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.
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.
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.
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.