YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The best place to hear music? Cruising in the car, speakers booming

Critic's Notebook: 'Grand Theft Auto V' has it right, driving and listening to music are a perfect match on the crazy streets of Los Santos (L.A.).

November 23, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • The downtown L.A. skyline comes into focus from the 6th Street Bridge, a mild and scenic cruise — at least in real life — made for turning up the stereo in the car.
The downtown L.A. skyline comes into focus from the 6th Street Bridge, a… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Dusk had settled on virtual Los Angeles, and I'd just hit a few pedestrians and smashed my stolen roadster near City Hall. The sound of police sirens was getting closer, and the nearest vehicle was an idling delivery truck. I pulled the driver out, kicked him a few times and jumped in the front seat. As I sped off, the car radio started playing.

Bingo! Charlie Feathers' grim country weeper "I Can't Hardly Stand It" poured forth. All was well in the realm of Los Santos, the fake L.A. setting of "Grand Theft Auto V." A city that players cruise while embarking on missions, stealing cars and causing general mayhem, Los Santos is a vividly — and darkly — crafted place.

Feathers' obscure gem rang as I headed toward the 6th Street Bridge, running lights and sideswiping lesser autos — I'm a novice, and certainly no gamer — while the rockabilly warbler strummed and sang about the sun going down and his love not being around.

INTERACTIVE: Discover songs of L.A.

The faux frequency was tuned to Rebel Radio, which features artists including Hasil Adkins, Hank Thompson and Johnny Cash. With a flip of the controller, a whole curated catalog of stations delivered DJs including Big Boy of L.A. rap station Power 106, actress Pam Grier, beat producer Flying Lotus, indie rockers Wavves and Keith Morris, former screamer for Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.

When it was released two months ago, "Grand Theft Auto V" locked in nearly $1 billion in its first three days to become the fastest-selling entertainment product in history. 

Still, even as earbuds, Bluetooth-enabled systems and Beats by Dre headphones continue to infiltrate our lives, few are the songs about listening to your iPhone in the subway or doing Pilates while rocking the Cure.

Actually, as a professional listener, I find the car stereo is my sanctuary, my retreat, (mostly) my domain. It's my favorite way to hear new music — the claustrophobia of headphones be damned — and where I receive some of my least interrupted melodic messages. At home in my office I can listen as loud as I want, yes, but my wife, though tolerant, can't be expected to endure all my obsessions. In the car I can boom, scream and (ahem) rap without fear of ridicule or repercussions.

PHOTOS: 2013's year of controversial rap lyrics

I flip through the ever revolving pile of CDs in my back seat, checking out fresh sounds while stuck in traffic; scan the FM dial from KCRW (89.9) to Power 106 with no particular place to go; jump to SiriusXM for a few hundred other options or plug in the smartphone for my iTunes catalog and 15 million streamed songs.

First popularized in America by the Galvin Manufacturing Corp. in 1930, the earliest road models could fit into any car. So successful was the idea that the company survives. It evolved into the Google-owned Motorola, maker of smartphones you can listen to in your car.

Whatever the source, that magical convergence, music and driving, continues to define L.A. As we journey on freeways in what Joan Didion called "the only secular communion Los Angeles has," the stereo offers energy, solace, escape. Out there engines mix with car horns and motorcycles, but in the music zone, while you're stuck in traffic and working to remain Zen, sounds arrive uninterrupted.

No wonder some of music's greatest minds don't consider a mix complete until it passes the "car test": a roll around town with the recording cranked on the stereo. If it doesn't sound good there, something needs fixing.

For a time, Didion traveled to her reporting gigs from behind the wheel of a yellow Corvette. I'd like to believe that she chose the model in part because of its banging sound system.

I know I did when I recently went car shopping. I kept coming back to one old Lexus coupe in part because of the high-grade Mark Levinson system. When test-driving it, I carried two CDs: one that coupled DJ Rashad's new Chicago footwork album "Double Cup" with Houston rapper Maxo Kream's syrupy mix "Quicc Strikes," and a burn of Kanye West's "Yeezus." I'm one of those who, when learning that the used '08 was Bluetooth-enabled and featured a cassette deck, considered it a major selling point.

PHOTOS: Concerts by The Times

Lyrical cruising

As we ride, we sing along to lyrics about cruising, characters in a narrative written by songwriting (and car-owning) comrades. Within these lines are hidden histories that combined offer a sun-drenched snapshot of lives on the road.

The yowls of joy that dot Thee Midniters' otherwise instrumental ode to East L.A., "Whittier Boulevard", capture with hellbent distortion the sensation of racing the thoroughfare circa 1965. Across town, when the Beach Boys' Mike Love reminisces in "All Summer Long" about the just-ended season, he does so while idling in a car in front of his girl's house, as if to cool down after months spent in overdrive.

Los Angeles Times Articles