Hit the Road Jack – Pt. 1
At 1943 Berkeley Way in Berkeley stands an apartment building that looks more or less like all the others that were cloned by the millions in the late 1950s and 1960s. The architecture is an homage to rectangles and squares. Its three stories are made up of nondescript beige squares resembling an orderly pile of boxes waiting to be picked up by a giant delivery person. The façade is studded with rectangular windows and cramped, boxed-in square balconies. Somewhere on a small portion of the same site once stood an old house where in 1957 a postman delivered to Jack Kerouac his advance copies of On the Road. Allen Ginsberg occupied a nearby cottage at 1624 Milvia Street when he gave his historic reading of “Howl” at Six Gallery in San Francisco two years earlier. It too was replaced by a gray apartment building in 1963 that looks like the Berkeley Way structure’s baby. I could not help thinking when I went searching for the two modest old cottages that it was yet another contradiction of the times that they would be obliterated and replaced, in the Sixties no less, by nondescript, conformist squares.
Jack Kerouac set many karmic wheels in motion on different levels, including some that propelled major musicians on their roads to glory. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Donovan, David Bowie, Tom Waits and many others have talked with great fervor, not only about the artistic inspiration they drew from Kerouac, but about the way he changed the course of their lives.
He took the stunning rhythmic and improvisational qualities of his writing from jazz and blues. He attempted to capture in words what he experienced in music, particularly that of saxophone players blowing jazz riffs. On the Road in particular provided a map for a way of life. It gave a context to youthful rebellion: the dream of taking to the road, going to San Francisco, taking drugs, being sexually free, and leading a life unfettered by societal constraints. Many of the youngsters who went down that road to California stayed to make music and write songs about it. Finally, Kerouac’s exploration of Buddhism at a time when it was barely known in America pointed the way for generations of spiritual seekers.
Ellis Amburn, editor of Kerouac’s final two books and to whom he dedicated his last novel said to me, “He was on the threshold of everything, of Buddhism and of California.”
Between the Beat generation of the Fifties and the hippies of the Sixties there was more a merging of energies than a passing of the torch. Although the phrase “generation gap” was coined in the Sixties and the sound bite, “Never trust anyone over thirty” hailed from Berkeley, young hippies made a giant exception for the Beat writers. Stewart Brand, a Merry Prankster with Ken Kesey, Trips Festival Organizer and founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue said, “I owe everything to the Beats and still do.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in Tyrannus Nix that a “new race of longhaired golden progeny descending from on high in Jefferson Airplanes” might rescue nature from technocracy. Neil Cassady, model for Dean Moriarty of On the Road, went on the road again in the Sixties, driving Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ bus.
Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and other Beat poets sat on the stage at The Human Be-In, the 1967 gathering of the tribes in San Francisco. They represented the unbroken bond between the generations. Dennis McNally, author of Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America, and publicist for the Grateful Dead commented to me of their presence at The Human Be-In, “That’s the obvious and inarguable transmission. They knew it and they felt it. And there was Gary, fresh back from Japan, and Michael and they knew there was something going on and they had to give it their blessing as poets. And it was marvelous.”
While his former friends grooved onstage at the Human Be-In, Kerouac was elsewhere in body and spirit: bitter, bloated with booze and at death’s portal. He rejected hippies, publicly insulted Ginsberg and other old friends, and a visit from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters proved to be disastrous. The rebel hero of teenagers everywhere had spent much of his life living with his mother, and now was dying with her. By 1969 he was gone. However, he had already imparted a spiritual transmission in high gear to the next generation. All roads connecting the Beats to Sixties musicians and songwriters seem to originate on the street where he lived.
Improvising According to Jack Kerouac’s Script
Now it’s jazz. The place is raving. . . .and everything is going to the beat. It’s the beat generation. It’s be-at [as in beatitude]. It’s the beat to keep. It’s the beat of the heart. It’s being beat and down in the world and like old time lowdown and like ancient civilizations and the slave boatmen rowing galleys to the beat and servants spinning pottery to the beat.
Kerouac’s writing particularly influenced musicians along three avenues: the words and their content had a profound effect on songwriters. The musicality of his work, which he modeled on jazz and the blues, was reflected in the way many Sixties musicians, especially the San Francisco Bay Area bands, took to jazz and blues like Cassady to cars. Less well known is that Kerouac loved rock ’n’ roll, hailing Elvis as a role model for a new type of masculinity at a time when literati generally dismissed rock as commercially crass crap. Kerouac’s writing emphasized spontaneity, immediacy and improvisation. He believed that the first thought was the most pure, the most authentic, the closest to one’s personal truth. After that, any editing, any going back and re-writing, defiled that pristine, first impulse.
“Kerouac was the first writer I ever met who heard his own writing, who listened to his own sentences as if they were musical, rhythmical constructions,” said Allen Ginsberg. Listening to recordings of Kerouac read his work is mesmerizing. He chants, he plays with words, pronouncing them one way and then another, sculpting their sound like a piece of malleable clay. Occasionally he’ll break into song, suddenly tossing off a line from a Sinatra standard in the middle of a poem. This is a man in love with the sound of words and the rhythm and musicality of writing. Indeed, Kerouac would sometimes write with the aid of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, speaking his phrases out loud and playing them back to help make his writing sing. He also listened to tapes of Neal Cassady’s speed-fueled, stream-of-consciousness monologues for his novel, Visions of Cody. Lord knows he had heard enough of them live and in person, and found plenty of material in Cassady’s out-of-the-boundaries spirit and delivery.
Kerouac’s writing was a marriage of poetry and music. The first experiments with reading poetry accompanied by jazz largely took place in San Francisco. Steve Allen, who played piano improvisations while Jack Kerouac read poetry for three remarkable recordings, explained how they came about. “It occurred to Millstein [the producer] that since the combination of jazz and poetry had been successful in small San Francisco clubs, the trick might also be turned in New York.” Although the satirical image of a Beat poet in shades, a goatee and beret, mumbling freeform nonsense accompanied by bongo drums or a sax would become a cliché, Kerouac’s prose and poetry soars in the medium.
Singer-songwriter Donovan has a profound love of the Beat poets and recorded an homage to the gatherings at Bohemian coffee houses, Beat Café. He has spoken repeatedly about Jack Kerouac’s influence on his own life and on his generation.
“Jack Kerouac spoke his poems, sung his poems because that’s the power of it,” he said. “And a poem on the page, quite dry, is still powerful. But when it’s spoken by the poet, sung by the poet, it achieves a movement. Because you can move people with music here, but you can also move societies. It’s like a vibration. . . all the parts have to be in perfect order. Kerouac modeled his writing on jazz, particularly the music of saxophone players Lester Young and Charlie Parker. He also wanted to capture the raw power and the African-American influence in blues. During a month in 1955 he wrote a series of poems, calling each one a chorus. He titled the collection Mexico City Blues. He said he was “a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday. I take 242 choruses, ideas vary, roll from chorus to chorus.” He told his literary agent that his “Jazz Session” was going to rattle some chains among traditional poets.
In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac wrote a “List of Essentials” for writing, published in The Evergreen Press in 1959. The list also reads very much like a prescription for hippie life in general as well as artistic expression in particular. From such a blueprint emerged many songs describing the longings of the next generation for lives of unfettered, uninhibited experience and expression. Some of the essentials include:
2 to everything. open, listening
7 Blow as deep as you want to blow
9 The unspeakable visions of the individual
20 Believe in the holy contour of life
24 No fear or shame in the of yr experience, language & knowledge
28 Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29 You’re a genius all the time
Number twenty-nine has that wonderful confidence and arrogance of youth, art, rebellion, and most of all, of faith in a person’s true, authentic nature as being something of value. This is an idea that would come up again and again in songs of the next decades, from The Young Rascals “People Got to Be Free” to The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”
In 2006, Dennis McNally and I sat in a noisy bar with a tape recorder between us in Mill Valley, the “Mill City” of On the Road where Sal Paradise stayed when he first reached California.
McNally said, “….there were two things: one was to try to be spontaneous, and the other was to include everything as subject matter: to bring sex, drugs, the nitty gritty of daily life onto this demure reality. Reality sandwiches. That is another way of paying homage to the blues, which are frequently improvised. I mean the oldest blues, going all the way back. And the great, great scintillating value, along with everything else, is their realism. There’s no moon-June-spoon. There’s no mush. There’s a reality that most men need women and most women need men and they’re locked in this combat sometimes and this mutual need. But there’s nothing sentimental about it. And that reality is, frankly, the significance of the blues and the significance of African-American art.”
Kerouac’s was a search for authenticity, for the real down and dirty bare-bones truth. He wanted to find it within his own experience and to express it in words and music and in their combination. This spoke to a generation of musicians and those who listened to them with open, receptive ears.
Ellis Amburn said, “Kerouac’s breakthrough was to give us the American vernacular. He captured the actual language that was spoken. That must have been of tremendous importance to Janis and to Dylan and others.”
Indeed, Bob Dylan credits Kerouac and Ginsberg with introducing him to poetry. He told Ron Rosenbaum in an interview for Playboy, “. . . it was Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who inspired me at first.” Allen Ginsberg himself quoted Dylan as saying “‘Someone handed me a copy of Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959 and it blew my mind.’ Why? ‘It was the first poetry that talked to me in my own language.’” Ginsberg brought Bob Dylan to Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts along with members of the Rolling Thunder Revue during the filming of Renaldo & Clara in 1975. They performed a ceremony and Ginsberg chanted while it was all chronicled for the movie.
The admiration was more ambivalent from Kerouac’s side. Kerouac was testy about Ginsberg’s involvement with Dylan, reporting to Ellis Amburn that Ginsberg had been with Bob Dylan in London and that they were “thicker’n thieves.” On another occasion to another person, Jack called Dylan “another fucking folk singer,” although he eventually magnanimously pronounced, “well, okay, he’s good.”
Allen Ginsberg also met the Beatles and Donovan in London, an event partially caught on film by D.A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back. Kerouac told Amburn that the meeting inspired John Lennon to telephone him. Lennon told Jack that the term ‘Beat’ inspired his band’s name. Kerouac also reported that Lennon expressed regret that he hadn’t paid a call when the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium in New York in 1965. “I told him it’s just as well,” replied Kerouac, “since my mother wouldn’t let them in without a hair cut. . . .”
Dennis McNally commented, “‘Hard Rain’ [A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall] is almost an homage to Howl, just in terms of its structure. There’s no question of the influence.” Ellis Amburn said, “I thought Desolation Angels was a great book and I loved being involved with it. I’m sure the word “desolation” is not heard much.… The minute I heard “Desolation Row,” I thought, ‘I’ll bet he got that from Desolation Angels.’”
When I mentioned Amburn’s comment to Dennis McNally he replied, “It wouldn’t shock me…. He’s flatly and unquestionably an heir to Allen as a poet and to Jack spiritually. And he’s said as much. But he’s a very great poet so it means that none of it should be taken very literally, including what he says. There’s a passage in Chronicles [Chronicles, Volume One, by Bob Dylan] which concerns an experience he had when he was playing with the Dead in the eighties that is not literally true. I was there and I know it was not literally true. And, that’s okay with me too.”
Jerry Garcia said flatly, “On the Road was the turning point in my life.” He read the book on the recommendation of a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. The phrase, ‘Beat generation’ had captured Garcia’s imagination. “I was an impressionable San Franciscan,” he wrote, “really taken with the North Beach scene, and this stuff began to surface. Then, in the next couple of years I read Kerouac, and I recall in ’59 hanging out with a friend who had a Kerouac record, and I remember being impressed—I’d read this stuff, but I hadn’t heard it, the cadences, the flow, the kind of endlessness of the prose, the way it just poured off. It was really stunning to me. His way of perceiving music—the way he wrote about music and America—and the road, the romance of the American highway, it struck me. It struck a primal chord. It felt familiar, something I wanted to join in. It wasn’t like a club; it was like a way of seeing. It became so much a part of me that it’s hard to measure; I can’t separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac. I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something outside with my life—or even suspected the possibilities existed—if it weren’t for Kerouac opening those doors.” Dennis McNally said about Jerry Garcia’s reaction to On the Road, “He talked specifically about it in terms of ethics—the Beat ethic—which is to say, anti-materialism. It gave him an identity. He was a kid who was fifteen years old, sixteen, he was going to art classes on Saturdays. Certainly part of the whole sixties rock scene was started by people going to art college; Brian Jones. When you see yourself as an artist you are automatically somewhat anti-bourgeois….And he goes to the coffee houses and listens to the poetry, and it gives him an identity outside the standard track, which happens to suit being a musician just fine. . . It certainly set him on a path that he never left.”
The Grateful Dead and Kerouac’s paths would cross many times. Most obviously, they hung out with Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, with the Merry Pranksters at Ken Kesey’s place in La Honda and at various Acid Tests. There were also some serendipitous convergences, such as when the Grateful Dead called an album “From the Mars Hotel” after a San Francisco flophouse near the CBS recording studio, where it would turn out that Kerouac had crashed on some down-and-out nights.
“If Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed,” Ray Manzarek, Doors keyboardist once stated. “Jim Morrison was a post-Beat writer. He was absolutely influenced by Kerouac, Ginsberg . . . .We tried to find that freedom in art, poetry and music. Whereas the Beats were all into literature, poetry and jazz, we tried to combine poetry and music, poetry and rock and roll.” Morrison first read On the Road the year of its publication, while a high school student in Alameda, California. He was entranced with the book, copying excerpts into a notebook and studying the Ginsberg and Cassady characters to the extent of attempting to imitate the mannerisms of Dean Moriarty. Morrison made weekend pilgrimages to North Beach with a friend, hanging out in City Lights Bookshop but running away after tentatively summoning up the courage to greet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the 1960s a thoroughly sloshed Kerouac would relate to Ellis Amburn over the phone that Morrison had come to the door of his house in New York, but that his mother wouldn’t admit him “without a hairnet.”
I spoke with Donovan about Jack Kerouac as we sat on the rooftop of his Hollywood hotel at sunset, watching the lights come on in the hills. For Donovan, Kerouac embodied a powerful social, spiritual and literary force that created a larger social movement. Donovan feels that poets and songwriters are like shamans who are the spiritual leaders of their tribes. Kerouac was instrumental in setting him on his own path.
“So when Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth decided to read poems they would be influenced by jazz. And they’d have jazz playing. And Kerouac of course wrote to jazz rhythms. So these men, I realized, were trying to put poetry back in the people’s hands, in the people’s ears, in the people’s culture. But they thought it was going to come through jazz. And it became clear that they couldn’t improvise poetry and the jazz musician couldn’t improvise jazz at the same time. So it would be the job of the folk musician. And alongside Beat poets and jazz players of the forties and fifties in America was Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Weavers and a host of others around them who were bringing meaningful lyrics and social issues back to the people through the music.
“And so in the reading of Kerouac it led to the Beat poets, the reading of Beat poets led to the reading of other poets….As soon as I read Kerouac it all jelled. I realized that the mid-twentieth century poets were trying to bring back to the culture of the world, to the people, poetry. And it was a power….So it’s clear in that case that the poet has a power to alter society’s views by the power of the word and that the word was threatening. …the poet challenges greed and hypocrisy by re-setting in words the challenges. And so when I read Kerouac it was totally clear that something extraordinary was going to happen. These Beat poets had begun to influence the singer-songwriters of the 1960s.”
Kerouac and his crowd of hipsters made jazz, particularly bebop, cool among the intelligentsia of his time. However, Jack was also hip to a beat that the Beat generation generally thought was a bust: African-American influenced rock ’n’ roll.
“Kerouac loved rock and roll,” Ellis Amburn told me with great fervor. “I went to Columbia and studied with [Lionel] Trilling and a lot of the people Kerouac studied with. I just loved rock and roll, but no one else in my group did. Everyone in publishing pooh-poohed it; thought it was silly and trivial. Jack was the first serious artist or intellectual who also liked it. He just loved Elvis. He was the most thrilling singer I ever heard until the Beatles. I had a visceral reaction to him. I’m sure Jack was responding in an even deeper way than I. He was always more into popular music than I was—the blend of blues, jazz, swing, pop—all those wonderful black things Jack was hearing with his very educated ear, which he had trained for jazz. Jack was hearing rock with an educated ear, how it combined so many wonderful strains in American music and culture, particularly black.”
“Sam Phillips told me when I was writing my Orbison bio [Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story], his whole operation, Sun Records, was to get white boys to sing black music so he could sell it. He started out recording Muddy Waters and great black artists, but he couldn’t sell them. What he was doing with Cash, Perkins, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records was ripping off black music and packaging it for a white mass market. He was recording all those great black people before he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. So that was what Kerouac was hearing. He said, and I think I wrote this in the book [Subterranean Kerouac] that he wanted to be more black, he wanted to be more negro, he wanted more night in his life. . . .I think that’s why he responded so well to Elvis, which is much to his credit, because serious people weren’t writing about rock in those days. Kerouac wrote an essay about the ‘new man’ in which Elvis was one of the models for a new type of masculinity.”
The essay reflects sentiments that sound more 1967 than 1957. Some excerpts:
America’s New Trinity of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley
(Written at the instigation of the two Helens, Weaver and Elliot 1957)
Love is sweeping the country.
While wars and riots rage all around the world, in a vortex that resembles the dying Dinosaur Age of Violence, here within her sweeter shores America is producing a Revolution of Love. Three young men of exceptional masculine beauty and compassion and sadness have been upraised by its reaching hands.
This is strange and it is good. . . . Now the new American hero, as represented by the trinity of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, is the image of compassion in itself. And this makes him more beautiful than ever. It is as though Christ and Buddha were about to come again with masculine love for the woman at last. All gone are the barriers of asceticism and the barriers of ancient anti-womanism that go deep into primitive religion. It is a Revolution of Love and it will become a Religion of Love.”
Part 1 of a 3 part article. Next part published Oct 15, 2016