the time. But here on Interstate 65, miles away from those Georgia billboards, in Somewhere-in-Indiana, USA, when all you want is just one goddamn sign telling you how many more goddamn miles between you and Chicago, it was like doing whippets in a 7-11 parking lot. The Dame and I got the giggles. And then, armed with the bottomless trough of music that is satellite radio, we embarked on a mission. How many songs about diseases could be find before the trip was over? Some involved waiting out the obvious — like Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” — and some were “fuck yeah, I forgot about that song” rediscoveries — like Sonic Youth‘s “Schizophrenia.” And inevitably, there were fierce battles over what constituted a real malady. Could the Violent Femmes‘ “Blister in the Sun” be counted, for instance, or the Pixies’ “Broken Face”? And what about songs that weren’t technically about diseases, but reminded us of personal brushes with mortality and death, like Gloria Estefan’s “Conga”?
Does that need explaining? It probably needs explaining. Many years ago, my grandmother died in my parents’ house in Ann Arbor, conveniently while the Dame and I were visiting for the weekend. The cause of death was determined to be “natural causes” and the body was shuffled away so quickly, it seemed like the mortician was being timed. I wondered, were funeral homes in Michigan being operated like Glengarry Glen Ross?
“First prize for bringing in the most bodies is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is you’re fired.”
But when I wandered outside, I began to understand the need for haste. The street was filled with teenage girls brandishing pom-pons and practicing their high-kicks. A farmer was roughly pulling a pygmy donkey into position on top of a float that vaguely resembled a pink birthday cake. A man dressed as a large brownish blob, either meant to be Mr. Potato Head or a cancerous testicle, tumbled to the ground as he tried to find his equilibrium.
I stood on the front porch and stared at the chaos. The Dame came out and handed me a cup of coffee.
“Is there a parade today?” she asked.
“God I hope so,” I said.
There was, we would eventually learn, a non-hallucinatory parade happening that weekend, and my parents’ house just so happened to be located directly next to the staging area. The Dame and I watched as my grandmother was carried into the waiting hearse, and it was as if the parade was supplying a soundtrack to her departure. The birthday donkey brayed in protest and “Conga” blared from speakers mounted in a convertible Hot Rod.
Feel the fire of desire
As you dance the night away
Cause tonight we’re gonna party
Till we see the break of day
The Dame and I sang along on that sad day, and we sang along again years later on our road trip into the middle of nowhere. We sang until our throats got scratchy and we had tears we didn’t remember crying the first time. We sang with way too much enthusiasm, like you might howl along with “Thunder Road” when it’s the only music in either direction between miles of Ronnie Dunn and El Mil Amores. In my heart, I know it’s not really the same thing. Hearing “Thunder Road” on regular radio on a bleak stretch of highway is hunting-and-gathering, but gorging on the hundreds of songs on satellite radio on that very same bleak highway, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Vegas casino. If you pile too much on your plate, you stop tasting. I’m just old school enough to get nostalgic about FM radio. It’s my “when I was a kid we walked six miles in the snow in bare feet just to get to school” moment. But I’m also old school enough and, okay fine, old enough to have accrued a large subconscious database of very specific musical memories, all of which are likely being played at this exact moment on one of the 800-plus satellite radio channel. The only question is, which one do you find first?