By The Landlord
“Dear Mom, I've hitchhiked to San Francisco. Don't be mad.” – Janis Joplin
“When I hitchhiked from Buffalo to New York when I was 16 years old, I didn’t bring any food or clothes, I didn’t bring my football trophies or a pair of my girlfriend’s underpants. Instead, I dragged 700 record albums in wooden milk crates. You try hitchhiking with 700 record albums, and then you tell me what bands you love.” – Vincent Gallo, actor and musician
“Hitchhiking, intrinsically, is sexual and dangerous. At the same time I never really felt scared. I was scared that nobody would pick me up and that I'd be waiting by the side of the road for a week.” – John Waters, Carsick
“Kids … When their imagination bids,
Hitch-hike a thousand miles to find
The Hesperides that’s on their mind.
Some Texas where real cowboys seem
Lost in a movie-cowboy’s dream.” – W. H. Auden, New Year Letter
“I will hail them, my brothers of the wheel, and pitch them a yarn, of the sort that has been so successful hitherto; and they will give me a lift, of course …” – Mr. Toad, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
“This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays." – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
This week, it’s time to give everyone a lift. And while that’s an emotional metaphor, I also mean that literally, because the Song Bar bus is taking us down the dusty road of musical adventure. We’re are setting off on a journey across, well, wherever that road takes us, looking out for outstretched thumbs to see who we might pick up. We have no prejudice or expectation over who they might be, just as long as they need to go somewhere, and ideally they have a good story to tell. We’ve already picked up Janis Joplin, and she’s rolling a massive joint in the back seat. She’s chatting to Vincent Gallo, and he’s very relieved we’ve loaded up all his record crates. Meanwhile John Waters, who hitchhiked around America to write his very amusing memoir, Carsick, is chatting amiably to another great wit, Douglas Adams, who is responsible for one of the funniest and most ironically profound books ever written. And W.H. Auden is dazzling them with more of his poems. It’s already shaping up to be quite a journey.
I hitchhiked quite a bit when I was younger – mainly across the UK, Europe, and Ireland. I had a few mishaps, the odd dodgy driver, an attempted assault and robbery, but mostly very positive experiences of human warmth and generosity. The best place was the island of Mull in Scotland, where all you had to do was stick out your arm and the next car that went by picked me up like a instant chauffeur. Ah! Bonnie Scotland!
But hitchhiking is seen as an undesirable activity these days, due to the obvious dangers, although paradoxically, with smartphones and satnavs, and a far more connected world. you’d imagine it would be much safer. Hitchhiking is a strange meeting of two or more strangers, an encounter that requires trust, but also has a sense of adventure and danger, the driver initially having power over the hitcher who is too impoverished, and therefore vulnerable, to pay for their own travel costs, and yet in the intimate space of a vehicle, the dynamic is finely balanced. It is no wonder that hitchhiking, in real life or fiction, is a fantastic vehicle for any narrative, in books, film and of course, song.
John Waters is a great talker of course, and his celebrity and campness, you’d imagine might have put him in danger on his oddball odyssey. Fear is fuel that can both propel and repel drivers and potential hitchers. “The "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" hitchhiker really made people never want to hitchhike again - the hitcher, the show. Hitchhiking is always vaguely sexual,” he says, “But I really didn't have any bad hitchhiking experiences. The only bad experiences were standing by the road for 10 hours. I never thought I'd get a ride with a minister’s wife or a coalminer or a Republican elected official. It was all pleasant surprises. The only drag was the waiting.”
It’s not always easy getting a lift. Racial or other prejudices can indeed cut your chances. John Steinbeck is now on the bus, reading an early passage from The Grapes of Wrath:
The hitch-hiker stood up and looked across through the windows. “Could ya give me a lift, mister?”
The driver looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second. “Didn’t you see the No Riders sticker on the win’shield?”
“Sure—I seen it. But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.”
Hitchhiking has been going on a long time before the Depression-era America. Here’s Charles Dickens, pulling out a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit, a reading: “My proposal is: To set off walking this afternoon. To stop when we are tired. To get a lift when we can. To walk when we can't. To do it at once, and do it cheap.
Many authors have hitched for ideas and inspiration, or simply in a spirit of youthful adventure. Did Stephen King get his horror ideas from being on the road? Not exactly. “Hitchhiking around Canada with a buddy after my senior year of college was the closest thing to an adventure I’d ever had, and given the cheerful, helpful nature of most Canadians, it wasn’t much of an adventure.”
Getting a lift can’t be easy when you’ve got a large object in tow, but comedian Tony Hawks went around Ireland with a fridge, writing a book about it, appropriately titled Round Ireland with a Fridge. For him though, the tricky part of hitchhiking is less about bringing a fridge, more about the social niceties, judging how friendly or talkative you should be with strangers behind the wheel:
“One of the more tiring aspects of hitchhiking is a need to be sociable and make conversation with whoever is driving you. It would be considered poor form to accept a ride, hop into the passenger seat and then simply to crash out until you reached your destination. How I longed to do just that, but instead I chatted merrily away, energy ebbing from me with each sentence …”
Hitching with a fridge is one thing, but what about a piano, as was done by Serge Oldenburg in 1969, at Cros de Cagnes:
Did that strike a chord? Hitchhiking is as much about finding out about other people’s lives. It is a fabulous source of inspiration for creative people of all types. It has been a great education for many famous figures who experienced something that perhaps now, in a modern, nanny-state world of health and safety, is denied to younger people. So to tell us more, some old-timers are gradually thumbing their way onto our bus in repetition of the experiences that shaped them. So next, we stop at a junction to pick up a guy with a banjo. Who is it? Pete Seeger of course.
“When I got out of school, I spent two years just hitchhiking around. Every time I met some old farmer who could play banjo, I got him to teach me a lick or two. Little by little, I put it together,” he says. “I was a teenager in the Depression, and nobody had jobs. So I went out hitchhiking, when I met a man named Woody Guthrie. He was the single biggest part of my education.” And who’s at the next junction but Woody himself. He climbs on board with his dusty guitar case, thanks us for the lift with a tip of that hat, and then tells us stories about how it’s made illegal for many people to hitch these days. “You built that highway, and they can put you in jail for thumbing a ride on it,” he explains, bitterly.
Who else is hitching a ride? Here’s the restless spirit of folk singer Brownie McGhee, who instantly starts explaining his need when he sits down. “When I was hitch-hiking, people had to follow me, 'cause I didn't stay long. That's what I liked about hitch-hiking. If a crowd wasn't big enough, I kept walkin’.”
“I hitchhiked, took trucks 'n' trains – anything that would pick me up.” pitches in John Lee Hooker.
“Yeah,” says Jimi Hendrix, giving old John a helping hand on board. “You may call him a tramp, but I know it goes a little deeper than that. He’s a – highway chile!” he laughs.
“Naturally, it's the same kind of drive that makes you want to do it when you're a kid, and struggling on with no money ... and hitchhiking with your guitar, which is what I used to do all the time,” says Mark Knopfler.
“Well, I left school and ended up grabbing a guitar and a suitcase and a dream, and I hitchhiked around the country for close to five years. I’d go to a town, find the best band, ask to sit in, and kind of like a gunslinger, smoke the band’s guitarist and a couple of days later I’d have his gig,” says Phil Brown.
Chances are, whatever someone else did, Hunter S. Thompson probably did it better, or at least longer. And least talk even longer than that: “At age 22 I set what I insist is an all-time record for distance hitchhiking in Bermuda shorts: 3,700 miles in three weeks.” But did he try hitching here?
Now here’s Jackie Lomax who has just thumbed a ride with us, and is feeling bit hot and sticky. Have yourself a cold drink, Jackie! “I’m walking down the highway / Sweating like salt pork, I’m putting down this country town, / ’Cause my soul’s up in New York. That’s why I’m thumbin’ a ride.” Hey! It looks like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are joining us too.
Now who is this tall, handsome man at the corner? It’s Marvin Gaye. Where you heading, Marvin? “I’m going to St. Louis but my next stop just might be L.A. – that’s what I say,” he says. “I got no money in my pocket so I’m going to have to hitch hike all the way. I’m gonna find that girl if I have to hitch hike around the world.”
And he’s joined by Steve Earle who tells us how the toughest place to hitch is surely Texas: “I hitched through Texas when the sun was beatin' down, won't nothin' bring you down like your hometown.”
Willie Nelson is also a seasoned hitchhiker, but doesn’t quite enjoy it these days. “I was about 20, hitchhiking through California and Oregon and Washington, riding freight trains, sleeping under bridges and viaducts. I didn't like that at all … It's like picking cotton. It's something you did, but never want to do again.”
And still they come. Climbing on board with a hoodie on, Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers can’t help but tell us that: “Sometimes I'd stick up a thumb just to hitchhike, Just to get picked up, to get me a lift to 8 Mile and Van Dyke.”
Lou Reed is here too, grumbling in the window seat, but telling us about another person’s experience. “Holly came from Miami, FLA, hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.” So what about female hitchhikers? “Well, I arrived in San Francisco in l952, hitchhiking from Chicago," says the poet, Ruth Weiss.
And Bjork is also on the bus: “I was about 18 years when I started to realise that you have to deal with other people. I bought a tent and a sleeping bag and hitchhiked away.” For women, hitchhiking is not in the least bit romantic. It can be a fearful experience. Sexy cliches are something of a fantasy.
“Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain't no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart." warns Ursula K. Le Guin.
“Hey, but if you’s a hitchhikin’ woman, you can thumb a ride with me,” croons Warren Zevon at Ursula, but I’m not sure she’s too impressed, and she’s certainly thumbing her machete. But Mama Cass has no problem with catching a ride, as her band, also climbing aboard, describe how: “When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore, but she changed her mind one day, standin’ on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike, “Take me to New York right away.”
Meanwhile Kris Kristofferson pulls out his guitar in the back, describing how Bobbie thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained, Took us all the way to New Orleans.”
Keith Richards recalls how a disabled female fan used to hitchhike to all of their shows, and so he took pity on her. “I met this blind chick from Montreal on the road in the States. She was going to every Stones gig, hitchhiking blind as a bat to get to the next concert. I said, "This is not safe," so I would fix her up a ride with the truckers; I thought, She's going to do it anyway, and I didn't want her to get run over.”
We are now packed with musicians, but still those thumbs are stuck out on on they jump. “My brother and I hitchhiked to Milwaukee, went to Orth's Music Store there, and asked the guy who was really great, and he played Eddie Lang for us,” says Les Paul.
“I was hitchhiking in California and was picked up by my history professor, and he said he was so glad to see me. And I said "why?" And he said, "Well, all the more interesting students have dropped out of college.” jokes John Cage.
“I hitchhiked around Europe, sang in the streets, collected money. I lived a week under a bridge once, the Pont Neuf.” says Paul Simon, but I’m sure you went around America too, Paul? And here’s another Paul, McCartney that is, who describes how in the early days John and he “slept together as teenagers, top-and-tailed in millions of hitch-hiking places”. Talking of tops and tails, how about this cheeky ride?
Following Paul, now another famous bass player, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, had an early adventure in even hotter climes: “I, with some friends in 1961 or ‘62, drove an old ambulance to Baghdad. We didn't actually reach Baghdad - it finally broke down on the road to Damascus outside Beirut. But I hitchhiked home from Beirut on my own.”
There are also many film-makers who have enriched their art. Directors John Sayles and Python’s Terry Gilliam both confirm going round America and further, and that the activity helped Gilliam “fall in love with Europe”.
So it’s no surprise that hitchhiking has inspired so many great film plots. These variously enormously, from the innocent to the comical to truly horrific, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or American Werewolf in London, to the innocent and old-fashioned. So how do you hitch a ride? According to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, by doing this:
But not all hitchhiking scenarios are quite so alluring. One of the most gripping is 1953’s The Hitchhiker, in which two fishermen pick up a psychotic escaped convict who tells them that he intends to murder them when the ride is over. To say it’s a tense, gripping journey is putting it mildly:
So watch out who thumbs a lift from you. There’s less nuance and more terror when that hitcher turns out to be Rutger Hauer in this 1986 film. I mean, you wouldn’t would you. Just look at his eyes.
However, not all hitchhiking encounters end in horror. There are many funnier, more charming stories, from the stoned encounters of Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces, to the expert giant thumb of Sissy Hankshaw in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, to this beautiful road film set in Bhutan:
So, that restless spirit is very much part of hitchhiking culture and has inspired creativity in every genre. The author Tom Robbins, who authored the Cowgirls film, is now on the bus too, reading to us all about what makes people thumb a lift:
“Not aimless. Not in the least. It’s just that my aims are different from most. There are plenty of aimless people on the road, all right. People who hitchhike from kicks to kicks, restlessly, searching for something: looking for America, as Jack Kerouac put it, or looking for themselves, or looking for some relation between America and themselves. But I’m not looking for anything. I’ve found something.”
“What is it that you’ve found?”
Hitchhiking in its purest form – for hitchhiking’s sake. For the love of the road. But let’s finish with a quote from the great Douglas Adams from his masterpiece of sci-fi comedy, his Guide To the Galaxy, and some advice. There’s always one object any hitchhiker should always carry:
“Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
No doubt also with towel in hand on this warm day, I’m now delighted to hand over the wheels of the bus to this week’s hitchhiking head honcho, takeitawayGuru! Stick out your metaphorical thumbs with songs about hitchhiking in comments below, for deadline at 11pm UK time on Monday, for playlists published on Wednesday. I’m sure we’ll steer towards fascinating places. Let’s hit the road, and see where it goes.
My thumb? To kick off proceedings, here’s my nomination. A favourite Tom Waits song. A moving tale of mystery around an otherworldly truck driver who shows kindness to a stranger:
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