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Senior Year

Senior Year, 1979: Waiting in a Gas Line

by Chuck Eddy

Senior Year, 1979: Waiting in a Gas Line

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What a summer to get your driver's license! OPEC holding back oil shipments in the wake of the Iranian revolution, prices escalating, pumps running dry of fuel, stations closing early, lines stretching for a mile and for hours, and cars using up all their gas while they waited or even before they got there. Jerks cutting into lines then getting shot for it, snobs with lots of money hiring employees to idle in line for them, suburbanites locking their tanks so next-door neighbors wouldn't siphon out fuel by sucking it through a hose, fistfights breaking out, hand grenades tossed at attendants.

A few states initiated gas rationing where you could fill your tank only on even or odd days, depending on whether your license plate was even or odd. "People rushed out to get gas even if they didn't need it, generating more lines in the process," writes Kevin Mattson in What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, his study of Jimmy Carter's so-called July '79 "malaise" speech. "Families set up breakfast tables next to gas lines so fathers could wait in line to fuel up while the kids ate." Trouble started in California, but before long 95 percent of New York City's stations weren't doing business, and conspiracy theories sprouted about big oil companies hoarding gas at shuttered stations. Through the spring and summer, according to one historian Mattson quotes, American drivers "may have wasted 150,000 barrels of oil a day, waiting in line." Libraries (and liquor stores!), he goes on to write, were even known to hand out books (and beer!) to the captive audience.

Presumably, though, while all those engines were running, so were radios. And now that we're approaching a tense summer when prices might top five dollars a gallon, perhaps it's time to look back. Here are some songs impatient woofers and tweeters might have blasted during that Energy Crisis, starting with the Kinks' "A Gallon of Gas," ending with Jackson Browne's year-old "Running on Empty," sneaking Tower of Power's four-year-old funker "Only So Much Oil in the Ground" somewhere into the middle for kicks. But otherwise these are mostly just hits you likely would've heard on your auto's AM or FM in 1979, including one called "Driver's Seat," one called "Cruisin'" (even if that motoring pastime was necessarily falling by the wayside), one by The Cars, and a Blondie chart-topper that aptly went "Once I had a love, and it was a gas." (Sadly, two very timely 1979 novelty numbers -- Bobby Butler's country protest "Cheaper Crude or No More Food" and The Barron Knights' Supertramp parody "The Topical Song" -- "When I was young, all the petrol was plentiful/ Bountiful/ Oh, liberal/ My tank was full" -- seem to have disappeared along with eight-track decks.)

"These are the good times," Chic insisted, climbing to No. 1 by August's dog days. Many begged to differ.