The Soundtrack of Life

This is the Flying J Travel Plaza in Winnemucca, Nevada. I’ve pumped a lot of gas here. This was the first gas station where I noticed music blaring out of overhead speakers. Whether you’re in the mood or not, vintage pop music invades your space. Most of the playlist harkens to my high school years and it seems to be all the songs I tried to avoid. As I fill my tank, I glance up at the looming black speakers and wish the fuel would pump faster. “Please let me get my gas and get out of here!” I plead to the cosmos. Why must some of the worst music ever made live on, and on, and on?

Since the sound system at Flying J shoved its way into my consciousness, I’ve become more aware of the music that lurks in stores. The offerings in small towns across the Intermountain West focus on classic rock, country, or pop singles from the last century. This background music has invaded my foreground. It makes me melancholy, a strange emotion to associate with an everyday shopping trip to town.

I inadvertently found my way out of the music-induced malady at the library. It was the last stop on my errand list. I’d never paid much attention to the library’s collection of music CDs but the cover of one caught my eye. Six guys, dressed head to toe in colorful robes, scarfs, and turbans, stood under a tentative-looking tree. A playa stretched out behind them toward desert hills. The cover type was not in English. It said Tinariwen Tassili +10:1 in letters that looked like the kind spray painted onto shipping crates. I was sure I’d never heard a song off this album during high school, or anytime since. I checked it out, took it to the car, and popped it in the stereo. Let’s just say Tinariwen drove the muzak out of my head in a hell of a hurry.

I never knew I liked Saharan blues music but this nomadic Tuareg band from North West Africa understands how to sing the desert primeval. The one song with a scattering of English lyrics describes the singer’s enduring love for the jealous desert and closes with the sound of the first rain in five years to fall in southeastern Algeria. Anyone who’s lived through drought can relate, no matter where their desert lies.

Tinariwen writes the soundtrack for the Ténéré, the desert of all deserts. But now they’re part of the soundtrack of my life too. They’ll never make the playlist at the Flying J, but that’s okay. Now when I’m there, I leave the window down and the stereo blasting, just to neutralize the ambient sound waves while I fill the tank.