My brother Matt is leaving me. He's had enough of Kansas City's unpredictable weather and predictable women and so is setting out for the Promised Land. Los Angeles, that is. Not Israel. Although I'm sure Israeli women are nice.
This is the second brother I've helped nurture under my roof. The first one did OK -- he's a doctor in Denver now. And I'm excited for Matt, of course, but I'm nervous. I feel like a parent facing empty nest syndrome; I don't know how I'm going to handle the solitude. Mostly, though, I'm going to miss my brother.
In order to get Matt to California, he and I are making a cross-half-country road trip. And, while I'm sad that my brother is leaving, we're going to need some music if we're going to survive the trip with no instances of siblicide.
It used to be that one had to do some planning if he wanted to bring the right music for a road trip. Then came the iPod, and the good/bad old days came to an end. No more hurried burning of mix CDs, no more searches for lost cases, no more groans of exasperation when the driver exercised his God-given right to veto Milli Vanilli.
Today, we're going to engage the pretend machine for the next few minutes. Imagine that it's the early 2000s. MP3 players are a thing of the future, like the Oklahoma City Thunder and black presidents. Imagine that my brother's car has space enough for 16 CDs. And then imagine that the music selection was left entirely to me. (If you knew my brother, you'd know that last one would be the most difficult to conjure.)
Great. Here we go.
All road trips bring with them an early sense of excitement. By mile 65, the euphoria has worn off, to be replaced by the mind-numbing rhythm of the highway. The effect is especially bad in Kansas. The eastern one-eighth of the state is lush and hilly; the rest is flat and endless. Most people would think we'd need something upbeat to combat the double-whammy of failed adrenaline and dull scenery. But it's better to acknowledge the surroundings and find a sound track that fits them.
First up: Conor Oberst and his self-titled album from 2008. It's more spare than his work as Bright Eyes, but no less impactful. Plus, he's from Nebraska, which is a state even harder to drive through. If he can survive Nebraska, we can survive Kansas.
Next comes the Drive-By Truckers and another album from last year, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark." The Truckers are the best thing to happen to country music since the harmonica. The only problem: You'll never hear them on country radio. Those stations are too busy playing terrible music. Thus, the band is relegated to tweener status -- not rock enough for alternative radio, too good for country radio.
Two albums in and we're staring at the specter that is Salina, Kan. If my near-hometown of Topeka isn't the most depressing city in the world, Salina is. Since Salina hasn't yet escaped the 1980s, we'll pretend we haven't either. "Bon Jovi: Greatest Hits." I'm not old enough to have purchased "Slippery When Wet," so this album makes up my entire Jovi collection. The important part isn't the music -- it's that sliding it into the CD player will make Matt mad and we'll have something to argue about for the next 50 miles. He can't stand '80s rock.
By the time we get to Hays, we'll both be ready to die. I've found there's no better man for that sentiment than Elliott Smith, who committed suicide in 2003. I don't mean to be flip: His death was a sad event. But there is a reason he stabbed himself in the chest, and that reason is reflected in his music. If ever there was a place for Smith's music, it is the endless prairie that is western Kansas.
The sight of the Rockies, and the prospect of crossing into Colorado, always brings hope on I-70. We'll need something happy, and My Morning Jacket fits the bill, taking us across the border in sonic style. We won't listen to the group's latest effort, "Evil Urges," because even after 10 listens, I can't say that I love that album. Instead, we'll go back to 2005's "Z," which balances backwoods sensibilities with laid-back cool. Kind of like Colorado.
Next up: Feist. I saw Leslie Feist in Barcelona last summer. I went by myself, which meant it was me and about 600 5-foot-4 women. Don't worry, no one stared. Her music, which is cocktail-lounge swagger filtered through a sweet, fragile voice, seems like it would be breathtaking at night in the Rockies.
Apparently, Colorado makes me want to listen to female singer-songwriters, because Cat Power is going into the CD deck next. Cat Power and I have a history with long, depressing road trips. I only truly understood her album "The Greatest" after a trip to Minneapolis for training camp with the Timberwolves. I knew I had almost no chance to make the team, not only because I didn't have a guaranteed contract, but also because I was nursing a knee that I knew wasn't healthy. (I later had arthroscopic surgery.) It was a bleak trip up I-35. "The Greatest" helped me through it.
Of course, the trip my brother and I are taking isn't all about depression. It's a new beginning for him and, simply, the way life works. It changes, whether we're ready for it or not. Just like the music in our 2000-era CD player.
Utah is next on our hyperdrive tour of the western United States. Going to Utah is always like using a DeLorean, so we're listening to Peter Bjorn and John's "Writer's Block." Their simple, but upbeat arrangements are like Utah: Family values from the '50s, timeless scenery and blond people. PB&J write music that could be from the '50s, with timeless hooks, performed by blond people -- themselves. (Blond-ish, anyway.)
One can't help but think of Mormons when driving through Utah. And when I think of Mormons, I think of my favorite Mormon -- Alex Jensen, who helped me keep my sanity through a stint in the CBA. Interpol also helped. More specifically, their album "Turn On The Bright Lights" did. I also know I won't have to convince Matt to let me put it on, which is significant. When my brother moved into my house, already double-occupied, he was fresh out of college and had, shall we say, one-dimensional musical tastes. Four years later: He appreciates the greatness of Interpol and he finds music for me.
As we cross into Nevada, we can't help but get excited. We're not going to stop in Las Vegas, but we'll see the lights. The Killers are from Las Vegas, so they get the next nod, but not only because of their hometown. Like Las Vegas, the Killers appear to be great, but only as long as we don't dig too deep. Their records are fun, accessible affairs. Even their latest, the underrated "Day & Age." But don't ever see them live. They're just not very good. Thus, they're the perfect band for a trip through Sin City -- fun, shallow and forgettable in 50 years.
Since we're in Nevada for a short time, we may get to hear only a few selections from another Vegas band/act -- The Crystal Method. We'll probably listen to "Vegas," because it's their best album and because, well, you can imagine. I'm never clear why The Crystal Method doesn't get more attention than they do. If you ever need music to get you ready for a night out -- this is a band to put in a mix with ...
... The Scissor Sisters. I don't know why I've never heard "Filthy/Gorgeous" from their eponymous album at a club, but I'd like that to be remedied. I could probably solve that problem by going to a gay bar because The Scissor Sisters will never be mistaken for being overly heterosexual.
Finally, we're in California. The eastern side brings us to Queens of the Stone Age, a band I don't even like that much. But if 2002's "Songs For the Deaf" doesn't make you think of the Mojave Desert, you have poor association skills.
We're almost in L.A. We're both in a good mood, which means it's time to piss off my brother. I'll throw in Guns 'N Roses' "Appetite for Destruction" only because it's too fitting to leave out. And then I'll pretend to be conciliatory, but only through masochism. I can't stand the Red Hot Chili Peppers anymore, but music in Los Angeles wouldn't be the same without them. We'll give "Blood Sugar Sex Magic" a listen, just because we should.
And then it will appear on the horizon. Los Angeles. Who better to take us into our destination than our collective favorite band, Tool. Nothing echoes the sorrow, the joy and the overall weirdness that is L.A. better than Tool. As we near the Pacific Ocean, "Lateralus" will take us to Matt's new home.
In real life, I'll stay for a few days to help him get settled. But in this fictional journey, and in order to maximize the drama, I'll get back in my car and drive home. Before I do, I'll throw the other 15 albums into the ocean, put Elliott Smith on repeat, and try to deal with the fact that my best friend now lives half a continent away.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here. With his brother, he also co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."