I did go to a high school prom in my dad’s Cadillac but, unlike the guy in this song, I had a date, didn’t wreck the car, and survived to tell the story. (Not to mention that my dad’s Caddy was a genteel 4 year old de Ville he picked up for a song from some prosperous relatives.)
Like so many of my songs, this one started with a phrase (the title phrase in this case) and sort of fell out from there. When I was a kid, first driving, I used to drive up in the then rustic hills above Orange County, California, and we used to go ghost hunting up there playing hooky from boring parties or dances. I like to blot them out, but I know I had a lot of close calls on the roads up that way.
Indeed, one time driving back from an especially long loop that took me the length of Santiago Canyon road (back when it was a moonlit, winding, two lane blacktop) and all the way down to Laguna, I had pulled out onto Pacific Coast Highway north of town and was heading up one of those long grades when the sky ahead of me lit up almost like daylight.
This was the late 60’s and I honestly thought they’d finally dropped the Big One on LA to the north. I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
It was with a sense of fascinated fatalism that I continued driving up the hill. As I topped the crest, I was temporarily blinded by the intensity of the light.
For a moment I was afraid I might crash into something and then the light dimmed perceptibly and my eyes adjusted as well.
The two southbound lanes were consumed in huge flames, almost obscuring a fuel tanker and what looked like one or two cars. It was all I could do to drive by the intense heat. A CHP car was just rolling up from the north, dropping flares behind it.
I drove by, thinking, close call.
I really expected nuclear war back then.
This version uses chords I improvised on the spot, since I was a little hazy on the actual chords as I’d written them back in ’81.
I’d been listening to Jack Tarr and some other chanties and folk songs and I wanted to get that kind of dark, folk ballad feel.
BTW, the round faced, vaguely South Park-looking character behind the wheel of the Caddy in the pic above [and let me tell you, it was plenty hard to get him in there behind the windshield… it only looks like it’s transparent, you know] is none other than my alter ego, my frequent bulletin board avatar, my better half:
(While I don’t actually have any studded wristbands and never did, I do have a Pop Group T-shirt just like that. Well, to be honest, I have 3, because I decided I liked how good it looked on my avatar, here, and… maybe I’ve been on the internet too long.)
When I left the high school dance
in my daddy’s rented Cadillac
I didn’t know what trouble was
I didn’t know there was no way back
The moon was a hole in the night sky
heaven knows who was looking in
The night was a hole in my life
and I didn’t know I was falling in
I made it past dead man’s curve
and the cliff at the top of the hill
I glided deftly through the hairpin turns
past the old graveyard that’s not quite full
I drove up that twisted mountain road
straight up into the night
Now I was totally all alone
drving through a hole in my life
My heart was pounding but my hands were dry
The engine was throbbing and the gears whined
My mind was racing at the speed of light
and my knuckles on the wheels glowed ghostly white
My life was the road and the road was my life
as it twisted and turned into the night
The road was the world and the world was night
as I rounded the bend and drove straight into the light
My eyes were shadows in the back of my brain
My mind was unravelling and my soul was in flames
The car was gone I was cut loose in space
Dogs from heaven laughed in my face
I was spinning I was falling I was going down
fallilng through a world without light or sound
I was watching from a hill from far away
when the Caddy hit the gas truck —
great balls of flame!