Car Songs and the Cars That Go With Them

August 17, 2005
A couple of years ago, a professor at the Berklee College of Music wrote down his top 50 songs for driving. I don't quibble with many of his choices, except for the overly hirsute profile of his selections. I mean, Steppenwolf and Sammy Hagar? Someone pass the clippers.

But it's hard to argue with the combo of music and machine. The car's the only place I can enjoy music anymore, and the following are ten songs that talk a lot about cars - or say even more about where I was and what I was doing when they imprinted on my brain. Some of them you'll recognize from the Berklee list. Some are my own choices. And some of them, you'll need a copy of iTunes and your own CD burner to do them justice:

1. "Trampled Underfoot," Led Zeppelin. The double entendres are rife, but I don't think about sex when I hear Robert Plant hammer this one home. I am taken back - and aback - to a parking lot behind my fraternity house, where one of my pledges peed on the tires of another fraternity president's car. Angry hostile confrontation ensues and we reach sort of a car-wash truce, but the territorial markings would continue when one of theirs took a whiz on Brother Bill's dormitory-room door, forever earning the nickname Lars the Incontinent.

2. "Little Red Corvette," Prince. Baby, you're much too fast, but in my memory, you're not a 'Vette, you're my sister's Mustang II Ghia, with the classy half-vinyl top and 302 V-8. Prince played here incessantly even when he wasn't on tour. It was a cool car before I knew what cool cars were. Later, my adolescent desire for speed would come back at me karmically when my parents gave me this car instead of the Honda CRX I really wanted.

3. "Don't Worry Baby," The Beach Boys. I see and smell Mike Yochelson's land yacht, a huge Buick station wagon with a blue vinyl interior, just like the one my grandmother used to own, slick with Coppertone and sand and sunburn. Two years in a row we drove the eight hours to Myrtle Beach and came back miniature golf champions.

4." Fast Car," Tracy Chapman. We're now in Tom Lawton's 1982 Celica Supra, the old bug-bodied hatchback with the wacky radio that had its tuner on one side of the steering column and the tape deck in a totally separate location. Up to Cape Cod and back, staggering through Hartford traffic, Tom realized that not every girl singer I loved was bubblegum pop.

5. "Car Wash," Rose Royce. Fast-forward to 1998 and my beloved 1990 red Miata, the Have a Great Decade! box set, and a winding road through the North Georgia mountains during a glorious fall. I miss that car - but unfortunately no one else did, including a pickup truck going 85 on I-85, a dumptruck that couldn't see me right in front of him, a hailstorm that did just as much damage, and everyone parking at the Ansley Mall. Right before it left us we'd taken to calling it Edward James Olmos, its complexion was so pockmarked.

6. "Drive My Car," The Beatles. It's 1987 and it's my first semester in Syracuse University, more of it spent in my parents' 1984 Bronco than in class. Call me homesick. I left after two months to move south and once again, got karma in a huge ice storm that hit Durham as I moved in. I passed that whole New York semester acquiring the Beatles on CD as they were just coming out in that format, learning it all for the first time.

7. "I Can't Drive 55," Sammy Hagar. This would have to be another fraternity brother, Mike "Smash" Obertone, and his stretch limousine. Huh? For some reason it sounded like safe transportation, given that every Korean grandmother in northern Virginia had his number and kept totaling his Honda Accord hatchbacks. This was the only way to get to Greensboro in 1988 for the Prince concert for all eight of us who went, and at no point--even in the parking lot-- did we drive the speed limit. If you've done the Aerosmith Rock 'n Rollercoaster at Disney MGM Studios, you get the drift. We certainly did.

8." Hit the Road Jack," Ray Charles. Not on the road technically, but in the air to drive the new SLK last year in Spain. The movie Ray ran three times and I loved every one of them, then watched it again at home. Loved the SLK too.

9. "Take It Easy," the Eagles. In one of many cross-country trips during my magazine days, I drove a Mercury Capri the convertible kind) back to Ann Arbor from Los Angeles and stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. They should sell postcards there and they should hire girls to look at you, because none did at me. The locals must think all of us who've done this are silly. I'm sure Starbucks has taken advantage.

10. "Shell Shock," Heart. I include this only because when I reached over to turn this up in my 1984 Thunderbird, I kind of misjudged a curve and ended up parking it between a tree and a telephone pole. Ah, sweet sixteen. Why can't I wreck cars that romantically any more? Ann Wilson, I still love you!

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