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Red Barchetta Broken Down

February 16, 2015

 

Like many young nerds who came of age during the 1980s, I loved the music of RUSH--driving, compelling rock beats with intricate, literate lyrics about outsiders and the harshness of the modern world.  The tune "Red Barchetta" (Moving Pictures, 1981) in particular seemed crafted for a 16-year-old just learning to drive, even though I was stuck with a goose-shit-green VW Rabbit rather than a vintage sports car.  It's a song about a dystopian future in which automobiles are outlawed, though the hero of the song sneaks off each week to drive a sleek red car at high speeds.  It's full of killer guitar riffs that sound like engines and evocative lyrics describing a science fiction world, and how can you not love that?  Lately, though, I listened to this song with fresh ears, and the contrast between my young impressions and those of my middle-aged self alarmed me somewhat.  Let's break down this song line by line and unpack some of the baggage associated with it, shall we?

 

Red Barchetta

Music and Lyrics by Geddy Lee, Neal Peart and Alex Lifeson

 

My uncle has a country place                     Here we learn about the nightmare future in which gas 

That no one knows about                           engines are outlawed, and the totalitarian state restricts 

He says it used to be a farm                       travel and watches its citizens.  Terrifying, right?  Except

Before the Motor Law                                 in today's world, we are trying to cut back on fossil fuels,

And on Sundays I elude the Eyes               and there are cameras everywhere.  In the '80s I didn't

And hop the turbine freight                         want to live in a world like this; now, I kind of feel like 

To far outside the wire                               "Meh.  Could be worse."

Where my white-haired uncle waits

 

Jump to the ground as the turbo slows       I accepted this with little thought for years.  Old cars turn 

To cross the borderline                               up in barns all the time, and people restore and preserve 

Run like the wind as excitement shivers      these vehicles in pristine condition.  Except think about it:

Up and down my spine                                Cars have been outlawed for fifty years, the song says.  

For down in his barn                                    Where is this old codger getting the parts and supplies to 

My uncle preserved for me                          maintain this beast?  It's not like it's a production car (say,

An old machine                                            a VW Rabbit).  No, it's a rare vintage roadster.  Suddenly 

For fifty odd years                                        my disbelief has trouble staying suspended.

To keep it as new has been his dearest dream

 

I strip away the old debris                            Now maybe the old guy is a genius mechanic,with his own

That hides a shining car                               machine shop.  Maybe there's an underground market for

A brilliant red Barchetta                                obsolete car parts.  Maybe there's even plenty of leftover 

From a better vanished time.                       tires, because sure.  But can you please explain to me

Ooh fire it up the willing engine                    where these guys get fuel for a 50-year-old car in a world

Responding with a roar                                that has outlawed gasoline engines?

Tires spitting gravel I commit my weekly crime.

Wind                                                             Now just shut up a minute and listen to this verse and the 

In my hair                                                     music, because no one has ever described high perform-

Shifting and drifting                                      ance driving better.

Mechanical music

Adrenaline surge

 

Well weathered leather, hot metal and oil

The scented country air

Sunlight on chrome, the blur of the landscape

Every nerve aware.

 

Suddenly ahead of me                                Aha!  Conflict!  Our hero encounters two modern vehicles

Across the mountainside                             that pursue him through the valley--aircars, which I assume 

A gleaming alloy aircar shoots toward me   to be hovercraft or ground effect vehicles like those found in

Two lanes wide                                           David Drake's Hammer's Slammers stories.  But they are

I spin around with shrieking tires                 two lanes wide, which begs the question: what has the 

To run the deadly race                               Red Barchetta been riding on all this time?  Aircars don't

Go screaming through the valley                need roads, so why are the roads maintained?  Have you

As another joins the chase                         seen a road neglected even for a couple of years, let alone

                                                                   fifty-odd?  

Ride like the wind

Straining the limits of machine and man    Furthermore, I always figured these cars were the cops of 

Laughing out loud with fear and hope        the day.  Wouldn't they coordinate their chase better?  After

I’ve got a desperate plan                            all, this kid has been out here every Sunday!  And they

At the one lane bridge                               don't even check to see if a one-lane bridge is coming up!  

I leave the giants stranded                    

At the riverside                                           Oh, well, at least our totalitarian government doesn't have 

Race back to the farm                                helicopters or satellite surveillance, so our hero can do this

To dream with my uncle at the fireside.      all again next week.  No way they'll be waiting.

 

 

Don't get me wrong: I love this song.  I just never gave thought to the inconsistencies in my interpretation, and I certainly never thought before that the hero was kind of a criminal!

 

Before RUSH purists sneer at me, Yes, I know that "Red Barchetta" is based on the short story "A Nice Morning Drive" by Richard Foster, 1973.  The story explains a lot that was not made clear in the song, but that's kind of my point.  For years I listened to the song, accepting the world it portrayed--but only when you get old and crotchety do you start to think, "Slow down, you young punk!"

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