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The Shipwreck Rose: Cadillac Cars

Thu, 09/14/2023 - 05:46

The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible — possibly the most elegant car ever manufactured. A satellite-age fantasy of chrome and Indiana steel, with pleated leather seats like the gills of a shark and a 325-horsepower V8 engine fossil-fueled by the oil rigs of Texas — with all the earthy bloat and stretch of a brass sculpture by Jean Arp. Eleganza! Extravaganza!

How lucky we were to be born into Cadillac America in the century of progress, optimism, 20-cent milkshakes, and rock-and-roll. Everybody in the 20th century had something to say about Cadillacs. Mo Tucker sings about Cadillacs in the Velvet Underground song “After Hours,” a Lawnguyland-ese aubade about dancing past dawn (“Dark party bars, shiny Cadillac cars / And the people on subways and trains. . . . “). The Clash sang about them: “My baby drove up in a brand-new Cadillac, yes, she did!” Aretha Franklin, in “Freeway of Love.” Chuck Berry, of course, in “C’est La Vie” and “Maybellene”:

As I was motorvatin’ over the hill

I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville

A Cadillac a-rollin on the open road

Nothin’ outrun my V-8 Ford

The Cadillac doin’ about 95

She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side. . . .


Chuck Berry invented “motorvating” as a new verb, a rock-and-roll verb: “motoring” over the hill combined, with poetic velocity, with the noun “motivation.” I love that verb, to motorvate. It’s genius. Chuck Berry was a stone-cold genius.

Denis Johnson, one of my favorite writers, uses this Chuck Berry verb “motorvate” in more than one of his books. “Motorvate” appears in “Tree of Smoke,” his big novel about the Vietnam War, and also, I think, either “Jesus’ Son” — the title of which is a reference to a lyric in the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” not coincidentally — or maybe it was “Angels”? I can’t remember which other Denis Johnson book, but back when I first worked in magazines, back in the late 1900s (insert wink emoji here ;-), I tried to use “motorvate” myself in some dumb hotel-lounge review I wrote for Time Out, but the pedantic mid-level editor at Time Out, neither a poet not a student of rock-and-roll, didn’t get it and “corrected” it to some dumb mundane verb like “moving” or “motoring.”

My friend Victoria Brown and I used to listen to mixed tapes of Chuck Berry on the car stereo when, at the age of 16 and 17, we began driving ourselves to late nights of New Wave boogying down at the Stephen Talkhouse. I vividly remember her at the wheel, laughing and laughing as we missed the turn and clipped the corner by Ashawagh Hall in Springs, tearing over a patch of grass as we motorvated off Old Stone Highway toward Springs-Fireplace. We were probably in her parents’ Volvo. Neither one of us owned a Cadillac, and this was before my first car, an absinthe-green 1960 Studebaker Lark VI.

Do you remember people calling a Cadillac a “Cadoo”? What’s the contemporary equivalent of a midcentury Cadoo? The black, bull-nosed, big-orexic Escalade? I guess so. Though notice that no one calls an Escalade “my Cadillac” or “my Cadillac Escalade.” They just say “Escalade.” The brand name has lost its cachet, while we still use the proper noun itself as a superlative: “the Cadillac of toaster ovens,” “the Cadillac of pool heaters,” “the Cadillac of trampolines,” “the Cadillac of health-insurance plans,” “the Cadillac of divorce-law firms,” “the Cadillac of caskets.”

There are a lot of rap songs about Escalades. (See: OutKast, “Two Dope Boys in a Cadillac” and Dave Banner, “Cadillacs on 22s,” which is a tune I quite like though I have zero idea what he’s talking about.) You do look important when you drive an Escalade, like maybe you are a Facebook millionaire or rap impresario riding high up there behind that tinted glass. An Escalade weighs, like, 6,000 pounds and is hulking, as high as an elephant’s shoulders. A late-model Escalade is nearly seven feet wide! I understand the appeal of such a large beast if you are a member of the Secret Service tasked with safely piloting the president of the United States in a motorcade down a major highway, but I don’t understand how the size can make for a comfortable or easy driving experience on narrow suburban roads. How do drivers maneuver their Escalades through the obstacle course of orange safety cones on Dayton Lane on summer days when the landscape trucks are out? I surmise that an Escalade makes the occupants feel safer, insulated against sound and weather and armored against assault, but I’m fairly sure it’s not safer for pedestrians. How does the driver see out over that snout? You could plow down a kindergartner and never even know it.

No one in my family, to my knowledge, ever owned a Cadillac, but my mother did drive a gargantuan 1973 — or 1974? — Buick Riviera in the early 1980s. It was completely, totally, outrageously unfashionable when she bought it and had been démodé already at the time of manufacture. It was such a smooth ride that my Uncle Howard, the artist, dubbed it “the Cloud.” This Buick Riviera had a sort of beige-pink exterior color that’s hard to put into words — peachy, fleshy, pink-beige, peige — and a creamy leather interior. My mother is 4-foot-11 in height and at that time probably weighed about 95 pounds, and said that she needed the exoskeleton of an enormous Detroit-built sedan in order to feel safe when she drove us around town to our piano lessons and sledding sessions. This explanation for why she bought the cringingly ugly and politically incorrect Buick at the dawn of the Reagan era was never sufficient to me; conversely, her next car was a tiny Honda Civic, a pocket rocket in tomato-red. Other parents in the 1980s drove preppie Volvos, woody station wagons, Honda Accords, or, some of them, perhaps a Mercedes-Benz. Maybe the Buick was a demand for attention, or an F-you. It got something like nine miles to the gallon.

Fuel economy aside, I feel somewhat sorry that we no longer have gigantic, fin-tailed Cadoos on the highways of America. Don’t you? At eight or nine miles to the gallon, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise must have been forced to make plenty of unwanted stops at service stations during their amphetamine rocket-ride from Folsom Street in San Francisco to Chicago, in a 1947 Cadillac, in “On the Road.”

Here’s Kerouac:

“So Dean and I raced on to the East Coast. At one point we drove a 1947 Cadillac limousine across the state of Nebraska 110 miles an hour, beating hot-shot passenger trains and steel-wheel freights in one nervous, shuddering snap up of the gas. We told stories and zoomed east. There were hobos by the tracks, wino bottles, the moon shining on wood fires. There were white-faced cows out in the plains, dim as nuns. There was dawn, Iowa, Mississippi River at Davenport, Chicago by nightfall. ‘Ho, man,’ said Dean to me as we stood in front of a bar on North Clark Street on a hot summer night. . . . "



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