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Heat Waves: The Luckiest Guy

Read Monday, 15 Jan 2018

For our Heat Waves summer series, we’re inviting musicians to reflect on song lyrics that are forever lodged in their heads or hearts. First up, Adam Curley recalls the ‘spectacular amnesia’ of driving around Brisbane’s sweltering suburbs to the soundtrack of The Magnetic Fields.

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In 2005 I spent the summer afternoons driving from my share house in New Farm, inner Brisbane, to the public pool in Chandler, across the Story Bridge and 30 minutes of arterials. The nearest pool was five minutes away; proximity was not the point. I’d graduated with a degree in journalism and my father would call to tell me about regional newspaper jobs he’d seen and circled in the paper. Every few weeks, B and I would get drunk in the Valley and he’d end up in my bed. ‘But I never know when I’m going to hear from you again,’ he’d say.

When I drove B home, we’d listen to pop radio with the windows down and on the way back I’d listen to The Magnetic Fields’ 1999 album 69 Love Songs. By the time the album’s first disc got to ‘The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side’, the car was rid of thick Brisbane air. The song minced along with its springy percussion, a looped sample Stephin Merritt couldn’t name when once asked its origin by an interviewer. A kicked Fender amp, perhaps. When Merritt sang the title’s qualifier, coz I’ve got wheels and you wanna go for a ride, he rose at the final refrain like a singer in a Broadway musical, and so would I: … wanna go for a riiiiiiiiide?’

It’s a story with wheels, hooning over detail but covering ground, mapping something out.

Jean Baudrillard wrote that ‘driving is a spectacular form of amnesia’. ‘The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side’ is an elliptical story of a woman’s love life – or, at least, of the men attempting to become a part of it. The song forgets much. Merritt begins: Andy would bicycle across town in the rain to bring you candy and John would buy the gown for you to wear to the prom with Tom the astronomer who’d name a star for you. It’s a story with wheels, hooning over detail but covering ground, mapping something out. Never mind the idea of someone owning a car in Manhattan.

That summer I didn’t hear domineering men in the gestures of Andy or John or Tom. I heard certainties. I conjured occasions. No specifics, really, not proms or trips to an observatory, only the feeling of occasion. Summer drives with the luckiest guy carried decisions, relationships, events of great clarity if not sustainability. Carried them and rushed past them like a 1990 Ford Festiva with amnesia, a sun-faded hatchback with the windows down. 

I drove to the pool and sat in the car park before going inside for my swim. The call centre phoned, asking me to come in for a shift and I told them I was too far away.  I drove long routes home, circumnavigating the city, its office blocks. I put groceries on credit. B messaged: ‘Let me know if you want to catch up this week.’ He might have asked: Just how do you forget something that never happened?

Merritt is always smirking at desperate, earnest hopes, which is what some desperate, earnest people do.

The titular ‘luckiest guy’ – he calls himself the ‘ugliest guy’ in one chorus – knows that when the weather’s fine he’ll be called upon to chariot his female friend out of the city in his ‘heap’.  The state of the car in the song is important: his piece of crap is all the song’s narrator has to offer. Yet Merritt is also laughing at this offer. Merritt is always smirking at desperate, earnest hopes, which is what some desperate, earnest people do. The luckiest guy is himself an ellipsis to be passed over in a retelling of his love interest’s story, an insignificant detail – and yet he isn’t, either. There he is singing; telling his own story. To offer a ride is for the luckiest guy not only to have wheels, it’s to understand what it is to have wheels in a way I didn’t 13 summers ago.

I guess everyone needs practice mapping.

I drove around more, listened to The Magnetic Fields more, and then I was living in Melbourne and had a job at a magazine, which rushed past on the way to something else. There are specifics, but who has the time?

Road passing by from a car window

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.