#2. “Taken at the airport in Sept before Betty left for home. George & Betty 1963”
In terms of moments of intense self-realisation tempered with desperate cliche, blubbering like a baby to the tune of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ while on a flight from LAX to JFK must rate fairly highly. And yet, there I was back in 2009, choking back honking sobs while choosing between the chicken or the fish (I took the chicken; it was a good choice), discussing the education system with grey nomads from Adelaide, waiting to use the increasingly festive 747 toilet. The only thing that could have tipped me further towards self-parody would have been including Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime on the playlist.
Well, how did I get here?
I wish I could tell you. The odd thing was, they weren’t necessarily “sad” tears - they weren’t “happy” ones, either, but bittersweet everything-including-the-kitchen-sink tears. People drone on about how “oh, you’ll prefer New York to LA”, but I didn’t listen to them. I spent two weeks more time in NYC than I did LA, but the city of broken dreams and busted sidewalks had worked some strange, Lost In Translation magic on me (even if the ‘translation’ was just “only homeless people and weirdos ride the bus”; hey, I’ll fit right in!).
A good chunk of the music that has had the biggest cultural impact on me has emerged from LA, whether it’s the Laurel Canyon scene, or Warren Zevon, or the Sunset Strip, so on some level it makes sense that to finally - and I mean finally, like after a good 18 years of planning to get there - be in the same country, if not the same Zip Code, as all these places that were previously just mysterious lyrical cues would be slightly emotionally overwhelming.
Perhaps it’s just Petty’s singular summation of the Los Angelean raison d’etre (even if I didn’t get to glide down over Mulholland while I was in town, and instead spent most of my time sloshing through rain puddles on Highland) that made the song such a candidate for ‘Repeat: One’ status. It could be simply written off as mid-travel blues, though by that token any song could’ve brought on the tears, and the thought of bawling to Cotton-Eyed Joe or Hammer Smashed Face mid-flight doesn’t really have the same poetic effect, does it?
I’ve been back to LA two times since then - once a year - and little has changed (I still walk everywhere), though I don’t listen to as much Tom Petty these days. This trip, thanks to the glories of cable, has mostly been soundtracked by John Powell’s How To Train Your Dragon score.
That score, with its moments of elegiac, Vaughan Williams-esque longing and surging melody, perfectly captured the thrill of flying (or, at least, what one imagines would be thrilling about flying on your own dragon). And, as such, it feels like a good fit for my return journey, which I’m sure I don’t have to tell you I’m not particularly thrilled about.
“Home” feels different now. The more I’ve got to know America, and in particular California, the more I feel like the home leg of the journey is the one from MEL to LAX. The first time I arrived in LA, I felt like I’d come home - but not in a grand, existential way, more a mundane, “I should get some milk on the way home” kind of way. I feel at ease in America in a way I never have in Australia.
The only thing keeping the sorrow at bay today is the promise of flying back to Melbourne on the Airbus A-380, a beautiful bird if ever there was one.
It never ceases to amaze me how blase people have become about air travel. When I flew to San Francisco on this trip, they had wi-fi on the plane: I was on the internet at 30,000 feet. The internet! When we began our descent to SFO, the pilot told us to look out the right-hand windows, as ATC had allowed - due to the fog clearing - two planes to approach at once; a rare occurrence. Most other people returned to their magazines, but I was thrilled. I may have even said “Whee!”
I used to look longingly down the aisle to catch a glimpse of first class, but the more I think about it, the more I think of air travel as a great leveller. Yes, some people get a better dinner and don’t have to use plastic cutlery, and they can lie down, and so on - but no matter how rich you get, nothing makes the plane go faster. We all have to marinate in the same recycled air in the same metal tube, as we hurtle across oceans and plains and mountain ranges.
And maybe when we get to where we’re going, we’ll discover the city we thought we loved isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and fall in love with somewhere completely different.
And maybe we’ll do it to the tune of Tom Petty.
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