Having a steering wheel in your hand can be a good thing. In the front seat you control a tonne of metal with a finger and toe, driving towards freedom (or the shops) a white line away from death. The road’s a place of risk and transition, celebrated by songwriters everywhere, but there’s a spot behind you that’s no less worthy of consideration: the back seat.
For some (though it may be a little cramped) heaven’s in the backseat, a mobile space that is nobody’s home; where love and lust can be grappled with. But earlier on, with someone else at the wheel, it’s a small space where big things are considered.
As Arcade Fire plainly say In the Backseat,
I like the peace
In the backseat
I don’t have to drive
I don’t have to speak
I can watch the countryside
And I can fall asleep
…for this song, and some others, the backseat is also a place where you can wake up. Music can drive you back to those moments. It can return you to a time when someone else was at the wheel, while you reach down behind the seat and find analogies you’ve been sitting on for years.
Stornoway are a UK band who’ve just released their second album. I’m mystified as to why Mumford and Sons are so huge while these chaps remain middle-sized. On their first, Beachcomber’s Windowsill (2010) is Fuel Up:
Curled up in the back of the car
Nine years old you don’t know where you are
And your head’s on the window, your eyes are just closed
There’s a voice in the front and a hush on the road
You’re a passenger but your mind is traveling on.
Fuel Up (Stornoway 2010)
…halfway to my childhood home.
In the car and on my own,
white lines where the road is sewn.
Stitches holding down the car,
beside the sun under the stars…
Animals (The Guild League, 2004)
Tali White was the singer/drummer of The Lucksmiths, one of Australia’s greatest bands, just quietly. They had their own driving songs, including the archetypally pun-tastic title The Year of Driving Languorously (“I love a sunburnt elbow/pointing to the sea”) . The Guild League are Tali White’s side project. They’re a delightful band, with two albums: the track Animals from Inner North (2004) has its genesis in the back seat as well. Neither the Lucksmiths or Guild League are served well by youtube: the live clips captured on phones speak more of the love their fans have for them than the quality of their music. Maybe just buy it. The lyrics to this tune are gorgeous, nestled behind the gentle acoustics and cello…
…Watching with a child’s face.
The backseat used to be my place,
but now I put my foot down first
sweet memories won’t quench this thirst,
for horizon on every side.
Now my eyes are open wide.
Fingers from the sky will find
the cloud of dust I’ve left behind….
Paul Kelly’s rightly venerated as one of Australia’s greatest songwriters: he’s able to consistently craft songs that pull on all sorts of genres but maintain their own integrity, soul and vulnerability. This one you’ll find on the album Foggy Highway (2005) he did with bluegrass outfit the Stormwater Boys. I first heard this on the radio: 98.9 Murri Country, driving along in a car. It was unmistakably Paul Kelly, but I’d never heard it before. I parked the car, went inside and found the song was called They Thought I Was Asleep, and was as moved by it as I was the first time I heard it. In this live take you’ll hear the audience laugh in recognition at the siblings squabbling in the backseat. With his deceptive diffidence in performance, Kelly’s effortlessly at the wheel, driving us into the story while telling us very little, one eye on the rear vision.
we were driving back from the country one night
mum and dad up the front and the rest of us snug and tight…
the sound of the radio closed our eyes, drifting across the seat…then I fell asleep
They Thought I Was Asleep (Paul Kelly, 2005)
Kelly cradles you in song as the vessel speeds towards its unknown destination: you pick up very little plot as the dark speeds past, but feel for and collect details, assembling what you can, belted up and sliding in time to the curves of a road you can never know. In the back seat you may not know what’s going on, but you’re bound to it. It’s only a country song (he says the word ‘country’ twice in the lyric) but I’m put in mind of Phillip Larkin’s poem ‘Coming’ (1955)
…And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.