Right now I tend to divide my life into two segments – my old life and my new life. The old life comprises everything up to the events of almost a year ago that found me making drastic changes, selling my car and (in my mind) upgrading to a bike as my means of transportation, and transplanting myself from the Motor City to the ‘Dam. A move that took me and my wife a few thousand miles from everything and everyone we knew, although it may as well be a million miles.
Along the way, a baby came along, further cementing the idea that there was a definite separation between those two worlds.
Although the move was unexpected and happened quickly when it came, that’s not to say it wasn’t a long time coming. It was the culmination of years of dreams projected out into the cosmos, undirected dreams that simply spoke of our need to get out of town – to move anywhere. Sometimes the destination was Chicago, sometimes Seattle, sometimes Boston. Amsterdam? Never on the radar.
But as John Lennon said in his song “Beautiful Boy,” which is actually not on this list: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” and Amsterdam fell in our laps, as did the unexpected announcement that we were having a baby. With our typically adventurous spirits, we embraced both situations enthusiastically.
Prior to the realization that we’d actually be getting out of town, we spent many nights hanging out, just the two of us, drinking wine and dancing in the living room of our little Detroit bungalow. It was typically on a Thursday that these nights happened (also known as “Little Friday” or alternately and descriptively “drink and dance in the living room night”).
And while a lot of times we started listening to what we were really into at the time, the night would eventually make its way to our “leaving songs,” the songs that really spoke to us about packing up and getting out.
These are some of our favorite leaving songs.
Fastball – “The Way”
Definitely the most popular song on this list, it’s probably the one that first planted the seed in our heads, when we first heard it on the local alt-rock station while we were living in various dumpy places in the student ghettos of Kalamazoo (yes, that’s a real place). A song about a couple that just decides “screw it, we’re out of here,” and goes for it, opening with:
They made up their minds
And they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going Without ever knowing the way?
It’s probably the song that first ignited my wanderlust. It let it grow and flare, and sometimes made me morosely miserable because I felt that until I really packed up and went for that really big move, I wasn’t being true to myself.
Over a decade later, I saw Fastball play at a party in Austin, TX. That song still brought tears to my eyes.
Less Than Jake – “Look What Happened”
To be fair, there are a ton of Less Than Jake tunes that could have filled this slot. I often felt the band was living a life that paralleled mine closely, with their lyrics maturing as I did, and it seemed that each successive album spoke to where I was at in a specific part of my life, feeling pinned down by career choices, feeling trapped by circumstances or missed opportunities, or feeling hopeful for what could still come.
“Look What Happened” merits it’s position on this list for lyrics that provide the perfect insight into the discussions of our Thursday nights:
And there’s been a few times
That we thought it felt right
To take the westbound signs
And just leave town tonight
And I swear it’s the last time and I swear it’s my last try
And we’ll walk in circles around this whole block
Walk on the cracks of the same old sidewalks
And we’ll talk about leaving town
Yeah we’ll talk about leaving
I swear it’s the last time and I swear it’s my last try
The Riverboat Gamblers – “Don’t Bury Me… I’m Still Not Dead”
While not exactly a leaving song, “Don’t Bury Me…” speaks to the defiant spirit that inspires the wanderlust. Another band that has several songs that could have made the list, the Gamblers are quite possibly the best live band I’ve ever seen, and I’m basing this on catching them at least a half dozen times.
Frontman Mike Wiebe is a cool guy in person and a madman on stage, propelling himself into the crowd with reckless abandon (including at a show we saw in Chicago where he dove off a second-level balcony only to be caught and carried to the stage – I sang a few words with him that night, and it remains one of my proudest moments).
“Don’t Bury Me…” is a song that testifies to anyone who feels left behind, urging them to not give up, to just keep throwing it against the wall until it sticks.
Or until they finally get out of town.
To those who stand watching the last bus as it drives away…again.
Those those who see that by not playing and not giving in…they win.
To have no good reason,
To no cuts and lesions.
And to the confusion of our enemies.
Just keep screaming out…I’m still not dead.
Don’t bury me yet.
Simon and Garfunkel – “America”
Now it’s time to slow things down…
Seriously though, it’s not like the punks had the restlessness market cornered, and bands in the ’60s expressed this feeling as well as anyone else. For a lot of people for many years, the American dream was about buying a house and settling down to a good job, raising children and playing with grandchildren. We were well on our way to realizing that dream, and we found it lacking. Detroit was floundering under increasing unemployment and crime, and becoming less and less of a welcoming place to call home.
“America” spoke to a different aspect of the American dream, telling the tale of a couple who just set out to see what there was to see. As an added bonus, the couple was from Michigan, heading to New York. It inspired to romantic desire to see the country, to find that other aspect of the American dream.
I never realized that my “American Dream” was waiting for me in Europe – I just knew I needed to look for it, and I knew who I wanted to look for it with.
“Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together,
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America
“Kathy,” I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America
Big D and the Kids’ Table – “We Can Live Anywhere”
A late addition to the list with a self-explanatory title, this song made its way to the late night sessions after Amsterdam had become a possibility, but not yet a reality. With it’s smooth swinging sound, it’s a romantic anthem. Rather than the melancholy desire to just get out, its more inspirational, telling us to leave town simply because we can, simply because it makes sense. If you’re not happy here, why not go someplace else?
You’re much happier when you sing
about how much you dig everything
We’ll live where we just joke the most
too far and away man,
we’ll find that nest of peace
‘Cause we can live anywhere
Yes, we can live anywhere
Pack your things up, come on let’s go
didn’t you know that we own this world?
The Thursday night music sessions continue here in Amsterdam, but they’ve taken on a new dynamic. We play with our infant daughter and sing our favorite songs to her. We dance around the bedroom with her to the Clash and Toots and the Maytals. And we still play the leaving songs, but now they’re more a memory of who we were, rather than a statement of who we are.
Ryan Cooper is a writer, a stay at home dad and a freelance astronaut who gave up his day job in Detroit to pursue an existence in Amsterdam. His music writing appears at http://punkmusic.about.com/ and he blogs about Amsterdam and parenting at http://blog.amsterdamtourist.com/
He is available for writing gigs, children’s birthday parties and outer space missions.