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Rollin' on Empty

(Photo Illustration By Chris Meighan -- The Washington Post)
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In the early 1960s, Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys were infatuated with cars -- along with girls and surfing -- and they turned their obsession into a minor industry, with hits including "Little Deuce Coupe" (about a lightning-fast 1932 Ford) and "Shut Down" (detailing a drag race between a Super Stock 1962 Dodge Dart and a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray). If Chuck Berry was behind the wheel of the bandwagon, then Wilson was riding shotgun, with his frequent lyrical collaborator, the AM-radio disc jockey Roger Christian, in the back.

But Wilson gave up the seat years ago. In a telephone interview, he says he can't remember the last time he came up with a song about automobiles.

"I was always fascinated by cars," he says. "They made me think of the competitiveness of life. I still like cars, but I don't write about them anymore."

Do you blame him?

Personal cars circa 2008 tend to be impersonal, ubiquitous and inherently uninteresting weapons of mass environmental destruction. (Your mileage may vary.)

Don't bother looking under the hood; you won't find a muse. There's nothing particularly exotic about driving anymore. The new-culture smell is long gone.

"There's not as much focus on car culture these days," says Merlis, the automotive writer and music publicist whose clients include the noted gearheads and occasional car-song singers in ZZ Top. (His cars include three Studebakers.) "People need cars, they drive them, but they [complain] about putting gas in them. They're so anonymous. The romance is gone.

"What's still there is mostly nostalgic: 'Remember that '57 T-Bird blah blah blah.' Younger people don't relate to that."

Says "Rockin' Down the Highway" author Grushkin: "It's still the American prerogative to sing about your car. The problem is, most of the songs about cars were written a while ago. So we're singing about something that now is not your primary vehicle. And with gas being so expensive now, you're not even taking that car -- probably American, hopefully a convertible -- out for a joy ride on a regular basis. It's expensive even to drive down to the Trader Joe's."

And besides, writing car-centric songs right now: kind of silly, says Nils Lofgren, whose old band Grin paid tribute to a "Heavy Chevy" on its 1972 album, "All Out."

"Cars used to be romantic, but nothing's as romantic as it used to be, because there's so much serious stuff going down," says Lofgren, who has performed with Neil Young (a car buff who never really did car songs) and Springsteen (a car buff who did). "With the ominous destruction of mankind, we're all a little distracted."

Which isn't to say that car culture has disappeared. NASCAR is one of America's most popular spectator sports, and people are still pimping their rides, on MTV and elsewhere.

But it's more of a series of subcultures now: classic hot rods, tricked-out low riders, souped-up Japanese imports that have never held much lyrical appeal in Western pop. Car culture is no longer a part of the mass culture.

And yet Grushkin says the relationship between music and cars is as evident as ever, if only for this reason: "Music still sounds great in a car. People will always be driving down the highway, listening to their tunes, beating on the dashboard. . . . It doesn't matter if you're listening to a Wilco song that mentions a car in passing, a rap song, a Brandi Carlile song that was used in a GM commercial or Bruce Springsteen's 'Pink Cadillac.' The beat goes on."

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