Since he began speaking at the beginning of 2009, Laurens has been obsessed with cars. For all we know, he was already thinking of "auto" long before he said that protean word ("self" in Greek). And, it must be said, the madness is now shared with other vehicles, namely "Bais" (Bicycle) and "Tapta" (Helicopter, will do for airplanes in a pinch or even dragonflies), "Boomboom" (what else, motorcycles).|
Still, in its glory days, the word "auto" could make sense of a large chunk of the world. For instance, when confronted with the hyperactive cover art of REM's recent album--which as an adult art historian I would say resembles a futurist city or a sci-fi factory or somesuch--Laurens did not hesitate to identify the..."auto." But come to think of it, the album is called Accelerate, maybe that's what crazy Michael Stipe had in mind.First we have to distinguish several varieties. There are the loving descriptions of particular cars, which may or may not have to go somewhere in any hurry: Chuck Berry is the master of this variety, from his first single "Maybelline" (named after a girl, but sounds like a car), who is a no-good cheatin'-chick hurtling by in a Cadillac Coup de Ville (notice that it implies "devil", as in Disney's Cruella Deville), while poor Chuck is trying to give chase in a suffering Ford. Or there is the loping cruise song, "No Particular Place to Go" (1964, Chuck's last big hit besides the unspeakable "My Ding-a-Ling"), in which the narrator becomes noticeably less relaxed, and the titular utopia less appealing, when a stuck seat belt prevents him from making out with his date. Finally--and the list could be neverending--there is the desperate "Come On" (also covered by the Stones on one of their first singles, no?), where everything is wrong since you've gone, the car won't get started, Chuck can't afford to check it, he wishes someone would come along and run into it and wreck it (the correct diction here is "someone'd come'long'nd run'nto't'nd wreckit"). In this manner of car song, the tempo, the guitar riff, the cymbals, all serve to emulate the engine and the speed of passage: "Low-ride-er...is a lit-tle low-er."
All of which can only mean that it's time for an essay on The Car Song.
I realize I have already discussed car songs--like a dilettante. For instance I said Radiohead's "Airbag" is a modernized car song, while forgetting to note the brilliant "Killer Cars" live acoustic singalong on their Anyone Can Play Guitar EP (1993), which seems to indicate that this talented band, which I have slighted, always aimed at car-song-Valhalla, and at resurrecting Buddy Holly (who died in a plane).
So: no more mistakes. No more omissions. Car Song Valhalla. Or the essay on The Car Song.
Then there is the moralizing car song. "Sitting in the back of the car" blares Alex Chilton over "music so loud, can't tell a thing." People who were not adolescents in the United States of America probably will not understand how this particular inglorious location has shrunken us. Or, for a less familiar example, VIolent Femmes' "Gimme the Car": "Come on daddy, gimme the car tonight, I've got this girl that I want to [waggly porno guitar bend: pooooowwww]." All in a serial killer voice, with music borrowed from Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso", who as you will recall "drove down the street in his El Dorado; [speech:] Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, Not like you." For the Femmes, driving and poooowwww is all-important because "I ain't had much to live for." One last instance, reconnecting the pessimism to the car and the imprint it leaves on the driver: Wilco's "Monday" a gallop about getting nowhere with the "World Record Players on a tour of Japan, Charlie's fixing the van with the left-arm tan." For those of you who haven't done time in a van playing punk rock, the left-arm tan is because you've got to have the spare arm dangling out the window, to signal, yes, and also just...to let it hang free. (For images, consult Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime).
(There is a mutant variety here of car-death songs, which sprung up among puritanical punk rockers but originated in the blues and country tales of train wrecks, mining accidents, omnibus collisions...traditional music is full of them. For the rock variety, which are not as good, see Buzzcocks, "Fast Cars", Hüsker Dü, "Wheels", the previously mentioned Radiohead...)
Finally, and most importantly, there is the idealizing car song. This sort is less about the driver and his feelings than about the car he worships, and the feelings, and the driver, which emanate from the Ultimate Car. You know these: Beach Boys, "Little Deuce Coupe" and a dozen others, The Who, "Jaguar," Big Star, "Big Black Car", Tyrannosaurus Rex, "Mustang Ford," Blasters, "Long White Cadillac," (an apocalyptic car song), that damned Bruce Springsteen song about a Thunderbird...just from the titles you will notice that some cite specific brands and makes and others equip the car only with a mythical color and size. The music is hysterical, there is always a slowly crescendoing intro for the car to rear into view, and then it only gets faster and louder. (If you want a brief definition of the sound of punk rock, by the way, it is the idealizing car song without mention of a car.) Generally the chorus is the car name, exclamations on the order of "faster!", car noises, etc. There is no explaining this last type of car song, it is fundamental. It encompasses both the moralistic-existential and the celebratory-anecdotal types we have just discussed. There is no 'meaning' of each individual Car Song, there is only the meaning of the Car Song altogether. Actually, there are three meanings, each one more adequate than the previous:
1. Having the car. Teenagers are selfish, materialistic, and cars have been, since rock 'n' roll began, within their reach. One can glory in one's car...listening to a car song. Of course you won't have just the make of car the Beach Boys or Chuck are signing about, unless you are quite wealthy and lucky too, for it would be a coincidence. But presumably a Buick driver could identify with that suffering Ford...
2. Wanting the car. Teenagers can't afford cars, but they long for what they can't have. And that includes what one might have, if one had what one can't have. "Cars and girls, cars and girls, cars cars and girls..." as the Dictators put it, "are my only goal in life." They are one goal.
3. Being the car. Not literally being hybrid man-cars, like Transformer robots that turn into cars, though I am sure there is a rock song about that (There is a rap song called "Transformers" by The Leaders of the New School). But the universe being a car, inhabiting the world as one inhabits a car. This is the cosmic meaning of The Car Song, the ultimate meaning. One would think it implies a mechanistic universe, or one at man's beck an call, serving as mere instrument to his will. But that is hardly the case. First, because nature, like gasoline, is finite. "Driving's a gas: it ain't gonna last" sings Alex Chilton on "Big Black Car," concluding with the teenage Book of the Dead: "Maybe I'll sleep in a Holiday Inn." Secondly, the car has a will of its own, and a body that may be weaker. "Cadillac pulled up to a hundred and fow [104mph]," Chuck's Ford "got hot, wouldn't do no mow." But nature reclaims its own: "It done got cloudy and started to rain; I tooted my horn [sounds like "my heart"] for the passing lane; rain water blowing all under my hood, I knew that was doing my motor good." The race won (or all but won), the revelation of pre-established harmony is communicated by the engine: "The motor cooled down, the heat went down, and that's when I heard that Highway Sound." That Highway Sound must be Chuck Berry himself with his guitar; it is rock 'n' roll hearing itself. The self-aggrandizement is only temporary; what remains in the mind of the mystic is the detail that assures him of what he has experienced: "it's all held together with alligator leather," asserts Marc Bolan (I am no car expert, I'm not sure if this was ever true of Mustang Fords. But as already established, he is singing about the universe).
The cosmic meaning interpretation swallows the others, which only convey the two limited facets of existence of having and wanting. But whether one has the car, wants it, or lacks even the want, there are general things to be said about the universe being a car. First of all is the suggestion that it is in perpetual motion, not based empirically on actual cars. The Young Marble Giants, in their theme song of sorts, "Colossal Youth," present a cryptic final aphorism which can only be understood in these terms: as the infinitely expanding universe, understood as a careering car: "If you think the world is a clutter of existence, falling to the earth with minimal resistance--you could be right, how would I know? Colossal Youth is showing the way to go." Since the phrase "colossal youth" is taken from a book on Greek sculpture by Gisele Richter, where it describes a pair of colossi guarding the entrance to a bay, the metaphor is to a ship, which is nothing but...an ancient Greek car.
The universe as a car, then, is accelerating...as in physics...and furthermore it is colliding. With what? It is hard to say. Perhaps with itself. What matters more is the experience it produces in its believers: excitement! Life as the Car Song is summarized in the countdown: "First gear, it's alright; second gear, I lean right; third gear, hang on tight; Faster, it's alright." Fine, that's about a "Little Honda", but motorcycles are just degenerate cars. Laurens might disagree, since he used to call them "Bais," but then again a few months ago these were all just forms of "Auto."