The Mythmaking of Jack Kerouac
Review of The Jack Kerouac Collection from Rhino Records
From Rock & Roll Disc, September, 1990
Written by Tom Graves
Including the albums:
Jack Kerouac: Blues and Haikus (With Al Cohn and Zoot Sims)
Poetry for the Beat Generation (With Steve Allen)
Readings By Jack Kerouac On the Beat Generation
Truman Capote very nearly sank Jack Kerouac’s literary reputation with five well-chosen words that exploded like cigarette loads in the public eye. “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” he argued on David Susskind’s television show. He was referring to Kerouac’s well-publicized spontaneous prose writing style about which the beat writer claimed that “the first thought is the best thought.”
This philosophy, of course, flew in the face of conventional wisdom about the art of writing, which mandated writing analytically, consciously composing phrases and sentences with heavy revision and editing, and crafting an essay or short story or novel in the same meticulous, calculating way an artist constructs an intricate mosaic. Kerouac, however, believed in that adrenaline (or amphetamine in his case) rush of creative zip that connected the writer to some mystical Zen-like inner eye that could see more clearly and poetically than the conscious mind.
Which was a load of hooey and horseshit from a writer too lazy and undisciplined to put in the extra work to perfect his writing.
Let’s explode a few more of the myths about Jack Kerouac. The biggest and most oft-repeated is the one about On the Road, irrefutably his greatest work, being published straight off a huge roll of teletype paper. The manuscript, the legend goes, was knocked off in only a couple of weeks as he worked nearly non-stop, cranked-up on bennies, refusing even to stop and insert periods and commas.
Have the myth-mongers actually read On the Road? Did those periods and commas in my copies appear there magically? Of course not. Kerouac put them in and he carefully revised and reworked the book from cover to cover. Nothing about On the Road was spontaneous in its final draft. It was as thoughtfully scrutinized and pored-over and whittled down as Capote’s In Cold Blood. Viking editor Malcolm Cowley was instrumental in helping Kerouac whip the manuscript into a comprehensible, flowing narrative: It was this fortuitous collaboration with a caring yet forceful editor that resulted in one of the great literary achievements of a generation.
The other myth is that Kerouac continued to publish great books and poems. After the publication of On the Road in 1957, Kerouac’s creative well ran bone dry. Overnight he became the biggest fool on the literary scene, a person so bloated and obnoxious and bent on destroying himself with cheap drink that he was roundly avoided by all save his closest friends – such as Allen Ginsberg, a saint of a man, who stood by Kerouac at all times, even when he savaged Ginsberg in print and verbally assaulted him with anti-Semitic tirades. Kerouac’s other praiseworthy books such as The Dharma Bums (which does contain several engaging chapters) and The Subterraneans (which I consider practically worthless) were all written prior to the publication of On the Road. His later years of dissipation and decline saw the publication of such horrific embarrassments as Pic, Vanity of Duluoz, and Satori In Paris – books that could be bettered by many a reasonably gifted creative writing student.
I was turned onto Jack Kerouac by a fellow journalism major in college, and I quickly fell under the spell of Kerouac’s careening, tire-squealing prose and with his romantic, nostalgic tales of picking up a rucksack, sticking out your thumb, and America-here-I-come. But the more I read (and I read them all), the more I became convinced that spontaneous writing for all levels of literary endeavor (with the possible exception of poetry) was counterproductive and flawed in theory. Kerouac himself, in his later novels, could be brilliant for two pages or two paragraphs then run short of creative breath, coasting on childlike gibberish for page after page, chapter after chapter. Books like Visions of Gerard and Tristessa were painful to get through, redeemed only by momentary splashes of incandescent prose that faded as fast as a photographer’s bulb.
I hit upon an idea that to me made sense: Why not, I reasoned, collect some of those brilliant moments from Kerouac’s less-esteemed works into an anthology, a reader for those who want to go exploring beyond On the Road? I contacted Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, biographer Ann Charters, and others about the project and was given their blessings with the warning that the Sterling Lord Agency, which controlled Kerouac’s estate and writings at the time, would be impossible to deal with. They were. (Note to readers: A few years after our initial contact, Kerouac biographer Ann Charters purloined my idea for a Jack Kerouac reader and navigated the treacherous copyright waters of Sterling Lord et al. until the reader saw print. There was no thank you in the book or mention of yours truly, the originator of the idea. And yes, I’m still pissed.)
Shortly before his death, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, a childhood acquaintance, a woman who apparently understood little of what her husband was all about. Pictures of this matronly woman are shocking, especially after seeing the beautiful photos of his other wives and lovers. Stella Sampas looked like the Church Lady on steroids, and after Jack died in 1969 the Kerouac estate, in part due to her negligence or ignorance, virtually ground to a halt.
Only recently have some of his out of print books returned to the shelves, and his recordings for Verve and Hanover, all out of print since the early ‘60s, have just been reissued by Rhino Records’ World Beat label in the most lavish, ornate CD box set yet.
The box itself is covered in a handsome linen-type parchment with sparse, elegant graphics, as is the 32-page booklet inside. The book includes several interesting essays from notables such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Michael McClure and a lengthy discourse (not all of which is factually accurate) from a David Perry, who is not a name familiar to me. The most haunting set of Kerouac photos I’ve ever seen are collected in this booklet and Rhino should be rightly proud of The Jack Kerouac Collection as a masterpiece of intelligent, instructive packaging. There simply isn’t another box set that can touch it in terms of sheer beauty.
But what of the CDs? They are a mixed bag and unless you are a Jack Kerouac fanatic there are bound to be disappointing moments. The most experimental piece in the set is the Blues and Haikus disc featuring jazz stalwarts Zoot Sims and Al Cohn on tenor saxophones, and in some ways it’s the biggest failure. It begins with Kerouac reading short lines of poetry that he calls “American” haikus – he was too undisciplined to write poetry that conformed to the strict 17 syllables of the traditional Japanese haiku – which are followed by improvised, free-form sax blurts from Cohn and Sims.
Kerouac loved jazz and wrote movingly about it all his life. Few writers have captured in prose the mad spirit of be-bop and Charlie Parker with the eloquence of Jack Kerouac. He wanted to blow jazz poetry, for his prose to function musically like jazz where “s” sounds and “o” sounds and “z” sounds became as important as notes on a scale. In theory this sounds engrossing, even revolutionary, especially to a music critic. But in practice it becomes increasingly harder as the words flow to grasp whatever thread of meaning the words hold. Since there is no story being told, no narrative, only random “first thoughts” zooming wildly out of your speakers, one quickly loses interest and the intense concentration required to follow the selections falters. Upon repeated listenings, in spite of Kerouac’s expressive voice (except on the awful portions where he sings), I began to wonder just who the hell would listen and relisten to these discs?
Blues and Haikus contains a lot of curious studio chatter, which confirms my suspicions that Kerouac was drunk during the sessions. He giggles and goofs like an errant schoolboy until the stern producer, Bob Thiele, barks orders at him. The liner notes tell us that Cohn and Sims split to a nearby bar as soon as the session was completed, leaving a devastated Kerouac crying alone in a corner in the studio because they hadn’t bothered to listen to the playback.
Better are the readings on Poetry for the Beat Generation, with Steve Allen backing him on “jazz” piano that sounds remarkably like the elemental flourishes one hears on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The disc starts with “October In the Railroad Earth,” one of Kerouac’s most evocative pieces. Also of interest are the poems “Charlie Parker,” “Bowery Blues,” and “Goofing At the Table.” The bonus track is taken from Steve Allen’s television show, where Kerouac read from On the Road and Visions of Cody. It is interesting to note that Steve Allen respected Kerouac’s art enough to let him play it straight; he didn’t make him dress idiotically in tails and sing to a basset hound as he did Elvis. It’s yet another instance of high-brow jazzoids snobbing rock and roll.
Readings By Jack Kerouac On the Beat Generation showcases Kerouac in a more sterile setting without instrumental backing, yet his voice is engaging enough to go it alone. But again, one soon tires of this – a story one can follow, but scattershot prose is next to impossible to digest for more than a few minutes at a time. To hear firsthand what I mean, locate a recording of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” sometime and see if you’re not captivated from beginning to end, in spite of Truman’s babytalk voice. Capote knew that writing is storytelling, communicating something to someone. With Kerouac, self-expression was the all-important concern, which to me is a narcissistic view of the creative process.
The most unintentionally memorable track on the Readings disc is the bonus cut, a lecture Kerouac gave at Brandeis University in 1958 on the question “Is There A Beat Generation?” The crowd is unruly and unsympathetic and Kerouac is obviously dead drunk; his thick-tongued speech gets more embarrassing with each passing minute. Already the King of the Beats was well on his way to becoming America’s most celebrated literary barfly.
Rock & Roll Disc readers may well wonder why a spoken word box set was chosen for review in a rock music-oriented publication. Kerouac was and remains an enormous influence on several of rock’s pivotal artists, especially Bob Dylan who fused beat poetry sensibilities with Woody Guthrie’s grassroots politics to become the spokesman and conscience of a new generation. One could also cite Jack Kerouac as one of many influences on John Lennon (compare Kerouac’s poetry with “Come Together” or “I Am the Walrus”). Even more important is that Kerouac opened up the world of working class America for inspiration and celebration and creative sustenance – all of which would become cornerstones of rock and roll imagery. Kerouac could write passionately about hitchhiking on a hot day, meeting a friend in a train station, sleeping in a forest, breaking your back on a work crew – things the great artists of rock and roll took to heart and conveyed in song.
The beat generation stood for freedom above all things – freedom from conformity, restrictive sexual attitudes, blind patriotism, religious intolerance, freedom from all constraints. Rock and roll remains a social thorn because it still dares to cast off those same shackles.
The Jack Kerouac Collection is the loveliest CD set I’ve seen, and it contains some important, rare material. But if you haven’t read On the Road, spend your money instead on a good paperback edition. There you will find the same America, the real America, of Charley Patton, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain.