if you want to have cities you've got to build roads: cake's hatred of traffic


I attended a bachelor party on a houseboat this weekend. It was an outing full of discoveries and revelations, none more profound than Dustin's observation about Cake.

After hearing our third auto-related song from Comfort Eagle, Dustin observed, "Boy, this guy really hates traffic!" At the moment, that sounded right, but I couldn't be sure until I got home and did some research. After an exhaustive study of the Cake catalog, I can state with confidence that John McCrea, lead singer of traffic, hates traffic more than anything else in the world.

Let's go to the gridlock discography!

Comfort Eagle lays out the traffic-based philosophy of Cake:

We are building a religion
We are building it bigger
We are widening the corridors
And adding more lanes

John McCrea's first move of building a religion is relieving congestion, pre-emptively addressing traffic concerns. If McCrea were to found a civilization, he wouldn't start with a source of food, or a water supply, or a temple. No, he'd go straight to eight-lane superhighway.

Comanche supports this position:

Yeah, if you want to have cities
You've got to build roads.

Of course, Cake does not live in an idealized utopia of stable traffic flow. They live in California:

Race Car Ya-Yas

The land of race car ya-yas
The land where you can't change lanes
The land where large, fuzzy dice
Still hang proudly
Like testicles from rearview mirrors

There's some dispute as to which city is the actual land of Race Car Ya-Yas, but because of the fuzzy dice reference, I have to think he means Los Angeles. While we're discussing decade-old pop music, I should mention that Geggy Tah's "Whoever You Are" is the antithesis of this song, a celebration of a successful lane change.


Garbage trucks
And taxi cabs
Don't seem like they can
Reach me here

Though he is sitting in an apartment on the 32nd floor, McCrea's thoughts turn, as always, to the cars on the street below him. It's telling that McCrea says "reach me here", as if the garbage trucks and cabs are enemies from whom he has fled. And while they may not be able to physically touch him in his perch, clearly, the cars have reached him, emotionally.

Satan Is My Motor

This song is key to understanding Cake and traffic. Here McCrea compares himself to a car, though not one trapped in gridlock. Man, Cake has a lot of songs about cars. If we extend his self-as-car, Satan-as-motor analogy to the rest of the catalog, suddenly we can see why traffic bothers him so much. Excessive idling is bad for an engine in general, worse when that engine is Beelzebub. If idle hands are the devil's tools, an idling car is truly the devil's vehicle. McCrea is not simply tormented by stop-and-go traffic, he is tormented by the Prince of Darkness.

John McCrea continues his commitment to traffic awareness by wearing a trucker hat

Alpha Beta Parking Lot

Breathing in the fumes from so many idling cars
Right beneath the sign with the dusty yellow stars

Traffic doesn't even have to be on the highway to provoke McCrea's indignation. Again, he focuses on idling, his least favorite element of being stuck in traffic.

Does traffic bother McCrea, even when he is not driving? Yes. See:

Carbon Monoxide

Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear
Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear
Where's the air?


Car after bus after car after truck
After this my lungs will be so fucked up
I wish I wasn't just a pedestrian
Breathing all this in
I look up at that gray sky, it makes me want to

Pedestrian or driver, McCrea cannot stomach gridlock.

Stickshifts and Safetybelts

Stickshifts and safetybelts
Bucket seats have all got to go
When we're driving in the car
It makes my baby seem so far

I need you here with me
Not way over in a bucket seat

Also on McCrea's shit list? Bucket seats, seatbelts, stickshifts. Ostensibly, this is so McCrea can more easily put his arm around his lady, but I suspect that this is a smokescreen for his real reasons. "Stickshifts" comes first in the title because that's his main pet peeve. And why is that? Stop-and-go traffic requires constant shifting of gears, making the already-maddening experience of a traffic jam literally intolerable for McCrea. Note that he doesn't say, "I want you here with me", but rather, "I need you here with me". He's clinging to his girl just like he's clinging to his own sanity amidst the jam.


In the hiss and rumble of the freeway sounds
As the afternoon commuters drive their cars around
There's a ringle jingle near the underpass
There's a sparkle near the fast food garbage
And roadside trash

How about songs about inanimate objects (besides cars)? Will McCrea still make reference to the hellishness of being on the freeway? Yes.

The Distance

While this song is about cars, Cake's bread-and-butter subject, it stands out from the rest. The driver who is going the distance is doing so after the race has concluded, and all the drivers and spectators have left - "the arena is empty except for one man". It's confusing - a man, behind the wheel of a car, who is not tormented by traffic, heat, nor bad air? In a Cake song?

A glance at the liner notes solves the mystery. "The Distance" was not written by John McCrea, but instead by guitarist Greg Brown. If it hadn't been such a catchy hit, I'm not sure McCrea could have brought himself to sing it, let alone accompany himself on vibraslap.

Take It All Away

Take your economy car and your suitcase
Take your psycho little dogs
Take it all away

You've been racing through my mind
You're picking up in speed
You're driving recklessly
It's like a car crash happening on my street
Broken bodies at my feet
And sirens on the way

They're too late
'cause nobody's going to save us
We're a rubbernecker's dream
We're burning gasoline

Another swipe at Japanese cars precedes another extended automotive analogy. There's a car crash, and broken bodies, but ultimately, what's the tragic aftermath? Rubberneckers (presumably slowing the flow of traffic) and wasted gas, again supporting the anti-idling, anti-air pollution theme.

Finally, Long Line of Cars is McCrea's magnum opus, a Cake song about only traffic, and nothing more. I think there's more to it. The "long line of cars" can be read as the endless parade of Cake songs about traffic, with "no single explanation". With each new album, McCrea devotes more and more time to traffic rants, traffic rants that will "never have an end". Because as long as there is gridlock, as long as highways have metering lights, as long as young men are stuck on the business loop of Highway 80 outside Sacramento in 100+ degree heat, Cake will be there with a syncopated vocal about how much it sucks, and a trumpet solo to help you forget about your contribution to global warming, just for a moment:

There's a long line of cars
And they're trying to get through
There's no single explanation
There's no central destination
But this long line of cars
Is trying to get through
And this long line of cars
Is all because of you

We don't wonder where we're going
Or remember where we've been
We've got to keep this traffic flowing
And accept a little sin
So this long line of cars
Will never have an end
And this long line of cars
Keeps coming around the bend

From the streets of Sacramento
To the freeways of L.A.
We've got to keep this fire burning
And accept a little gray
So this long line of cars
Is trying to break free
And this long line of cars
Is all because of me

There's a long line of cars
Long line of cars
Long line of cars
Long line of cars


Fantastic. I had no idea during that conversation that the theme ran so deep.

just a fan of CAKE that found this through google, but this is truly entertaining and insightful for any true CAKE fan. thanks for your dedication in writing this out.

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This page contains a single entry by Sean Keane published on September 19, 2007 6:48 PM.

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