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open road

Photo credit: Zach

One of the best things I remember about getting my driver’s license was the independence I felt. Driving was still a new adventure for me back then. I didn’t have my own car, but I had use of my parents’ older vehicle. I came to think of it as “my car”, an early 1980s Chevy Citation with an automatic transmission and pleather seats. Its light brown color hid the rusty spots a bit, and I loved its relative pep compared to the station wagon I had driven during my learner’s permit days.

I received a new tape deck from Radio Shack for my birthday (tapes preceded CDs, which preceded MP3s, for you younger readers), and my dad installed it. It had a button that let me change sides of the tape without removing it from the cassette deck, which I thought was pretty high-tech at the time. It also cranked, which was essential because rock ‘n’ roll should be played at the appropriate (read annoying to adults) volume if it’s to truly be enjoyed.

I remember a few tapes I kept in the slotted console space especially for that type of storage. From memory of their positions, I could change them without taking my eyes from the road. I look back on that music I listened to with a mixture of fond reminiscence and cringing shame at my musical taste. It wasn’t the music itself that was important at the time. It was way it enhanced the feelings of wind blowing through my mullet, the tires humming on the pavement, and the call of the open road. It could also make up for any shimming sounds from the undercarriage, getting stuck behind tractors, and the annoying smell of said tractors, depending on what they hauled behind them.

The first album in heavy rotation was “Vital Signs” by Survivor. It didn’t have their most famous track, “Eye of the Tiger” on it. What it did have was some middling hard, nearly rockin’, almost-catchy songs that have probably been turned into department store muzak by now. Most of them oozed with blatant imagery and sappy attempts at romanticism, and not just the ballads. Hey, I was 16, and that’s as complicated as music had to be back then. Did it have screaming guitars? Yes. Did the band members have metal mullets superior to my own? Yes. Would my dad cringe anytime he rode with me while I played it? Hell, yes. Teenage mission accomplished!

“Appetite for Destruction” by Guns N’ Roses was the second important album in my car collection. In hindsight, this is probably the least embarrassing of my musical choices back then. There were some truly talented people in that band, and they went on to make some amazing music, if questionable fashion choices. Axl Rose’s voice grated on my nerves at first, but the songs were solid. I was introduced to the album by my friend’s beautiful cousin, sharing her headphones with me in the back of her grandmother’s car. That probably had something to do with my fondness for the band at the time. Most of my favorite music has some kind of memory attached to it, and that was no exception.

The third album became the only one I ever played with regularity again in that car. It was “Slippery When Wet” by Bon Jovi. My loyalty to this cassette wasn’t based on musical merit or memories of a friend’s beautiful cousin. After about a year, my cassette player started behaving strangely. Tapes hung up when ejecting them. Then suddenly they would need to be manually flipped over after a side finished playing. My alternative to playing tapes was to listen to the only radio station that I could pick up in the car, a country station full of hokey ads for local businesses. I made do with the slowly deteriorating tape deck. One day, it ate my Scorpions album. The song it was playing sped up and garbled before stopping altogether. I pulled off the road and parked. After some finagling, I managed to eject the cassette, but some of the tape had gotten tangled inside the player. Some digging with a pen finally allowed me to pull all the broken tape out.

I couldn’t just drive without music at that age. The only option available to me was to use a tape I barely cared about. Bring on Bon Jovi! There was a close call when that tape failed to eject, but I extracted it with minimal damage and wound it back up with the use of a pen. (This was a standard cassette tape related skill we had to learn back in that day.) A bit of one song became unintelligible, but the rest were fine. It was difficult at first to stomach repeated plays of the whole album. Unexplainably, I had no further issues with the tape player after a week or so of Bon Jovi. I tried listening to my new Aerosmith album. Bad idea. The tape player had set a trap for me. The tape broke, but I fixed it with Scotch tape. Try that with a CD. I never played anything but Slippery When Wet in that cassette deck again. I could probably still sing every song on the album at karaoke night, but I would have to substitute a bunch of brrlflxngopsfrwnghpo and such for the spot where the tape got damaged. I never bothered to figure out what the garbled lyrics were.

These days, I hardly listen to music in my car. My stereo is in factory new condition, at least. I prefer talking to my son when he’s in the car with me. When I’m alone, I enjoy the quiet for thinking about my active writing projects or what things I need to do so I can get back to working on those projects. The rest of my day is filled with noise, and the quiet seems like the sweetest music I could imagine. Much better than any acid-washed, New Jersey rock.

Today’s digital download music listening is far removed from those days. People don’t often listen to entire albums anymore, young people anyway. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cassette player in a car. Maybe those days are gone, but I bet even today’s young drivers have songs they associate with the same feelings I experienced.

What were the albums of choice during your early driving years?

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