Laurie Anderson – New Jersey Turnpike “it’s more like the bus”
Travelling across the United States by Greyhound was something of a ritual.Rucksack stowed under the bus, seat on the right next to the window with a daypack, water bottle, sliced white bread and individually-wrapped cheese slices, both square, so convenient for making ‘fresh’ sandwiches, a pot of TCBY (vanilla), possibly something to read, and the 4 volumes of Laurie Anderson’s United States Live on cassette.
Oftentimes, as the bus sped along the interstate, whether from Chicago to San Francisco, or from San Francisco to Philadelphia, I would just gaze out of the window, staring at the passing fields, changing oh so slowly as we moved westwards or eastwards.
This song is pretty appropriate for the blog. It references Chicago, San Francisco and, of course, the New Jersey turnpike. On the final leg of the trip, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, we travelled pretty much non-stop all the way – I remember it taking some 24 hours, though looking it up now, some 21 years later, the journey is estimated to take 3 days. Anyway, barring a hold up in Sacramento when the police were called in to investigate theft on the first overnight leg, we travelled without incident until we reached the New Jersey turnpike, when the bus broke down and we had to wait several hours before we were picked up.
A lot of the time, the life on the road would drift past. We were not on a journey somewhere – we were already there – on the bus, the journey and the space occupied on it, was where we were. deserted roadside diners, early morning or late evenings when the bus would stop for a toilet break and, stepping out onto the parking lot, the desert skies would reveal an infinity of stars – far more than I have ever seen in light-polluted Europe.
And similarly to the stop-start episodic nature of this song, the journey would slip from landscape to landscape, disgorging and picking up passengers, so that the scenery and the cast of the stage show would change before your eyes and ears.
I knew Laurie Anderson’s more pop records – Big Science, Mister Heartbreak and Strange Angels – layered, atmospheric, witty, yet clearly songs. United States and this song in particular, are much more relaxed about the form and content of the performances, even while they are somewhat random, disjointed and unpredictable in what will come next.
Relaxed, and yet full of danger – deaf OAP drivers, bombs on planes, serial killings, space rockets burning up,. nuclear attacks. Aside from the thefts on the bus, on the first leg, there was someone smuggling a baby crocodile in a Tupperware box – not life-threatening, but all (low)life was there.
The underside of America and a coast-to-coast ride were things I had not expected to see when I arrived in the States in 1996. But it was good and made more memorable by the soundtrack provided by Laurie.