Rollin' on Empty
In the World of Rock Music, Songs About Cars Have Lost Their Way

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dude, where's my car song?

While you were electronically adjusting your side-view mirrors or being guided by GPS or reading the external temperature gauge or something, a curious thing happened in rock: The car-song trend sputtered and lurched and finally went kaput.

According to the diagnostics, those revving automobile engines -- the inspiration for countless rock-and-roll songs, from the Cadillac-Ford race of Chuck Berry's classic "Maybellene" to Bruce Springsteen's rhapsody about "a '69 Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor" in "Racing in the Street" -- have gone silent.

"They ain't writin' car songs no more," laments Paul Grushkin, author of "Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll."

"They ran their course; they did their thing," says Brian Wilson, co-author of some of rock's greatest car songs, both for Jan & Dean ("Dead Man's Curve," "Drag City") and his own group, the Beach Boys, who released enough automotive-themed tunes in the 1960s to fill their own gas-'n'-go compilation. Among them: "409," which celebrated Chevrolet's new 409-cubic-inch V-8 engine and opened with a vroom vroom.

Never mind that it was apparently a Chevy 348 making all that noise; gearheads were geeked, especially with Mike Love singing about "my four-speed dual quad posi-traction 409" as if he'd just emerged from under the car with grease all over his face.

As a genre, rock-and-roll fetishized cars and celebrated car culture from the get-go. Indeed, the ongoing debate over the starting point of rock music usually includes Ike Turner's fuzzed-out 1951 chart-topper, "Rocket 88," a paean to the Oldsmobile 88 on which Jackie Brenston (whose name was on the single instead of Turner's) sang of a "V-8 motor and this modern design/My convertible top and the gals don't mind."

A caravan of car songs followed, spanning decades, makes and models, and filling more than a few summer soundtracks, not to mention road-trip mixes.

Today, there are still automotive references in popular music, particularly in hip-hop. But they're usually brief mentions that often aren't about cars at all; instead, they're sexual metaphors ("Girl you look just like my cars; I wanna wax it," R. Kelly sings) or status signifiers ("I deserve to do these numbers/The kid that made that deserves that Maybach," Kanye West raps).

The few later-model car songs that have been released by brand-name artists aren't actually car songs at all, as with Audioslave's "Getaway Car," a 2002 album track about escaping a relationship, or Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," a 1988 hit about a cycle of poverty and substance abuse.

Or they are about cars but aren't paeans: In Cake's "Stickshifts and Safetybelts," from 1996, John McCrea is annoyed with his vehicle, rather than in love with it, because its design seems to be conspiring against him and his female companion. Particularly those bucket seats. "When we're driving in the car," he sings, "it makes my baby seem so far."

In country music, when Craig Morgan isn't singing about his combine harvester, trucks are the vehicle of choice, often used to represent something like a companion -- a motorized horse.

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.

* * *

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."

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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