And if there are several things I've learned in my decades of world travel, one of them is this: Sometimes it's all about the soundtrack. I can still remember what I was listening to at the very moment in 1995 when London first topped my favorite-cities list (a position it retains to this day). I was sitting in the back of a taxi when I was overcome with affection for the song playing on the radio. It was so sad, so moving, so beautifully sung. If I hadn't been giddy on wine and Smirnoff Ice, I probably would have burst into tears right there.
"What's this?" I asked the taxi driver, certain he wouldn't have a clue. "I think it might be the most amazing thing I've ever heard." I was tipsy, but I wasn't lying. The woman singing was killing me softly with her song.
"It's Randy Crawford -- 'One Day I'll Fly Away,'" he said proudly, as if he'd produced it himself.
I knew her. She was the ethereal black lady with the braids whom I used to see on BET's Video Soul in 1989 singing her Top 10 R&B cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." There was more to her than the two covers I knew her for, the other being her 1992 remake of Journey's "Who's Crying Now"? Could she be any lower-profile, though? (Yes, Chandler and Friends, which had been on for a year, must already have been affecting my inflection.) How did they know her in England?
The next day, I went to Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus and bought one of her greatest-hits compilations, kicking off a love affair that continues to this second. Years later, I saw Crawford in concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City, and she spent an entire song lying on her back on the floor staring up at the ceiling. She still didn't miss a note. I'm sure she was as wasted as I had been that first night in the taxi.
It wouldn't be until the Wikipedia era that I'd discover that hearing Crawford singing on London radio in 1995 hadn't been so unusual, after all. She'd had a considerable UK run, which might have been why there had been so many of her compilations to choose from at Tower. "One Day I'll Fly Away" was No. 2 hit in the UK in 1980, one in a string of chart singles (including the No. 4 "Almaz" six years later) that Crawford had earned across the ocean from her native country, where her only Top 40 success was as the vocalist on The Crusaders' 1979 No. 36 jazz-pop classic "Street Life."
A week after my Randy Crawford experience nearly caused my heart to fail in the back of a taxi, London was calling me again through song. This time, I knew what I was hearing. It was "The Love Inside," an album track from Barbra Streisand's 1980 blockbuster Guilty album. I would have been perfectly happy listening to "Woman in Love" or "What Kind of Fool" or the title track (and back in the U.S.A. I very well might have been, for at the time, each was still an easy-listening staple), but you've got to love a city where you can hear "The Love Inside," of all Guilty pleasures, on the radio.
London will forever be the city where I fell in love with Randy Crawford, rediscovered "The Love Inside," and heard Simply Red's "Fairground" and Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" for the first time en route to Heathrow in a taxi (on two separate occasions). So I guess you can say that London's taxi drivers are largely responsible for my love of the city. They sure know how to keep a guy coming back.
As, apparently, do whoever is responsible for selecting the music that plays in some of Cape Town's restaurants. The reason I keep returning to Cafe Mojito has everything to do with the fact that they serve a killer feta and bacon omelette for 30 rand (a little less than $3), and they have excellent Wi-Fi, but the music enhances the get-online-for-free-while-you-enjoy-your-meal experience. The first time I went, they were playing the late Argentine folk great Mercedes Sosa. Another time, it was Bob Marley's Rastaman Vibration album, which I just happened to have been listening to on my iPod when I walked in.
Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I went back to my other favorite Cape Town food institution, Fat Cactus, which, come to think of it, had never before impressed me for anything other than its food, mango margaritas and nostalgia value as the first Cape Town restaurant I ever ate in. I can't even tell you if I'd ever heard music playing there. But yesterday, the Fat Cactus soundtrack was just as enjoyable as the three mini-burgers I devoured.
First, they played George Strait's 1981 debut album, Strait Country, in its entirety. It was followed by Donald Fagen's 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly, after which came Steely Dan's Gaucho, the 1980 studio album by Fagen's former duo that preceded their two-decades-long hiatus and produced their final Top 10 pop hit, "Hey Nineteen." I was sad to have to leave a few songs into it.
"The Cuervo Gold
The fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing"
"Unwound" George Strait
"Ruby Baby" Donald Fagen
"Hey Nineteen" Steely Dan
All three were landmark platinum albums that had absolutely nothing to do with the reigning new-wave electro-pop sound of the early '80s (The Nightfly remains one of my all-time favorite long players) and therefore wouldn't be the leading contenders for early '80s albums most likely to be played in their entirety during lunch -- especially in a Mexican restaurant in the middle of Cape Town.
Maybe you'd get Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" or Fagen's "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)" in a sophisticated Manhattan bar and grill, or George Strait's "Unwound" if the culinary specialty is Southern fried. But I didn't think I'd ever hear Fagen's cover of "Ruby Baby" anywhere outside of my iPod, and I can't remember the last time I heard Strait's "Down and Out," the Top 20 country hit that was sandwiched between "Unwound" and "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger (There's One Coming Home)." I'll be back -- for more than those mini-burgers.
That also goes for the little bar down the road from my apartment with the name that's always escaped me. Yesterday I went there for a late-afternoon glass of wine with a friend, and the music they were playing was as enjoyable as the conversation. I'd never heard any of it, but one song in particular, sung entirely in French and featuring what sounded like a children's choir, stood out like the Eiffel Tower.
"What is this?" I asked the moody bartender.
"I have no idea," he said with a shrug.
Of course, he didn't -- just like the bartender at 5th of May in Jerusalem who spent all night playing one fierce jam after another, and just like Laurentio, my Pilates teacher in Buenos Aires who used to distract me from my breathing with his excellent taste in music. What is it with cute guys who never know what song is playing? Don't they know how sexy musical knowledge can be?
If they're like Laurentio, they just collect mp3s from friends in bulk and never bother to get a track list. I'll have to remember to download Shazam so that I can stop depending on people who are bad with names. That might be okay with one-night stands, but I've got to know what I'm listening to, especially if I want to go home and download it for myself. It might even go on to set the mood for one of those one-night stands, and if I can't remember his name, I'd like to at least be able to name that tune.