Wisecracks and Roadside Flats: When we were smokin’
I can remember the phone being passed to me at Great Aunt Catherine’s family Christmas party in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Uncle Frank was calling from his apartment in Southern California. I was only 8 years old and uncomfortable on the phone with my aunties laughing up a riot in the kitchen behind me. I felt sorry for Uncle Frank. His mom, godmother, four sisters, brother, nieces, nephews and cousins were joking, jiving, drinking, toasting, laughing, singing, playing cards, telling stories, all things my Uncle Frank was very good at. The Flanagan family gatherings were joyous. As lively as Uncle Frank sounded on the phone, I knew paradise was as lonely for him as anywhere else outside of Germantown that Christmas Day.
I was born during my parents two years in San Francisco and knew I would return to the west coast when I was old enough. Uncle Frank called me “The California Kid.” My Mom serenaded me, “California, here I come, right back where I started from,” as if the old Broadway song had been written for me.
I nervously twisted the telephone cord, pressed the phone into my ear and glanced over my shoulder to see what was making the aunties wail with such uproarious laughter. I couldn’t hear a word Uncle Frank was saying, but understood that I myself was destined to be on the lonely end of the phone some Christmas day.
In New Jersey, you have to wait until you are 17 years old before getting a driver’s license. My first year with a license, I spent more time on the roadside kicking the tires of my Ford Futura than I did behind the wheel. The Futura only had a top speed of about 55 mph before she started to rattle and smoke.
When I finally saved enough money, I bought a brand new Honda Civic for $7,000 and installed a custom stereo system. On my first road trip I lost control of the Civic heading southbound at mile 105 on the Garden State Parkway. I was driving too fast on my way back from a too wild weekend in Boston. I violently bounced one, two, three, four times back and forth over the ditch separating the local and express highways, the tires screeching, my heart racing. When I pulled safely into my driveway that night, I knelt on my Mom’s front lawn, recited every prayer I could remember and gave thanks to the Almighty for everything I could think of.
When the stars began to give way to the dawn, I rose to my feet, wiped away the tears and decided my life had been spared by something beyond luck, science or chance. A sign my life had purpose. Up until that night, I was not so sure.
“That late night we were spinning out of control and laid softly to rest by the side of the road”
I lightened up on the gas pedal and learned to appreciate the freedom of driving alone and the excitement of driving with a crew crammed into the back seat. I drove to music festivals in the mountains and underground jazz clubs in Center City Philadelphia. I made money as a delivery driver and valet. I made Ray Charles mix tapes so I could practice singing to the windshield as I drove across mountains, valleys and prairies through sunshine, rain and snow.
“I’ve taken new and old friends for long and short drives on 61, 101 and I-95”
The highway can be a sacred place for the restless. Chuck Berry understood. Cowboy Neal Cassady. James Dean. The rhythm and flow of the long highway inspires clear thoughts, new perspectives and once in awhile, a good idea. An idea that can stay with you a lifetime, or only a few miles before flying out the window alongside the ash of a cigarette at 65 miles per hour.
In the spring of 1994, I drove to Florida, fell in love with a Minnesota girl, and drove back and forth between New Jersey and Minnesota again and again until I stopped driving back to Jersey.
My brother Ian and I play our American roots music under the name Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank as tribute to our family in Philadelphia. We created the music in Holyoke and brought it back to Atlantic City, Key West, Boston, San Diego and Orcas Island. We’ve pulled into the parking lots of Memphis roadhouses and Aspen penthouses. We’ve driven through the hot and humid traffic-jammed bridges, streets and tunnels of Manhattan and the cold and desolate county highways leading into International Falls.
We put 300,000 miles on that little Honda Civic, and kicked my last tin can, a 2003 Honda Element, down the road 434,000 miles.
All those miles. Late nights and early mornings. All those people and ideas and truck stops and co-ops and random encounters in a cosmic universe. It has to add up to at least one song. Not just any song. An automobile rock ‘n' roll song filled with sentimental and romantic allusions celebrating the freedom of America's highways and the redemption of her back streets. A song that stretches beyond the open road and into the imagination. There needs to be freedom, excitement, remorse, speed and sexy guitar. The promise of a new day in a new place and the optimism of a new start. And a little nostalgia in the form of a Sunday drive, smokin’ down Memory Lane.