I was taking a selfie outside Jon Bon Jovi’s childhood home in New Jersey, my rental car stereo playing "Livin’ on a Prayer." What better way to get in the mood?
We’d been listening to the Best of Bon Jovi for nearly half an hour as we'd navigated turnpikes to find the rockstar’s home on the way back to Newark. The place looked like all the other houses nearby, except Jon had grown up there, learned to play the guitar there, and had later given the house away in a rock 'n' roll contest.
I felt a little like George Carlin’s character in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when he pops in to check on the progress of Wyld Stallyns. Many of the greats come from humble beginnings.
I create a soundtrack for all my travel adventures. It makes the drive so much more meaningful and really gets me pumped for my next stop. It’s like a wine pairing: Put two great things together that complement each other.
Besides visiting famous people’s homes, I also like notable graves—Jim Morrison’s, in Paris, is amazing. Its famed cemetery, Père Lachaise, is a necropolis of magnificent monuments (Edith Piaf, Balzac, Oscar Wilde and Chopin are all buried here) with ivy-covered trails and statues unlike anywhere else. The soundtrack? There was only one choice really: The Doors's perfect anthem The End. This is the end, beautiful friend. I even used it on my YouTube video of the trip.
My soundtracks don’t always pair perfectly with the location. On that same New Jersey trip to see Bon Jovi's humble beginnings, I also visited Walt Whitman’s grave. His most famous poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, just didn't have the same wow factor when recited by someone with an English accent on YouTube. That's okay. Back in the car, we picked up the groove with more New Jersey hits from Springsteen and Sinatra, and with Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" while en route to Philly.
Whenever I travel, I try to eat local and listen local. I'm more invested in a culture when I try their delicacies, and I do the same with music by just turning on the radio. I've discovered I like a lot of French pop and music from Ibiza, but don’t particularly care for Chinese tunes unless I’m practicing Tai Chi. I always use the Shazam app on my phone to identify songs, so I can listen to them when I get home.
Sometimes I might overdo the theme a little, too. Once, as I drove through immigration at the Canadian border from Seattle, I started playing the Canadian national anthem just slightly below an obnoxious volume level. The officer tried not to crack a smile, but was clearly amused. Canadians can be ridiculously patriotic.
Music can definitely influence our decisions and inspire us to try new things. My trip to Kathmandu was totally inspired by my favorite Bob Seger song. My first trip to Africa was decided while listening to the Toto V album, and I’m currently planning a trip to Kashmir because of Led Zeppelin. On a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I listened to the entire U2 album of the same name, discovering Bono's fascination with the American West.
When we think of travel, we normally focus on three senses: visual, tactile, and gustatory. We go places because we see beautiful pictures, because the weather is warm, or we want to eat great food. No one ever said, "Let’s go to Japan because it smells good." But scents and sounds are essential for the full experience.
Our travel soundtrack doesn’t have to be music. It could be a spoken language—when you’re driving through Italy and learning Italian from a phone app, you’re much more likely to retain what you’ve heard. It can be ocean waves, binaural beats, and sleep-hypnosis tracks if you're too jet-lagged to sleep or can't relax on a bus or train.
We live in a world where you can bring a million songs with you without having to pay for overweight luggage. Next time you’re traveling, think of what songs pair well with the experience. Find your soundtrack.