When music fans think of The Cars, they might think of Ric Ocasek’s eyebrow arching over his RayBans, or the band’s stoic live performances, or maybe their albums full of up-tempo tracks rife with hooks aplenty, innuendo-laced lyrics, pristine production, and the almost robotic precision of the players. Yet, those who were around for the magical musical year of 1984, probably remember quite a different side to the band, the one they displayed on their heartbreaker of a hit, “Drive.”
Unlike “You Might Think” and “Magic,” the turbo-charged hits that preceded it as singles from The Cars smash ’84 album Heartbeat City, “Drive” was a ballad. And while those other two songs were sung by Ocasek, who wrote all the Cars material, he gave “Drive” over to bassist Benjamin Orr to sing.
Orr, who sang on previous Cars hits like “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go”, was the wise choice. Ocasek had a knack for putting a wry, ironic spin on his lyrics, but “Drive” demanded tenderness and emotional connection to the words. In an era where histrionics and affectations often passed for singing, the lonely ache in the bassist’s voice haunted and captivated listeners.
The lyrics are a series of questions asked to an unnamed girl, a songwriting tactic that harkens back to classics like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” When asked in the right sequence with varying levels of intensity, these questions can create a thorough character sketch in very short strokes, which is what Ocasek pulls off brilliantly here.
Subtle shadings in Orr’s delivery vary the narrator’s demeanor with each question. At times he shows the sympathy of a friend, one who’s genuinely concerned for the girl’s well-being. At others he seems more like a jilted suitor, frustrated with her inability to see the figurative cliff she’s fast approaching. By the end, he just seems resigned to the sad fact that the common answer to all of his questions about who will save her is a resounding “no one.”
Only at the end of each verse does the narrator step back and offer some advice, saying You can’t go on/Thinking nothing’s wrong. The specific questions, from sympathetic like Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall? to more pointed queries like Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams?, lead to the one that she can’t answer, that he can’t answer, that will haunt them both now and forever, Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?
Synthesizers, so often garishly utilized in that era, soften the blow here, as do the ghostly sighs of the backing vocalists. The rhythm sways at slow-dance pace, although this is the kind of dance that immediately precedes a final farewell. Orr sends the song out with a piercing extended note on the final “tonight,” the bittersweet beauty of it all reaching a stunning climax. Maybe The Cars aren’t who anyone would have expected to deliver one of the most heartfelt ballads of the ’80s, but “Drive” is impeccable evidence that they did.
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