Like Billy Bragg, I’m more impressionable when my cement is wet, and also when far away from home with my most pressing thoughts what work of art I’ll check out that afternoon and what restaurant I’ll go to that night. Here, then, a geographic list of a few vacation discoveries:

1) Seaside Heights: My not-yet-wife’s number came up…on one of the boardwalk wheels, in a kiosk that offered records and cassettes as prizes. I wanted the new Lou Reed–there was a poster for it–but the guy behind the counter said it hadn’t arrived yet. So we chose “Making Movies” by Dire Straits. I knew “Sultans of Swing,” and “Money for Nothing” was annoyingly popular at the time. Driving home in the dark, windows down (no air conditioning in my AMC Hornet), we listened to the best E Street Band album Bruce wasn’t on, perfect for a Jersey Shore cruise. “Skateaway” the fave, “Hand in Hand” for theme tapes, and I wish I could erase “Les Boys” from all existing copies, especially my own.

2) London: In a record store on my first visit to Europe, the Smith’s “Ask” came over the speakers, sounding so funny and winking and English. I’d never heard the song before and was too self-conscious to ask who it was. This was before Google, so I couldn’t just search for “buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg” when I got home, but I eventually tracked it down. “Making Movies” is good for cruising, and this song for capering about.

3) Sligo: Another European trip (this one my honeymoon), another record store, a used cassette bin…the Proclaimers name sounded familiar, the cover was kind of cool, I took a chance and and we listened to it driving back to our B+B. I think I thought they were Irish. The first few songs were fun and catchy, but then “My Old Friend the Blues” came on, and we recognized it as a Steve Earle song, of whom we were big fans, and we were driving around Lough Gill, with the island of Innisfree in sight, which both being English majors we knew from the Yeats poem, and Craig and Charlie’s Reid’s voices sounded amazing together and perfect for that song: magic.

4) Toronto:We’d flew up for a long weekend to see “Ragtime” before it came to Broadway (a friend in the biz had given me a heads-up) and as I usually do upon arrival I accumulated every available free entertainment paper and happened to see a listing for Neko Case and Her Boyfriends. Never heard of her, sounded like something I’d like. The place was more a coffeehouse than a bar (in my memory, it was very, very bright) and Neko more straightforward country and less scary-compelling than she’d become lo-these-many-reverb-filled-years-later, but what a voice and she seemed to be having the time of her life even on the sad songs. Listening to some of her (wonderful) later albums and reading interviews with her, I’ve often had to remind myself how normal she seemed that night.

5) Watch Hill: Some twenty years on from that record store in London, I’m in an upscale clothing/housewares/tchotchkes shop in this upscale Rhode Island beach town and in the background is playing exactly the kind of bratty, melodic Britpop I’m a sucker for. Less self conscious than I once was, I ask the clerk, “What is this, new Arctic Monkeys?” “No,” he answers, “the Fratellis.” This means nothing to me.  “Is it an import?” I ask. He looks at the CD case, shrugs. “No, just a regular CD.” It’s a function of age and arrogance: my sense of discovery is undercut by a feeling of, how do I not know about this already? But there was still a sense of discovery. The Fratellis catalog proved not as deep as the Smiths, but I still smile whenever I hear “Whistle for the Choir.”

See you in September!

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