I was asked recently to write about my favorite love song, and I debated what to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t know which song to pick. I did. But I knew it was a weird choice.
There are many songs that are almost too painfully emotive to listen to. We all have them. Some—“Exotic Arcade” or “Night and Day” for me, or “To Here Knows When” or “Naomi”—are too bittersweet. Others are simply too tied up with being young, like “Black Car” or “Frenesi” or “Autumn Sweater.” In some cases, it’s pretty obvious why a song carries bad associations: after one breakup, all I did was lie on the floor and play “Walk a Thin Line” on a loop, forever. One that almost brings me to tears with its sheer, surprising beauty is “The Love of the Princess,” the romance theme from The Thief of Baghdad. All these are some of the best love songs I know. But the one song that reliably makes me cry, every single time I hear it, is “Little Deuce Coupe.”
It’s a great song: Brian Wilson said it was the favorite of the Beach Boys’ car oeuvre, and Frank Zappa praised its “progression V-II.” But that’s not why I love it so much. Rather, I consider “Little Deuce Coupe” to be the purest love song about a boy and his car ever written, and as such the purest love song ever written.
Now, I don’t care about Ford Model B’s. I don’t care about the flat head mill or the pink slip or the competition clutch with the four on the floor. I don’t really know what any of that means—hell, I can’t even drive—although obviously 140 miles per hour is fast and I guess really useful for drag-racing circumstances, when some loud braggart tries to put you down and your girl has to look in your eyes and tell you everything will work out all right.
And of course I recognize on some level that Pet Sounds is the better album, and that “God Only Knows” and “Don’t Worry Baby” are two of the most beautiful love songs ever written. But even they can’t touch me like “Little Deuce Coupe.” Is it crass and consumerist? Of course. Was it all a part of the cynical sun-and-fun PR machine that my dad still bitterly blames for luring him to Pomona? Sure. Was the fragile young Brian Wilson being browbeaten and bullied by his tyrannical father during the recording of Surfer Girl? Obviously! And that’s leaving aside a lot of things you could say about male aggression and the glorification of competition and danger, to say nothing of penis substitutes. I mean, to some degree all this goes without saying.
But we know love when we hear it, and the love in “Deuce Coupe” is a love that will never, ever die—a love that’s both fresh and based on care and hoping and probably saving up and restoring, too. Maybe a song about a horse, or a dog, could approach the power, but to my mind nothing has. Brian Wilson said in the notes to Surfer Girl’s reissue, “We loved doing ‘Little Deuce Coupe’. It was a good ‘shuffle’ rhythm, which was not like most of the rhythms of the records on the radio in those days. It had a bouncy feel to it. Like most of our records, it had a competitive lyric. This record was my favorite Beach Boys car song.” It has all the joy and pain of youth, but none of the associations. Just pure sweetness.
I’ve listened to the song twice to write this—and so I’ve cried twice, too. You don’t know what I got.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.