As I’ve taken the liberty of informing every single person I know or have casually conversed with in the past two weeks, I “read” Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild after Christmas (actually I listened to a book on tape of it on one long solo roadtrip from North Carolina to Massachusetts on Dec. 26). In short, the book is about the ultimate pack-it-in paradigm – a 20-something guy who hitched his way up to Alaska and in late spring of 1992 then walked out into the wilderness around Fairbanks with something like a sleeping bag, a machete, a gun, a toothbrush, a bunch of paperbacks of Russian literature and a 20-pound bag of rice. You walk away feeling conflicted about the guy, Jason McAndless. Dude was bad ass, but he was also obviously an egomaniac who, in some ways, had it coming when he perished alone in an abandoned bus, malnourished from trying to survive on weird roots and seeds. Well, the book gets deep into the specifics and by the end, one isn’t so sure if it was hubris, festering resentment toward his father, suicidal tendencies or bad luck that did McAndless in, but along the way Krakauer explores the charms and dangers of retreating from civilization.
Along with his worship of Tolstoy, McAndless was also evidently a big fan of Roger Miller (and I don’t mean Mission of Burma), in particular of the hobo tramp classic, “King of the Road,” the lyrics to which McAndless would scrawl in graffiti and letters he left at various spots. (Incidentally, one of the more moving exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the scrap of paper on which Miller originally penned the words to the song.) To my ears, Miller -- who, no surprise, was from Oklahoma -- was a real genius, a scat-singing Dadaist country crooner who could mine the deep veins of nonsense while still telling compelling stories (check out the Robin Hood cartoon movie to which he provided narration and musical numbers). You can hear "King of the Road" by turning on the oldies station. “My Uncle Used to Love Me” is a little less likely to show up there. This tune is as raw as Iggy Pop and as perversely weird as just about anything. "England Swings" puts me iin mind of Jerry Jeff Walker's "London Homesick Blues," and makes me wonder if there are other great country tunes about Britannia.