When I was little I went to my grandma’s house quite often with my mom. Mostly I remember the trips before I was in school and the ones we’d take during the summer breaks. I loved going over to my grandma Ruthie’s house. She lived on Manitou Lake in Rochester, Indiana. It was usually a 35 to 40 minute drive on curvy state road 25. It was so curvy that there was one section of it nicknamed “Devil’s Backbone”. It was called this because it was like two to three figure eight halves put together through a section of wooded field(I’m assuming the devil must have Scoliosis if his backbone is this curved.) Anyways, the rumor is that more than a handful of people perished in fiery car crashes because of this section of SR25, but I think this might go down into the same urban legend lore as the men in black, alien abductions in the south, and the KISS farewell tour.
Anyways, the road was curvy, yadda yadda.
The rest of the ride was through cornfields and small towns called Palestine, Akron, and Mentone. Tiny, “if you blink you’ll miss ’em” spots that had small town diners, True Value Hardwares, and maybe a video store for those boring, small town Friday nights. So to bide the time between our house and grandma’s pontoon mom and I would listen to the radio. Now before I became a moody, mulleted teenager I didn’t have ample amounts of hair metal and neo-classical guitarist cassettes to annoy my mom with, so we tuned into the radio for our Midwest jaunt. The radio, now only a digitally soulless shell of what it used to be, was where you found a voice in the darkness that lit the dash of your car with local news stories and “today’s hits!” I loved the radio as a kid. I kept to myself mostly, so the voice on the radio kept me company. It put people like Steve Miller, Wings, the Raspberries, and Fleetwood Mac in my head and colored my imagination. Car rides were the best, though. While the parents sat in front, my brother and I could ignore each other and get lost in the sounds of Bob Seger, The Eagles, Aerosmith, and all those other AOR rock heroes of the 70s and early 80s.
But those car rides to Lake Manitou? Those were for sad songs. Songs that would hit my brain and heart in a weird way. I can recall hearing Paul McCartney’s “My Love” and when he’d get to the “My love, does it, gooooood!” part I’d feel that pull in my gut like something soft and slow was squeezing my innards. A ghost from a past life giving me goosebumps. I didn’t understand it. “Wo wo wo wo, wo wo wo wo, my love does it good” Sir Paul would wail, his voice breaking, and I’d have the saddest feeling in the world come over me. Another song that always got me was Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”. That song always tore me the hell up. I was a wreck before we made it to Mentone if that came on the radio. “When I was young, I didn’t need anyone/Making love was just for fun, those days are gone”, seriously, man? You’re killing me Eric!(I recently revisited this song and it holds up.) Elton John’s “Daniel” was equally moving to my 6-year old brain. Songs about brothers always get to me, and a line like “God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes” was sure to scar me emotionally.
I don’t know what it was about those songs. I think I was a maudlin kid that grew up into a maudlin adult. There’s something sickly satisfying about a song bringing you down, but not in a way that you can’t get back up from. They’re like litmus tests for soul. If a sad song makes you feel like crying, well then you have one. You have empathy. They turn that switch on inside your brain, the same one that comes on whenever you see a puppy, say goodbye to an old friend, or see photos of long gone loved ones in a mildewed photo album you find in the basement.
Like photos of me at my grandma Ruthie’s on Lake Manitou.
There I am drinking a Pepsi-Free and eating a Nestle Crunch bar. Oh look, I’m opening gifts during a Christmas get-together. And that’s me casting a line off grandma’s pier as she sits on the pontoon next to me smoking a More 100 and gauging my questionable cast(I did alright despite my lack of sporting smarts.) There’s mom and I standing next to our Accord waving goodbye to grandma as she took the photo. We got in the car and took SR25 back home, passing thru Mentone, Akron, and Palestine, and trudging the “Devil’s Backbone” before finally reaching home.
Sad songs do say so much.