Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A short history of the car song

Car songs have played an important role in rock and roll's mythology virtually since its inception. Typically the car has represented adolescent dreams of freedom and sex, but the best rock and roll car songs present a more complex picture of the role of the automobile in middle-class American adolescent life. Chuck Berry set the gold standard in the 1950s with "No Particular Place to Go," by making the automobile simultaneously serve as both a sex machine and a chastity belt.

In the 1960s the Beach Boys' carried on the tradition with songs in which the automobile is sexualized to the extent that when Brian Wilson sings "Oh what she does to me, when she makes love to me" in "Don't Worry Baby" you can't be 100% certain he isn't singing about the car instead of a girl. But the Beach Boys' car songs are also shot through with an increasing level of anxiety and ambivalence about the automobile’s ability to deliver on its promise of freedom.

In the 1970s the automobile as sex machine theme becomes even more explicit in songs like "Chevy Van", but also finds deeper and darker expression in the music of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen seems all too aware that the automobile's promise of liberation is at best temporary and illusory, and it brings a level of desperation to his car songs that is almost operatic in scope.

You just know the narrator of "Born To Run," despite his desire to escape the confines of the working class world, will end up knocking Wendy up and working at a dead-end job. Or worse yet he'll end up like the narrator of "Darkness at the Edge of Town," offering bitter recriminations from beneath some bridge on the outskirts of town. But then of course the 1970s were a time of diminished expectations, when America seemed to be literally and figuratively running out of gas. (When I was in grade school in the 70s I vividly remember teachers telling us that we were the first generation of Americans who would end up worse off than our parents. That and we had to learn the metric system or the Japanese would eat us alive.)

Anyway, here is a weirdly wonderful car song from The Beat of the Traps, a compilation of songs from the "Send us your poems and we'll put them to music! Big money could be yours!" stuff collected by Tom Ardolino of NRBQ in thrift shops over the years. Where does this fit within the history of the rock and roll car song? Well, it doesn’t. Instead it’s a reminder that real life is too messy, and often too weird, to fit into the tidy historical narratives we construct in order to make sense of our world.

I genuinely enjoy listening to stuff like this. I like to imagine what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, the anticipation they felt waiting for their record to arrive, and their reaction when they got it. I like to think about what the performers must have thought of the lyrics they were assigned to put to music, if they thought about them at all. This is the stuff that happens outside the contours of official history.

And, not that it matters, but "Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers is my all-time favorite driving/car song, because it really is about the journey, not the destination, and nobody gets that like Jonathan Richman. And you can't drive around in the rockin’ modern moonlight of Massachusetts listening to "Roadrunner" and not feel good. Please feel free to share your favorite driving/car song in comments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like "Hot Rod Lincoln," the later version by Commando Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. The lines on the road just looked like dots. Also, "You're Gonna Get Yours," by Public Enemy, on their first (shhhhh... best) record, is awesome. The 98 Olds is bulletproof.