Road Letter, Love Letter – Re-Assessing Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” with books, thoughts and local artists.

I like songs about drifters, books about the same/ They both seem to make me feel a little less insane
–Isaac Brock, “The World at Large”

On The RoadLately when I think about Jack Kerouac I think about a story told by his old friend David Amram, a French horn player, composer, farmer, gifted talker and poet who makes it a duty to play Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah each year because he visited Woody once in Coney Island and was impressed by his company and intellect. Amram also played the first jazz poetry fusions in New York with Kerouac, in museums and bars. He tells us in his memoir “Off Beat” about Jack’s nervous side. When Amram was running late to the gig, the bar owner called him and said, “David, you gotta get down here.” This shabby guy with a messy stack of papers and a flannel shirt was being eyed by the hipsters. They’d come to see the much rumored, the incandescent beat poetry. They looked at Kerouac and saw a conservative, or perhaps a damn cinder block breaker, or maybe even a narc. The pointed looks compelled Jack to find a comfortable corner to start drinking heavily from his personal stash of Thunderbird wine. He couldn‘t do this, he couldn‘t do this. And where was David, anyway? It wouldn’t be until Amram came to his aide that he’d feel comfortable enough to start speaking into the mic. They approached Amram’s portable keys and microphone. They got going. After a nervous, jumpy start, the two settled into a groove, and surprised the jury of their peers.

This snapshot of inwardness and anxiety shouldn’t surprise us too much. Kerouac wasn’t a performer. He was a worker. He was a writer. His long distance thoughts reached a limit in his life, and you can see them in a sad, subtle hint on the first page of his love letter On the Road. When Sal Paradise talks about his friend Dean Moriarty, he is also talking about the raw life experience his friend symbolizes to him.

At one point Carlo and I talked about the strange Dean Moriarty. This is all far back, when Dean was not the way he is today, when he was a young jail kid shrouded in mystery.

Kerouac here and elsewhere has the mental power and foresight of a born recluse, the one who knows the rose petals he touches will wilt, given a little time. His skill, partly the gift of hindsight, is that he implies these things about his people while he hard charges through life anyway. For every new waitress Dean finds on the road, or soaring simile Sal Paradise experiences, every piece of bookish excitement there’s a limit– see the old withering intellectual (William S. Burroughs), coloring his brains and heart with black tar, unable to share in the young Kerouac’s enthusiasm. Here’s Burroughs as Old Bull Lee after Kerouac wins a bet on a horse that reminded him of his dad.

Bull Lee:

Big Pop is what I mean. You had a vision, boy, a vision. Only damn fools pay no attention to visions. How do you know your father, who was an old horseplayer, just didn’t momentarily communicate to you that Big Pop was going to win the race? The name brought the feeling up in you, he took advantage of the name to communicate. That’s what I was thinking about when you mentioned it…
…Ah, let’s go. This is the last time I’ll ever play the horses with you around; all these visions drive me to distraction.

Kerouac’s a romantic, but he’s not blindly romancing. For me, that lends On the Road its weight today. He peoples his book with ghosts who once burned to learn, but cannot sustain the fire into the autumn of their American lives. Kerouac’s always seeing sad things like this. Why would he ever want to leave his room? Because, I suppose, an artist is here to create, not to run away. Another shy guy, Thomas Pynchon, who continues to defend On the Road, has a word for it.

Melancholy. As any Elizabethan could tell you, if they weren’t all dead, melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor.

And so there’s Kerouac solo playing cowboys and Indians while thinking of the human race and Dosteovksy on the night watch. Or a lithe Jack Nicholson waving childishly at unnoticing barbers in Five Easy Pieces. Kerouac’s version of Burroughs is melancholy, just as his scenes with the mad, sweaty faux-intellectual Dean are often hilarious.

Kerouac’s book is a productive one. This feeling in the nervous guy became a book written instead of some dangerous unreadable ulcer. And the book, so slim, was written for us. It won’t take us long to read, and his characters and thoughts about them remain longer in scope and character than many that we can hope to extend today. Before you hit cynicism, you hit On the Road, the force that kicks you out of the house and on the trail. For the people I watched in college, On the Road meant “it’s time, go out there and see what this life is all about.” You could do it inwardly, in the backseat of a car on the way to a concert or in classrooms, and always with strangers. The country will become a teacher and a tapestry to your memory. This is the promise Kerouac makes with due warning, deep empathy and contagious verve.

A Bridge, A Mythology…

In my experience Kerouac’s gift to us has seemed his tireless bond with the journey as it is to be made by us. Time and again Jack has wormed his weird ecstatic self into people I’ve tried to understand. Today I noticed how many artistic lives Jack has motivated. Here, I’ll choose two friends and for purposes of centrality and story arc I’ll try to talk mainly about journey. Eric Gorman, of The Gentle Art of Floating band and a comic book artist calls Kerouac’s story the narrative of the pilgrim, which tickles me to death to hear and satisfies me. Because back when we were kids the Kerouac poster on his wall spoke to nothing I knew about him. “The only people for me are the mad ones!” Eric could play all of Blink 182s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket record on his first guitar. But it took much rote work. His hair was also getting gray way early. He was always worrying. Too worried, I thought, to dive into the mystery. The Christian rocker guy who sat next to us was more polished, and liked to joke about Eric’s nervousness and fierce attachment to the songs he liked (Bright Eyes). Such needling probably wasn’t great for him. And wasn’t Jack so nervous going into all those clubs to bare his thoughts? I like to imagine that reading guys like Kerouac help you make sense of that vulnerability though. So years passed, pot was introduced, women, music. Then, and, maybe now, Jack presided over his Wal-Mart bought first bookshelf.

…the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…

Eric’s still at it. Playing in bands and drawing comics now. Jack would be happy to hear that when Eric reads On the Road now, he feels like he’s in no time. The trance space of great, experienced literature. The product of no innovation or headline, but of something else in us.

“I reread it about two years ago. I took my time and read it a little bit slower and what still really stuck with me was the story of the pilgrim. Looking for the answers to life, God, everything. And maybe that’s why we still read it now. In our modern day life It’s hard to drop everything and go on a real soul search like you could back then. And sometimes in our modern life it’s hard to see through all this technological fog we’ve set up around ourselves. So maybe that’s why people read it today to be able to be a part of a great pilgrimage that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to participate in, due to fear, or bills, or whatever their personal reason would be. And that’s why we will probably keep reading it. With our lack of modern day mythology, its good to have an odyssey.”

My own odyssey had some Kerouacian overtones when I fell off my journalist’s job path for a few years and worked, among other things, as a waiter and bartender. I made friends with a gifted kid named John Fullbright and offered to carry his amps. Suspicious, he let me come to Eureka Springs with him, to Ft. Worth. So excited was I to watch him play for 4 solid hours, Outliers style, songs he didn’t love, songs he forgot he knew, songs he wrote, songs by Billy Fuckin Joel if it meant the song was Captain Jack. Songs he did love. In his imagination I became Dean banging on the tables screaming, yass, yass, yass.

Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost it, they wrestled for it, they found it again…

That was jazz for Jack, but for me it was also John blowing on his harmonica and then letting Bob Dylan’s words from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” return to him, much to his surprise, words that came from high school days spent obsessing over every boombox word transmitted from the outside world. His baby young face red and drunk and he grabbed his old dirty Puma hat before it could fly off. An older couple, Fullbright faithfuls Jan and Larry, gawked at me from across the bar. So did our glitter cheeked bartender from her impressive perch. I probably got carried away a few times. I like to attribute his thinking me Dean to his fuzzy remembrance of the book’s character dynamics.

“I don’t remember (the book) in such vivid detail, but I remember reading it and being like, ‘alright, let’s go. I’m in a position to live this, whatever this is.'”

And I remember when John told me he’d been saving On the Road for the right moment. For him, the book wasn’t talismanic (not yet, anyway), but a kind of bridge and primer; “You don’t see old guys reading Kerouac….he wasn’t enlightened, just had a really good way of putting things.” John, more seasoned on the road, the place where he makes his rent, now sees how many traveling artists design their lives around the mythology Jack’s road embraces.

“There’s no point where I’ll be sitting at a desk.”

Fighting Loneliness, On the Road’s Other Great Theme…

Friendship is the last of the noble virtues we have to write about…
–Roberto Bolano, paraphrased

Kerouac’s portrait of friendship feels exemplary in a time people like Harold Bloom call “the chaotic age.” What can we preserve in such an era? What kind of novels have you read recently that evoke a partnership like Sal and Dean’s? It’s the kind of strange feelings I see a bit in Judd Apatow’s best work. I see it in Whitman’s feelings for the soldiers, North and South, he watched over in the tents of war torn D.C.

There’s a certain camaraderie between Sal and Dean that no doubt keeps the book alive to many young travelers and gabbers. In the story Dean Moriarty exhausts just about everyone’s patience. He’s cheatin around, stealing cars, eating, rubbing his tummy, flattering all of Allen Ginsberg’s whimsies. There’s an excess in him that infuriates and compels everyone. But even when Jack/Sal gets annoyed with Dean he still calls him a “brother.” I really can’t explain this phenomenon other than to say its instinctual and true about certain friendships. I can only appreciate the way Jack gives it here, which at its most illustrative happens at a scene when roomful of women tell Dean they really don’t want to see him ever again.

Dean, why do you act so foolish?” said Galatea. “Camille called and said you left her. Don’t you realize you have a daugher.’

He didn’t leave her, she kicked him out!” I said, breaking my neutrality. They all gave me dirty looks; Dean grinned. ‘And with that thumb, what do you expect the poor guy to do?’ I added. They all looked at me; particularly Dorothy Johnson lowered a mean gaze on me. It wasn’t anything but a sewing circle, and the center of it was the culprit, Dean, responsible, perhaps, for everything that was wrong.

Camille is crying her heart out tonight, but don’t think for a minute she wants you back…Yet you stand here and make silly faces, and I don’t think there’s a care in your heart.’

This was not true; I knew better and I could have told them all. I didn’t see any sense in trying it. I longed to go and put my arm around Dean and say, Now look here, all of you, remember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains and he’s given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn’t enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that’s apparently what you’re itching to do…

The simultaneous social execution and fascination of Dean in the falling action of On the Road carries in it elements of our ugliest celebrity worship/kill practices. “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn,” a fortune cookie once told me. It’s as quick as reflexes to our hyper linked natures. The medicine to such spectacles for Kerouac is a kind of understanding, a faith in friendship which beams quite brightly throughout the book. Remember, he says, we all have troubles too.

Upward and Onward Through Life’s Circles….

O yes, up to the furthest star!
My friend, the eras and past ages are
For us a book with seven seals.
What you the spirit of the ages call
Is only those men’s spirits after all…

–Goethe, Faust

‘What do you want out of life?’ I wanted to take her and wring it out of her.
–Kerouac, Chapter 11 On the Road

What makes On the Road so durable? Perhaps what’s been put in it. Kerouac modeled his road novel after Goethe’s imaginative treatment of the Faust legend, where the academic Faust listens to the little demon Mephistopheles and chooses to leave his cloister and go experience the misty temptations of experience. What the two have in common is a sort of outsized pagan humanity, confidence and deep curiosity about culture, life. In pop culture, this has been the way to go in American life. “It’s a coming of age in this weird society,” Fullbright said. A society that ostensibly values duty, fidelity and responsibility but also at every corner urges us to live life to the fullest, experience it all. An American life, then, with tension in the bones and sinews. Jack and many other literary questers have very easily chosen the latter, and we continue to be enchanted by them. They certainly have a longevity that perhaps is a result of their steadfast decision. Listen to the sound of Old Man Bob Dylan’s voice when he talks about a girl named Echo. Or his radio show in general. When we see any of the qualities of Jack or a Goethe or a Bob Dylan we tend to look up to them. They’ve braved life, and mostly alone, or at least with their alone as the decision maker. People don’t like to say so, but such people have established a kind of vital American religion. George Santayana describes the Goethean hero:

He disowns authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that the springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, and that the future of his soul is infinite…

What’s more, I believe its Kerouac’s abiding bookishness that lends such depth to his soul. It’s not just the way Kerouac talks, the way he drinks and bops (is he ever really talking about how great drinking is in this book?). I think he’s talking to us in a similar way every book before has talked before us. This love and pursuit of culture is Goethe’s gift to letters, and Kerouac, who mentions him twice in On the Road, took him as serious and as a life philosophy that turned him into a kind of beat era prophet.

But we don‘t need to get carried away in Jack’s heady sense of seeing. I like the eternal boy in Jack who works at writing and watches trains and falls into a trance doing that while others try to convince him into French wines. Kerouac can also teach us to work harder in finding the things which we are made to reflect. Kerouac’s madcap story is one full of references that stretched his soul closer to the forever place that secures him a place on all the college dorm posters I’ve seen him on. We hear from Dostoyevsky, Dickens, the Old Testament, W.C. Fields, Celine, Goethe, but these old men onlky as they offer words which apply to his yearnful friends of today. To bring old influences into your today, your journey is what Spinoza called “seeing under the form of eternity.” It doesn’t have to be dusty or boring. When we use the past and nature to deal with today, “We are not alienated from experience, but on the contrary, endowed with experience and with its fruits,” Santayana says.

And nothing ever reads exciting than Jack’s road. Kerouac eliminated the chafe of feeling unnatural by hitting the road with everything he had–physical and intellectual. As we continue to with our instinctively felt road trips.

To have felt such perpetual dissatisfaction is truly satisfactory; such desire for universal experience. You are saved in that you lived well ; saved not after you have stopped living well, but during the whole process.

“He wasn’t just some lazy beatnik,” Fullbright notices. “He was always doing something, bettering himself, others. In order to do this there’s a certain amount of faith you have to have in humanity but you have to sometimes give back … And there’s a certain amount of running from home he had. I’ve got it. We’ve all got it a little bit…”


(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Get in touch with Danny through the emailz.

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