Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Passenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side
Years back at a party in my apartment I received several compliments on a playlist I had put together (called the Phoenix List in honor of the burned out apartment whose rebirth was being celebrated). This was not too surprising—if a list has significant variety and some rare tracks over four hours of drinking it is bound to seem good to someone.
There were, however, some exceptions taken to certain choices. After Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on, one of my guests (who, incidentally, had tattoos on the inside of his mouth and made a point of mentioning that he didn’t drink but would do cocaine) began to interrogate and mock. Of course, I would like Wilco, he said. I probably like Death Cab for Cutie too. (The answer to that question in a later post.)
Now, as then, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Wilco Fan. Some of their music is good, but I prefer Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. (Jeff Tweedy is, also, a little more than annoying.) The early Wilco albums are pretty good; the recent stuff is fairly mediocre.
But, I guess the question I pose to myself, is: why do I buy Wilco records when I don’t really listen to them all that much? The answer: one song. What draws me to that song, I think, tells me more about me (as usual) and about what makes pop songs work (if not art in general).
The first time I heard “Passenger Side” I was hooked. The song is pretty simple: one vocalist, a basic rhythm guitar with some countrified electric licks, backed by an organ in the background, some strings peppered in effectively and a simple but clear drum line. Tweedy’s voice is raw and breaks at just the right moments. The verses transition well into the chorus; a bridge appears ¾ of the way through the song before the final verse.
This musical description can’t possibly explain the attraction of the song—too many rock and country songs fit the same description. What makes this song effective is its narrative. The singer asks for a ride from a friend (someone who could have been a lover) because his license has been revoked.
The story is simple, but its details strike up just enough verisimilitude to evoke memories from my world growing up—the friend offering a “few dollars to put in the tank” to go on mundane errands because he or she is somehow barred from driving; someone worrying about spilling a beer in a car; “rolling another number” for the road; court dates to get driver’s licenses back.
The story is also a simple one. This is not an overtly political song. This is not obviously engaged in broad universal themes, but there is something in its simplicity that is deceptive. Regret suffuses the lyrics and nearly drips from the chords and guitar licks. When Tweedy’s voice breaks it seems worn by both the weight of nostalgia and the knowing self-deprecation of remorse. The narrator seems to know that he is, like most of us, a self-saboteur.
The chorus, the complaint of being relegated to the passenger side, helps to expand the focus of the song from the specific to the general. The ‘passenger side’ becomes a metaphor for being sidelined, for being compromised, for being, in some way or another, disabled. By engaging with the mundane, by evoking a simple believable life where the narrator is incapable of running simple errands but still drinking and smoking and making grand deals over minor gestures, the song achieves a sublime effect. It makes the able bodied listener feel disabled. It puts drivers in the passenger seat.