Wreck-Your-Car Great

Jonathan Bellman

I probably should not admit this, but in my own mind I have a special category of music so immediately captivating that if you hear it when you’re driving, either you have to suddenly force yourself to fixate on all the mechanical aspects of driving (to mentally slam yourself into manual function, so to speak), or those around you will be endangered: wreck-your-car great. Such-and-such a song isn’t just great, it’s wreck-your-car great, which means it is so great it’s quite literally dangerous. For me, in most cases, these are popular songs, but there is no rule; the only requirement is the sudden electricity in the air, as when lightning is about to strike. The music simply grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. I don’t mean “this is really lovely,” I mean just short of gasping for breath.

This is on my mind because we had to drive down to Denver for an early soccer game this morning, and NPR’s Morning Edition did a feature on the Los Angeles band Ozomatli, a percussion-driven ethnic stew of a band that draws on, as they put it, all the different musical styles you’d hear blaring out of cars on Sunset Boulevard: conjunto, merengué, mariachi, rock, hip hop, etc. I am not a native Angeleno, and I was raised in a suburb, not the city itself, but I knew instinctively exactly what they were talking about. Then they played some examples of their music, for their fourth CD, Don’t Mess With the Dragon. My God. I have no shame about rocking out like a lunatic when something I like comes on—my Dad did it before me, and I even remember the embarrassment of seeing him three cars over… “Jon, is that your Dad?” That’s the patrimony, and when the Almighty sends some divine music in over the airwaves one needs must respond appropriately.

Anyway, we’d bought the CD before we came back up to Greeley. These guys are wonderful.

Here is a short list of other things, in no particular order, that have popped on the car radio in the last couple of decades and instantly transformed my world:

—Ella Fitzgerald doing “Son of a Preacher Man.”  Jackie deShannon Dusty Springfield’s is nice, but no comparison. This peels paint off the wall. No children should be in the room.

—Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto (can’t recall the orchestra, or conductor). His grasp of it is so utterly profound—and his technique enables him to project that profundity with no sense of struggle—that I literally had to pull over.

—Mark Knopfler, “Way Aye Man.” British sea chantey meets post-1980s economic rage; deep folk musical and social protest roots meet more modern concerns and musical style. Wreck narrowly avoided.

—John Hiatt, “Howling Down the Cumberland.” An American parallel, where understated Civil War-era Americana meets modern folk-rock in a lover’s lament.

—Indigo Girls, “Shame on You.” I’m a sucker for superbly produced, rhythmically infectious simplicity, particularly when the line between interesting cool combinations of instruments and utter pandemonium is so delicately walked. I remember being stuck at a light, and almost exploding.

I well remember, as a music student, encountering pieces that would instantly become fixations for me, and I would wonder how I had previously survived without knowing them: Brahms’s song “Sonntag” and Scarlatti’s F Major Pastorale sonata come to mind. Talk about an addiction…except you never know when the next “hit” is going to happen, so to speak. It the sudden sense of being much more alive than you were the moment before that makes such things unforgettable.

Summer’s here, the time is right!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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11 Responses to Wreck-Your-Car Great

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Uh….”peels paint off the wall” usually describes a voice that is acidulous, tooth-drilling, and painful to listen to – surely not Ella.

  2. Harriet says:

    I like the category, although I tend to pull off the road for the really good ones. I can’t be trusted otherwise. The last song that made me do that was Tim Buckley’s “Blue Melody.” I’ve never heard anyone sing quite like that — he holds pitches just flat until the last possible second. It’s mesmerizing, as is the lack of evidence of production. The acoustic is so dry that it sounds a little like it could have been recorded in his bedroom.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Point taken about my paint-off-the-wall image. What I meant was (by the way: when students say this to me the guillotine blade is already descending) that the effect of the voice was to peel apart inseparables, such as a coat of paint and the wall to which it is affixed, or a man and anything resembling self-control.
    You may have a comment to offer on that last one too, but I don’t want to hear it!

  4. Galen says:

    Great music doesn’t tend to make me risk wrecking my car, but it’ll keep me sitting in my seat even after I’ve parked on occasion. NPR has classified radio like that as “Driveway Moments” because you sit there in your driveway looking like an idiot until the segment ends. My most recent Driveway Moment was Johanna Newsom’s “Emily” from her album “Ys.” I recall making myself late for a choral rehearsal once in High School because I wasn’t willing to turn off Skinny Puppy’s “The Killing Game.”
    My Dad used to do that all the time — probably still does.
    “Wreck-Your-Car Great” is a pretty cop-show term, though.

  5. Jonathan King says:

    Not Jackie De Shannon … Dusty Springfield.

  6. Jonathan says:

    $&#*$&^#!!! I hate it when this happens. Thanks for the correction–I updated the blog. This is the price I pay for not checking things.

  7. Richard says:

    I know that Zimmerman recorded Brahms #2 with Bernstein and the VPO. Is that the recording you have in mind?

  8. Eric says:

    Per your recommendation, I bought the Ozomatli disc (well, actually I downloaded it on I-tunes). Yes indeed, it’s some fine music.
    Upon hearing this disc, I realize that I like ‘hip-hop’ (that is: rapping) as a spice and not as a main ingredient. Meaning: I like rapping in this context, but I am usually bored by rap. Also, I like ‘real’ beats; not ‘canned’ beats. And these beats are very real!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Good to hear from you, Eric. This is how I feel about rapping, too–at best. That said, I recall hearing it done on the street in Oakland, CA in the mid-1980s: boys vocally providing the sound effects, girls doing the rapping. Utterly electric. But for me, I’ll take it as an interlude or obligato, so to speak.

  10. Marianne says:

    I remember an older term you have used: “eye-wateringly beautiful”…I think about Pablo Casals recording of a Brandenburg using piano instead of harpsichord. As in, “I thought I’d hate it, but it was []”. Maybe that was a gentler time of life, or involved less time in the car, at any rate.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Hi, Marianne! Did I use that a hundred years ago, when I discovered it in the UCSB library? The fact is that listening on headphones and being transformed is certainly a gentler episode of one’s life than . . . driving, particularly for satellite-angelenos like us. I guess what I mean to imply is a kind of weird danger-music effect on the listener/driver: music that is *so* powerful that things become precarious. God knows, I’ve lived it. Best to you all!

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