Ventura Highway( 2014.8.1[Fri.])


'Cause the free wind is blowin' through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there
Seasons crying no despair
Alligator lizards in the air, in the air

Ventura HighwayAmerica

  This essay was written in March 2011, just days before the Great East Japan Earthquake.

  I was in Ein-Gedi in Israel until a few days ago, and now am in Ventura, California for a Gordon Research Conference, writing this during a break before the Day 2 sessions begin, basking in the sunlight streaming through the windows of the Marriot Hotel. To get here, I returned to Kobe from Tel Aviv via Seoul, and then was back on a plane to San Francisco two days later, so I didn’t even try to adjust to Japan time while I was there, hoping to make the most of my jet lag. But even so, it was tough giving a talk in the evening session on the day I arrived.

  Arriving at Santa Barbara airport, the beauty of the scenery just captivates the eye. The view is justifiably famous, bare mountains glowing in light and shade, and a highway winding along the coast. So this is it, I thought as I cast my eyes along it and cast my thoughts back to a different time. The famous Ventura Highway. 

  I say famous, but I suppose many young people may not know of it. The group was America, a 3-man band that formed in London during the Golden Age of West Coast Rock, becoming famous for their airy acoustic guitar rhythms, and their high-pitched harmonies reminiscent of Neil Young. In fact, when America debuted their hit single “A Horse with No Name,” most of us marveled that Neil Young had formed yet another band.

  The West Coast sound in the 1970s began with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Poco, and grew to include such great songsmiths of the American Dream as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Loggins & Messina, the Eagles (who started off as Linda Ronstadt’s backing musicians), and a thoroughly transformed Doobie Brothers. But America’s sound was perhaps the sweetest of them all, music anyone can relax to, like a sugared children’s treat. Their music crystallizes the image that people have of America, not just for Japanese, but anyone who admires the country, and this is nowhere better expressed than in their quintessentially Californian hit “Ventura Highway.” The members of the band America were themselves great fans of their eponymous country.

  But just what is it about Ventura Highway that makes it so alluring? In Japan, we had a similar song in “Chuo Freeway” by Yumi Matsutoya, which told of shiny new cars speeding down a pristine new highway hewn out of the natural landscape during the period of breakneck economic growth before the Bubble burst, defining and reconfirming a time of national abundance. The young couple in the song is madly in love with love as a stylistic commitment, if nothing else. The mood evoked is a neurotic tension, of losing one’s soul amidst plenty, and the seeds of destruction lurking in the shadows of a vivid backdrop. But the scene is not so bright as it was oppressively humid, if that makes sense.

  But on Venture Highway, you drive an old pickup and even if it doesn’t have a fancy stereo, you can sing along to rock songs on the radio. If the A/C doesn’t work, the wind still feels nice in your hair. The highway is not a marvel of engineering, but it’s flat enough to travel at speed, and the real highlight is the larger than life natural landscape.

  You can only appreciate the beauty of this country by setting your sights to the horizons. You don’t need money, just a few gallons of cheap gasoline, and the rest is up to you. Finding happiness or going straight to hell – the choice is yours. Unhurried Ventura, where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine...

  America later shrank to just two members and continued to tour the States. But I am not just telling their story, but of the songs they made that remained in so many people’s hearts for so long. When I was a student in Augusta, Georgia in the late Eighties, America came and played an almost free outdoor concert in that sleepy little town one Sunday. They played their old hits to please the crowds, and everyone got up and, with a beer in their hand and their shirts off danced happily in the summer heat.

What I learned during that stay was that Americans and Japanese define happiness in different ways. In America, if you can’t make it home some night, there is always the risk of crime or getting into an accident, but also the possibility that you will strike it rich or make it big. Life plays out on a grander scale. When I made it back to your apartment after a day at work, I could honestly say without exaggeration, “I survived another day.” But that doesn’t mean I was living scared.

  In Japan on the other hand, until very recently everything was perfectly safe and secure. You could hang out in a park downtown at 1:00 AM without the slightest concern, or drive 70 mph down a highway without worrying about an unsecured cabinet falling off the back of the truck in front of you. But we paid a high price for that sense of wellbeing. Nothing risked means no chances for great success, and as even minor differences between individuals could trigger jealousy we ended up sharing everything in life, both good and bad. It’s hard to say which version of happiness is better.

  I don’t want to come across as a cheerleader for the US (if anything, the opposite is closer to the truth), but I can’t help but reflect on such questions during a time when everything in Japan seems to be in decline. What was it about this road Japan has been on the past two decades that led it astray? I don’t know where we went wrong, but it seems that, with everyone occupied with looking after themselves and casting blame on others, we are caught in a kind of wartime public neurosis. Or perhaps all of this was just inevitable...

  That California day, I wasn’t sure what to feel as I heard Ventura Highway playing inside my head...