On the Road

 

I don’t know what it is about truck stops, but I’ve always romanticized them. In my early consciousness, truckers were these gentle, bear-like angels of the road. This certainly had something to do with Smokey and the Bandit  and the television show B.J. and The Bear (the bear actually being a chimpanzee named after University of Alabama head coach Bear Bryant- there’s a picture of him and and my grandfather hanging at my grandparents’ house-he’s an icon of the South in the vein of Robert E. Lee). And when I say head coach, you know I’m talking about football. American football.

I remember once being stranded on a highway in Mississippi with a broken fan in my Aunt Betsy’s Plymouth Reliant (which proved to be not so reliant; she was always buying American cars out of some sense of patriotism), when a friendly trucker pulled over, opened our hood, and with a two inch piece of wire fixed the fan long enough to get us into town. He wouldn’t take any money and wished us well. In years to follow when I couldn’t sleep (I was deathly afraid of maniacal intruders, I’d seen the Halloween movies too many times), I’d imagine truckers coursing through the highways of America at all hours of the night, listening to the radio, and gained some modicum of comfort from that thought. Only later did I discover that truck drivers were sex-crazed, amphetamine-fueled traffickers of everything possibly illegal. Just kidding, but when I did learn of the seedier side of trucker life, I felt drawn to the sordid details: is that methy, tubetop-wearing woman in the truck-stop diner a hooker? Are they selling drugs in those paper coffee cups?

Off of Rod McKuen’s The Loner album comes the song “Truck Stop.” McKuen wrote some really great songs, and even if you hate his poetry and think he’s a total sap, you’ve got to love him for translating Jacques Brel’s songs and bringing them to the English-speaking world. Anybody who was a legitimate friend of Kerouac and Ginsberg can’t be all that bad. Also, he wasn’t writing about truckers in some removed, elitist way. McKuen was a lumberjack, a cowboy, and a railway worker- a real American working-class joe. He just liked writing love poetry, too. In all truth, each of these professions nurtured significant musical and poetic traditions. This song makes me want to race down the Pacific Coast Highway with an ass-pocket of Wild Turkey between my legs. Okay, maybe a bottle of Evian. 

Truck Stop

I can’t help it. Here’s a little more Rod. McKuen translated the Jacques Brel song “Le Moribund” into “Seasons In the Sun,” which became a big hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. I much prefer McKuen’s quieter version. 

Seasons In the Sun

Off of Lonesome Cities, this is probably my favorite Rod McKuen song. I guess what I enjoy most about his work is the utter self-pity in the lyrics. He’s taken his young, vapid girlfriend on a tour of Europe and all she wants to do is flirt with princes and viscounts and get a nice tan. He kind of reminds me of how John Phillips felt when he was with Michelle Phillips, only Michelle Phillips was an insanely smart 19 year-old. 

The Sun Is a Movable Target

Back to truck stops. One of my favorite films has got to be Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, in which two of the best scenes take place at truck stops. Here’s the chicken salad scene. Followed by an mp3 of the same scene from the original soundtrack, which begins with the amazing monologue given by Helen Kallioniotes. She’s one of the lesbian hitchhikers Jack Nicholson and Karen Black pick up who is obsessed with filth and crap and consumerism. The other lesbian is played by Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame.

On The Road

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5 responses to “On the Road

  1. You have no idea how cool I thought BJ & the Bear was… I had an Ertl BJ and the Bear toy truck and everything.

    I still think Jerry Reed is cool. There. I admitted it.

  2. I was listening to AM radio one night back when WWL had late night country and they played this amazing J. Cash “song” where it was really just a minute or two of melody and then he would go into some kind of spoken word thing, and then back into song again. But the whole thing was about truckers and how awesome they were culminating in this unforgettable line: “Sailors of the concrete sea.” Wow.

    I have never seen or heard of this since. How about you?

  3. I thought BJ and the Bear and Smokey and the Bandit were unbelievably lame, but that’s because I had already come under the spell of older trucking songs and started driving for a living. Most of my driving has been in buses, but I still have my Class 1 license. After years of hearing ‘Feather River Canyon’ I felt positively thrilled to go over the Sierras by that route. Same for climbing The Grapevine in and out of Los Angeles. I don’t know if you’ve been in a truckstop lately, but they’ve changed. Mostly for the worse because trucking pays so badly now that truckers aren’t buying the trinkets and gadgets. They’ve changed a little bit for the better too. You can get healthy food and vitamins for example, because truckers aren’t expected to burn themselves out in a couple of years. Found you through my friend at SiblIINGSHOT. Will check back

  4. Hi Jon, glad you stopped in. I love the old trucker songs, too. And old Hollywood trucker movies. Have you seen They Drive By Night or Thieves’ Highway? Terrific flicks.
    I have been to some truck stops lately in Texas and Louisiana. They were quite sterile and modern, in contrast to my nostalgic ruminations of them.

  5. Hey Dan, glad you’ve been reading this. I found the song you’re looking for. It’s off the “Johnny Cash Show” album. There’s a medley called “Come Along and Ride This Train,” and that particular part is “Sailor of the Concrete Sea” by Merle Travis. I have that record somewhere. I’ll give it a listen. I always loved his version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on that album. BTW, checked out your magazine, it’s awesome. I love Ben Mumphrey. I’m friends with his cousin Christina.

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