Car tunes, songs from a lost generation

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    “Been driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel….” the opening line of that rock classic “Radar Love.” An obscure opening to this week’s column? You bet it is, but in a convoluted train of thought last week it occurred to me that all the car songs are long gone.

    Why not you might ask?  Who in their right mind would sing a tribute to Toyota Prius? The latest Ford Pube, (I mean Cube, OK, no I don’t) or the PT Cruiser, the preferred mode of transportation for cranky middle-aged women? The answer is that no one feels the need to sing a tribute to modern modes of transportation.


    But we once did. As a member of the last generation of “car guys” we love those frustrating, gas-burning monsters of our youth. 

    I spent many a fulfilling and simultaneously frustrating afternoon working underneath my 62’ Nova 400 Wagon, with my friends on their pickups, Camaros or Mopar classics, often improvising fixes since none of us could afford the right parts to do it correctly most of the time.

    A couple of years ago I spotted four teenage boys at lunch stalled at the end of our road. I drove down to see what was wrong and there they were, four kids, all on cell phones trying to reach one of their dads to come change a tire. I asked if they had a spare, “Yes, they said but they didn’t know how to change it.”

    I left them to their predicament, disgusted and questioning the future of America.


    Sadly it’s a bygone era, when every boy learned the difference between a half-inch and a nine-sixteenths working with their dad. It will never return in the modern trend of low-powered, buzz bombs, that pass for cars these days. Plastic, the latest greatest technology that merges the needs of a generation raised on the glare of video games, cell phones, and streaming videos with highway transportation doesn’t lend itself to getting your hands dirty changing the oil or adjusting drum brakes manually.

    Old songs reflect that love for the solid steel, gas-guzzling rides made in America, in towns like Detroit, Flint, and Pontiac, towns that you’d never venture to without an automatic weapon in their present state of decay.

    Yep, I’m an old man, not bitter, but reflective of a time I wish the young men of today could enjoy as my generation did.


    When “Expressway to Your Heart,” by the Soul Survivors hits my Serious XM, Amazon Music, or Spotify stream, the intro of horns honking in some 1960s downtown is an ephemeral trip back in time. (Yes, I notice the paradox of reminiscing the old days via digital venues that weren’t available even a few years ago, but I digress)

    “Born to Be Wild” was once an awesome song, something you turned up as loud as your 8-track tape deck would allow, loud enough to always get your parents yelling at you to turn it down. Now, the rebellious song of youth is used to sell safe, mundane, vanilla-flavored cars. Maybe the modern survivors of Steppenwolf enjoy the revenue, but as young men, when they lived the songs they sang, they’d be disgusted by what became of their music.

    Cars were once an art form mixed with American technology. No, not all of them were Cobras, GTOs, Chevelle SS 396s, or Super Bees, but every one had character, and a following. We made fun of the Ford guys, they made fun of us, and we all made fun of anyone driving a Dodge. But there were exceptions, you didn’t make fun of a Mustang, they never insulted a Camaro, and none of my friends ever drove a Corvette, it was out of our price range. Even as teenagers we knew a Stingray was a fragile choice as a “chick magnet” with such low clearance that it wouldn’t last an afternoon on the rough roads of Central Wyoming back in the 1970s.


    Still, we could dream of one fast, red, and shiny. I could afford a new one now, but it seems much too superfluous. Given the chance, I’d still buy a 64 Chevelle, or a 68 Camaro LT, but the pretentiousness of a Corvette doesn’t sell with me, and besides, I don’t look good in gold chains, and an open shirt. I already have my own blond of 42 years for my passenger seat, so why make the insurance company happy?

    Not all songs were of the muscle car venue, but there were some great ones, “Little GTO” comes to mind as does “409” and “Little Cobra getting ready to strike,” which makes me young again.

    Chevy Vans were once stylish, as Sammy John sang in “Chevy Van,” but now they’re largely relegated to use as delivery vehicles, technicians mobile workshops, or as something much less savory in the hands of criminals.

    Most of the songs were songs by guys, but Kathy Mattea, my favorite country gal, had a classic in “455 Rocket” you could almost hear the gears shifting up as her miraculous voice rose in the crescendo with her throaty, growling delivery of “Rocket….” In the chorus.

    A single genre remains with an atavistic hold on the car song. You’ll still hear car songs mentioned in country music, but they’re not Chevelles, Mustangs, or 57 Chevys, they’re pickups and big rigs.

    Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” is a favorite of cover bands from coast to coast, “My rig may be old, but that don’t mean she’s slow… smoke pouring out of her stacks, black as coal.”

    Ever notice that true car guys always refer to their ride as female? That’s because they have a love affair with that car or truck. I’ll admit I shed a tear when I sold my 62’ Nova a few years ago, it was a connection back to my junior year of high school, and though the engine was seized, it was hard to let her go.

    “Phantom 309” by Red Sovine, and the ridiculously amusing, “Convoy” by CW McCall, a trucking song made into a B-grade classic movie, are examples of the relationship independent, over-the-road truckers have with their big rigs. Amen to them and the work they do.

    “Roll On,” by  Alabama has a different connotation to me when it hits the airwaves.

    My favorite cheerleader sponsor of all time, Rita Isabel of Shoshoni, “Miss Iz” to generations of girls, and football and basketball playing boys loved Alabama.

    She often had our driver, the late Roy Maxson play her “Alabama’s Greatest Hits” tape on trips back down the Big Horn Basin from exotic locales like Lovell, Byron, and Greybull. The other songs on the tape don’t have the visceral memories attached as this song still does.

    The tale of a trucker a long way from home, lost in a snowstorm with a jackknifed rig abandoned in a drift, still strikes home.

    “18 wheeler roll on,” just like the memories of a lost generation of car guys.


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