Phantom Songs: Tom Cochrane- “Life Is A Highway”

Phantom Songs is an ongoing series of musical pieces that you can’t quite put your finger on. You have most definitely heard the song before, but are most likely not able to pinpoint who made it, when it was released, and/or what the song is really about. All of the artist’s history and biography was either stolen from wikipedia or made up entirely.

The pop charts of the ’90s were chock-full of manufactured feel-goodery. If a popular song wasn’t about commanding the listeners to do vague things, it was composed to vaguely gush about the values of life. Tom Cochrane’s 1991 hit, “Life is a Highway” seems to fall into that category. I remember hearing it incessantly on the radio, as my mom drove down a beaten road surrounded by fields. It didn’t make me nostalgic about the beauty of life, but moreso caused me to feel anxious and desperate to reach the end of the infinite gravel. To this day, every time I hear that annoying harmonica solo, I feel a sense of dread that it’s going to be a long time before I get anywhere.

Songs like these still found a home years after they were forgotten. They’re played at weddings, bar mitzvahs and class reunions. Any time somebody wants to feel nostalgia in a can, all they have to do is cue one of these songs up. Tom Cochrane hit me in the face in 2005, as I was preparing to graduate high school. I’m not sure if it’s standard operating procedure for every high school to have a “class song”, but the poor bastards at Chesaning Union High did and it caused warfare in my own mind. As actual students and human beings, we had the power to vote for our class song, whatever the hell it actually meant. We had three choices: Some bullshit song that nobody had ever heard before and whose name escapes me, “Come Sail Away” by Styx and of course, “Life is a Highway”. Me, being the total nerd with a bad taste in music as I was, implored everybody to vote for “Come Sail Away”. Of course, this was just another song about the journey of life that can only be used to reminiscing purposes, but damnit, this song meant something!

When it came time to tally the votes, it became visibly clear that “Life is a Highway” was the only recognizable song on the list, as it was the only one that was played ad nauseum as we were growing up. It was also an easy vote to follow up 2004’s choice of “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake. This all seems rational to me now, but as an angsty and stubborn 18 year old, this meant war. I went around to everybody in my classes, questioning them on what song they voted for. When they responded with “Life is a Highway”, I immediately became irrational and probably threw out some insults about how they don’t “know anything about music” or “know what the song is even about” or “care what kind of legacy the class of ’05 would leave behind”. It was all a big mess of which I was the only person to be upset about. I even made hints to people that I was going to boycott commencements. That’s how stubborn I was.

Traditionally, the whole point of a class song was for the students to sing it at the commencements ceremony. However, after the debacle known as “The Chesaning Union High School Class of 2003 Performs ‘Good Riddance’ by Green Day”, the PTA stripped us of that privilege. This is undoubtedly a good thing, considering that we would have all just mumbled during the verses and I probably would have started singing “Come Sail Away” in protest [in fact, I know that I would have]. The fact of the matter is that “Life is a Highway” is a popular song, but I’d be damned if I could find anybody who knows any word from the verses. Let us analyze:

Life’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend and sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your head to the wind
There’s a world outside every darkened door
Where blues won’t haunt you anymore
Where brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore
We won’t hesitate, Break down the garden’s gate
There’s not much time left today

This all seems to be extremely deep, but when you put the magnifying glass up to it, it’s just a bunch of obvious statements. Life is a road because you travel through life, just like you travel on roads. Actually, that’s what life is: forward movement. If you’re not “travelling” then you are dead. The second line can be simplified to “time passes”, which yes, is another obvious aspect of life. It’s obvious that you have to stretch your muscles and do the opposite of sitting. Sometimes the wind is blowing the same way that you’re trying to go. That’s because it’s wind and that is what wind does. It doesn’t matter how dark the door is, of course the world exists outside of it. I don’t need anybody telling me that. If it wasn’t the world, what the hell else would it be? A void? And then the verse gets convoluted when he regales us about how we can overcome the blues and break down a garden’s gate [wouldn’t that ruin the garden?]. These words were not written to mean anything specific other than “let’s continue to be alive”. So in summary, this is all the first verse says:

We are alive.
Let’s go do something.

Pretty inspirational, right? Well, here’s the part that we all know:

Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long

The dude loves travelling on roads. That’s okay with me, I guess, but he doesn’t have to be so proud about it. Where are you gonna go if you’re just aimlessly driving through the night? I also loves how he changes his mind halfway through the chorus. At first, he’s really excited to be riding in a car all night long, but then when he finds out that the listener is coming too, he’s like “Shit, I’ll take the wheel. You’re a terrible driver”. This isn’t very inspirational at all. If I was driving while listening to this song, I would be second guessing my driving skills the entire time. I am suddenly not worthy enough to be Tom Cochrane’s driver. The dude is willing to drive into infinity, as long as I never have to put my foot to a pedal ever again.

Through all these cities and all these towns
It’s in my blood and it’s all around
I love you now like I loved you then
This is the road and these are the hands
From Mozambique to those Memphis nights
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s lights
Knock me down get back up again
You’re in my blood
I’m not a lonely man
There’s no load I can’t hold
Road so rough this I know
I’ll be there when the light comes in
Just tell ’em we’re survivors

This guy simply refuses to stop driving. Screw living life, he just wants to be on the road. It’s clear now that the singer has delusions that the only way to live life is to drive through it and let it pass you by. When you’re sitting in a car, nothing in life ever changes. You’re in transit, trying to get from one point to the next. The singer refuses to face the next point, get out of his car and live. He drove all the way from Memphis to Vancouver. That’s a lot of wasted life. And yet, his opinions on what he loves and how much he loves them does not change. Or perhaps the whole point of this song is that he’s reluctant to let go of a girl. He’s trying to erase her memory by driving all over the continent, but he still loves her the same, as she is in his blood [which could also be an AIDs reference?]. He’s in denial of his loneliness and even though he embraces the road, he starts to whine about how rough it is. Suddenly he champions himself as a survivor of some sort, as if he was driving for a purpose other than being a gas-guzzling dick. The narrative thread of this song is much akin to the meandering thoughts that anyone has after driving for a few hours. It’s not supposed to be anything meaningful, but rather just insane mutterings from a person that has been in a confined space for a long period of time [and most likely suffering from butt-lock]. That’s basically all this song really adds up to. He is driving, he likes driving, he misses his old hoe, he is getting sick of driving, he is proud to be a driver, he misses his old hoe, et cetera. And finally, to cap the song off:

There was a distance between you and I
A misunderstanding once
But now we look in the eye

Would you want this man following you to Canada?

Well, that’s just creepy. Forget everything that I said before. He is obsessed with this girl. She was obviously so afraid of him that she moved from Memphis to Vancouver just to get off the grid. But Ol’ Tommy still found her. He caught her scent and followed it down the endless highway. After all, she is in his blood and blood is forever. Even if he doesn’t find her in Vancouver, his life is now the highway and he’s going to ride it all night long to find her. Of all the popular songs written about stalkers, this one has to be the least obvious. It was wrapped nicely in the disguise as a generic pop song about loving and living life. It fooled everybody and will continue to do so for years to come. I just really wish I knew what happened after they looked the misunderstanding in the eye. Did she realize that she was wrong to leave him and that his love for her must be pure or did she stick the mounties on him? The answer is actually pretty clear when you look at the title of his follow-up album “Ragged-Ass Road”. As it turns out, he did get the ultimate shut-down and it totally ruined his outlook on life and the highway.

In search of a better explanation, I turned to the music video.

It actually only made me more confused. Not only does Tom Cochrane not appear in an automobile, half of the time, he isn’t even on the side of the highway! The story also follows a loving couple of Gen Xers that seem to like the highway just fine, but have a hell of a lot more fun outside of the car! Then there’s this whole expose about how America is weird and stupid. An obese man with his midget wife eating a popsicle? A Native American hanging out with a couple of tranny nun twins? Tranny nun twins?!? An old man smoking a cigarette, washing the windshield way too slowly and inefficiently? Is this really what makes the highway so great? None of it looks appealing at all! In fact, after watching the video, I would rather stay away from the highways. You’d get skinned alive by the freaks out there.

So as a last-ditch effort to find meaning, I turned to the infinite wiki-wisdom of

“CRAP! this sux!” — Kman73

Yes, I agree. Thank you.

Okay, this song so reminds me of when I was little and living at my old apartment building, next door to this slutty ugly trashbag who wouldn’t stop playing this song. But I love it anyhow! Anyways, I think this song is pretty straight forward. Its about two lovers, free lovers, who once had some bad times but now there in love again. As for imagrey and allusion, theres not so much of that. But I suppose it reminds one of the praries, the straight country roads that go on for long distances. Now, if you anything about Tom Cochrane, he was born in the Friendly Manitoba, Canada and then relocated to Ontario. So he’s got a definite country roads feeling. So I urge you to think of this song in the praries, it paints a great picture. “– paigepeach

Wow, cool. That was just as aimless as the song itself. Thanks for teaching me nothing. Although, I do like the term “slutty ugly trashbag”.

“The first time i heard this song it was done by Chris Ledoux then I heard it by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I still havent heard the original. “ — Z/28

My point exactly. This is one of those Phantom Songs that falsely places the blame on somebody else. A lot of people think that just because it was made in the early ’90s, it’s about the heartland and there’s a harmonica solo, then it was definitely made by Tom Petty. As much as I hate Tom Petty, I have to defend him in this regard. He may inspire a lot of shitty songs, but he didn’t personally create every one in existence. There are much more proper scapegoats out there, like Jimmy Buffett and Billy Joel. The point of this article is to raise awareness of Tom Cochrane and his infinite buttcheek suckery.

I may not have found the real meaning behind this song, and for all I know, there might not be one. But there’s one thing that remains true: It is definitely not about graduating high school nor should it ever be used as a class song. Regardless, there’s still one memory from the commencements that will never be erased. We were standing in the hallway, waiting to enter the gymnasium. Aside from a few whispers and nudges, it was eerily quiet. In a low voice, just audible enough to hear in a 10 foot radius, I started singing, “IIIIIIIIII’m saaaaaaiiiiiling awaaaaaaaay”.

Two more voices joined in, “Set an open course for the virgin sea”.

Then a few more, louder “Cause IIIIIIIII’ve got to be freeeeeeeeee”.

And then somebody told us to shut up. Looking back, it was probably a good thing that we did.

Originally posted 4/1/12