We’re on a road to nowhere…”
I have to come clean about this one: the only reason I ever noticed this song was because, as a child, I had a fixation with the Fred Savage movie “Little Monsters.” That’s right: Fred Bloody Savage. I used to watch this movie once a day – sometimes twice. About a year ago, I found it in the on-demand section of my cable box and discovered, much to my chagrin, that I can still recite every line of this movie. All of them. And yet, for some reason, I almost never get a chance to do this at parties. You would think that this film – along with “The Wizard” – would have finally breached the canon, but, sadly, it has not. In any case, this entry isn’t really about Mr. Savage’s oeuvre. Instead, it’s about how a song can grow along with you, and how some of the most salient facts about your life can come straight from sweetest frivolity.
“Road to Nowhere” shows up for the end credits of “Little Monsters,” and comes in about halfway through. As such, there’s no a cappella introduction. No verses. It is, as I remembered it for so long, a sunshine-sounding chorus about a happy bit of wanderlust. These days, if you were to ask me about it, I would say that the song is a sly, ironical one. It talks about the perils of assimilation in a life that can only end in one way: death. This is what I’ve grown into, with this song. What made me think about this, in the first place, was a late-night drive home – song blasting, throat scraping to keep up, and the weight of the world crashing in.
Allow me to back up a bit, won’t you?
I think that we all have songs that have, at first, seemed like musical daffodils. These fluffy little bits of ephemera that serve to instantly brighten any day or road trip. Inevitably, as this song did for me, they turn into poetic lions – confronting us with sober truths usually left in the corners of the mind. For years, I listened to “Road to Nowhere” as a sort of torch song. A banner for my desire to move about unhindered in the pursuit of happiness. I would put it on summertime mix tapes, and cheerfully sing along to its strident tempo and upbeat melodies. I can remember being about fifteen, riding around in The Tempo, and defiantly singing: “There’s a city in my mind / Come along and take that ride / and it’s all right…” That Tempo was head for parts unknown, which, as we all know, is the best possible place for wayward teenagers to go.
I remember stealing the two-disc “Sand in the Vaseline” collection from my uncle Troy, and listening to all of silly songs: “Stay Up Late,” “Once In A Lifetime,” etc. My father liked some of their songs very much, and we’d occasionally talk about what the crazy lyrics were about. I think we both regarded “Road to Nowhere” as a bit of fluff – a beautiful bit, but fluff just the same. (And this from the same people who would cry desperately right around the lyric “…green scales fell like rain…” in “Puff the Magic Dragon.”) And yet, if not for the inspiration to listen to that “silly band,” I would likely have never found the chestnut of truth buried in “Road to Nowhere.” It’s proof of evolution, in a sense.
At some point, I heard the other verse. The one I quoted above. And I thought hard about the warning against listening to this mysterious “they.” In my own teenage struggle against suburban integration, I suspected that this came from a similar place: a place of fierce individualism. I assumed that the message was to avoid the guidance of fools, and to just light out for the country. A “follow your own compass” kind of thing. And, more or less, that’s the basis of what I still feel when I listen to the song. Only, as it so often does, time has brought on a change.
As ever, the fools remain. I am constantly bombarded with advice about how to run my life, and how to become a respectable adult. (Oddly enough, these are both things I don’t want to do. A most ingenious paradox…) I’ve been to Oxbridge. I teach for a living, and I’m working on a Ph.D. I have wonderful relationships, and I’m afforded the opportunity to pursue lots of silly projects (like this one!). And yet, for all that, there’s a constant pressure to conform. To give in, and to become “adult.” The constant, middle-class sales pitch for a “life upgrade,” or something equally absurd.
And to be honest, I’m not really sure why. True enough that my life has been governed by an assortment of whims and passions. Reason is for other people, I reckon. Even so, I am a contributing member of society (1). Why then, am I constantly trying to explain myself to friends and acquaintances with “real jobs” and “grown-up responsibilities?” I think, as much as it saddens me to admit, that it’s because I now want the approval of my former enemies. Because I want people to mark my maturity. Because, like so many of you, I want my life to “matter” before it ends.
Which, honestly, is about as silly as it gets. And it’s where this song pulls me back from the brink of self-negation. A simple reminder that we’re all going to end up the same, no matter what, and I’m encouraged to continue following my own path. (I touched on this a bit with “Mayonaise,” I think.) Returning to the earlier point, I find it really interesting that this song has gone from being the epitome of youthful ephemera to a sage warning against the dangers of straying from my beliefs. I mean, this is absolutely why I am so interested in this site, and in other people’s stories of living and growing with music. It’s the journey that matters, and which provides the best insight into the soul.
My experience with “Road to Nowhere” should, I hope, comfort those among you who feel that they simply “don’t get” certain songs. That the “real meanings” are somehow hidden. I’ll set aside my impulse to assault you with literary theory, if you’ll accept that meanings are situational. The other night, while driving and singing, I thought briefly about all my worries – dissertation, money, sanity – and a cloud began to form around the words “…and it’s growing day by day.” But then I thought for a moment about this song, and how its role in my life had changed, and I began to realize something: the truly beautiful stuff is eternal. And you can carry it with you – as far as you’re going. Even “nowhere.”
And, really, isn’t that what matters most?
So, thanks Fred Savage for being such an amiable goofball. And thanks David Byrne for insisting on the a cappella introduction to this song. And thank you all for coming along for the ride…
And, hey, this isn’t even a terrible cover:
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