Jack Kerouac’s classic travel novel, of the same name, features the famous quote, ‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is so on the road’. Tom Vek’s song, by contrast, is the revelation of a road experience moulded by the past.
More on the story of On the Road
Vek’s On the Road has a broody, Doors-esque appeal with a similar melody to The End, a theme which is not out of place here. Two people set out on a trip long enough to allow elements of each other’s personalities to surface, or indeed resurface. Owing to time (a lot of it) and space (a lack of it) those traits are enhanced, and according to the lyrics here they are not positive ones. And things are start to fall apart.
The words in the song appear to be from the point of view of the passenger, who recalls accusations which we are to suppose were uttered by the driver. The first repeated line in the song is, ‘You said I was a backseat driver.’ One of the most common annoyances on a road trip for the person behind the wheel is to be in the presence of a know-all passenger. However, on the last repetition of the line, the word ‘driver’ is missing, implying that eventually the backseat driver’s instructions were simply ignored – they became just the backseat.
The next repeated line, ‘You said I was the roadmap reader’ again puts the control in the lap of the passenger. With the absence of the word ‘reader’ in the last repetition here, there’s a feeling perhaps that in this relationship the passenger once had a wider plan. ‘You said I was the roadmap’ – the one in the partnership with solutions. And if there was a need for solutions, there must have been problems.
‘You said I was the driving licence’ comes next. So why is he not driving if he has the licence? Is it simply another analogy for authority? We can ponder that thought as the song progresses on to a floaty, delirious lyrical reminder that we are ‘on the road’, sung perhaps as if it’s a thought filling the air as a physical silence descends over the exasperated travellers. And the road goes on and on.
Picture the scene. The sunlight flits through the trees blurring the vision of the road ahead as they continue, trapped together, neither of whom has a clear vision of where they are going.
Then there are more passenger recollections of the driver’s accusations: ‘You said I was the handbrake.’ Our driver, we are told, sees their companion as the person who puts a stop to things. They are in forward motion physically but the passenger has historically been holding the driver back. And something has to change…
‘You said I was the glove compartment.’ How could the passenger resemble the glove compartment? What’s often kept in a glove compartment in a road trip movie? Could it be a reference to… a gun? Another lyrical reminder of being, ‘On the road, on the road, on the road…’ but now with more urgent deliriousness, leading to an instrumental breakdown. A sign of a tussle. The road trippers wrestle for the glove compartment, the car swerves dangerously across the road with the dazzling sunlight in their eyes. The driver pulls back from trying to access the glove compartment and regains control of the car. The passenger grabs hold of the gun. Now there’s a control stalemate. Passenger with gun. Driver with steering wheel. In front a tree. The trigger clicks. The car speeds up. The song finishes. This is the end.
Moral of On the Road
Choose your travel partner wisely. You’ll spend a long time in each other’s company. Enjoy the song!
For a more romantic road trip check out Julie Byrne’s Natural Blue.