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Need to stay awake? Try some AC/DC

We headed north on I-17 out of Phoenix on Friday, fleeing as best we could. It was Friday afternoon, holiday weekend rush hour traffic; eight lanes of start-and-stop but that was to be expected.

What was not expected was the parking lot that extended from the outskirts of Phoenix well into the mountains.

When I say “mountains,” I guess I’m being a little facetious; they are brown, barren clumps of dirt and rock that resemble nothing like we have around here. In fact, they’re like some nightmare version of what would happen here due to some environmental apocalypse. Keep screwing with the climate, look at the “mountains” around Phoenix and then determine if that’s what we want for ourselves.

I can’t blame those “mountains” on the powers that be in Phoenix, but I can say that I understand the horde heading north on that Friday afternoon. Escaping from the heat, the crushing slew of humanity, the noise, the stench and the overall dismal milieu. It’s not a stretch to understand why the masses would want to get out of there, crawling along the interstate nose-to-tail, zig-zagging between lanes to seek out a microsecond of travel advantage (okay, it has been pointed out to me that I may have been the only one doing that).

The town is essentially hell: a cultural wasteland, a substrata of sand and scorpions, prickly plants and McMansions (all well air-conditioned) offering little else but the erstwhile St. Louis Cardinals, sorry Diamondbacks and setting Suns. If multitudes of big-box retailers and chain restaurants couched within miles and miles of suburban sprawl is your idea of 21st-century culture, Phoenix is your town.

So there we were, inching up a ribbon of desert mountain interstate highway, lost in a line of traffic seeming to stretch to the end of the world. We could only sigh and settle into the throng crawling breathlessly through barren rock and barrel cactuses, seeking an escape from Phoenix. Had I merely locked my zombie-like gaze onto the bumper ahead of me, I might have achieved some sort of meditative amelioration of my traffic jam anxiety.

There was no persistent bumper. Possibly, as admitted earlier, this was due to the fact that I continuously sought a tiny fissure that would let me surge to the front of the line (there had to be one, right?).

Although I’d only spent a few days in Arizona, I can say that everything I’ve experienced in Colorado regarding drivers with Arizona plates has been verified: that a speed limit means nothing — it’s posted only to advise drivers what’s not the preferred rate and disabuse other drivers that the posted limit is for suckers. ”Right lane only, except to pass” means that the left lane must be the place to be if slowing down the rest of traffic is a goal in life, and that changing lanes, indiscriminately and without regard to other cars on the road, is a decent strategy to get no closer to a destination but only to blow off some of the “ugh” brought from a city that has all the appeal of a rotting Saguaro cactus.

It was that rabble that accompanied me out from hell, climbing into the mountains, loud, fast and obnoxious.

Well, the ”fast” part was a figment of our limited imaginations. Trudging up the hills together, seeking a breath of fresh air reprieve from the overheated Port-a-potty from where we’d escaped, everyone jockeying for a better spot on the highway, speeding up and slamming to stop, some stepping off to the side of the road to relieve overheated radiators, the circus eventually ended about two hours from Phoenix.

I opened the window to breathe, to exhale, to stomp the pedal and push us far past from where we’d come from, to race towards Colorado.

By that point, we were driving though Navajo reservation, miles and miles of nothing but stone and examples of grinding poverty. It occurred to me as we whisked through that the U.S. government settled people on the worst possible land (until minerals were discovered, and then all bets were off), stone and sand and not much of anything else. Small wonder that some of the sovereign nations have turned towards gambling to snag back a certain amount of our karma.

As we drove into the night, stars stretched across the skies like the rhinestones on an Elvis imitator’s suit, my mind drifted, the lines on the double-lane sifting all my thoughts into a soporific stew, slapping my eyelids shut and steering us into the rip-rip-rip lines of “Wake up now!”

Apparently, my iPod was not keeping me up. Indeed, if you’re looking to keep your rear from sliding into a ditch, Sigor Ros, Danek, Os Mutantes, et al are not the way to go.

Neither is Dr. Dre, Spoon, or any other crazy stuff on my Pod. If there was anything that was going to keep me awake and all four wheels on the road, only AC/DC could do it.

I came into AC/DC relatively early, just after their second album. It was at a time when I was heavy into punk music, fresh off of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Alice Cooper. The Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash were informing my zeitgeist but AC/DC was giving me as much fun as I could have had.

Whereas punk music was loud and political, AC/DC was loud and fun, not a single stab at who we are or what we’re worried about.

Indeed, I figured I’d hit gold when the asshat Billy Altman gave AC/DC’s first three albums bullets in the ’79 version Rolling Stone Record Guide (bullets not even warranting stars — one to five — but,“Worthless: a record that need never (or should never) have been created. Reserved for the most pathetic bathwater.”)

His review? “AC/DC is an Australian hard-rock band whose main purpose on earth is apparently to offend anyone in sight or earshot. They succeed on both counts.”

Which should tell you something about us rock writers and how wrong we are.

When the second edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide was released (in 1980), the albums were bumped up to three stars with “Highway to Hell” given four stars along with “Back in Black” — the–best–selling album behind “Thriller” (110 million to 65 million).

There’s nothing revolutionary about AC/DC — they’re only about fun. Never playing a lame ballad, every song rocks out shamelessly, joyfully, seeking nothing more than to be loud, obnoxious and (often), misogynistic. The band has never pretended to be anything other than a loud, raucous, obnoxious bunch of lads seeking nothing more than to make us all appreciate what it is to be young, dumb and full of yum.

There’s no reason to look at AC/DC and see anything that looks like a band that intends to change the musical landscape. They took everything from the Rolling Stones (without the intellect) and made it loud and in your face. They grabbed the “fun” part of Rock and Roll and made it their credo. “Back in Black” made the band ( You Shook Me” being their first hit), but there was so much before then: “Sin City,” “High Voltage,” “Let There Be Rock,” and, of course, “Highway to Hell,” all set the stage for a band that would not perform anything other than loud and obnoxious rock.

Of course, that’s why I decided to put them on as I attempted to make my way back to Colorado.

AC/DC never wrote about any place in particular, not even Colorado — hell, I don’t think they wrote about any place that didn’t involve sex, drugs and Rock and Roll — but they made music that brought me back to where I wanted to be. In fact, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be … not in Phoenix, somewhere in Colorado and AC/DC being played loud, obnoxious and not behind an RV, heading through the desert.

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