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Commander Cody

Hot Licks, Cold Steal, and Truckers' Favorites on Paramount, $5.98

By Mickey Kaus

AFTER THE REVOLUTION I want to be a truck driver. All the important decisions will have been made, and it will be obvious to everyone that this load of apples should be hauled to that hungry down as fast as possible. Like a neo-classical economist who has assumed away all of his important question, I will relish the secure expertise involved in maximizing an obvious good. A lane change here, some hard braking there-I will make my own little crucial decisions, but before I leave I will know where I am going and why; and the trip will be good.

Through politics we often seem to be trying to create a society where our whole lives would have the purposeful simplicity of truck-driving. All the tough social decisions need to be made over again, and we must make them so that we can return to living with renewed moral security. And truck-driving music can appeal to us as a celebration of such a normal life, even if we can't tell a jimmy from a juke box ourselves.

The whole ethos of trucking music runs against a long-standing moral undercurrent of left student politics--the idea that political activity really should be the most important thing in our lives. The implication is that after the revolution this dictum will be institutionalized and we will spend all our time at meetings. But perhaps we have a sneaking suspicion that even then the things that really determine whether we are happy or sad will be the very mundane ups and downs which political life seems to devalue: the people we meet, the jokes we tell, the success we have in meeting our personal goals. The truckers of song live only in that world of daily battles. They make no pretense that anything of grander political scale is important and maybe that is why they are in a way before. The driver in "Six Days on the Road" offers no excuses:

Well the I.C.C. is checkin on down the line. You know I'm a little overweight and my log book's way behind

But nothin bothers me tonight,

I can dodge them scales all right,

Six days on the road and I gotta see my baby tonight.

WHETHER OR NOT politics has anything to do with it truckdriving music has emerged as a genuine self-conscious trend with the rise to fame of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and the release of their second album, Hot Licks Cold Steel and Truckers Favorites. Long a regular attraction around Berkeley, the Airmen did not release an album until last year. That album, Ozone, was a failure by the group's own admission. "We didn't know what we were doing then," Cody explained. The lifeless vocals and empty back-up effectively imitated the atmosphere of country music without exciting anybody in particular. But, said the Commander, the addition' of a new steel-guitar player had sparked the group and great things were in store for album two.

Not so, Hot Licks only goes to show that the group has bigger problems than a lot of dope and enthusiasm can cure. Cody's original "contribution to rock culture" was to prove to the ignorant that there were good truckdriving songs besides "Six Days on the Road," but on Licks he serves up these songs like a cold plate of scrambled eggs at the start of a long day's run.

This disappointment is especially hard to take after the promise of the album's cover. A color drawing of a good-looking oil tanker graces the front while funky old trucks of all varieties loll like disgruntled catfish around the borders of the back. The choice of songs seems right on schedule too, from "Looking at the World Through A Windshield" to "Semi-Truck," which features the lines:

Well here I sit, all-alone with a broken heart I took three bennies, and my semi-truck won't start.

Such lyrics might give you the impression that Cody and his bunch are actually just Berkeley hippies who have never been near a truck in their lives. This may be true, but Cody's biggest problem is the opposite one--he is too authentic. Other rock performers, like Taj Mahal, impose their own fantasies of heroism onto the traditional country and western sound, and the result can be better music than you'll ever hear in a roadside grill. Cody, on the other hand, sets out like a disciple to painfully duplicate that traditional country style. And sure enough, here they are, all the things you ever hated about country music--the same piddly-shit steel guitar, the monotonous drumming and fragmented solos, the songs that ooze out of the speaker like toothpaste. All this occasionally punctuated by little yells to let you know that the Commander thinks he is getting it on. Commander Cody is into truckdriving music--heavily.

ALL OF WHICH is not to say that the Airmen are not skilled at their trade. Cody's piano riff, are great if you notice them frolicking around in the background. And the pedal-steel player is also proficient, he is just asked to do too much. "Semi-Truck" and "Windshield" actually turn out as pleasant little ditties, well suited for bouncing along through the countryside. "Cravin' Your Love," a slow number, is perhaps the best cut on the album, simply because it abandons the café atmosphere for a fuller sound closer to rock and roll. "Tutti Frutti" and "Rop It Up," on the other hand, emerge limp after Cody's tenderizing treatment.

The album's spirit of imitation could only have been self-conscious. The Airmen's live performance of these songs last year ad a non-country toughness which Licks lacks. The Commander seems to be felting us that if you play truckdriving music, you immerse yourself in the genre, you go around wearing bandeaus and you don't question why truckdriving music sounds the way it does. You perfect the are of playing it as it should be played.

All it takes is one listen to Taj Mahal's version of "Six Days on the Road" to see how wrong Cody in, and to see how good truckers' music one sound when it is done in a rock style. To do that Cody would have had to choose the best elements of truckdriving music as he saw them and extend them to their logical conclusion through a different musical style. But Cody runs away from these decisions. The Airmen play country music well, but they don't give us any reason why we should want to listen to country music in the first place.

By choosing to work strictly within the rules of traditional truck driving music, Commander Cody has set himself an enjoyable task. After he had chosen that genre, all the important decisions were made, and Cody needed only to stay awake and perfect his technique. Hot Licks. Cold Steel, and Truckers Favorites demonstrates how impoverished truckdriving in any form can be if we don't keep on making the important decisions for ourselves.

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