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Adagio for Four Wheels

IT was autumn, a voluptuous Indian summer, and US 89 in Utah was a miracle of pink and gold meadows, dizzying vistas, and sparkling air. I just had to pull over. It took 15 minutes of rooting around among empty raisin boxes, pungent sweat-socks, and obscure small-town newspapers before I was finally ready to resume my journey. I had found Elgar. His ``Introduction and Allegro for Strings'' was just what the landscape called for, and I was not about to let the experience pass without him. In this case the cassette (``English String Music,'' EMI) included his ``Serenade in E Minor,'' and R. Vaughan Williams' equally outdoorsy ``Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.''

These days even the laziest traveler will find that information abounds on routes, hotels, and restaurants. You can get advice on what to read where, and of course what to see when you get there. Yet hardly anyone pays attention to what you should listen to on the way.

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This lacuna is particularly egregious given the preponderance of auto travel in the United States. The US Travel Data Center, a trade group, says that in 1989 Americans took 1.26 billion person-trips of over 100 miles each way, 78 percent of them by car, truck, or recreational vehicle. The average round-trip distance was 910 miles, implying 16 hours on the road. (Three people in one car is three person-trips.)

I faced this situation when I drove across the country alone. With no one to talk to but myself, music was essential. But even those who travel in packs will want something to listen to aside from that well-known composition for station wagon and roadmap, ``The Sound of Family Fighting.''

A cross-country journey is the ultimate test of the music programmer's skill. Fortunately, my point of origin was Los Angeles, where we spend so much time in our cars that traveling music is second nature. I learned a thing or two more during the three weeks I spent on the road.

One tip: Bring Romantics with a capital R, musicians of every conceivable stripe. Mahler, Verdi, Brahms; Bill Evans, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen; blues and Mahalia Jackson. Oh, the odd madrigal might serve at night. And who would exclude Bach and Mozart?

America is a big place. It leans toward the magnificent. Because I was crossing a nation of immigrants, I went for diversity. I listened to Connie Francis (in Italian), African soukous, Louisiana zydeco, traditional jazz, ``The St. Louis Blues,'' and Madonna, among other things. I also packed a flier from National Public Radio that listed member stations nationwide, although frankly none I heard measured up to KCRW-FM, the remarkable public radio outlet in Santa Monica, Calif. But at least I could get ``All Things Considered'' on the road.

Setting out from Los Angeles full of enthusiasm, I decided first of all to trust in the power of nomenclature, and the Motels did not fail me. This hard-rocking Southern California band had a great sense of irony, a highly developed awareness of New York vs. Los Angeles, and a desperate-sounding Martha Davis on vocals with songs about killer waves and lyrics like, ``Stay until you go-o-o-o/Whisper words like always, always, always...,'' guaranteed to sound great on any California freeway.

Struggling through traffic in the smoggy desert suburbs east of the city, I had no choice but the Talking Heads ``Remain in Light'' album (Warner Bros.), whose hard, chant-like music combined the tribal and the technological in a way that seems appropriate for any stranger or sojourner this side of Abraham. Better yet, their eerie confusion captures an outsider's experience of the Sunbelt. ``Is this my beautiful house?'' David Byrne wonders aloud. ``Is this my beautiful wife?''

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I was finally getting away from the vast and giddy plasticity that sprawls around Los Angeles. Traffic was thinning, the sky in my rear-view mirror was orange, and I was in a contemplative frame of mind. I flipped on the headlights and reached for a tape called simply, ``John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman'' (MCA/Impluse!). I had lived in Los Angeles nearly five years, I was leaving at last, and I handled the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration with the reverence due a religious scroll. This tape includes such ineffable delights as ``They Say it's Wonderful,'' ``You Are Too Beautiful,'' and the immortal ``Lush Life,'' in which Hartman breaks every heart within earshot.

It was completely dark by now, and from my cassette case I withdrew one of the big guns of my musical arsenal and popped it deliberately into the dashboard.

No one should leave home without at least one of the Beethoven string quartets. I can't pretend to understand these works, but anyone who doesn't respond to their terrible beauty and dreadful power is either a Vulcan or a corpse.

Surrounded by darkness and doubtful of purpose, I played Quartet No. 15 in A minor (Op. 132) straight through the Mojave Desert, until I was well-steeped in the futility of my undertaking, man's insignificance against the endless reaches of the universe, and of course a certain amount of self-dramatization.

Approaching Las Vegas, it was time for a change, and I turned once again to the Motels, whose ``Shock'' tape fit the bill perfectly.

Not only does it serve after the Beethoven - life goes on, after all - but it suites the Strip, and also contains a rollicking appreciation of my destination, New York, which filled me with renewed purpose.

And so it went. As I moved into the heartland, I broke out the traditional Americans. Several states have laws, I believe, against undertaking any cross-country journey without Aaron Copland's ``Appalachian Spring.''

I confess that this chestnut (my tape even had ``Billy the Kid'' on back) brought me much pleasure against the loveliness of Idaho's Bear Lake, the beauty of the Grand Tetons, and the rangeland of western Wyoming, where I bumbled into a cattle drive and later stopped to let a bobbing sea of sheep go by.

Reaching Minneapolis, I decided to make tracks for the East. Driving 600 miles a day across the Midwest, I was sustained by a pair of strange musical bedfellows: Philip Glass and Malcolm McLaren.

Until Minnesota, I was wary of the minimalist Glass, assuming that the monotony of his music would stupefy me. On the road, ``Powaqaatsi'' (Nonesuch) didn't work, yet ``Glass Works'' (CBS) proved one of my most durable companions, its weird lyricism bestowing serenity on almost any landscape. Like some of the Bach I'd lugged along, it helped me drive for hours on end, my imagination wandering as I raced across the Midwest.

McLaren's remarkable ``Waltz Darling'' tape combines classical motifs with rock to convey a powerful message about the ``obsolescence'' of romance, and it was a potent antidote to some of what I'd been hearing - and thinking - en route East. McLaren's amazing version of ``Madame Butterfly'' works to similar effect.

But I was headed for New York City, a place no one can go near without an essential faith in the possibilities of the species. Driving down the magnificent Southern Tier Expressway from Lake Erie, I began to worry.

You do not play Frank Sinatra when entering New York, and television commercials have spoiled Gershwin in the same way bookstores have savaged poor Pachelbel. Beethoven seemed too obvious - how to listen to his ``Ode to Joy'' in a traffic jam? - and Bartok ambivalent, even if he did live in Brooklyn. In a way it was easier to choose music for the natural splendor of the West.

Yet what to make of the man-made wonders and horrors that daily connive to create New York?

As it turns out, the decision was made for me. My ultimate destination was a country house about 90 miles north of the city, and, en route East, I heard from my parents (who live in Queens) that their car stereo was stolen. New York, I now remembered, makes its own music. I drove straight to the country, rested, and went to the city later by bus.

Eventually I suppressed my paranoia and played a variety of music on car trips to New York.

But I was always careful to leave most of my tapes home. My prudence was rewarded, in a manner of speaking. Nobody pried loose the stereo, but on the fifth or sixth visit, they took the entire car.

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