Still Rockin' in the Beat World
How Kerouac Cool Continues to Fuel Popular-Music Passions as the Writer's Centenary Nears
By Simon Warner
In the spring of 1978, I arrived in the Massachusetts town of Lowell, a one-time milltown of industrial importance, with textile production employing significant numbers of its population. But this young Englishman in New England was then largely unaware of its blue-collar past beyond its entanglements with an author who grew up there in the 1920s and '30s.
Not that anyone in those anonymous-afternoon streets had any real grasp or knowledge of its most famous son. My friend and I, recent college graduates who had spent the previous year laboring on construction sites to fund this transatlantic journey, were on a mission to track the trail of Jack Kerouac. But initial exchanges left us feeling despondent.
Kerouac, already dead by almost a decade when we arrived in his boyhood streets, seemed to have made little impression on the ordinary men and women we met in shops or cafes or in bars as we played pool in a bid to fit in with the Main Street ambience.
Had they heard of him? Did they know members of his family? Where was he buried? The responses were disappointingly unhelpful, even deliberately deflective. Either he was already forgotten or locals were determined to blank this individual they saw as a runaway drunk, a man who had spent much of his errant life leaving Lowell, from their minds.
The day was grey, and we were tired travelers, having quite recently arrived in New York City and then Greyhound bussed from there to Boston and on to this relative backwater. We were, in our small way, living out the highway-hopping dream of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty--the fictional names of Kerouac and his great friend Neal Cassady--in the ground-breaking 1957 novel On the Road, the figurehead account of that radical literary community known as the Beat Generation.
But I suppose we lacked the sophistication, the confidence, the persistence, to turn our literary pilgrimage into a transformative homage. As the evening fell dark, we finally discovered Nick's Bar, the pub where the brother of Kerouac's third wife, Stella Sampas, held court. However, just as we arrived, we encountered a friendly reporter for the Lowell Sun.
He was pleased to make our acquaintance--Anglos were less familiar in the American hinterland then--yet he was more concerned about our welfare, warning us that two out-of-town longhairs were not likely to be that welcome in this brawling, bruising boozer. In short, he recommended we get out of town toute suite and offered us a ride to a bus depot where we could take an overnight ride into Canada. We took his tip.
The decades rolled on, but my interest in Kerouac never really dipped. Early in the new millennium, I befriended his nephew Jim Sampas, one-time singer-songwriter who became a successful record producer, and, in 2009, I returned to Lowell and, with this relative as my guide, finally visited the novelist's grave, not to mention the impressive commemorative garden that now proudly celebrates his connection to this reviving community.
And then, 40 years after that initial, unproductive foray, I coedited, with Sampas, by now literary executor of the author's estate, the book Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack, a celebration of the ways in which the writer and music have shared such a fertile connection: firstly in the author's own immersion in jazz particularly, and secondly through the impact he has had on several generations of singers, songwriters, and bands from the 1960s onwards and well on into the new century.
In this article, I intend to consider again that relationship, specifically Kerouac's association with a stream of important artists, operating in the fields of rock and folk, country and blues, punk and new wave and beyond, not genres with which he had any direct association or affinity but styles that drew on his creative power, his writerly energy, his vision of individual possibility, that has inspired so many to not just read his words but to transfer the passions of the page into many realms of popular music of the last 50 and more years.
From Dylan, perhaps most notably, to Tom Waits, maybe most diligently, from the Grateful Dead to the Doors and Van Morrison, David Bowie and Patti Smith to Sonic Youth, 10,000 Maniacs and Death Cab for Cutie to the Hold Steady, the Low Anthem to Fences, there is a potent, genre-vaulting genealogy of composers and groups, major and minor, keen to acknowledge a link or debt to that frenetic Kerouac consciousness, as determined traveler and voluminous documenter of his own picaresque life.
Worth noting, too, that there is an ongoing and living list of examples of Kerouac--and Cassady, too--being cited or mentioned in recordings of the later 20th and early 21st century: an incredible 450-strong gathering to date, which reflects an enduring desire in the broad rock 'n' roll community to celebrate this excited, expansive, frequently exuberant, often experimental wordsmith.
It is particularly poignant that we do so now: Kerouac's centenary is almost upon us--he was born in Lowell in 1922--and I want here to examine his enduring influence, focusing on the reasons so many musical voices have been marked, been charged, been driven, by the novelist's passionate expressions in print--his multiple autobiographical novels, his vivid essays and travelogues, and his highly charged poetry--and powerful spoken word records.
I've been in conversation with journalists and biographers, historians and commentators who have written about Kerouac and music, too, to get a sense of why his influence persists, what it is about the author that attracts rolling phases of young musicians to pin their affiliations to his reputation.
What is it with respect to this innovative prose master, this saint of the open highway, that continues to light the blue touch paper of inspiration over five decades after his premature demise at the age of 47 in the early autumn of 1969. What, in Kerouac's writing, life and art, beliefs and attitudes has managed to so capture the imagination of so many generations of popular-music makers?
Says Marian Jago, lecturer in popular music and jazz studies at Edinburgh University and currently preparing a book dedicated to the writer's relationship to jazz, "Kerouac stands as an embodiment of the American dream of freedom. A freedom which is so often expressed as freedom-in-mobility. America's sense of itself as exceptional in part rests upon the idea that if things get too bad you can always just head out and try your luck someplace new."
She adds: "This idea is at the heart of Turner's 1890s frontier thesis and is written into every American hero from Daniel Boone to John Wayne to Bruce Springsteen. Movement and second chances."
Brian Hassett, a Grateful Dead specialist and author of "the Beat Trilogy"--The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac, How the Beats Begat the Pranksters, and On the Road with Cassadys--distils the message still further: "Kerouac is The Road. Kerouac is freedom. Kerouac is the search."
He points out: "Even Barack Obama, when discussing his latest book in 2020, said, 'When I think about my own work, I have been shaped--just as my character has been shaped--by that quintessential Jack Kerouac open road, lookin' west, seeing what's next . . . or in the case of . . . Frederick Douglass, lookin' north to see what's next, but in either way, wanting to break the chains of whatever constraints we were born into and bound to.'
"Kerouac has sort of replaced Mark Twain as the quintessential go-to American Adventurist," Hassett believes. "And music is about adventure, and exploration, and emotion, and going furthur (as the Kesey gang spelled it). Music is about passion, and playfulness, and breaking the rules, and singing in all its meanings, and expanding on themes, and dancing in rhythms. These are all things this Beat Generation writer has in spades."
Matt Theado, professor of American literature and culture at Kobe City University, Japan, who has recently overseen a major Kerouac exhibition in his adopted city, comments: "Most songwriters who know Kerouac read On the Road at a formative time in their lives. When they were young and aspiring performers, they got ahold of On the Road and saw a possible life.
"Get up off that couch, Kerouac told them. You can go out, you can meet people, you can live it up. And if you're blessed, somewhere along the way, the pearl will be handed to you. In the 1960s and '70s most rockers were young men, and like Sal Paradise, they knew they'd find 'girls, visions, everything.'"
The author's rejection of convention is also picked up by long-time music journalist Holly George-Warren, who edited The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats and is currently working on a major new biography of Kerouac, with the writer's estate archives opened up for her investigative scrutiny.
She explains: "He embraced 'the other' during post-World War II America when the mainstream message was the opposite: conformity, upward mobility, and materialism. His call that 'the road is life,' his musical ear and literary innovations--spontaneous prose and 'sketching'--have resonated with readers and musicians since the late 1950s and in the ensuing decades as they discover his work."
Yet, for all this talk of groundbreaking resistance to expectations and the norms of the day, few would disagree that Kerouac descended into rambling conservatism in the 1960s. He took great exception to the counterculture and its antimilitary position in Vietnam demos and was particularly affronted to be identified as a talisman by the new hippie nation. He even took the view that LSD was a communist plot to pollute and corrupt the minds of young America.
Mark Bliesener, who organizes Denver's annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash, coined the band name Dead Kennedys, and is a 50-year veteran of the music business, offers a more controversial take on the writer's perceived radicalism. "Since Kerouac's 1950s coronation as the angriest of the 'angry young men,' writers of both music and literature have been attracted to Jack's jazz-influenced, improvisational use of language, along with the overhyped perceived cachet of Kerouac's 'cool.'"
But Bliesener counters the perceived wisdom: "In reality, the heart beating inside this hedonistic 'rebel' was actually that of a classically conservative, French-Canadian Catholic 'mama's boy.'" Kerouac famously drifted back to his mother's kitchen each time his cross-country odysseys left him tired, penniless, and hungry, so the image of the freewheeling journeyman is something of a misnomer.
That said, Paul Marion, Lowell-based academic and poet, editor of the Kerouac collection Atop an Underwood, and advocate of both the writer and the city, calls for a more balanced understanding of these Oedipal tensions. He argues: "The rendering of Kerouac as pathetically mother-tied is a portrait that might be touched up by now. There's no arguing with the life facts. However, a more sympathetic or even practical view might see Kerouac as single-minded in his devotion to writing, which requires making financial and even personal sacrifice."
Marion expands: "Holding on to the hearth with meals and heat and laundry service and a cat at close hand can be seen as making your own one-man writer-in-residence set-up. He did his field work, took notes, and circled back to the stable domestic scene to do his focused writing. This is not consistent, of course, but there is a pattern."
Meanwhile, author Pat Thomas, the man behind the acclaimed countercultural histories Did It!, the Jerry Rubin biography, and Listen Whitey!, a survey of black power and its musical soundtrack, has a simple theory why Kerouac's later life views have not deterred progressive music makers. "His classic books do not contain that kind of political conservatism," he explains, "and you'd have to read a few biographies and some essays to know that. So personally, I don't find it surprising that it's been overlooked."
Setting aside these anomalies--and which star, whether literary, cinematic, or musical, doesn't have contradictions in their personality--what do we think a singer or a songwriter is doing or trying to say by referencing Kerouac? What is the motivation, and where is the value?
Jerry Cimino, founder of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, remarks: "When someone references Kerouac, they're telling the world that they're hip to what he represented to so many and for so long. Whether they know his whole life or not, a casual observer likely appreciates that he was important to the culture, they have some idea of his influence, and that he had a big impact on many other people."
Brian Hassett cites a chain of influence. "They're leaving breadcrumbs, baby. That's how I first found him. One person mentions him, and it's just some guy mentioning a book. Then you see the name again. And then again. And pretty soon it's like, 'I gotta find this book!' That's what these musicians are doing. They know their thousands or millions of fans hang on their every lyric. They're leaving clues and pointers. Just like Jack kept mentioning Charlie Parker. He was intentionally directing his readers to another great artist in a different medium."
Hassett goes on: "Jack stressed Whitman and Wolfe and Proust 'cause he knew he didn't come out of nowhere. It proves that these musicians are aware they've just taken the baton and are carrying it for their short run--and that this flame has been touched off from one to another since art began."
Ronna Johnson, long-established Beat scholar and professor of English at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, describes a number of messages that can be encoded when the Kerouac myth is summoned, including "bohemian deracination" or homelessness, the "antibourgeois" roots of a singer-performer, an "antidomestic ethic," American Romanticism itself, also the spiritual concerns often entwined with this literary territory, from Catholicism to Zen Buddhism.
But if the ideology is potent and the ideas expressed through the novels and the poetry in the songs they inspire authentically sought and powerfully wrought, isn't the actual medium--young men with guitars in amplified bands--all too gender-specific and rather limited in its artistic canvas?
Pat Thomas cannot help but agree. "Come on! It can't be that surprising it's a man thing! It's all about men! Men having sex with women, men having bromances with other men. Men leaving their women behind for kicks, thrills and what-not. I wouldn't call it homoerotic, but men often enjoy hanging out with other men--go to a bar or a football game or on a fishing trip and tell me what you see!"
Further, Mark Bliesener argues that the Beat crowd were actually rock stars before the concept had even taken shape. "Long before the coinage of the often misused term 'rock star,' Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and others were already such forces. Via their nonconforming outsider stance, drug use, sexual liberation, and rejection of the existing status quo, they conceptualized for the masses an image of the stand-alone outsider rebel or 'rock star.'"
"Like the swashbucklers and cowboy heroes predating them, the Beats, and Kerouac in particular, came to represent this manifestation of a 'pirate' or alternative lifestyle, which in the late 1940s offered a dangerously flamboyant and visionary roadmap to the more psychedelic and apocalyptic times and writers to come."
However, Brian Hassett cannot concur with the view that the music that has grown out of the Beat soil is so guitar-centered or indeed just about men expressing themselves. "I don't see it as 'guitar-centered.' Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Donovan, Graham Parker, Ian Dury, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Natalie Merchant, for instance, are all singers.
"Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, David Amram, Mark Murphy, Fatboy Slim, the Beastie Boys, Lydia Lunch, Billy Joel, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Everything But the Girl, Rusted Root and so on sure as hell aren't 'guitar-centric.'
"Nor is it just 'rock' by any stretch. Ramblin' Jack, Paul Simon, Eric Andersen, Jeff Buckley, the Waterboys, Loudon Wainwright, Richard Thompson, Aztec Two-Step--that's all singer-songwriter folk, man.
"And not fer nuthin, but it ain't just 'men' either. Get this straight, man, and don't keep perpetuating the male myth. I mentioned Ella & Patti & Natalie & Lydia--but also Julianna Hatfield & Maggie Estep & ruth weiss & Dayna Kurta, or Gretchen Peters.
"This is not gender-specific. Don't present it as such. The striking thing is the very opposite of this question's premise. Yeah, some musicians who cite him play rock--but the beautiful thing is he inspires people in hip hop, jazz, pop, folk, alternative, fusion, you name it."
Nonetheless, despite Hassett's reassuringly upbeat reading of the current state of play, might the decline of the guitar-focused rock band in the opening decades of the 21st century mean that Kerouac's reputation as an inspiration will decline?
Marian Jago is not so sure. "Not necessarily," she comments. "I also don't think the decline of the guitar-focused rock band is properly as big a deal as people sometime claim (jazz is also dead, right?). I think if Kerouac faces trouble/potential lessening of influence it will be due to the treatment of women and African Americans in his work, which, while appropriate to their times, are now quite questionable to the extent that, for many, Kerouac won't be able to be read without considerable unpacking."
Jonah Raskin, leading Beat historian and poet, and the author of American Scream and the novel Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955, puts it in more straightforward terms: "I think his influence has already declined in the Black Lives Matter era we are in. He's a white guy."
Pat Thomas surveys the bigger picture, stating that "for so many reasons, it will decline. Some now see Kerouac as politically incorrect--and I don't mean because he voted for Richard Nixon as president! I mean because of the perceived lack of respect for women. Also, when I was growing up, we did not have cable TV or internet or video games or cell phones or social media--so reading books and/or listening to records were pretty much my only two choices growing up in rural America. Now, teens have about 50 choices of what do with their time, and sadly, rarely do many of them pick up a book!"
Yet Mark Bliesener, while acknowledging that the once predominant rock band model might well be diminished in 2021, isn't pessimistic. "The fact that the guitar-based rock band is a last-century idea fast fading in our collective rearview mirror does not necessarily diminish Kerouac's impact and importance going forward. The liberation he brought to literature strongly impacts the post hip hop world of today's more rhythmic or beat driven popular culture and music."
And Hassett, once more, remains bullish based on his own experiences on the road. "You could argue he's never been bigger. And that's with pretty much all the originals being dead. I do shows all over North America, and the audiences literally span 18 to 80 years old.
"He has crossed over some line that an artist does not fall back from. Liz Taylor, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Baryshnikov, Mozart, Dizzy, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright . . . Once an artist enters that kind of stratosphere of mass public consciousness, they never cease to be there."
But to tear open another crucial can of worms in our contemporary life: Has the image of macho bravado, linked to the author and numerous of his friends, and the bromance adventures that inhabit many of his stories alienated women from Kerouac and his homosocial world?
"No, I think some women identify with Kerouac's male characters," says Holly George-Warren. "In her new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel describes the impact that Kerouac's mountain hiking scenes in Big Sur had on her. Amber Tamblin, a leader of #MeToo, is one of several women who have described Kerouac's influence in the documentary One Fast Move and I'm Gone. I think many female musicians see beyond gender when being inspired or motivated by characters in novels."
Nonetheless, Ronna Johnson faces negativity toward Kerouac in the university classroom. As she explains, "Young women, generationally, even those in or now contemplating earlier generations such as Gen X and millennial, reject Kerouac. I now have female students who take my Beat seminar who want me to argue Kerouac's relevance/importance as postwar literary artist. They are entirely offended by On the Road itself, alone."
Yet Brian Hassett urgently challenges this general thesis of female alienation: "That is so NOT true. I noticed it in line for the premiere of the film of On the Road at Somerset House in London in 2012--how two-thirds of the people were young women. And I talked to a bunch of them, and they were not there for Kristen Stewart but were citing Lonesome Traveler and Dharma Bums as well as On the Road as pivotal books for them. Also, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, year after year more than 50 percent of the people who come solo to the festival are women. And at my many live shows a year it's damn close to a 50-50 split. It may seem surprising, but it's true.
"Also, think of all the women biographers and memoirists--Carolyn Cassady, Edie Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, Ann Charters, Ann Douglas, Brenda Knight, Joan Haverty, Jan Kerouac, Diane di Prima, Helen Weaver, Hettie Jones, Eileen Kaufman, Anne Waldman, Regina Weinreich, LuAnne Henderson, Anne Murphy, whose praising book of Neal has yet to be published, and soon Holly George-Warren doing the 'official' Jack biography--and who, not incidentally, all wrote GREAT books!'"
Marian Jago speaks from personal experience. "I'm not sure that I want to speak for all women, but I'll say that as much as I've enjoyed Kerouac (and the other Beats), I have always had to read him knowing that I was on the outside looking into a somewhat hostile room. I think a potentially more interesting question might be formulated around the treatment of African Americans in Beat works."
Mark Bliesener attempts a more historical perspective: "The Beats, like many significant societal influencers of their era, were almost exclusively and aggressively male. However, though likely under-reported, many women in the 1950s did read On the Road and were as equally incited by its vision of emancipation and kicks. Following the cultural upheaval of the women's movement in the 1960s and '70s, women were no longer 'shamed' for worshipping at the same altar of liberation as 'the boys.'
"In their time the Beats were strictly a boys' club, but owing to evolution and revolution, women now openly embrace a more natural affinity with the hedonism and deliverance espoused by the Beats. The same simplicity of language and unvarnished honesty which heralded the Beat renaissance certainly appeals to contemporary female taste. The plethora of new women writers now telling their personal, unvarnished truth in song, stories, and film stand as testament to this seed change."
Jerry Cimino comments: "Some people can't get beyond the dated, even misogynistic attitudes of the Beats. Plenty of people have difficulty with that, and for good reason. On the one hand, they were products of their time, and inextricable from the circumstances and attitudes of those times. Nonetheless, in the 1940s and 1950s, Kerouac was one of the more enlightened, or at the very least open-minded people at the time.
"When it came to diversity, inclusiveness, racial and gender equality, the Beats were ahead of their contemporaries, even though their language and attitudes often seem dated by modern standards. In 2021, it's easy to cancel someone because they said something 50 or 70 years ago that modern sensibilities can no longer abide. But anyone who takes that position is extremely shortsighted, in my opinion."
The debates about this literary movement and its influence on half a century of music-making not to mention the critical topics of gender and race and their relation to this surging cultural flow will go on for sure, but let us close this attempt to wrestle with these intriguing, and in some ways intractable, matters with a final quote, from the Beat Museum's Cimino once more.
"I don't think Kerouac's reputation will suffer, regardless of changes in styles and fads and trends. Yes, his reputation has enjoyed an enhancement by the famous people who loved him and want to make a nod to him. At the same time, his reputation is very broad and deep outside of the musical world, and outside the world of lead guitarists.
"The Beats, and especially Jack, seem to recapture the energies of every new generation. The themes of the Beats are youthful, experimental, adventurous, a quest for understanding, transcending things like sexual identity, or the desire for nontraditional alternatives to the status quo."
Note: Beat specialists Dave Moore and Horst Spandler have compiled a remarkable list of popular songs that reference Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. "Jack & Neal on Record" can be found here: http://www.beatbookcovers.com/music/
Simon Warner was, in the early 1990s, the recipient of the world's first MA in popular-music studies from Liverpool University. During the same period, he was a live rock reviewer for The Guardian. Later he taught these subjects, for more than 20 years, at the University of Leeds. His books include Text and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (2013) and the edited collections Howl for Now (2005) and Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack (2018).
Also see our articles on the Kerouac tribute album Kicks Joy Darkness
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