Despite my fondness for the genre I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the British progressive rock group Yes. I immediately took to their first single ”Your Move” but the AM radio version I first heard at the University in the fall of 1971 did not accurately reflect the band’s basic sound. The raucous addendum “I’ve Seen All Good People” tacked on to the tail end of the album track was missing from the radio version, so I was immediately taken with vocal harmonies and a pleasant, maybe even pretty, acoustic accompaniment topped off with a majestic but not overpowering organ in the last couple of measures.
Hmmm. Kind of like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, I thought.
Then Marty and Jeff down the hall played The Yes Album in its entirety and I became a fan of the band on their own merits and not because I though they sounded like someone else…but since I really, really liked the harmony and uncomplicated nature of “Your Song” I mentally filed it in a place separate from Fragile, Closer to the Edge and other subsequent Yes Albums.
Time passed, and music evolved:
- The Moody Blues broke up then reunited into a shadow of themselves.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer alternately mugged our ears/broke our hearts with Love Beach.
- Along with more than 200 million other Americans I survived the Great Disco Epidemic by the narrowest of margins.
With all these changes I found my tastes in music evolving to modern jazz artists like Tom Scott and Tim Weisberg while my progressive rock albums gathered dust on the shelf. I also found that my life was changing as I went from student to missionary to student to soldier – until one night when I was sitting in our quarters at FT Richardson with KRKN1 playing on the radio while I was spit-shining boots.
…so while I’m fumbling with matches, a can of Kiwi shoe polish, and an old diaper, an album began to play on the radio. I missed the introduction – and as KRKN was an album-oriented rock station there was no deejay patter in between tracks – it took almost all of that first track to figure out that maybe, just maybe I was listening to a new Yes album.
Then the track ended, there were several seconds of between-track silence and then the second track started to play, and I was transfixed.
- Kettle drums lead with synthesizers-posing as strings, creating a melody that toggles between classical music and a motion picture soundtrack.
- A mandolin plays a syncopated accompaniment in the background.
- A very martial-sounding roll on the snare drum and a kettle-drum repeat winds up the segment.
- The whole thing starts over again and repeats three more times.
…and then the vocals start but I will warn you: if you listen too closely they screw everything up. The first few times I listened to “White Car” I really keyed into its quasi-soundtrack feeling and let the vocals work as pure instinctive sound – another instrument in the band. The combined effect of indistinct voice and music painted a magic mental picture of walking along the docks of a port in some alternate reality steampunk city and taking in the sights:
- Ships featuring both sails and steam-powered paddle-wheels
- Nautilus-like submarines with bulbous glowing eye-ports
- Rigid-frame airships; zeppelins winching cargo up and down from the surface
- Singer Gary Neuman2 driving around in a Stingray convertible
Nothing can drag the tone-arm across the Great Record Album of Life like this non-sequitur.
I see a man in a white car
Move like a ghost on the skyline
Take all your dreams
And you throw them away
Man in a white car.
….namely Mr. Neuman’s white Stingray, which is the official subject of this composition.
However this short (1:21) song worked such powerful magic for me that I trained myself back into listening with “vocals as instruments” ears and I’ve kept “White Car” in every format and playlist I’ve had since that night in 1980. It provides a wonderful eighty-one second side-trip to a nicer world and has done wonders for the anxiety that so readily besets me.
My only complaint since then is minor and has to do with the song’s placement in the playing order of the album Drama. It brings to mind a spin-the-bottle game I was drafted into when I was much younger. I say drafted, but I went quite willingly when I found that the game already included a beautiful brunette I was very interested in.
…but when I sat down in the circle I discovered that the young lady in question was flanked by…by…I’m sorry – there’s just no tactful way to describe the two young ladies sitting to each side of my raven-tressed Faye Dunaway wannabe. Their appearance in contrast to her beauty was as jarring as having “Man in a White Car” situated between the equally jarring and discordant “Machine Messiah” and “Does It Really Happen?”
.. but that contrast might just be what makes “White Car” so beautiful. Sometimes a sharp contrast goes a long way in bringing out both physical and musical beauty.
- KRKN (104.3 FM,) was an AOR (album-oriented rock) FM station in Anchorage Alaska from 1980 to 1986 when it changed to an oldies format. Through a process that totally mystifies me the KRKN call letters are now assigned to a country music station in Iowa.
- Yes, that Gary Neuman of “Cars” – the 1980 New Wave techno hit that will now be running through your mind and driving you crazy for the rest of the week.