Thursday, January 24, 2008

King of the Road?

The gentleman pictured above, for those of you who didn't have a brief serial killer obsession period in high school after watching a rerun of the classic made-for-tv film "To Catch a Killer" with Brian Dennehy, is Mr. Henry Lee Lucas. One America's most prolific serial killers (and the inspiration for the cult classic Michael Rooker vehicle "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") Lucas had at one time confessed to about 3,000 murders committed in a roughly ten year span until his arrest in 1983. Although he later recanted most of them, and was officially convicted of 11, the number may reasonably be believed to be as high as 350. As was the case with many of the most prolific serial killers throughout modern times, Lucas was able to kill so frequently and for so long because he lived the nomadic life of a drifter. He lived on the fringes of society and on the fringes of the awareness of probably most of the people he came across. He was a vagrant, a tramp, a vagabond, and possibly according to Roger Miller, a man of mean by no means, king of the road.

I personally find Roger Miller's hit "King of the Road" one of the most insidiously catchy songs ever created. Every time it comes around on my iPod or on some oldies station, or used in some commercial; the smooth vocals, that sparse jazzy bass, those snaps, linger around in my head for days. So as it was cycling through my head after hearing it earlier the other day, I began to think about the lyrics and found some disturbing elements to it I never bothered to notice before. Maybe it was because I had just gotten out of Criminal Law class where we go back and forth about rape and homicide for entire classes, but suddenly I began to view the lyrics in a more suspicious shade. Could it be that behind the general country goodness, the laid back accompaniment, the old time sound that seems way before it's 1965 origin, the lyrics reveal a protagonist with more than a hint of evil, David Lynch-like, perversity?

Let's look at the verses:

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let...fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but..two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room

The first part of the song establishes that the protagonist is living the life of a perpetual traveler. However his traveling doesn't seem to be that of leisure. He's obviously living low rent motel to motel, trailer to trailer. He's probably homeless, a drifter who doesn't even seem to have enough to buy his own cigarettes. He also doesn't seem to have a steady income as he resorts to doing menial labor and odd jobs like "pushin' broom" to even get lodging for the night. This already paints an unfortunate picture of the singer.

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination...Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don't pay no union dues,
I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not too big around

More details of the protagonist are revealed. He travels illegally by the classic hobo method of hitching on boxcars from city to city. He further elaborates on his overall shoddiness by mentioning his worn out clothes and shoes. His statement of not paying union dues seems to be a way of implying that he is essentially unemployed and that this appears to be a permanent or long term status for him. More vagrant like behavior is revealed as he smokes left over butts that he's gained from rummaging. At this point we have ourselves a pretty clear picture of a drifter. Possibly a criminal? Possibly a drunk? Possibly mentally ill? Possibly dangerous? The last verse implies some unsavory answers.

I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain't locked
When no one's around.

The song suddenly takes quite a dark turn here. What are we supposed to assume from this last round of revelations? The first part says that he has a long history of living this boxcar hopping vagrant lifestyle, then he disturbingly adds "yeah I also know their children's names too". Maybe these were simpler times, but if I were an engineer, one of the last people I'd talk about my children with would be this creepy drifter I found riding in my boxcar. Or maybe he just found out about them on their own and it's now too late! Then comes the most incriminating part about his knowledge of every locked lock when no one's around which is about as close as saying "yes I am a criminal, I rob people" without actually admitting it. Is it the unlocked, unattended doors of the children that he's so familiar with? Disturbing!

I don't know, it may be a delusional stretch on my part, but taken as a whole everything about the singer just seems so off. I can totally imagine this guy with the vacant one eyed stare of a Henry Lee Lucas, the tragic, twisted upbringing of an Aileen Wournos, the perverse appetites of a Jeffery Dahmer, the cold manipulative abilities of a Ted Bundy, just looking for someone to contribute to his crudely made suit of human flesh. One thing's for sure, it'd make one hell of a psychological thriller/horror film though. "King of the Road" starring Peter Sarsgaard. Although I can't decide who'll play the obsessed detective with the personal life that's falling apart yet...maybe Ed Norton or Sean Penn.

Or I guess it could all just be about some bum on a train.

1 comment:

  1. oh hell no-if you're gonna make a henry lee lucas movie you need robert downey jr. as the investigator. sure, he did the zodiac thing but you need to him to be zany and ironic. like the title of the movie.