OM120 - Trucker Culture

Doing too much 1970s and 1980s cultural references (OM120)

Ken expressed some concern that The Omnibus is overloaded with cultural references from the 1970s and 1980s, because those eras were their time. They could also just put a 1975 JC Penny catalogue in their time capsule. John’s impulse is towards 18th and 19th century European entries, which they have to fight, and their default after that is some pop culture thing from the 1980s. Every time they mention the Kaiser, they also have to mention Koosh Balls, which is called the Kaiser Koosh Ball Rule. John could do entries on some Austro-Hungarian minor duke every week. There were Wacky Wallys, which looked like an octopus, but if you threw it on a window, it went down the window!

Being a child of the 1970s (OM120)

Ken was born in 1974 and does hardly remember the 1970s at all. He has plenty of memories from the 1970s, but they are not 1970s-y, unless he looks back at his photos and sees that he is wearing Toughskins and Garanimals. John was born in 1968 during the waning days of the Johnson administration and he is 6 years older than Ken. He was born before the moon landing and he was there while Ken can only read about it. He was like 7 months old, but he was surely in front of the TV as it all happened.

Ken remembers almost no 1970s culture. When he was old enough to actually remember cultural import it was already the Reagan era and he can count the number of national events from the 1970s he can remember on one hand. He remembers Carter running for re-election and the Sonics winning the title in 1979 and that big solar eclipse across the Western US in summer of 1979. John was in Alaska at that point, so he didn’t see the eclipse, but remembers that his mom and sister took pictures of it. The only TV Ken was watching was the Muppet Show and game shows. He was not super-connected to America in the mohair wall-to-wall 1970s.

That six year difference between the two of them doesn’t really change their appreciation of late 1990s, early 2000s Indie Rock because they were both there. John would have aged out of it if he hadn’t been an active participant in it and he got grandfathered in. He was 30 years old and should already have gotten a job at Amazon but was still playing his guitar. John turned 12 in 1980 and 1970s were his foundational years. If someone will ask "What explains John Roderick?", Ken will direct them to the Ford administration.

Devil Woman (OM120)

During John’s childhood the way you received popular music was on the radio, often AM radio. You would hear the song of the summer out of the cab of people's Chevy Stepside Pickup or recently purchased Camaro. The music of Elton John is so baked into John’s DNS that he can still listen to Philadelphia Freedom and just go immediately back into being a little kid.

One of the songs that just came out of nowhere and walloped him was Devil Woman by Cliff Richard, a very late-period hit for him, a crazy mid-1970s hit, and a spooky tune that connected with John as a kid. Cliff Richards met her down at the crossroads when he was trying to catch a ride. Maybe Satan was controlling Cliff Richards the entire time? If you think about the taboo rhythms in Rock’n’Roll, Satan has been controlling us all since he introduced the Blues to Robert Johnson.

There is almost no Satan in Gilbert and Sullivan, but you could put a little Satan in Mozart for sure. Maybe it is not immediately apparent, but that is how Satan works. The Magic Flute is full of freemasonry, so that is how Satan works for sure. At the time he had not yet switched to the Blues because he was able to control Western civilization through freemasonry and the Illuminati, his one eye at the top of a pyramid. George Washington was wearing his masonic apron and changing the face of history.

Self-reported music charts (OM120)

The Top 40 charts were largely self-reporting until the 1990s because the RIAA didn’t have a way to actually monitor the sales of records. It wasn’t as bad as going to an alternative High School where you name your own grade, but record stores and radio stations would report the most popular music. Record stores and radio stations tend to be owned and operated by Rock’n’Roll people and they would over-report the significance of Elton John, Queen and Led Zeppelin, and under-report the sales of Country, Western and Soul music. When they introduced a standardized reporting system in the 1990s there was the explosive realization that Rap and Country Music were the two biggest genres in the country and Rock music immediately lost a lot of its caché as a business within the record industry.

Ken knew a lot of people in High School who said they liked everything except Rap and Country and there must have been bizarro world versions of theirs who liked nothing except Rap and Country! It is crazy to think that throughout the 1980s the big records were Peter Gabriel or Def Leppard, but in fact Country and Rap were bigger all that time and Phil Collins was sitting on a throne of lies! It is funny that we needed a Kid Rock to come to us and unite those two traditions. Futurelings will surely agree with John that we did not need Kid Rock and we do not need him now.

Convoy (OM120)

One of the residues of the 1960s was a back-to-the-land-ism, the denim-American revival, but it was also a period simultaneous to the Psychedelic Rock of San Francisco, and a real explosive Country/Western culture. It was very mainstream, and even if you were not a Country fan, you would still love Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell and her sister on their variety show, and you knew Dolly Parton’s every song. That was not a walled-off part of American culture and it was certainly not regional, but it was popular music. Like Rock’n’Roll it evolved from the same font, the same combination of the Blues and Hillbilly music, but it took it into a different direction and was the music of rural America rather than urban America.

The number one song of John’s childhood, the one that connected with him profoundly, was a Country song called Convoy by C.W. McCall. It has a tremendous intro and before the lyrics even start it creates this sonic environment in the room that is a little bit Country, a little bit Rock’n’Roll. It is very American with a high-pitched drone that comes in, which is the sound of the American Highway. The 1970s were a remarkable time.

John first heard Convoy in 1975/76 when he was 8 years old. The song tells a story about truckers communicating to one another via CB radio and it is clear from the lyrics that they are forming a nascent convoy. John had these lyrics memorized since he was 8 years old:

Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June
In a Kenworth pullin’ logs
Cab-over Pete with a reefer on
And a Jimmy haulin’ hogs
We is headin’ for bear on I-one-oh
’Bout a mile outta Shaky Town
I says, ”Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck.
”And I’m about to put the hammer down.”

We know right away that he is in a Kenworth truck, hauling logs, a Jimmy would be a GMC Big Rig semi truck, a Cab-over Peter is a Peterbilt that looks like a square block and doesn’t have a nose, which is called a cab-over. A reefer is a refrigerated trailer. He is talking about three trucks. Shaky Town is Los Angeles because of the earth quakes and they were headed down I10. Ken feels that a lot of that slang is unnecessary, like when a waitress says ”Adam and Eve on a raft”, which is more syllables than ”Two Eggs on Toast” (Ken said Poached Eggs).

The bear means Smokey Bear, which is the cops. They are called Smokey Bear because of their hats and we learn that there are cops up ahead. We also learn that the CB handle, the nom de plume of the narrator is Rubber Duck. Putting the hammer down means that he is about to accelerate his truck on I10 out of Shaky Town. It was not clear that it is a first-person song until Rubber Duck begins to speak.

As a child John was captivated by what seemed to be crazy words that were thrown together very confidently by this narrator. He was in fact not speaking gibberish and this wasn’t for kids, but this was a secret language in a secret world. The song jams in a Nashville / Bakersfield trucking-along Telecaster sound. Ken said that the tune slaps, which is a word that the kids use today, but John doesn’t think so because it can only refer to contemporary music after 2015.

The song was written in this argot by a songwriter ostensibly called C.W. McCall who looks like a real truck-driving man with a cowboy hat and a denim shirt on the picture of the cover of his records. But C.W. McCall did not exist, but was fiction of the advertising executive William Dale Fries. He later became one of the founders of Mannheim Steamroller who made John’s family’s favorite Christmas album. C.W. McCall became a big star because Convoy went to number one on the Country and the Pop charts.

When the movie Convoy came out along with the song, the idea of the trucker exploded nationwide and during the next 5 years there were so many trucker movies, it was unlike anything comparable before or since, where an idea like this took over American popular culture. Smokey and the Bandit made truckers even more glamorous when they were running contraband and smuggling Coors Beer to Georgia. A lot of the dialog in the film happens over CB radio and CBs went crazy and people just flouted the law and ignored the requirement for a license. John’s 1979 suburban has a CB in it, John’s dad had a 1974 Chrysler Imperial with a CB in it and they would talk to truckers. This would later on contribute to the demise of CB radio because there were so many people jibber-jabbering on it that truck drivers went to another system or another channel.

Convoy the movie was a difficult watch for John because the song is fun, but the movie is about strikes and confrontation with the cops. Smokey and the Bandit brought the fun back to trucking and it also gave us Dukes of Hazard, which was a CB television show.

Some more trucker movies are:

  • High Ballin
  • Breaker! Breaker!
  • White Line Fever
  • Every Which Way but Loose
  • B.J. and the Bear (TV show)
  • The Great Smokey Roadblock

Trucker culture becoming a national phenomenon (OM120)

Interstate Trucking had become a national phenomenon in the early 1970s. After World War II there were a confluence of factors for this, one of them was the Interstate Highway system, and trucking became a more and more important way of transporting goods and services around the country. The railroad was prevalent until the mid-20th century, but it can only go where the railroad goes. It was the dawn of consumerism. Goods were moving around the country like newfangled toasters, ovens and vacuum cleaners that were driving the economy, everybody was moving to the suburbs and needed to outfit their new mid-century homes with the latest mod-cons. Also fresh food and vegetables were moving by truck.

It was the era where the Teamsters union was its most powerful, it was the largest union in the country. This was also the era where the corporate man came into existence, the man in the grey flannel suit, and we were seeing an era of social hegemony, a conformist time and we envied the free man. Truckers were starting to assume some of the mantel of the cowboy. They were the last independent people, out on the road, which is sad to Ken because there actually is adventure and drama in the life of a cowboy, but a trucker is just a guy peeing in a bottle.

At the time there actually was a lot adventure in the life of a trucker. The Interstate Highways were just coming into being and there were still very regional aspects to America. Oklahoma was very different from Oregon, both the restaurants and the culture because the Homogenization hadn’t happened in American culture yet. The truckers have seen it all, they are out there, meeting with each other in the rough and tumble world, having a girl in every town. This was before containerized shipping and there was quite a bit of graft. If you have a truck full of blenders and a couple went missing, no one noticed. It was also an era of cheap gasoline and romance of the road, and the trucker became one of the last seafaring men.

Ken’s connection to trucker culture (OM120)

When Ken was a kid, the romantic aspect of trucking was that they drove at night. They don’t work a 9-5, but they are the only ones out there while the rest of us sleep. Today he knows that it is not all that adventurous, but they are just trying to get to Tulsa on time. The first trucker movie is from 1940 and is actually called They Drive By Night with Humphrey Bogart.

Trucking is the topic of more Country and Western songs than any other working class occupation. There are a lot of country songs about being a working man, a dam builder, a steel driving man and all these things. Ken loves songs about dam builders, like The Highwaymen song Highwayman. John should cover that song. Trucking became inextricably connected to the same world that Country music appeals to, which is the rural America, and the Middle-American working men and women.

The first time Ken heard Convoy was in the 1990s when he was at college and was driving home from something with his roommate, both in their own cars. His roommate started to sing ”We got a little convoy”, Ken didn’t know the song and his room mate was appalled that Ken had never heard this mid-1970s Country song. Earlier today Ken didn’t know that there was a movie called Convoy and John was appalled by that. The problem with this movie is that it is based on a song. It is not the best movie, but the plot hinges on another foundational moment in trucker culture.

CB Radio (OM120)

The rise of Citizen’s Band (CB) radio was happening simultaneously and in an unconnected way during the rise of the Interstate Highway and the romance of the tucker. Some bands gradually got reserved for public use throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but you still needed to have a license. CB-radios propagated throughout the trucking industry and started to be used by truckers to tell one another that there was gasoline available or that there were road closures, not just to stay in touch with home base.

CB-culture went crazy in the country and even the president’s wife Betty Ford was on Citizens’ Band radio. Her handle was First Mama when Ford was running for re-election against Carter in 1976. Because she had arthritis, she couldn’t campaign with him much and it was a disability measure. John has a mug that he got in 1976 as a Christmas present with all the little phrases like Put the Hammer Down and Keep the Bugs off your Bumper. Another reason for Betty Ford CB-ing was that Jimmy Carter was from Georgia and he had a connect to rural American Country / Western culture while the Fords probably seemed pretty stuffy and needed to appropriate Southern Outlaw culture.

That was when Gerald Ford started playing the Banjo on the campaign trail. You wonder how much Jimmy Carter’s viability as a presidential candidate was perhaps suddenly influenced by this culture nationwide. You can’t think of a US president in the 20th century before Carter who was so rooted in the South. Woodrow Wilson certainly wasn’t from The South. It was the South Will Rise Again era, we also had Lynyrd Skynyrd and all that Southern Rock happening at the same time.

Energy Crisis (OM120)

In the early 1970s we experienced the first energy crisis, the price of gasoline went through the roof, and it really affected long-distance truckers who had to absorb those higher prices. When gas had been cheap, truckers were making a comfortable middle-class living, but this energy crisis hit truckers really hard. Although 70% of truckers were Teamsters and the union was able to establish standard rates for things and pay benefits to truck drivers, 30% of truckers were independent because of a loophole in the interstate commerce act that exempted truck drivers who were delivering food stuffs.

They were unregulated and food producers contracted with owner/operators to move their produce around while the Teamsters had a really difficult time unionizing food truckers because it had become a local economy. This was one of the elements that brought the price of food down in the US. Fresh food, which had formerly been a major expense, became cheaper and cheaper, and low food costs were a component of the boom times in the US just like low gas costs. When the energy crisis deepened in 1973, gas was just not available and it was the time of long gas lines. Trucking was a major industry in the United States and some truckers were owner/operators

Right after the energy crisis of 1973 the federal government imposed a 55 mph speed limit, pissing off Sammy Hagar and everybody else. It put a further imposition on truckers, because they are not paid by the time they spend on the road, but by delivery and distance. If you can drive 2500 miles in the space of 16 hours you are a lot better off than if it takes you 30 hours. It is the reason they drive all night, whether it is safe or good for them or not. On the open road you could go as fast as you want.

Truckers developed an antagonistic relationship with the cops because there was a real incentive for truckers to speed and to use their CB radio to alert one another to the presence of troopers or county cops. Trucker culture already had a cowboy / wild west association, but now they were outlaws. This was how a lot of the secret language of CB trucker culture came about because cops listening in couldn’t decipher the code initially.

It is probably also why diner waitresses throw that stuff around. If you are not sure what Shit on Shingle or Two Chickens on a Hot Tin Roof with a Blueberry Milkshake is. The stakes seem much lower there and it might just be to entertain yourself at a very boring job.

As a result of the energy crisis there was also a nationwide strike of Truckers, they refused to deliver their goods, and they paralyzed whole sections of the American industries. From that point forward trucker culture became rebellious. They were no longer just romantic, but they needed to fight for themselves.

In 1979 there was another energy crisis and another trucker strike, an era of tremendous inflation. Post-Nixon the idea was that regulation was strangling the American economy and we needed to de-regulate all the industries where we formerly had all these oppressive controls. Trucking was a big one. In the aftermath there were a lot more owner/operators and truckers were in a price war with one another. Trucking is still deregulated and de-unionized today. Over the course of the subsequent years, truck driving became an occupation where you were struggle to make a living. After the deregulation during the 1980s truckers lost a lot of their romantic appeal and were portrayed in the culture as serial killers and creeps.

Ken’s truck experience (OM120)

Ken has one experience in a truck cab which made truckers seem like nobility. They were with some friends and ran out of gas outside Battle Mountain, Nevada in the middle of nowhere, almost 30 miles from the next town in the middle of the night and they had no idea how they were going to hitchhike back. Almost immediately a truck pulled over and ”You boys okay? What happened?” and this guy named Fuzzy welcomed them into his cab. He was not a bear, he hated the Bears, but he took them all the way back to town and regaled them with stories about driving the West. It was great, like a time machine and Ken feels bad about every time he has been annoyed by a big rig truck slowly passing another one on a Western Interstate Highway. These guys are great!

John’s truck experience (OM120)

John hitchhiked a lot in the 1980s and truckers typically did not stop and pick up teenage boys, at least in John’s case, but a couple of times he was picked up by truckers. One time in Central Colorado a trucker pulled over and opened the door with John standing there in his denim jacket, his denim pants and his denim knapsack. The trucker looked at John and was like ”Ah, damn!” - ”What?” - ”Well, get in!” He though John was his brother. His brother was in that prison over there and when he saw John he could have sworn he was him and thought maybe he had hopped the wall, so he turned around and came back. They drove on into the night, he had some speed and they did the whole trucker thing together.

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