Hey wake up, your eyes weren't open wide
For the last couple of miles you've been swerving from side to side
The narrator of this song makes a lot of careless decisions. First offense: riding in a car with a sleepy—and possibly drunk—driver.
"Passenger Side" both paints a literal scene of action and provides a metaphor for much deeper personal issues, which is how it is able to portray both humor and sadness. Right off the bat, Tweedy is singing like a tired and hoarse drunkard, and when he tells the driver to wake up, we can only assume that it is because he or she is also inebriated. The driver is falling asleep at the wheel, it seems, and swerving all over the road.
On a metaphorical level, we can look to the Stooges' "Down on the Street" to remind us of the differences between the metaphors of the "road" and the "street." Whereas the street figures prominently in punk and hip hop, country music is primarily concerned with the road, which represents more of a journey, both physical and spiritual. Country ramblers like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were seen as wandering outcasts, constantly traveling and searching for a place to belong. If we consider how much the band Wilco is indebted to country music, the narrator of this song is obviously in a car on the metaphorical road. The first two lines, then, literal as they seem, actually tell us a lot.
First they tell us that the narrator is leaving his fate in someone else's hands—and not just the hands of any someone else, but those of a probably intoxicated someone else. While he is dangerously leaving his life in the driver's hands on a literal level, he is also symbolically leaving his life's pursuit and direction under someone else's control. Because this driver is "swerving from side to side," it is obvious the two have no set, straight road in life; they are constantly veering off the beaten path and allowing for the obstruction of their progress by dangerous obstacles and pratfalls.
You're gonna make me spill my beer
If you don't learn how to steer
The narrator, as we know, is drunk and riding with a drunk driver. Now he shows us that he's also still drinking in the passenger seat. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
Alcohol is a depressant, so it contributes, in some cases, to drivers falling asleep at the wheel, just like one of the characters in this song. In a real life situation, the narrator of the song would be in grave danger of injury or death, or causing injury or death to another person. But is he worried about that?
Nope. Instead he's worried about spilling his beer (and no, not out of respect for his friend's car; if he's not thinking about the likelihood of totaling the car completely with such a driver at the wheel, he's probably not too concerned about staining the upholstery).
If the road in this situation is the unpredictable journey of life, as perhaps it is in Kerouac's On the Road, the narrator is being led on a shaky, uncertain path; he's certainly not going straight ahead, but veering off in arbitrary directions. Sure, he's not concerned about crashing on a literal level. But it's also a metaphor for his lack of concern for his own well-being, his own future, and the consequences of his actions. The beer is the temporary happiness; he's too concerned with losing some of that happy juice than he is about what's going on in the real world around him, or in what direction he's headed. So even though the narrator doesn't like riding in the passenger side, as he tells us repeatedly in the chorus of the song, it doesn't look like he's too eager to be driving either.
And before we forget, this might also tell us one other thing: where the song takes place. While almost every state in the Union has laws against driving with open containers of alcohol in your vehicle, several states aren't as strict. Delaware and Virginia, for example, don't have statewide laws prohibiting passengers from having open containers of alcohol. Mississippi takes it one step further: it is the only state that doesn't have a law on the books against drinking while driving. It does have laws against drunk driving, though, so maybe it gets points for trying?
Passenger side, passenger side
Don't like riding on the passenger side
Wilco singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy's passenger side metaphor is immediately recognizable and meaningful as a lamentation of lost control and dependency.
What does it mean to be in the passenger side? You can see the ahead of you, but you can't touch the gas, the brakes, or the wheel. You just have to watch and accept what comes or count on someone else to steer you right.
When Tweedy's narrator sings that he doesn't like riding on the passenger side, he's telling us that he doesn't like being in such a powerless position. Yet the rest of the song makes it clear that he doesn't really have the motivation or self-discipline to take the wheel himself. Instead, he wakes up the drunk driver to tell him to stop swerving around, and not even out of concern for his life or the lives of others, but out of concern for his cup of beer and not wasting a drop.
So, while he's complaining about not being able to control his own destiny, he also refuses to take hold of that destiny and regain control. He is dependent—on the driver to get him around, as well as on the alcohol that allows him to temporarily ignore his unsound circumstances and uncertainty.
Roll another number for the road
Now our narrator's implying that not only is he drunk, riding with a drunk driver, and drinking in the passenger seat; he's also asking another passenger to roll a joint. Or perhaps he’s just singing the refrain of a Neil Young tune.
Wilco's debut album owes more than a little to Neil Young's pioneering forays into country and rock. The crunch and reckless expressionism of Tweedy's guitar, favored over technical prowess and precision, is a direct descendent of Young's powerhouse guitar "Old Black." When Tweedy sings this line, he is referencing a song of that title from Young's legendary album Tonight's the Night.
The reference is not mere tribute, however, as it holds greater significance for those listeners familiar with the song in the context of Neil Young's career. It is almost like a hidden message, visible to those who, like Tweedy, are Neil Young fans. Missing the reference takes nothing away from the song or its meaning, but recognizing it adds a new depth.
Tonight's the Night is the second (though released last) of what many Neil Young fans call his "Ditch Trilogy," named after the line on the album Harvest regarding a Cadillac with "a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track." These three albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night) are rough and misunderstood rock albums, made when Neil Young's direction in life was as reckless and uncertain as that of the narrator in "Passenger Side." Two of Neil Young's friends, including a primary member of his backing band Crazy Horse, died from overdoses of heroin; the idealism of the ‘60s had drawn to a close, and Young was getting older. The albums' sloppy yet expressive performances initially baffled critics, only to later be recognized as some of Young's best and most influential work.
Tonight’s the Night is a tortured album, probably the darkest of the three, since the lyrical content of Time Fades Away and On the Beach didn't deal with his tragedies as explicitly. It expresses, among other things, confusion at the unpredictable nature of the world and the crashing and burning of youthful dreams. It is not dissimilar to the theme of "Passenger Side," in which the singer is upset by his inability to control his fate. The quick homage in Wilco's song to Neil Young creates an analogy between Tweedy's narrator and Neil Young at the time of Tonight's the Night.
You're the only sober person I know
Won't you let me make you a deal?
Just get behind the wheel
Is there another passenger in the car? Or is the narrator so far gone that he considers someone drunk and falling asleep at the wheel to still be comparatively “sober.”
In this line, the narrator reveals that he probably keeps reckless company, since he asks "the only sober person" he knows to roll a marijuana cigarette. In addition to being a sly reference to a Neil Young song, this hints that, perhaps on a subconscious level, Tweedy's character is trying make up for his self-destructive tendencies by bringing others down to his level of helplessness.
In fact, this is a common tendency among people who suffer from alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence syndrome, which is actually considered more severe than alcohol abuse. If you look at some of the symptoms of alcoholism, which include neglect of other activities in life as well as impaired control, it doesn't take a doctor to diagnose the narrator of "Passenger Side."
Yet Tweedy introduces a hint of reason in the ensuing lyrics when he asks this sober friend to "get behind the wheel." It is a cry for help; Tweedy realizes his life is spinning out of control, and so he asks someone to help steer his life back on track. He still refuses to take responsibility for himself, though, and they might take a little smoke detour on the road to redemption.
Can you take me to the store and then the bank?
I've got five dollars we can put in the tank
The narrator hints that he is living beyond his means and is not very concerned with his own future.
Not being in a position to decide his own destination, the narrator asks the driver to stop at the "store and then the bank" in this third verse. It's a simple sentiment, but perhaps the fact that he wants to go to the store first and the bank second gives the line more significance than first meets the eye.
It serves as further evidence of a man living beyond his means: instead of going to the bank for money and then buying what he can afford at the store, he parts with his cash first and then goes to the bank to dip into his savings. If this is a man, like many men of country music, who lives his life on the road, it is not altogether insignificant that he may only have five dollars worth of gas left.
I've got a court date coming this June
I'll be driving soon
Finally, we find out that the narrator has actually lost his own driver's license, which is why he has to rely on other people (even drunk people) to get to where he's going.
Perhaps this glimmer of hope at the end of the song helps Tweedy's dry humor shine through the sadness of it all. There's a reason the narrator is not behind the wheel; it's not that he's necessarily lazy or helpless, but that he's lost his license. After his court date, he's hoping he'll be able to once again take control of his car (and his life) and steer himself straight.
It's by no means a promise, and of course there must be a reason why he lost his license in the first place, but there is a hint of optimism that maybe the narrator will eventually pull himself together. Then again, this might not be the first time he's fallen by the wayside and made such a resolution.