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The Classic Rocker: ENGINE LIGHT ROCK

The engine light went on in my car last night.

That may not be a big deal for any NASCAR pit crew wannabe’s, but I’m a classic rocker and not a classic car guy.

I’m no stranger when it comes to hitchhiking on an Interstate because I ran out of gas, and it’s a family holiday tradition to talk about the time I called my sister to change a flat tire.

I may know car songs, but I don’t know cars.

So when I noticed the engine light was challenging me to a staring contest, it set my Worst That Can Happen (nod to Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge) mindset into action. This warning signal might be the beginning of a total car engine meltdown. And since I was driving through a dark stretch of unknown neighborhood late at night, I would’ve had a mental meltdown if it stopped.

Want a comparison?

Okay… A car engine light is like Custer’s scouts telling him to slow down at the corner of Little Big Horn and see what’s wrong. But like the late general, I figured if I could make it around the next hill I might be able to coast to safety.

Want another comparison?

A car engine light is like the annoying smoke detector low-battery “beep” that only goes off in the middle of the night. You know nothing’s on fire, but you can’t sleep until you yank it from the ceiling and bury it under a stack of old clothes in the basement. And if you’re like me, you lie in bed wide awake all night because you still imagine you’re hearing it.

One more?

Sure, I can do this all day…

An engine light in my car is like the Chinese water torture I used on my sister until she was almost old enough to change a tire. It was entertainment for me, but no doubt the reason she takes evil pleasure in starting up that annoying family tradition every holiday.

What I’m trying to say is that the engine light is driving me crazy. And in case you haven’t read between the lines, this is a cry for help.

But I’m not talking about the help I’d need to prevent a mental meltdown (too late), or by finding an all-night auto repair shop (better chance of winning the Lottery). I need much more than that. Right now I need a soundtrack.

So here’s the scenario. As Custer once said to his troops, “Follow me…”

It’s late at night. You and I are driving through an area where it’s a no-brainer to have the doors locked and the windows up, even though it’s miserably hot outside. But wait – the air conditioner’s not working!

That’s our first hint something might be wrong. Comparison? Think of the first time you saw that “look” in Jack Nicholson’s eyes during The Shining. You know something bad is gonna happen, you just don’t know what or when.

Then the engine light comes on. You want to scream, but I beat you to it. Then, to continue with the Stephen King influence (what the heck), my sister has turned off her cell phone.

Here are the top three classic rock songs that will accompany us on our journey into crazy. Cue the soundtrack…

No. 3 – Welcome To The Jungle by Guns & Roses

According to one of the books I’ve read, a young and naive Axl Rose ditched his annoying hometown in Indiana and hitched to Los Angeles. But instead of finding a bunch of sweater vest wearing Hoosiers in a local malt shop he could terrorize, the tables were turned. He was in a neighborhood where the no-brainer rule screamed for the car doors to be locked and the windows up. The problem was; he didn’t have car.

His welcome to Hollyweird was some crazed guy (sorry, not Jack Nicolson) shouting in his face, “Welcome to the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die!” And sometimes we wonder where inspiration for these classic songs comes from…

This reminds me of a South Bronx safari I took around the same time. After a late night baseball game at Yankee Stadium, a buddy and I took the wrong subway and ended up in an area that could’ve been a permanent backdrop for the TV show Cops. We walked into a bar for directions and noticed every guy looked like John Travolta’s Tony Manero and his posse from Saturday Night Fever, except they were holding pool sticks and had no front teeth.

Welcome to the jungle, baby. I looked at my pal and said, “We’re gonna die.”

I survived to tell the story. But if I’m ever on the TV shows Survivor or Cops, my proven strategy includes carrying enough money to buy a few rounds and never looking directly at somebody’s girlfriend – no matter how many of her tattoos and piercings scream for attention.

Axl also survived his time in the jungle and even coaxed his hometown pal Izzy Stradlin to grab his guitar and join him in the wilds. Crashing in a pad that should’ve been a permanent location for Cops, they joined up with Slash, Duff and Steven Adler for one of the most powerful debut albums of the ’80s, Appetite For Destruction. The 1987 video of Welcome To The Jungle featured a strait-jacketed, frizzy haired Axl Rose in full heavy metal mental meltdown. In hindsight it was a good look into his future career choices, and our psyche thanks to an annoying engine light.

Now, imagine our car rolls to a stop as the song screeches to an end. In front of us walk two guys. One looks like a low rent Tony Manero and the other a high voltage Axl Rose. They both have pool sticks and no front teeth. Welcome to the jungle, baby.

No. 2 – Highway To Hell by AC/DC

Come on – who didn’t see this one coming up the interstate? This is soul (selling) music from a band of rockers considered the antichrist to the disco faze of the late 70’s. Tony Manero, meet Angus Young.

Our engine light just turned a darker red.

The Young brothers, Angus and Malcolm, cranked out another of their devilish riffs for this soul stealing anthem of where we could all be headed just by skipping an oil change. I can almost picture Bon Scott as the grease (sorry, not a reference to John Travolta) covered mechanic shouting the bad news while holding up a bill we can’t afford to pay.

This song has been a road trip no-brainer since AC/DC came up from Down Under with enough hard rock voltage to shock both the disco crews and punks with their 1979 album called, coincidentally, Highway To Hell. It was actually their sixth album and the first not co-produced by the Young’s older sibling and mentor, George.

And speaking of coincidences, a lot of us still roll into the weekend with George’s Australian band The Easybeats and their ode to the weekend party scene, Friday on My Mind. Just like the combo of Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s ode to cocktail hour, It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, it’s a no-brainer you’ll hear it on a classic rock station somewhere around the end of the workday every Friday.
As for AC/DC, singer Bon Scott unfortunately ended his workday in February 1980 when he died from acute alcohol poisoning in London. He had recently played drums on demos Angus and Malcolm were working on for the band’s next album, which became Back in Black with new lead singer Brian Johnson.

Is it just me, or a Stephen King style coincidence that he died in a friend’s car and we’re worried about the engine light coming on in a bad neighborhood? Scary. But at least we’re still rolling…

No. 1 – Roll On Down the Highway by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

BTO’s rocker is a butt-kickin’ cruisin’ song that takes us back to the days when a tiny car engine light in our road tested gas-guzzler was nothing to meltdown about. It was just another incentive to power the pedal to the metal for as long as possible, and then coast to the nearest pay phone.

Rockin’ on the opposite side of the globe from AC/DC, BTO heated up The Great White North after Guess Who guitarist Randy Bachman had a falling out with Guess Who singer Burton Cummings. I can almost hear Bachman’s thought process…

“Gee, it’s the 1970’s and what am I gonna do now? Oh, I know. I’ll form a butt-kickin’ band and sell a ba-zillion albums, a hockey rink full of hit singles and tour the world. Yeah, that’ll keep me busy until The Guess Who reunites in a few decades.”

Guess who won the falling out. Sorry Burton…

Roll On Down the Highway is from BTO’s 1974 album, Not Fragile. There are two schools of thought about the title. One says it was the band’s hard rock response to the lightweight LP Fragile by Yes. Another that Bachman himself promotes says BTO’s music could be “dropped and kicked without breaking.”

I’ll throw my vote in with Bachman. BTO never sounded fragile to me.

And neither was the band’s popularity with their fans in the mid-1970’s. I count myself as one of them because thanks to these guys, I flunked both an accounting AND economics exam the day after seeing them in concert. It’s too bad I didn’t use my college educated business expertise to show my instructors that for the price of only one BTO ticket I also earned admittance to summer school.

The opening act for that “Double-F” concert was Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. He had us on the way to Katmandu until BTO cut that trip short by coming on stage and Takin’ Care of Business.
And speaking of TCB from BTO, that’s something I need to do now that our car engine light inspired countdown is finished. I’m coasting into the nearest auto repair shop to end this nightmare.

Listen for my scream when they hand me the bill.

I’m sure I’ll do Axl and the boys proud.

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