Study Guide

Passenger Side Meaning

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Just Like The Beatles

There's nothing like a good songwriting rivalry. In countless cases in the rock canon, the presence of two band "leaders" eventually leads to a rocky breakup, but it also makes for a heck of a lot of good tunes along the way. The classic example, of course, is John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles (George was late to reveal his own formidable talents as a songwriter; Ringo was… well, we like his singing on “Yellow Submarine,” and that’s not nothing). When two songwriters are in competition, the questions inevitably arise as to whose songs are bigger, better, and more cherished by the fan base. Both songwriters do their best to match and surpass their rival, while influencing each other by default, which makes for a cohesive band identity despite the two different voices. People continue to debate the Lennon/McCartney rivalry even to this day; just take a look at this 2005 article from The Sunday Times. But such rivalries exist even in bands without the extraordinary legacy of The Beatles; a similar dynamic existed in hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü, for example, with a shaggy Grant Hart providing a hippie-like counterpart to Bob Mould's bald head and punk bitterness. You probably won't have to look too far to find your own examples.

Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar had such a partnership/rivalry in their influential band Uncle Tupelo, which formed in the late 1980s and broke up in 1994 due to, of course, tension between the two creative minds behind it. Though Uncle Tupelo's album No Depression, named after a Carter Family song, eventually came to epitomize the alternative country movement that swept through the underground in the 1990s, the band broke up before reaching any significant level of commercial success. Farrar went off to form a band called Son Volt, while Tweedy took the remaining members of Tupelo and formed Wilco.

Today, Son Volt has struggled with their critical and commercial reception, while Wilco enjoys mass admiration and support, but this was not initially the case. Son Volt's debut, Trace, received more commercial and critical acclaim than Wilco's A.M. This perhaps motivated Tweedy to push the boundaries with his band's subsequent records, and Wilco has become one of the most well respected names in rock music today, with songs and styles that reach a far back as The Carter Family and forward into uncharted musical territories.

But before the ethereal soundscapes and deconstructed pop songs from their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pushed Wilco to the forefront of the indie music consciousness, Jeff Tweedy was just a weird kid from Belleville, IL, intent on taking modern rock and punk music back to its roots in American country music with his sort of peer-mentor Jay Farrar. And he wasn't ready to give up on Uncle Tupelo when Farrar called it quits.

It's not surprising that Tweedy wouldn't stray far from the vision he had planned for Tupelo; unlike Farrar, he was not quite ready to move on. In Greg Kot's biography of Wilco, Learning How to Die, Tweedy looks back to when he heard about Farrar's departure secondhand. (Farrar called Uncle Tupelo's manager, Tony Margherita, who then called Tweedy to tell him the bad news.) Tweedy says, "I knew it could be only one thing [but] it was still a surprise. I still took it hard. I freaked out, basically" (81). A.M., Wilco's debut, initially strikes the listener as simply a little less punk, more classic rock continuation of the Uncle Tupelo aesthetic. A closer listen, however, will show that, despite the similar song arrangements and instrument choices, it is on Wilco's first album that Tweedy's gifts as a songwriter begin to reach out more clearly and carefully to the listener than they did behind the thrash of his previous band's country-punk fusion. On A.M., over standard rock band and country instrumentation, including lots of banjo and fiddle, Tweedy cleverly merges poetry and playful imagery with catchy hooks—a combination that would eventually ensure the band's commercial success in spite of their experimental tendencies. Nowhere are his gifts as a lyricist clearer on this album than in the boozy ballad called "Passenger Side."

ARBADD: Alternative Rock Bands Against Drunk Driving

In this song, Tweedy sings in the tradition of the hard drinkin' country outlaw, as a sorrowful passenger on the road with his own—though perhaps more contemporary and adolescent—demons. "I've got a court date coming this June / I'll be driving soon," he slurs tiredly in his cracked, husky drawl, and one can assume that on a literal level the narrator has lost his license for reasons regarding alcohol or reckless behavior behind the wheel. On a metaphorical level, this tells us how he feels about the careless way he's directed his life thus far. The gravel and strain in Tweedy's voice completes the picture of this drunk and disillusioned, young yet world-weary character.

Despite the dry humor in the lyrics and casual lope of the song's musical backdrop, Tweedy's passenger side metaphor is also immediately recognizable and meaningful as a poetic lamentation of lost control and dependency. He begins singing to a faceless driver, who, "swerving from side to side," is not only possibly drunk as well but also passing out at the wheel. The metaphor serves to show how Tweedy's narrator hates leaving his fate in the hands of an inebriated and reckless navigator but is powerless to take control himself. He whines about his companion's drunk steering; yet he clumsily drinks a beer in the passenger seat. If the singer seems to have a sense of humor about the irony of the situation, it is one that is tainted by a deeper, whiskey-drowned sorrow.

"Passenger Side" is a song that remains rooted in country traditions, both musically and lyrically; yet the voice in the song is distinctly that of Jeff Tweedy, who would eventually reveal himself as one of the best songwriters in rock. (Tweedy has thus far won two Grammy Awards, one of those for Best Alternative Album with A Ghost is Born.) It also shows the deftness with which the other musicians in Wilco react to and interpret Tweedy's songwriting and then contribute to it, as the music seems to mimic the slow, loping movements of an intoxicated person.

The song is effective on several levels as a drunken road anthem that also works to develop a character and provide a metaphor for a more universal emotional state of mind. In addition to these musical merits, the song also serves the more didactic purpose of calling to mind the very serious issues of drunken driving and alcohol dependency. Drunk driving remains one of the leading causes of death and permanent injury in the United States and Europe, despite some statistics marking improvement. Between 1991 and 2009 in the United States, for example, the rate of alcohol-related driving fatalities per 100,000 people dropped 44%, according to drunk driving prevention group Century Council. Yet even in that last year, 2009, as many as 10,839 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes related to high blood alcohol content (BAC) drunk driving; that's an average of one death every 50 minutes. That doesn't even include all alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths and injuries, just the really high BAC ones.

State laws preventing such accidents are getting stricter by the year, so aside from the fatal dangers it poses to both the inebriated driver and everyone else in the car or on the road, there are also legal dangers to driving under the influence. Accidents can happen under any circumstances, even when alcohol is not involved, of course; but the presence of alcohol in someone's system tends to lay the blame entirely on them. If someone is killed in such an accident, a drunk driver can be charged with vehicular manslaughter, a heavy offense that typically includes 10 years in prison for each person killed.

In the United States, the laws vary slightly from state to state in regard to driving under the influence (DUI), though it is considered illegal in all 50. Drunk driving should be avoided and prevented at all costs, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea to be familiar with DUI (or DWI, which is Driving While Intoxicated) laws in your state. You can find information for your state on many legal websites, like this one that includes information for all states in the US. The DUI Foundation also provides legal guides to DUI, without the defense attorney perspective.

Of course, it's not just an American issue. Take a look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website for some information on DUI/DWI laws in other countries, as well as comparisons between the laws in those countries and those in the U.S. In all cases, the bottom line is clear: don't drink and drive!

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