Kerouac on Record
A Literary Soundtrack
by Simon Warner [Bloomsbury Academic - 2018]
There are some necessary figurehead rites of passage for the angry young creative artist, poetic scribbler, or plugged-in rock star that, in retrospect, might seem embarrassing or simply too easy to parody. It's the case with Bob Dylan, who burst on the scene as a baby-faced Woody Guthrie acolyte and within half a decade became his own singular self. Dylan has never been able to escape the fact that many of those who first embraced him eventually move beyond him and there's nothing wrong with that conclusion. Bruce Springsteen followed the same career trajectory a decade later and seems to have managed to break from the restrictions of legend by persisting today on Broadway as a staged representation of self, presenting what he wants of his life several nights a week at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City for the foreseeable future (or as long as tickets sell). Joni Mitchell started as a Canadian folk goddess, became a beatnik, a jazz sparrow, and remains her own idiosyncratic self, a recluse who no longer finds solace as (to take a line from one of her songs) a "Refuge of the Roads".
Jack Kerouac is the common bond that connects Dylan, Springsteen, Mitchell, and many other musical recording artists whose legacy either started in his lifetime or blossomed in his wake. Kerouac On Record: A Literary Soundtrack, edited by Simon Warner and Jim Sampas, is a compelling and comprehensive collection of academic studies that successfully spotlights the connective tissue between Kerouac and the music he loved, like the Bop jazz of Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz or Chet Baker's vocals and Miles Davis's mastery of the cool jazz trumpet style, and the music he might never have imagined would have followed in his wake. Kerouac was alive until October 1969, when he died at the age of 47, and in ways measured in much deeper categories than just health, the man had not been well for years.
Kerouac On Record effectively conflates the musical and literary life of its subject and it also rehabilitates that bitter, cynical image of Kerouac at the end of his life. He despised hippies. His comrade Neal Cassady may have been able to align himself with such characters as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and early forms of the Grateful Dead, but none of that spoke to Kerouac. This is what we can gleam from the man's public pronouncements, but we know from history that pioneers often turn their backs on their ideological children. Consider this passage from Michael Goldberg's interview with writer Richard Meltzer, where the latter describes a party involving Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, and other assorted hangers-on:
At some point, Abbie Hoffman took an American flag and wrapped it around Jack's shoulders, and Jack was pissed off and folded the flag... he had a little fun... but the [photos] they print, they want it to indicate that Jack was exasperated with these people.
That key term "these people" can be applied to the Kerouac followers who probably came to their man through other channels, and those means were more likely than not musical. From the strangely engaging (but in retrospect probably too smarmy) spoken word duets Kerouac recorded in 1958 with comic and Tonight host Steve Allen on piano. They're immediately subject to parody, even though the roots of their creation were obviously painfully sincere. Jonah Raskin's "Jack Kerouac Goes Vinyl" illustrates the process. The young writer enters the studio, puts a suitcase on the piano, and prepares for the spontaneity:
According to Allen, Jack opened the suitcase, removed a 'roll of paper... long and white' and 'a lot of little scraps of paper.'... He was not in a hurry and neither was Allen... Spontaneity [picking the passages of text from which he'd read] was clearly at work, though... assembling the texts... might have been a matter of deliberate sifting and careful sorting.
Understanding the music of Kerouac's writing, his beatnik prosody jazz stylings, requires an awareness of the conflicted relationship he and his fellow Beats seemed to have with the African-American experience. Were they looking at these jazz artists as the mysterious "other" from whom all manner of unspeakably strong magic originated? Again, from "Jack Kerouac Goes Vinyl", we enter this tricky territory:
Kerouac had long endorsed the idea that to understand America one had to understand the 'Negro' and 'Negro music'...
This element of racially appropriating/fetishizing is explored deeper in Nancy M. Grace's "Detecting Jack Kerouac and Joni Mitchell..." Grace argues that Mitchell's embrace of black culture in the mid- to late '70s, going so far as appropriating male race drag in her alter ego "Art Noueveau", can be connected with our current exploration of "transracial" identity. The essay nicely draws again from the Kerouac/Allen collaboration and Mitchell's own self-perception as a painter who just happened to be a singer/songwriter musical genius:
...Kerouac never considered himself a musician...[even considering his collaboration with Allen]... Likewise and conversely, Mitchell long considered himself a painter before she began writing song lyrics...
Grace's exploration of Mitchell and Kerouac as mirror images of each other is fascinating. The latter worked first from the music and then carefully constructed three sets of lyrics. Kerouac's approach was spontaneous, with music only as a supplemental compliment to selected passages from novels and poetry. Joni Mitchell is a perfect subject for an anthology such as this in that she was very clear about her disdain of the Beats during various interviews, but various evidence cited (album covers, song themes focused on travel, a flirtation with jazz) made it clear that Kerouac's influence was paramount to the flowering changes in her career. She might not have wanted to admit it, but the evidence is explicit.
Image and the very act of "self" as a non-stop performance installation is another element that runs through two other major Kerouac disciples examined here. In Douglas Field's " 'Straight from the Mind to the Voice': Spectral Persistance in Jack Kerouac and Tom Waits", the argument is that the latter seemed to clearly understand honoring influences was as much about the "spectral" appearance as it was about how the words matched the sounds (prosody.) Fields recounts a legendary 1977 Waits TV appearance on the program Fernwood Tonight:
Delivering a masterful performance of a 1950's... lounge singer, Waits slugged from a bottle of beer as he recounted stories of car mishaps in a series of scripted one-liners that showed glimpses of his skills as an actor.
This was surely calculated and humorous on the part of Tom Waits, Fields reasons, but it has a direct connection with a legendary 1968 Kerouac TV appearance on William F. Buckley's Firing Line, "...where he [Kerouac] refused to play the role of the King of the Beats that had been foisted on him by the media." In effect, Waits has spent his career re-inventing himself and transforming, but "...Kerouac had drunk himself to death just over a decade after his most famous novel."
Within the first decade of his career, Waits' love of the Kerouac myth was unabashed. He was in love with the Kerouac/Steve Allen collaboration, with the romanticized ideal of the quest for another sense of place, a different sense of place. In Simon A. Morrison's 'Tramps Like Them: Jack and Bruce and the Myth of the American Road", the calculated effort to embody Kerouac's spirit can be seen not just through lyrics but also the presence in publicity photographs:
...Kerouac in white T-shirts and blue jeans... boots and plaid work shirts... This was demonstrably a look adopted by Springsteen- the same... look that defined Kerouac's Beats- by the mid 1970s repositioned as Springsteen's 'tramps.'
Morrison takes it deeper by examining other thematic links between Kerouac and Springsteen, like the Maggie/Mary idealized female in their subject matter (as both objects of love and- considering their Catholicism- subjects of idolatry.) There's also the unshakeable bond of the male friendship. For Kerouac, it was Neal Cassady. For Springsteen, it was the boys in the band. It's a deep and convincing study here from Morrison that's strong for many reasons. The highly literate Springsteen, an autodidact who has made no secret of his connections with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan, was clearly taken with the restlessness of Kerouac in the early days, the independent days, unencumbered by familial obligations.
Ronna C. Johnson's "From Beat Bop Prosody to Punk Rock Poetry: Patti Smith and Jack Kerouac -- Literature, Lineage, Legacy" proposed that Smith is a "...third generation Beat poet of blunt visionary declamation and a second generation New York school poet of vatic punk authority..." It's a strong declaration that Johnson effectively covers here while at the same time admitting that how Kerouac is heard through Smith can be complicated. Take some of her early work: "Hey Joe/Piss Factory", "Gloria", and "Because the Night". The poetic beauty, anger, and controlled rage is on full display. Johnson dives deep into the weeds with this study, and connecting Smith with Kerouac is tough, but it's worth the trip:
Kerouac's manifesto of trusting the writing mind-no revision, a rejection of self-censorship-contrasts with Smith's rejection of words 'rules and regulations': for her, the very smallest unit of writing, the word, a vehicle of writing, is inherently censorship itself.
While the female "children of Kerouac" are effectively studied here (Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith) it's surprising nobody looked at Rickie Lee Jones's clear homages to life on the road. The mythologized elevation of masculinity so celebrated by Kerouac and the Beats in their time can seem dangerously out of place in ours. Mitchell, Smith, and Jones were three women who absorbed Beat sensibility without being overwhelmed by its sometimes anachronistic view of gender identity. Natalie Merchant's "Hey Jack Kerouac", from the 1987 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe, looked at the writer from the sympathetic perspective of his long-suffering mother, in effect feminizing the tragedy of the writer's voluntary self-destruction.
Most every musical influence and genre that could have been effected by Kerouac is considered here, including punk and new wave, the San Francisco Counterculture, and tribute LPs. One of the more compelling chapters, Peter Mills's "Hit the Road, Jack: Van Morrison and On the Road", opens by recounting a scene from a 1989 BBC TV tribute to the Beats featuring Morrison reading from the novel and idiosyncratic jazz master Slim Gaillard spontaneously reacting on stage:
He [Gaillard] first whips off his cap, then jacket, tie, shirt, while still keeping up frantic rhythm on the bongos he has before him.
Van Morrison, who has loved American musical culture for years, has also never hesitated explicitly citing favorite authors in his songs. More than just citing, it's the improvisational mystic vocals that connect him with the spontaneity of Kerouac and the Beats:
Listen to Morrison's voice as he calls out those 'mystic eyes' and you'll hear that 'eeyah,' a kind of generational update on [Walt' Whitman's] 'yawp' of life. For Morrison it came from Kerouac and jazz and blues and found its way through him into the music.
Matt Theado's 'Kerouac and Country Music" manages to effectively rehabilitate the reputation and basic presence the form has experienced in the writer's canon. "The centrality of home in country music is contrasted by the lure of the road... Some songs ["On the Road Again"] treat life on the road as destination in itself..." No matter the cornpone sentiments of much country music Kerouac might have disparaged, the common elements they share are undeniable.
Kerouac on Record: a Literary Soundtrack is heavy without being overwhelming. It can get temporarily stuck in the weeds of academic navel-gazing, but that's a risk understood in such a collection. Keep in mind that the myth of Kerouac really didn't get started until the mid-'70s with the Naropa University and Allen Ginsberg's tireless efforts to sustain and maintain Beat aesthetics. There are images of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan at Kerouac's grave in Lowell, playing guitar and reciting poetry. Other songs surfaced, tributes emerged, attempts were made to salvage reputations. Separate the myth and solipsistic insistency of the Beats, and a better appreciation of Kerouac's legacy will surface. Editors Simon Warner (Visiting Research Fellow in Popular Music at The University of Leeds and former PopMatters contributor) and Jim Sampas (music and film producer) have compiled a volume (including some of their own thoughts about the tribute recordings) that should go far towards putting his impressive musical legacy in its proper place.
This article has been viewed 1,482 times since being added on May 10, 2018.
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