I absolutely love maps. I always have. I can’t walk past any of those information boards dotted about town and countryside without examining them at length. All those lovely colours, contour lines, graphic icons and, above all, place names. Poetic and evocative, they have, of course, always featured in song: Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields; The Volga Boatman to the Wichita Lineman; Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa to Are You Going To San Francisco?
Not surprisingly, I’m partial to song lyrics that feature place names. It seems to me that British and Irish names seem tailor-made for folk music – the likes of Bruton Town, Star of the County Down, and Over The Sea To Skye – but for rock ‘n’ roll music America wins hands down. Sweet Home Chicago surely sounds more exciting than Sweet Home Coventry and Standing On A Corner in Winslow, Buckinghamshire, or Long Distance Information give me Middlesbrough, Teesside, just doesn’t thrill.
My favourite song lyric featuring place names is Willin’ by Little Feat. Written by Lowell George it is the tale of a border-crossing drugs-and-people-smuggling trucker but it’s the geography of the song that resonates for me. It features ‘Dallas Alice’ and ‘folks and smokes from Mexico’ but the alliterative chorus is the high point:
I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me, weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’
Tucson, Tucumcari, Tehachapi, Tonopah. Beautiful words. Lovely sounds. And all with their origins in the languages of native America. Tucson means ‘at the base of the black hill’ in O’odham, a language found in southern Arizona; Tucumcari is the Comanche word for ‘ambush’; Tehachapi is a ‘hard climb’ to the Kawaiisu people and Tonopah means ‘hidden spring’ in Shoshoni.
I love this song so much I even went out of my way on a road trip to visit both Tehachapi and Tonopah. Sadly, though, I’ve never been to Tucson or Tucumcari.
I first heard Willin’ on Little Feat’s brilliant live album Waiting For Columbus while hanging out with my good friend, one-time bandmate and co-writer Peter Monteith at a student party in Bradford in 1978. The lyrics were completely unintelligible at first but I remember clearly us both being mesmerised by the whole album and not moving an inch from the turntable while it played.
Shortly afterwards, in my dingy flat above a fish and chip shop in Burley, Leeds, and armed only with a guitar, an atlas and several cans of Colt 45 (does anybody still drink this?) we wrote a song we called USA To Go that was chock full of place names. Pete wrote most of the words, while I shouted out random place names from the map and messed around with a few simple chords. It was a heavy rock song about the search for a runaway girlfriend, and although most has been lost in the mists of time I can still remember the chorus:
Couldn’t find her in New Orleans
She left a letter pointing the way
Along I-10 to LA, up Interstate Five-e-e-ive
Past Sequoia and Yosemite, on to Highway 1-0-1
Through pleasant Crescent City and Coos Bay too
Soon waving Oregon goodbye
I vaguely recall a final chorus set back in Blighty about being stuck in traffic on the M25 – proof, if any were needed, that American place names definitely rule.
Update 19 December 2022
When I first wrote this piece nearly six years ago I had long ago forgotten about most of the songs I had written in the late 1970s and early 1980s with my old friend and drummer supreme Pete Monteith until one day, sorting out rubbish in the loft, I came across an old plastic Waitrose bag full of old bits of paper, bank statements and pay slips all covered in lyrics of the songs we had written.
It gave me a pleasant trip down memory lane and I thought nothing more of it until… during lockdown I had the mad idea of trying to record some of them. To cut a long story short I managed to make an album’s worth, which anybody interested can have a listen to at:
I then started work on the ‘difficult’ second album and I have just finished the first track – USA To Go, the song I wrote about in my original blog. So, for Tehachapi and Tonapah read Crescent City and Coos Bay.
If you fancy a listen here’s the link: