Hit Songs About Places That the Artists Had Never Visited
One of the richest traditions in modern songwriting is the ode to the place — “New York State of Mind,” “California Dreamin’,” “Funkytown.” Sometimes the call of the canyon or the bustle of the city can be just as inspiring as memories of lost love or their personal lovely lady lumps or whatever else an artist might write about. In fact, sometimes those vibes can be so strong that you don’t necessarily have to be — or ever have been — within their vicinity to feel them. At least, that’s how some songwriters feel.
“Born on the Bayou”
To listen to John Fogerty, you’d think he was the Southernest man in the country. To that end, he wrote that “guys from Louisiana (would) tell me, ‘We used to argue over whether you’re from Thibodaux or the next town over.’” But Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite being credited with the invention of “swamp rock,” has its roots in a much less sweaty place — Northern California. If you listen to them when they’re not rocking, they definitely sound like it. Actually, they sound like Ned Flanders.
What I’m saying is, not only was Fogerty born about as far from the bayou as possible, he’d never even been to the bayou when he wrote about it in 1969. All that imagery about running in the backwood bay and terrorizing minorities came from movies he’d seen and books he’d read but mostly just kind of what he imagined the bayou was like. He’d also put a lot of work into specifically training his voice to sound like his Southern blues idols. Don’t even get me started on the imaginary Southern road trip of “Proud Mary.”
Every generation of the last 40 years has fallen in love with Toto’s ode to sub-Saharan precipitation, and we have every reason to expect our descendents to harmonize their little hearts out to it until the end of recorded music. It’s scientifically the best song. It’s also the aural manifestation of white guilt.
David Paich wrote “Africa” after plopping down on his incredibly comfortable couch in his rock star home to watch a documentary about poverty in Africa, which “both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about it if I was there and what I’d do.” Note that he doesn’t say he actually did anything about it. But hey, he tried to imagine!
Since Paich had never been to Africa, he consulted exactly one National Geographic article about its geography, which is why much of it is completely wrong. Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, cannot be seen from the Serengeti. That line in particular, his bandmates thought was “dumb” and “goofy” until it stupided millions into their bank accounts.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads”
West Virginia doesn’t get a lot. They have The Mothman Prophecies, a lot of coal, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and that’s about it. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take one-third of those things away from them, because it turns out “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is about Maryland.
Its writers, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, were driving through the land of John Waters and crab cakes when they started singing about its winding wilderness, but “Maryland” didn’t fit the meter. They first considered “Massachusetts,” where Danoff grew up, but eventually, they decided they liked the exotic romance of West Virginia, which “might as well have been in Europe, for all I know,” Danoff has said. It literally borders Maryland, but okay, Bill.
They presented the song to John Denver, who had also never been to West Virginia, but he liked it enough to help them fine-tune it, throwing in vaguely Appalachian references like the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains. The latter is only barely in West Virginia, but it would do.
As you can guess by now, Adam Young of Owl City had never been to Seattle when he wrote “Hello Seattle.” Truth be told, he hadn’t been much of anywhere outside of Minnesota, and Seattle “always seemed like the other side of the world to me,” a place he used to daydream about “what it was like” while “staring out the window during class in high school.” It seems like, by 2009, we all had a pretty good sense of what Seattle is like (rain and fish, mostly), but Young was just a special kind of bumpkin, it seems. “The irony of the track is that it’s a love song to a place I’d never visited,” he explained, unnecessarily.
Of course, Young did eventually get to visit Seattle, and somehow, “it really wasn’t anything like the place in my head,” he said. “It totally wasn’t better or worse, it was just way different. The gum wall and the coffee were just a bonus.”
“Last Train to Clarksville”
The boys behind everyone’s favorite part of the Shrek soundtrack, nor the boys behind them, couldn’t technically visit Clarksville because Clarksville was more of an idea than a place. The song was even more of a rip-off of the Beatles than your typical Monkees’ tune, crafted after one of their songwriters, Bobby Hart, misheard a line in “Paperback Writer” as “take the last train.” When it came to where the train would be going, Hart remembered visiting a town in Arizona called Clarksdale, but it was decided that Clarksville sounded better. That’s pretty much it.
But several states do have a Clarksville, and the one in Tennessee adopted the song because of its proximity to an Army base and the song’s subtle anti-war message, so Hart had to burst some bubbles and admit that he’d never even heard of Clarksville, Tennessee when he’d written the song. That didn’t stop original Monkee Micky Dolenz from telling everyone the song was about the town in Tennessee, though, and he’s kind of a canon source, so this is possibly a case of a song that wasn’t about a place becoming about a place through sheer force of will.
“Don’t Stop Believin’”
The bane of every karaoke master’s existence is famously about a boy from Detroit, and I know what you’re thinking: How could any self-respecting 1970s rock band have never visited the Motor City? Well, Journey had. Steve Perry was, in fact, gazing down from his Detroit hotel room window in the middle of the night when he started thinking about streetlight people and whatnot.
But the line is “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit,” and here’s the thing: There is no South Detroit. There is a southern region of the city, but nobody calls it that — it’s just downtown. After years of being hounded by pedantic types (sup!), Perry admitted, “I ran the phonetics of east, west and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit.” Which is fair enough. There’s nothing emotionally true about the real Detroit.
But there’s a twist! As of 2015, you can go to South Detroit, but it’s not a city. It’s a restaurant. It was opened in Windsor, Ontario — the town just south of Detroit — after its owner learned that Windsor was almost named South Detroit in 1892, a fact that Perry surely couldn’t have known, otherwise he’d always bring it up. But he can now.
You’re welcome, Steve Perry.