Another Time and Place by Chris Green
I’ve woken up wondering just how far is it from Phoenix to Albuquerque and where did Glen Campbell set out from in the first place? Las Vegas? Los Angeles? San Diego? It’s 3 am. Where has this rogue train of thought come from? I’m not even particularly fond of the song, although I think I used to have an Isaac Hayes version on an album. Did I inadvertently hear By the Time I Get to Phoenix playing on a TV programme last night perhaps or on an advert? Whatever, for some bizarre reason my curiosity is raised and I can’t seem to get back to sleep.
Before I know it, I’m downstairs checking out the lyrics sites on the laptop and have the world atlas out to look at the spatial relationship between the cities described in the song. And Google maps. Google tells me that by the most direct route, it is 419 miles from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Either Glen’s wife must start work very late or Glen has his foot to the floor to cover this distance in the hours between her getting up and her going to work. Even so, surely they must have speed limits out west. And what about the traffic on the interstate? I’m wide awake now and I check out how far it is from Albuquerque to Oklahoma, Glen’s next point of reference. It is an astonishing 543 miles yet Glen manages to cover this by the time his wife goes to bed. He must have a Ferrari or something or access to some stonking amphetamines.
Is Oklahoma his final destination? Surely not. What would be the attraction of Oklahoma? It must be somewhere further on that he is headed. Atlanta maybe or possibly Miami. If this is so, why on earth did he not take a plane?
‘It might be that he had to transport all his possessions,’ Saga says, suddenly appearing beside me. ‘And to do so by air freight would be prohibitively expensive. And, who knows, perhaps he didn’t even leave her in the end.’
‘How did you know what I was thinking?’ I say.
‘I always know what you are thinking,’ Saga says. ‘I realised that you’d got out of bed and gone downstairs and thought, something’s come out of nowhere and sparked his interest and he’s gone off on one and then it was a simple matter of tuning in to your thoughts.’
Most people would be surprised, shocked even at Saga’s powers. But I am not. I’m used to it. It is difficult to keep a secret from her.
‘And in any case, it would not be Glen that was travelling, would it?’ she continues. ‘It would be Jimmy Webb, the fellow that wrote the song.’
‘Indeed,’ I say. ‘He wrote MacArthur Park too, didn’t he and Wichita Lineman? It takes a certain type of focus, don’t you think, to write a song about a day in the life of a telephone repairman?’
This somehow leads the conversation on to aardvarks and bees. From there, we move on to cacti and canoes. Saga suggests we ought to go back to bed.
‘We both have work in the morning,’ she says.
She is out like a light but I can’t get back to sleep. Although it would seem to be unlikely, I get the feeling that there is a crocodile in the room. A scaly yellow one, lurking in the shadows, just out of sight. Or is it a dragon?
Night terrors are the worst. Until you’ve experienced them, you don’t know how real they can be. What I need now is an extinguisher to erase the dragon. Why is the alphabet written in its particular order, I wonder? A,B,C,D,E in every language? I tell myself that it’s unrealistic to expect to have an answer to every question. For instance, who let the dogs out? What becomes of the broken hearted? Why do fools fall in love? The thought calms me a little and eventually, the dragon is gone and I am able to get to sleep.
But I wake at dawn wondering where Gene Pitney was when something happened to him. Where would he be that was only twenty four hours from Tulsa? As Gene was driving, it would obviously have to be somewhere on the American continent where he stopped at the small hotel. I open up Google maps again to find out where exactly Tulsa is. It’s in Oklahoma. Quite centrally placed on the North American continent. I begin to make some rough calculations. If he drove through the night without breaks at an average of fifty miles per hour, he might have been in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, or Salt Lake City (although the small hotel he mentions doesn’t sound very much like Las Vegas and dancing would probably not be permitted Salt Lake City restaurants). If he had only been forty eight hours from Tulsa, Gene could have been doing the dirty on his dearest in some exotic casa de huéspedes in South America. This would have opened out the possibilities for the song a bit.
Fortunately, Saga emerges from the shower and realises where I’ve got to with my research. Saga is like Google but without the Internet. She seems to know everything. She tells me that it was Hal David who wrote the lyrics to Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa and that Hal lived in New York. This then is probably where the guy in the song is driving from. This suggests the place he stops off at to rest for the night that is only twenty four hours from Tulsa would most probably be somewhere in Pennsylvania. She thinks it’s likely to be before you get to Pittsburgh.
‘One of those places with an English sounding name, perhaps’ she says to humour me. ‘How about Somerset or Bedford? They are both in Pennsylvania.’
I am from Buckingham in the heart of England. Saga is from …… well, far away, it seems. I’ve never been able to find her birthplace on the map. I sometimes think she’s from another time and place. Somewhere way out west. Yet at the same time, east of the sun.
‘So now you can get off for work without worrying any more about it,’ she says.
We have a quick chat about foxtrots, golf and hotels and I’m off. It’s a twenty minute drive to the Buckinghamshire Folk Museum. But, just as I get onto the A421, I find to my consternation that Hotel California comes on the radio. What in God’s name is happening there? I decide to pull over and sit in the lay-by to figure it out.
The first verse is relatively straightforward. Don Henley, the Eagles’ singer is driving into California from the desert, Arizona or Nevada perhaps or even Mexico. A cool wind is blowing. Perhaps Jackson Browne is playing on FM radio or maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash. I imagine Don is driving a convertible with the top down. He tells us he can smell marijuana. It is not clear whether this is blown in on the breeze or whether he or perhaps even a friend is smoking weed in the car. Whichever, he has probably driven hundreds of miles already that day and is tired after his long stretch at the wheel. When he sees a shimmering light in the distance, he decides it’s time to stop and take a break. He discovers the light is coming from a hotel. He checks himself in but right away alarm bells begin to ring. This is a hotel like no other. Has he inadvertently entered The Twilight Zone, he wonders? He is entertained by a sorceress who through a series of arcane rituals, initiates him into her world of decadence and debauchery. Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, for Heaven’s sake and she has the Mercedes bends. Don is not ready for this. Although he wants to, he learns that through some kind of Kafkaesque trickery he can never escape.
Why? I need to ring Saga. She will have an explanation.
‘Let me guess,’ she says, with an air of exasperation. ‘Hotel California. You’re stuck on the last verse.’
I skip the how did you know bit. She knows. Of course, she knows. I get the feeling that people from where she comes from always know.
‘Yes, I am stuck,’ I say. ‘Prisoners of our own device, the siren is saying. And the mad bit about the master’s chambers and not being able to kill the beast. What do you think is happening?’
‘Some say that the final verse is about drug addiction,’ Saga says. ‘And this is why you can check out any time but never leave. But that’s too simplistic. The whole song is a metaphor for the dark underbelly of the American Dream. The Hotel California represents the promise of the fame and fortune that brought outsiders to California in the seventies and highlights the pitfalls. California, in turn, is a microcosm for the excesses of late-capitalism. You could say it all started with the gold-rush and this set the scene for everything that was to follow.’
‘I think I get it,’ I say. ‘California draws people in like a drug. What Don is saying is that once there, you’ll become a prisoner of the hedonistic lifestyle. The downside of excess is that you can’t escape.’
‘Something like that,’ Saga says.
‘It’s India, Juliet and kilo, next, isn’t it?’ I say.
‘Look! I’m going to be a little busy today,’ Saga says. ‘Perhaps we could move straight on to zebras.’
It could be a short conversation. I don’t know anything about zebras. I get an uneasy feeling that Saga might soon be going to return to that other time and place.
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved