It took five albums for the Cars to write a song about a car. I’m in awe that Ric Ocasek dodged writing about cars for that long. Six years. Was it on purpose, was it conscious? “Drive” calls all this into question. You assume, well yeah, that’d be a bit spot-on if the Cars wrote about a car; Robert Smith never wrote about a cure and Morrissey never wrote about smelting. But cars, what a valuable songwriting card to give up.
Since the ‘50s probably, the car radio was—I’m assuming—the one portable escape kids had for their music unless they, you know, snuck into the soda shoppe at night and had a swingin’ jukebox hop. More versatile than the bedroom, the car became a sanctuary of pop songwriting, the location of kisses, death, heartbreak and long, lousy metaphors about sex. It was solitude, privacy, a way home, the way out, from “Dead Man’s Curve” to “Detroit Rock City” to “Little Red Corvette.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ocasek just put the name of his band out of his head while he wrote this simple, exquisite song about the finality of driving someone home. It's an ending endowed with such a specific melancholy—two people destined to be together until, finally, they are not. It's almost like a stock character in a melodrama or an ancient Greek poem: that feeling. Ocasek loads up that feeling and places each question inside the car, stacking them one atop the other. Maybe driving someone home is the first step or the last step, but it’s the one tangible action that is requested, every other question hinges upon the chorus
The first, second, and third chorus end with an ellipses as bassist Benjamin Orr skips the tonic and sings the fifth instead. He continues to demure, waiting for an answer he knows is coming. It’s a sublime, liminal feeling that he creates with these questions, ushered in by the music that is just ominous enough, breathy and expensive, somewhere between an idyllic past and an ugly future—or vice versa. Are we in the middle of a wreck or are we trying to avoid it? The questions seem to transform from genuine, to rhetorical, to romantic, to an almost pernicious and bothersome. What’s with the questions, what’s with the tone, “You know you can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong, but/Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”
When Orr finally lands on the tonic at the end, it's the music gives the answer, the suspension falls, and the song rolls away. It’s not clear, as opposed to a Springsteen song, if the car is really a car, if the drive home is a drive or home. But with that final note finally landing, we know the answer to the question, and we know that feeling. Defeated, portentous, desperate, with only a small glint of hope. I love these pop songs, so full of a doom and desire, that grab someone's hand just to say: I'm all you've got tonight.