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Rollin' on Empty

(Photo Illustration By Chris Meighan -- The Washington Post)
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So much for the song-length homage to hot rods and luxury cars and the like.

Even as Hollywood continues to churn out movies about cars ("Death Race," "Talladega Nights," "Cars," the upcoming "Fast and the Furious" sequel), the trend in rock-and-roll has gone the way of the Oldsmobile and the in-dash eight-track.

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There were songs in the pre-rock era, of course, such as "Cadillac Boogie" by Jimmy Liggins, along with automotive references by the likes of Hank Williams. But they exploded when the new idiom arrived, with songwriters romanticizing their rides and all that they represented.

Back before cars became utilitarian things -- Point A-to-Point B conveyances with computerized everythings powered by $4-a-gallon gas -- they were objects of lust, symbols of liberation and power, the center of the youth movement's sexual universe in post-World War II America. (What happens in the back seat stays in the back seat!)

Cars and rock-and-roll defined youth culture, screaming power and freedom and individuality. Cars were celebrated in cinema and on TV, but they were most at home in rock-and-roll.

Loud music and loud machines in which young people listened to that loud music: Of course the twain would meet.

"The whole obsession of cars in rock music was a reflection of teenage culture," says Bob Merlis, a music publicist and automotive journalist who curated two "Cars and Guitars" exhibits for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "The car was a very exotic thing that gave the teenager a place of his own, or her own. It's where you'd go to escape your parents. . . . It was a refuge from square culture and repressive attitudes. It was your own universe where you could have your own social life."

To Dean Torrance, cars represented freedom and creative expression. But, he says now, he and Jan Berry weren't thinking about cars quite so deeply in the 1960s, when their group, Jan & Dean, had success with several automotive-themed songs, including "Little Old Lady From Pasadena," a Berry song (co-written by Don Altfeld and Roger Christian) about a Super-Stock Dodge that tore up the quiet streets of Pasadena, Calif.

"It was just the only other thing we knew anything about," Torrance says from his Orange County home. "We started out writing about boy-girl situations and our surfboards. There had to be something else to write about. What else did we know anything about? Cars!"

Cars, especially the American ones, were romanticized, celebrated as shining objects of desire, with their metal-flake paint, red-line tires, sexy lines and all that horsepower. Hubba , hubba.

They were good for getting girls, but also desirable "girls" themselves: In "SS 396" by Paul Revere and the Raiders, the car of the title is referred to as "she."


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