Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"King of the Road" / Roger Miller

Well, my Tuesday guest blogger has decamped -- distracted by a trip to Boston (not to mention his malfunctioning iMac). But who cares? I've just found out that Nick Lowe is touring the US in the fall -- thanks, Mike! -- and I'm on cloud nine.

And -- shoot me now -- this is the song that's been teasing my brain lately. I probably heard about five seconds of it on the radio this past weekend, before the kids screamed and switched stations. They don't even know this song; they just hated it because it sounded country. Where did I go wrong?

But I don't hate this song. This is a finely crafted little number -- not really country at all, except for Roger Miller's twangy accent and, well okay, the fact that the hero is a hobo. All right, so it is pretty much a country song. But it's classic country, sharp and smart and satirically funny. I have great memories of hearing this on the radio as a kid, along with such other Roger Miller hits as "Dang Me," "England Swings," "Kansas City Star" ("Kansas City star, that's what I are"), "Chug A Lug" ("chug a lug, chug a lug, / Makes you want to sing Hi De Ho! / Burns your tummy don't you know"), and of course the inimitable "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd." Best of all, Roger was in on the joke with us -- that was the sophisticated edge. How could you not love this guy?

I have to say, I never can resist fingersnaps for an intro -- that's our first clue that this is going to be laidback and easy. He's poking gentle fun at his hobo lifestyle, and yet the carefree beatnik charm of it is actually appealing -- too bad the song came out in 1965, before the hippies really got going, because Miller's "king of the road" is pure On the Road.

The lyrics are tight and clever -- lines like "no phone, no pool, no pets / I ain't got no cigarettes," "two hours of pushing broom buys a / Eight by twelve four-bit room," and of course the neat inversion of "I'm a man of means by no means." Even better is how Miller fits the lyrics to his tune -- just listen to the bridge, where he exults about knowing "every handout in every town / And every lock that ain't locked when no one's around." The parallelism, with those "every's" and "lock's" falling on just the right notes, is the mark of a real songsmith.

His hero may be a hobo, but he's a resourceful hobo, with plenty of people skills, and he's able to relish his pleasures -- listen to the satisfaction as he describes those old stogies he finds. He's not feeling sorry for himself, not blaming anybody, just living his life from day to day. In these desperate economic times, plenty of good folks are living this kind of hand-to-mouth lifestyle. We might as well embrace it.


Anonymous said...

Even those of us who were not particularly keen on Roger Miller realize that he should have even been bigger than he was. Woody Guthrie/Will Rogers big.

The thing here (or is it the "thang" here?) is that our protaganist, though living rough, is not living THAT rough. Sure, he'd rather be living in one of those beach commercials for Corona beer, but our hero could never be that jaded...celebrating, indeed lighting-up, the remains of a stubbed out White Owl he may have found on the street. And after it all, life is not so bad.

When I was about 18, my father got me a job on weekends helping roofers up near Quarryville, NY. All I had to do was pick up the discarded shingles and put them in a dumpster.

Well, I got to the work site around 7:00 AM. All by myself. Finally, about 7:45, a pickup truck or two drove in. A few minutes later another one.

Well, we set up (brought out the ladders, scaffolding, shingles) and by then one of the other workers showed up with coffee and donuts. So we BS'd and drank coffee and ate donnuts till about nine oclock.

Then we worked, worked real hard actually, till about eleven. Then, the boss called for lunch and we all went out to a bar until about 1:30 in the afternoon. Then we worked hard for a couple of hours and at about four oclock we called it a day.

Here's the thing, Holly, these guys didn't work to make money. These guy's worked to DO what they were doing. For them, this routine was to perpetuate a style of life.


Uncle E said...

Nothin' I can add to the Roger Miller post. Have to admit I'm not too familiar, although I do love King Of The Road.
On another note, Nick is finally playing in my neck of the woods, San Francisco, and according to yeproc it's a freebie! Whoohoo!

Gary said...

Great song! Have you heard Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright cover it on the "Brokeback Mountain" soundtrack?

Holly A Hughes said...

It seems to have been covered a lot (there's a pretty funny clip on YouTube of Dean Martin doing it as a duet with Roger). That's the mark of a great song, that other artists could also do different interpretations and it would still hold up.

Love the story, Rich. (The stub of a White Owl -- now there's an image!)