Bookmark and Share

Songs for a late-night drive

Warmer, shorter nights call us out, beckoning us to row across the moon’s reflection on a pond, to savor a second glass of wine on the porch, to marvel at the vast expanse of the universe.

Or calls us to drive into the dark, without reason or destination.

Some of my fondest memories are of late-night drives along Blue Highways (in the book by William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways are “the rural back roads that are colored blue on old maps”), where the only lights are from the dim indicators on the dash, lone headlights beaming into the unfathomable future and the sinister glow of a cigarette.

Left and right, in the distance, the hills stand silent and black, the horizon torn to empty into a void. The stars above create a kind of vertigo, giving the impression of driving upside-down, in defiance of gravity so that, at any moment, a lost grip on the road would cause a fall into the ocean above.

Sometimes, a distant farmhouse snags a snippet of attention, demanding a wistful blink of imagination of what it’s like living in that kind of solitude; more infrequently, a sleepy town demands deceleration for passing through, indifferent to the passing through, unlike the slight interest taken in passing by.

Every minute or so, a road sign or a mile-marker reflector blinks before passing back into the night like nocturnal beasts that, having caught a scent and, having satisfied their curiosity, go silently about their business.

The magic of music is particularly manifest in its power to evoke, to conjure a moment in time and lock that thin slice of reality into memory. More than that, music can, by its sound and sense, draw from thin air threads that weave a particular tapestry, a scene, a moment in time. So it is that there is music which, for me, createssss an atmosphere which can only be described as driving late at night.

It is an atmosphere that is not really of this age, at least not anymore. Although the Blue Highways are still there, alive for those who live along them, they rarely exist on MapQuest searches, where they are now red or gray, residing beyond that which is highlighted in purple and devoid of much meaning or any meandering urge for discovery.

It is an atmosphere that predates most of the music discussed here, an age when driving out on Blue Highways demanded AM radio (because those signals skipped off the ionosphere, going places where FM was reduced to a soft hiss), songs drifting in and out of reception and consciousness, like spectral voices. A time when AM radio was where all popular music resided and FM was for “beautiful music”. A time when, past midnight, the nightfly DJ was spinning disks alone in a studio because he knew I was out there, likewise alone, both of us casting a psychic thread that was immediate and ephemeral and then, cut loose to drift in the night while I sped on, fiddling with the dial to seek another connection.

Maybe one in a hundred who read this will understand what I’m saying. It is the cost of survival, of passing out of one generation and standing outside the next. And so, driving late at night is a metaphor, not looking back and yet, remembrance. Letting the headlights illuminate the next step but still having some thought lodged firmly where I came from, living, close enough to grasp and as distant as the stars below.

These, then, are songs that possess that particular power to create the impression that I am alone, out on Blue Highways, listening to the flicker of an AM signal and miles away (in mind and body) from my destination.

Although I could think of hundreds of songs that manage, by their very essence, to call from the distance of a late-night drive, the selections listed here are exceptional in their dreamy, late-night quality. What songs are not included, however, does not imply that they’re any less apt; it’s just there’s only so much space on a disk.

Anything by The Rolling Stones gets disqualified but only because so many songs by them are infinitely appropriate. “Time Waits For No One,” “Paint It Black,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Angie,” “The Girl With the Faraway Eyes”— hell, the Stones are all about going somewhere late at night (even if it means riding in an ambulance) because so much of their music is a soundtrack for a lonely voyage.

Here then, in the order I’d burn them onto a mixed-disk, are a handful of songs, some popular, some obscure, all potent in their ability to evoke the atmosphere of a late-night drive:

Carole King, “It’s Too Late.”

The Shins, “Phantom Limb.”

Spoon, “The Way We Get By.”

Marc Broussard, “Home.”

Cat Power, “American Flag.”

Andrew Bird, “Opposite Day.”

All the Saints, “Hornett.”

Galaxie 500, “Ceremony.”

Fleet Foxes, “Sun It Rises.”

The Magnetic Fields, “Mr. Mistletoe.”

My Morning Jacket, “Librarian.”

Neko Case, “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around).”

The Microphones, “The Mansion.”

Elbow, “Bitten By the Tailfly.”

Steely Dan, “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

Broken Social Scene, “Aging Faces/Losing Places.”

The Posies, “Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive.”

Kaiser Chiefs, “What Did I Ever Give You.”

Kind of like a recipe you’d find elsewhere in these pages except the ingredients here are meant for an entirely different sensual experience — and best tasted alone. Savored with the lights out (perhaps a candle or two, though) and the volume low, experiencing for an hour or so the solitude and serenity of a late-night trip through nowhere.

What your own songs are will be determined by the Blue Highways you’ve travelled alone at night.

jim@pagosasun.com