Monday, January 31, 2011

North Dakota

This is a post primarily about North Dakota, but also a little bit about South Dakota and various other places (SD will eventually get its own post too). It's not that I want to cop out here, but come on. There just aren't that many songs about either North or South Dakota. The two I've chosen to discuss this bastion of coldness and remoteness (home to a whopping 9.738 people per square mile!) are Killers b-side 'The Ballad of Michael Ballantine' and a return to Bright Eyes' 'Four Winds.'

North Dakota in winter doesn't look to conducive to driving, but this post will be about a great American tradition-- the road trip. The Killers have given interviews explaining the titular character of 'Michael Valentine' as a traveling gambler, one of the carefree, itinerant figures who populates American literature, folklore, and history itself (see: Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark, the millions of settlers who went west in pursuit of Manifest Destiny). The compulsion to get in your car (or Mississippi River raft or covered wagon) and go anywhere else is an American compulsion. Springsteen expresses the desire to escape by heading West, but Conor Oberst and The Killers seem like they only want to wander. To spout an insufferable cliché, the journey is the destination.

North Dakota, as one of arguably the remotest states, becomes a stand-in for any faraway destination in what I'll call "road songs." In both 'Valentine' and 'Four Winds,' North Dakota is contrasted with Mexico as locations visited by the traveling narrators. America is a vast place, and there's a certain pride in the declaration that you've made the journey from one far-flung point to another. Maybe it's a way we embrace our pioneer spirit in the modern era when there's less to explore. Michael Valentine also visits Memphis and New Orleans, southern outposts in the American odyssey. The journey is remarkably similar in 'Four Winds'-- Mexico, Dakota, and Cassadaga. The West, far North, and South are viewed as places that still require a substantial journey from the population center of the eastern seaboard.

Like contemporary road movies and books, 'Michael Valentine' portrays an American road trip as an extended celebration; the narrator is the road trip compatriot to the title gambler. Valentine meets women in each city on his aimless progress. There's no plan in his journey. The song begins, "I caught up with a friend in Dallas/ We took a trip to New Orleans/ Those black-eyed ladies/ Won't say they're sorry/ We finally caught a train to Memphis. Where everybody talks the same/ Those blue suede babies/All know my name." Valentine just having an interstate party in a "new suit and black tie." The final line before the last chorus is "I ain't gonna let you rain on this parade." Then the track loops back to another classic American trope-- the American dream of Hollywood. "I've got the buzz like Greta Garbo, walking forward into the sun," the narrator concludes. It sounds like westward progress, toward the sunset, but in the most cheerful way possible.

Bright Eyes' road trip is somewhat less cheerful and slightly more focused on the history of the Dakotas. There's a definite correlation there (we've all seen Fargo, North Dakota isn't exactly a wonderland). As we've seen, Oberst visits all the corners of the country-- Mexico and Cassadaga in the West and South, the "Ivy League moons" of the East, and North Dakota to-- obviously-- the North. Oberst returns to the frequent image of the sunset as well ("shadows lengthen in the sun"); it's a visual that emerges as a metaphor for westward progress and change in the American imagination, closely tied to migration. But Oberst's journey is more thoughtful than joyful, a reflection on "caste, class, country, [and] sect." "A genocide sleeps in the Black Hills, the Badlands, the calloused East." Oberst considers the toll of our conquest of the land, the loss of traditional, pre-Columbian cultures in our push westward. He also casts a different light on the benefit of the road trip. In most incarnations it's a valued learning experience; here it seems hollow and he doubles "back by rented Cadillac and company jet/like a newly orphaned refugee retracing [his] steps/All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead." Unlike Michael Valentine, he can't enjoy the journey-- like the solider in 'Yankee Bayonet' he thinks of the past and wants to get home.

Thinking about these road songs brought me to the ultimate American road trip-- Kerouac's On the Road. As spontaneous as 'Michael Valentine' and discontent as 'Four Winds,' Kerouac's work is the road story that every other storyteller aspires to. Like Bright Eyes and The Killers, his journey includes a foray into Mexico (which somehow becomes a de-facto part of the US in a lot of these road trips) and ends looking westward into the sunset. Whether or not Brandon Flowers and Conor Oberst read or were inspired by On the Road (my guess is yes for Oberst at least), the links between the text and lyrics suggests an ideal road trip that American travelers can make. But a song about Kerouac himself bursts the bubble of the road trip idyll.

Death Cab for Cutie's "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is not about North Dakota, but about DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard taking his own journey to a remote place in hopes of finding inspiration. Gibbard wrote part of the album Narrow Stairs in a cabin in Big Sur where Kerouac himself suffered a nervous breakdown. They're a little long, but I'll post the full lyrics here because you really need the whole story:

I descended a dusty gravel ridge
Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge
And soon I eventually arrived
At the place where your soul had died

Barefoot in the shallow creek
I grabbed some stones from underneath
Waiting for you to speak to me

And the silence, it became so very clear
That you had long ago disappeared
And I cursed myself for being surprised
That this didn't play like it did in my mind

All the way from San Francisco
As I chased the end of your road
Because I've still got miles to go

I want to know my fate if I keep up this way
It's hard to want to stay away
And everyone you meet all seem to be asleep
You wonder if you're missing your dream...

Then it started getting dark
And I trudged back to where the car was parked
No closer to any kind of truth
As I must assume was the case with you

This is more a 'Four Winds' road trip than a 'Valentine' one. 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' is another story of disillusionment following a journey. Rather than being enlightened in the place where a great author once sought inspiration or solace, Gibbard finds only emptiness. Gibbard and Oberst each recognize the ghosts in the place they visit, lingering sorrows that conflict with what they expect from the expansive West of American dreams. Whether it's the genocide sleeping in the Black Hills or the emptiness of the place where Kerouac faced personal misery, what the destination in the road trip provides is further distress rather than clarity. Maybe the problem is that the modern road trip can only be an escape-- we no longer have places to explore, we're only trying to get away from the ghosts we know. It's interesting to note that Gibbard also closes with an image of sunset in the form of nightfall. He tints the idea of westward progress with a suitably more grim conclusion, just waiting for the coming of darkness rather than following in the path of the sun.

And there we are. An entry about road trips in a blog that's a virtual road trip. Meta or something. Hope you've enjoyed the ride.

Four Winds
The Ballad of Michael Valentine
Bixby Canyon Bridge

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