Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ides of March -- "Vehicle" (1970)

I'm the friendly stranger in the black sedan
Won't you hop inside my car?
I got pictures, got candy, I'm a lovable man
And I'll take you to the nearest . . .

The nearest what?  Woods?  Abandoned house? No-tell motel?  Self-storage facility?

The next word in the song is "star," of course, but I think the alternative choices I've listed above are much more provocative -- don't you?

My friend Lesley wrote to me recently to praise my recent post on "The Rapper," and to tell me that the Jaggerz had travelled down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Wheeling, West Virginia, to perform at her sister's college dormitory sock hop.  This was just before they "hit it big" [sic] with "The Rapper."  (She titled this anecdote "My Attenuated Brush with Musical Greatness."  I would have called it "My Very Attentuated Brush with Musical Greatness [sic]" but I have a strict policy of no more than one sic per paragraph.) 

Lesley went on to say that the Ides of March had played at her brother's college roommate's senior prom at a Chicago-area high school -- "My Even More Attenuated Brush," etc. -- and that "as creepy as the lyrics are, 'Vehicle' remains one of my favorite songs."

GMTA, Lesley -- I was already planning to include "Vehicle" in my current series of posts about "one-hit wonder" singles from my senior year of high school.

But Lesley has it backwards when it comes to why "Vehicle" is a good song.  "Vehicle" isn't a good song in spite of its creepy lyrics.  It's a good song because of its creepy lyrics.  Without the creepy lyrics, what is really left?  

The Ides of March, who hailed from Berwyn, Illinois (a modest Chicago suburb that is home to one of the world's largest laundromats), called themselves the Shon-Dels when they formed in 1964.  But then one of the band members read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a high-school class.

The Berwyn "Spindle" (torn down in 2008)
After changing its name in 1966, the band released a half-dozen singles that did reasonably well in Chicago, but made no impression anywhere else.  The group then switched recording labels.  When they sent a four-song demo to their new label (Warner Bros. Records), they were surprised when their producer liked "Vehicle" best.

While the group was overdubbing the horn parts, the recording engineer accidentally erased 13 seconds of the existing master tape.  Out of sheer desperation, the engineer spliced in those 13 seconds from a previous take.  Miraculously, the spliced 13 seconds fit perfectly -- the tempo, pitch, and "feel" were virtually identical.  (The splice starts at the second "Great God in heaven" and continues right up to the beginning of the guitar solo if you want to prove it to yourself.)

All's well that's ends well.  "Vehicle" broke into the top 40 in April 1970, and became the fastest-selling single in Warner's history, eventually getting all the way to #2.

Jim Peterik, the group's guitarist and lead singer, wrote "Vehicle."  Thanks to the truly indispensable "Songfacts" website -- if you aren't visiting www.songfacts.com regularly, you should be -- I am able to tell you the story behind the song.  It's a story that makes perfect sense when you realize that Peterik was 18 when he wrote "Vehicle."

On April 9, 1968, while I was waiting to see one of my favorite groups, The Turtles, at Riverside Brookfield High School . . . my eyes wandered to the girl standing in front of me -- she was a vision in knee socks and orange culottes -- long silky hair and huge blue eyes.  As I was trying to screw up the courage to say hello, she turned to me and said, "Aren't you Peterik?"  Turns out she had seen the Ides Of March a month previously when we opened for the New Colony Six at Morton West High School.  
I said, "Yeah," and from there the conversation just seemed to flow. Never had I met a girl I had so much in common with. Karen and I sat together at the show, and by "Happy Together" she had placed her leg on top of mine (a very positive sign for a first date).  
After about six months of great dates, good times, meadows, making out and serenades, Karen informed me that it was over between us, that she wanted to see other people.  I was thoroughly heartbroken.  I spent the next few months writing sad songs, depressive melodies, introspective garbage, and forcing the Ides to do long blues jams for our show encores . . .  I was also on a mission to find another Karen. There was a girl who looked a lot like her, but when we started dating, I realized that personality was nine-tenths of the law.  I guess I had to somehow win her back.

One day I got a call from Karen.  My heart jumped into my throat. She asked me if I could drive her to modeling school . . . Instead of playing it cool, I found myself saying, "I'll be right over."  I figured our proximity would remind her how much she really loved me.  It was great riding next to her again, though I had to make sure I controlled my hands and my heart.  
This pattern continued for a few weeks with Karen asking me to drive her to various appointments and functions. We even sang at a few coffee houses as a duo . . . Though it was great to be with her, the newly platonic nature of our relationship was bumming me out.

One day in a fit of frustration, I heard myself blurt out to her "You know, all I am to you is your vehicle." . . . Just then the light bulb popped up on top of my head and I thought about all the guys like me who don't mind being taken for a ride by a beautiful girl.  I said "See you later" and started writing the song.

The song's original opening line was "I got a set of wheels, pretty baby," but then a friend showed Peterik a government-issued anti-drug pamphlet that featured an illustration of a sleazy pusher cruising the streets looking for potential customers.  It was captioned, "I'm the friendly stranger in the black sedan."  (Here's a tip for you aspiring songwriters out there.  The government can't copyright anything it publishes, so if you see a line you like in an anti-drug pamphlet, feel free to use it in your song -- just like Jim Peterik did.  Smart move, Jim!)

Karen and Jim Peterik today
After "Vehicle" became a hit, Jim got back together with Karen.  They've been married for over 30 years.  According to Peterik,
To this day, she doesn't like to be in audiences where I tell that story.  She feels very embarrassed by it.  She knows it's true, but at the same time, she doesn't want to be thought of as this opportunistic woman who just wanted her guy to drive her around.
Peterik's got it backwards.  Karen has no reason to be embarrassed -- she was just doing what women do.  He, on the other hand, is totally (and I mean TOTALLY) P.W'd.  He's the one that should be embarrassed by the story.

Unfortunately, the Ides of March wasn't able to replicate the success of "Vehicle" and broke up in 1973.  (They subsequently reunited in 1990, and continue to tour today.)  Peterik co-founded Survivor in 1978, and co-wrote "Eye of the Tiger," the theme song for Rocky III, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" and stayed there for six weeks.

He also co-wrote hits for Sammy Hagar, REO Speedwagon, and .38 Special -- including "Hold On Loosely," which experts agree offers surefire advice for a successful relationship:

Just hold on loosely 
But don't let go 
If you cling too tight, babe 
You're gonna lose control 
Your baby needs someone to believe in 
And a whole lot of space to breathe in! 

Amen, brother -- take those words to heart, boys and girls, and you will live happily ever after.

By the way, has anyone else noticed the eerie similarities between the histories of the Ides of March and the Rogues?  For example, Jim Peterik was not quite 14 when the Ides of March (then the Shon-Dels) got together in 1964.  I was the same age when we formed the Rogues a couple of years later.  Karen put her leg on top of Jim's as the Turtles sang "Happy Together," and one of the Rogues' go-to covers was that selfsame "Happy Together."

Of course, the Rogues never released a record, much less a #2 hit single -- but that doesn't preclude us from reuniting and starting to perform again in front of large and enthusiastic crowds, just like the Ides of March did.  (They perform every Christmas Eve at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral.  Surely we could find a church in Joplin that would love having a drawing card like the Rogues at their Christmas Eve services.)

My copy of "Vehicle" is on a promotional LP released by KLIF, a classic top-40 AM station that dominated the airwaves in Dallas-Ft. Worth in the 1960s.  (If you look very closely, you'll see the $2.99 price sticker on the extreme upper-left-hand corner of the album -- I got this one used many years after it was released.)

Here's the listing of the songs that are on side two of this album:

I just noticed that there's a rather glaring error here.  They reversed the names of the groups that performed two of the songs.  The Five Man Electrical Band (shortened to "5 Man Band" on the record cover) did "Signs," of course, and the Bells did "Stay Awhile."  

Here's "Vehicle":

Here's the band as it sounds today:

Not bad, huh?

Lesley, if you want to see the boys live, I'd suggest you mark your calendar for June 24.  That day, the Ides of March will be at the White Sox game as part of a special "Seventies Night" extravaganza.  They'll be doing the National Anthem and "God Bless America" as well as "Vehicle," and the first 10,000 kids who attend will get a 1972 White Sox throwback jersey.

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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