As anyone who spends an appreciable amount of time around me will find out sooner or later, I’m not a big fan of driving. It’s not that I hate the act of driving a car itself—I like that quite a bit. It’s everyone else on the road that terrifies the crap out of me. It’s a fear that probably began when my family’s station wagon was rear-ended at a red light when I was four, sending me to the ER, and was only strengthened in my teens and late twenties– between 2004 and 2010, I was hit by other drivers every other year, always while stopped.
Strangely enough, though, one of my favorite things in the world is being in a car at night, when the roads are clear and well lit and there’s no one around to plow into you. There’s something about the combination of orange-glowing street lights, neon signs, the occasional beams of other headlights, and the soft glimmer of the console lights that coalesce to create an almost mystical experience. There’s nothing quite like driving at night, in a city long gone to bed, when the world seems to have transformed into an altogether different place that’s yours and yours alone. There’s especially nothing quite like it when you’ve got the right music on the radio. Here, then, are my suggestions for what to have on the radio the next time you’re out after dark and want to enhance the experience of having a nocturnal kingdom all to yourself:
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Joni Mitchell)
This, to me, will always be the consummate “driving after dark” song. Part bossa nova, part classic jazz, the track just screams “slow crawl through the dark.” Despite the repeated mention of sunshine in the lyrics, the unhappy wife of the narrative is looking out at it from the shadows herself—darkness, darkness, darkness, no color, no contrast, as Mitchell sings. Mitchell’s voice—lowered here to a torch song register that suits her better than her usual folk-song falsetto—is sultry and sexy, seducing the listener with its husky longing for escape. Along with the sparse use of instruments, it turns the tale of suburban malaise into a hypnotic adult lullaby to see you through many a summer night of your own, whether it be a purposeful drive on some late errand or a night on the town.
If Summer Lawns is my consummate driving after dark song, this is my consummate Friday night song. There are virtually no lyrics; the lyrics that are there barely make sense; but there’s something irresistibly energetic about this that made it a staple of my CD player in high school, kicking off almost every weekend in the Spring and Summer of ’04. If there’s anything to be taken away from the song it’s that Debbie Harry is really, really excited at the prospect of taking the listener to bed, and, hey, who wouldn’t want that as a start to his or her weekend? With its pulsing dance beat and mesmerizing guitar riff, it’s a song that beautifully captures what it feels like to be young and ready for adventure, when forty-eight hours and the late nights accompanying them in a small town felt like they were the be-all of possibility.
Giorgio by Moroder (Daft Punk)
This song is basically Atomic on steroids. One of the more unique tracks from an album full of unique tracks (Random Access Memories, aka the greatest album of all time), it starts out with a somewhat long-winded reminiscence by the eponymous musician about the first years of his career before blasting the listener into an aural cornucopia of synth-pop psychedelia. Drawing from a variety of musical influences reflecting the scope of Moroder’s career, it’s an electronic opera in miniature that almost seems tailor-made to be played with accompanying neon lights and flashing marquees. Like Atomic, it calls out to be played on carefree nights jamming down a highway or headed for something exciting, but also lends itself well to some aimless wandering accompanied by contemplative thought.
Sun is Shining (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
One summer my brother got a Bob Marley CD at Vintage Stock; it was one of those “greatest hit” compilations that features like 20 low-fi recordings by famous artists, filled out either with their lesser-known songs or obscure versions of their more famous songs. One of the tracks on that CD was a kinda spooky, kinda soothing version of Sun is Shining that sounded like Marley had recorded it in a tin can in a shack in the woods. We kept that CD in my player all summer long and seemed to keep returning to this track for our nighttime excursions around Tulsa. There’s a languid quality to it that seemed to be especially conducive to driving around after dark with no place in particular to go. It’s the perfect track for finding yourself aimlessly wandering a city at all hours, knowing that the morning is coming but wanting to stretch the night out just a few hours more. (And, yes, I see the irony in this choice).
Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline)
Well, of course, this is a great after-dark song. It’s right there in the title. Patsy Cline will always be one of the all-time great country music singers (and, in my opinion, one of the greatest singers of any genre), and this ballad of moonlit misery is proof positive of not just her vocal range but her ability to enhance the mood of a song beyond its lyrics or music. Helpless romanticism drips from every word and steel guitar note. With its imagery of an aimless, moonlit stroll alongside the highway, it’s pretty much meant to be listened to after dark, when your thoughts turn to either the melancholy or the nostalgic. Just be sure you find the slower-tempo version; Cline also recorded a more upbeat, almost snarky sounding version with doo-wop backup singers that makes it sound like she’s looking for her lost love to kick his ass, not reunite with him.