Monday, March 16, 2015

Car Theft and Rock Music -- Joe Bonamassa, Sting, and Springsteen

Song and Car Theft
            Unlike film, song has rarely exploited the topic of automobile theft. Its conspicuous absence is ironic, given that particularly since World War II the car has been at the center of popular music.6 Yet, on the few occasions where the act of stealing cars has been featured in lyrics, themes common to those used in films emerge, but with a far more desperate and dark tone. Car theft as connected to adventure and sexuality stand out in Joe Bonamassa’s “Tennessee Plates” (2011) and Sting’s “Stolen Car,” (2003) but then so does failure, the end of relationships, and loneliness. These endings are little different than that experienced by Jesse Lujack in Breathless.
            The psychological highs from reckless abandon gained by illegal mobility, however, eventually leads to dire straits. Employing a story not terribly different than that of Bonnie and Clyde,"Tennessee Plates[JH1] " (first performed by Randy Travis in 1998) tells the listener of a girl “shivering in the dark” on a cold night, and how that begins a tale of bank robberies, car thefts, an exhilarating ride crossing “the Mississippi like an oil slick fire,” and a man left for dead on the interstate. Yet the trip ends in confusion, for the hero wakes up in a hotel room “in original sin,” with no answers to his current dilemma.7
            Of all the songs featuring car theft, perhaps the best known--and the one with the deepest psychological overtones--is Sting’s “Stolen Car” (2003). About a poor boy who hotwires a rich man’s car, the song’s lyrics, coupled with its rhythm, reach deep inside the listener, evoking a sensual experience involving adultery, the lingering smell of cologne, and the coming into light while surrounded by darkness:

Late at night in summer heat. Expensive car, empty street
There’s a wire in my jacket. This is my trade
It only takes a moment, don’t be afraid
I can hotwire an ignition like some kind of star
I’m just a poor boy in a rich man's car
So I whisper to the engine, flick on the lights
And we drive into the night8

            Like that of Sting, Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” (1980) possesses a dark angst, perhaps connected to adultery. The common everyman protagonist agonizes over a marriage gone bad, riding in a stolen car during a “pitch black” night, horribly fearful and alone, desperate and at the end of the line. Yet, as Springsteen laments, “Each night I want to get caught. But I never do.”9 Similarly, but in the context of a very different urban environment, the Beastie Boys posit their own take on the matter with their hip hop genre title “Car Thief” (1989). As in all of the above songs, our character’s life is coming apart “at the seams,” the consequence of violence, plenty of drugs, and a disconnected urban lifestyle that has resulted in human worthlessness, with incarceration at the “Mountain,” while Ricky cuckolds his girl.10


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