Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Spell of Wheels

Spell of Wheels

Performed Peter Case and written by Peter and Joshua Case.

You can listen to the song here. You can buy it at itunes here.

Two beats on a bodhran sets the pulse, then the pedal steel unwinds and a Mellotroncompletes the swirling enchantment as Peter Case’s “Spell of Wheels” envelopes in a dream-like state, flowing, kinetic, drawing us forward. Images appear “Kansas City as the first snow of the year begins to fall,” and you can almost see the fat white flakes against the black sky. In the first few seconds, you understand this is a true road song, not about the idea of the road, but it puts us on the road.

Next we’re in a party, five kids, floating, moving almost dream-like between the revelers – names like Skip, Wolf and Faceboy – and a girl “drunk & leaning against the wall.” You want to lean in a kiss her. They’ve got, no place to be and nowhere to go, but someone has an idea, the pace of the music picking up with an accordion and harmonica enriching the hypnotic spell:

We leave KC at midnight heading north on the interstate
Snow is falling hard & fast we’re glad to get away
Five kids in a beat up car kickin’ up their heals &
Heading out into the dark beneath the spell of wheels

The narrator is in the story (“we’re glad to get away”) then he’s not as he stands outside watching the five kids, five kids with no home, no place to be, no place to go so they drive through the snow. Kids known forever to rock and roll (think Jonathon Richmond’s “Roadrunner”, Elliot Murphy’s “Drive All Night” or the Silos “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around;” I’ll get to those songs on another day).

The music compels us forward “past places we’ll never know/flashing lights and highway signs”) when what should appear but the black car, the demon car rising up in the night, chasing them. Who? Why? Where did it come from? They drive on cause there’s nothing else to do and still the black come comes. Have you had that nightmare? The oversized car following, pulling up next to you. Cop car or murderer. In the song, the narrator looks out and sees the black car “has rolled its window down/& when I see the shotgun there/I know we’re graveyard bound.”

We’re still moving, looking up through the snow, lights in the night “a thousand faces sleep in flight,” whole lifetimes adrift in the sky, lives that never touch, “down here the road turns like a screw/”I’m on my way hack home to you.” In this one moment, the song puts us in two places at once – the plane floating overhead and the car driving forward. Who is heading home and whom is he heading home to? Is that the narrator or a passenger in the sky or one of the five longing for a girl, maybe the drunk girl leaning against the wall? The answer to all these questions is yes and that’s the faint tissue that connects the strangers in the plane and the kids in the car.

The plane floats past, the shotgun and car still staring and the music keeps driving, the droning of the wheels. “Skippie jams down on the brakes that demon car blows past/we pull off on the roadside everybody pulls a knife.” How lost and lonely in the snowy, expanding universe, pulling knives at a gunfight. “The black car keeps on goin’ & I guess so do our lives.”

In dreams, we can’t stay still and the music won’t let us stop, the harmonica adding resonance and energy to the drive. They follow the road to Minnesota “spend the winter in monochrome. The five kids “fall in with small time criminals jut like the ones at home” nothing changes, but there is solace in connecting to what one knows and not seeing the black car rising in the night and the shotgun staring out the window.  They’re “waitin’ for the spring to come,” hope, maybe change, maybe hit the road again.

The music, so insistent, so memorizing, captures the spell of the highway wheels, the voice like smoke entwined in the music, the images float like the snow in a snow globe, only we’re not on the outside looking in, we inside looking up at an endless universe full of snow. Peter Case co-wrote the song with his son, Joshua, who claims to have seen the black car somewhere on the highway after leaving Austin. But that black car belongs to all of us as dos the moment when our breathing stops before the world fast-forwards again.

And what lines Case writes. He captures the dullness and disaffection of a winter indoors with “spend the winter in monochrome.” And what do those plane passengers see if they look down and see “the road turn like a screw”? Even the minor details add to the weight of the song – the escapade starts at a party in Westport, a section of Kansas City.

Peter Case sang this on his first solo album, Full Service No Waiting and it also appears on retrospective that Vanguard assembled, Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?“ Both albums have much to recommend them.   

You cannot mention Peter Case without making reference to his former band, the Plimsouls, but he’s been performing solo for thirteen years now and has released eight solo albums to a mere three for the Plimsouls. His solo work stands on its own. As to how to define his music, here’s his own explanation:

I tell people now I play folk-rock, & they seem to understand …but the whole truth is more complex: I’m a singer/ songwriter that uses all the American styles to get my stories across : Blues. Rock.nRoll. Country. Soul. R&B …& some rhythmic influences from around the world. I’m trying to forge my own style out of those inherited materials…I’ve always been into dynamic emotionally charged music you could use to tell a story or paint a picture.
So in other words, yes.

You can find more about Peter Case at his website or check out his blog.


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