Thursday, June 17, 2021

Soundtrack for a Suburban Drive

I came of age in the 80s and 90s in a small rural town in the middle of Nebraska. Taking a drive was a small pleasure to ward off boredom, one I did a lot in the backseat as a child, and later as a teenager behind the wheel. My parents now ride bicycles instead, something I should have done for my health, but which was associated with the loserdom of not having a car in those times. While today I go for long walk and bike rides, I still derive pleasure from the drive.

Although I live in suburban New Jersey, I take the train to work, meaning driving tends to be more of an event than a daily grind. (This has especially been the case since March of 2020, as my family has tended to order a lot more things to be delivered that I used to make trips to buy.) Along with the drive, I have also not shaken my youthful love of physical media. When behind the wheel I prefer to pop a CD on or listen to the radio and usually save streaming playlists for long road trips.

Today I ran a bunch of errands and leaned heavily on the weird set of CDs in my car. I say "my" because this is the old beater of a Honda Civic that I use mostly to drive the two miles to the train station and back. (My wife gets to use the newer Subaru for her more significant commute.) Some of my CDs have found an almost permanent place in my car because they are so well suited for a suburban drive. Here are some of the songs in case you are one of those modern people making playlists.

Sonic Youth, "Schizophrenia"

I bought the Sister album on CD soon before my daughters' birth. They were born premature and my wife had to stay in the hospital another day so the day after they were born I had to drive back to our Newark apartment alone. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever had. The next day, when I drove out from my urban neighborhood to the suburban hospital to see my wife and newborn children, I popped this song on and played it on repeat. It seemed to express that feeling of disconnection so well. I still have the CD in my car all these years later, and sometimes play it just to remember that moment in my life when everything changed. Beyond that it fits the sometimes alienating strip mall ugliness of my surroundings when I am further west in the sprawl.

Thin Lizzy, "Rosalie"

If Sister has been in my car the longest, Fighting from Thin Lizzy is the newest addition. I still pop into record stores to find the perfect CD to have in my car. As a Gen Xer I feel an almost perverse desire to keep the CD part of my world, a connection to my teen years when I thought it was an unmatched technological step forward. I also sometimes think I have the reincarnated soul of a greasy 70s Camaro-driving dirtbag since that style of music is my favorite guilty pleasure. Then again, I don't feel much guilt about the great Thin Lizzy compared to say Foghat or Ram Jam. This song is a Bob Seger cover of all things, from the days when he was a gut-bucket rock and roll growler busting his ass to expand beyond his power base in the Motor City. Phil Lynott also knew how to rock, and this song makes me pump my fist out the window as I drive past the tidy lawns of my town.

Bob Seger, "If I Were a Carpenter"

Speaking of Bob Seger, I am obsessed with his early work, the sweaty, fervid stuff he won't allow to see the light of day. Lucky for me I have a rare CD of Smokin' OPs, a covers album from the early 70s. If I want maximum rock and roll action I will thrown it on right after the Thin Lizzy. In this case Seger takes a pretty schmaltzy standard from the 60s and gives it a gorgeous rising organ part and a soulful conviction in his voice. I usually hit the repeat button whenever this one comes on. 

Steve Gunn, "New Familiar"

Believe it or not, a drive in the New Jersey suburbs can be sublime. Trees overhang my town and many of the surrounding ones, too. I can cut through the South Mountain Reservation and admire the mountains and forests not so far from my doorstep. Today I had Steve Gunn's Unseen In Between album on and just let the sound and the sweet sunshine wash over me. He's sort of like the country cousin to Philly's Kurt Vile, playing hypnotizing guitar lines that mirror that half-conscious state of mind we find ourselves in behind the wheel. 

Belle and Sebastian, "I Know Where the Summer Goes"

This time of year Belle and Sebastian's Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is stuck in my CD player. Their twee, languid songs (especially twee and languid on this comp) are the perfect accompaniment of driving under the pretty cypress trees of Summit while I drive to Natale's bakery to get their world class donuts. It's perfect for a lazy suburban drive on a summer weekday, one of the great pleasures of being a teacher. I look forward to doing it several times this year. 

Prince, "I Would Die 4 U"

The day Prince died I had to go run an errand so I nabbed my CD of Purple Rain and it ended up staying in the car for over a year. It's a loaded album with so many great songs, but "I Would Die For You" is just a great driving song, especially on a sunny day. There's a propulsion here but it's a restrained propulsion, made for driving suburban streets and not the open road. 

Sly and the Family Stone, "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa"

Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On is one of the ultimate documents of the onset of the 70s malaise after the dashing of the bright hopes of the 60s. This song, a robotic deconstruction of the upbeat hit "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" makes it even funkier, but with all of the hope drained out. Be that as it may, its rhythm and laid back feel work for a slow suburban drive, and the song's weirdness makes a wonderful contrast with the bland normality outside of the window. 

Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind" (New York version)

Sometimes my best reflections come when I am driving, and the right music helps me along. I bought the single CD version of the Dylan Bootleg Series on Blood on the Tracks and immediately put it in my car, where it has stayed. This winter I listened to it almost every day on my short morning drive to the train station. The New York versions of the songs were darker and more introspective than the ones Dylan later cut in Minnesota. Waking before the dawn with the morning's news of COVID and Trump ringing in my head while I faced a train commute in those scary pre-vaccination days practically required stuff this strong. 

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