Once again, the Delete Bin is proud to welcome a guest post from writer and music fan, Geoff Moore. This time, Geoff discusses one of the great rock talismans; the automobile. From “Rocket 88”, to “the Little Deuce Coup”, to Neil Young’s custom Chrome Dream, the automobile has been more than just a machine to the rock fan. It is has been a part of a grand tradition that celebrates identity, freedom, and the ineffable feeling of what it is to be teenager, even if you’re not…
Detroit muscle has atrophied since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. The Oldsmobile, praised in ‘Rocket 88,’ arguably the first rock song, is an extinct though immortal American beast. Noted economist and Michigan native Bob Seger saw it coming as far back as 1982. Shame nobody ever spun Seger’s ‘Makin’ Thunderbirds’ for the Big Three CEOs*. However, it’s no surprise that one of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest numbers was written about a car. Though it’s been ticking nearly 60 years, the rock ‘n’ roll heart remains eternally teenaged, the scion of the more world-weary blues. And teenagers, especially guys, are in love with their cars.
Train imagery, common in rock ‘n’ roll because of its musical roots and influences, is synonymous with older genres of American expression, country, folk and blues, all of which existed when rail travel was a way of life. In song, the train is about arrival, but mostly departure and almost always suggestive of vast distances. Boxcars west-bound through the Dust Bowl to the Big Rock Candy Mountain, Pullman coaches rattling north from Memphis to Chicago on lines of burnished steel, engines chugging, hauling their cargoes of lonesome migrants.
The automobile is rock ‘n’ roll’s train, flashy, individualistic, thoroughly modern and free to follow any road. The rock ‘n’ roll car, as subject, symbol, icon and metaphor, resonates with its younger, yearning, aspiring audience: ‘That car’s fine lookin’, man/It’s something else.’
There’s a scene in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary homage Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll where Chuck Berry explains to the director that he was fully aware his audience was composed mainly of teenagers and purposely wrote about topics that would interest them. ‘Riding around in my automobile, my baby beside me, at the wheel…’ (For a soul-trembling adult update on Berry’s ‘No Particular Place to Go’ motif, seek out Smokey Robinson’s silky and sophisticated ‘Cruisin” and ease the seat back as far as it will go. Park first though.)
Brian Wilson understood his contemporaries. If he wasn’t writing about surfing, obsessing about his weight or struggling to compose his “teenage symphony to God“, life on the coast was all about getting around. After ‘Born to Run’ went supernova in 1975 and the inevitable backlash swelled, the facile dismissal of the Boss was that he just wrote songs about cars. Well, that’s sort of the point of it all, isn’t it? Neil Young’s latest record is a concept album about his home-grown, erm, home-made hybrid car. This from a guy who wrote ‘Long May You Run’ so it’s not a shock, but still, a fan worries about Shakey’s pot intake.
The car figures much less prominently in British rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps because the music was an import, a final Lend-Lease transaction between a wealthy and prosperous ally and its battered and austere comrade-in-arms. If the United States executive has learned anything from the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction, it’s that wars are best fought a long, long way from home, away from America’s existing infrastructure. This has been the case ever since, a boon of the country’s geography.
In the States, the post-war wham-boom-bam! signed, sealed and delivered Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign promise of “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” By contrast, on V-E Day, Britain wasn’t in much better shape than her defeated enemies. Rationing there lasted a full nine years following the cessation of the Second World War.
The Old World is just that; olde.
Small countries with cities and towns haphazardly mapped out by medieval planners connected by roads originally surveyed by Roman engineers. When the first mass-produced automobile came off the line in Detroit in 1908, the republic was just 132-years-old, fresh out of the box with the ribbon and wrapping paper still crumpled beside it on the carpet. You’re struck by the absurd notion that Henry Ford and his Model T have had a more direct influence on the evolution of the United States than the Founding Fathers and their Constitution – America was created by drivers and for drivers.
Or maybe, baby, a Frazer Nash Sebring simply doesn’t quite spark the muse like an Oldsmobile 88, a little deuce coupe, a little red Corvette, a ’69 Chevy with a 396, a long black Cadillac or even a pink one.
Though a vehicle for teen melodrama and tragedy in hits like ‘The Last Kiss’ and ‘Dead Man’s Curve,’ the American automobile otherwise came as advertised. A chariot of deliverance with a V-8 motor and lots of chrome. The promise of a car, any car, is limitless: a simple Saturday night joyride, a Main Street cruise, the Don Quixote tilting of a street race and beyond the outskirts of town, out there in the darkness somewhere along Route 66, maybe a different destiny for the driver.
But the best thing about the rock ‘n’ roll car is that there’s always room for another rider up front. And the open door, the warm and beckoning interior with the radio playing, is the only sure-fire way to attract the fundamental, the elemental, the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll itself; the lover.
* Seger defended his later decision to allow Chevrolet to use ‘Like a Rock’ in its truck commercials by rationalizing that if his song helped GM sell more trucks, his core hometown audience working on the assembly line would ultimately benefit.
Geoff is a writer who lives in Calgary Alberta, and is the author of the novel Murder Incorporated. Geoff Moore has a class 7 driver’s license, which is a learner’s permit. He is 49-years-old. Sad, really.