The Road Giveth, The Road Taketh Away

Jack Kerouac's On The Road Turns 50

Games Features Jack Kerouac
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“That is the road we all have to take,
Over the Bridge of Sighs into Eternity.”

—Kierkegaard

I have a yellow Polaroid photo of myself in the streets of Juarez, Mexico, 1972.

I’m sitting on a life-size plaster horse, wearing a straw sombrero, holding a beat-up copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’m drunk and happy and three-quarters through a 7,000-mile odyssey across the continent. I’d purchased a Greyhound Ameripass for $150 and took a break from playing honky-tonk music six nights a week in the bars along Vancouver’s skid row.

I rode the bus as I thought Jack would; wine-drunk and looking for “kicks.” I ?irted with a farm girl in a tight sweater all the way across Saskatchewan. I slept in YMCAs and sketchy hotels and shared my cheap blackberry wine with bums and laundromat Indians. I ate apple pie in diners, eavesdropping on old men’s conversations. After 5,000 miles I crossed the bridge into Juarez and threw dimes to the beggar kids in the river who were holding up funnels attached to broomsticks. I had my picture taken by a Juarez street vendor as I rode the plaster horse. On the road again.

I was almost too late. Kerouac had been dead for three years. The popular press had sucked the beat scene dry of “newsworthy” relevance, and Jack had hammered the ?nal nail into his coffin with a drunken appearance on the William F. Buckley TV show. Yes, Buckley of the raised eyebrow and yacht-club sneer. Jack went home to his mother’s kitchen to drink himself to death. Then came Bob Dylan and rock ’n’ roll, and we tended to forget about Jack. As a kid I’d read On the Road at a time when I felt the Beats were talking directly to me—telling me to ?ee school, commitments, insurance agents, rent and dread. It took me 12 years to act on Jack’s message.

I identified with Kerouac—his personality and his history. I went to Catholic high school. I played football and got my head kicked in. I was shy around girls. I was bookish and anti-social and listened to Dylan and felt isolated. I sought a way out and thought Jack had paved the road. He was a jazz writer who wailed out words, sentences and paragraphs to a bebop shuffle. He painted a bohemian picture of America that was very different from knee-jerk, right-wing, political patriotism.

These days, peering into On the Road, I’m struck by a few thoughts on the book’s importance. First: Kerouac wrote about the last vestige of that “old weird America” that was being bulldozed into strip malls. It’s relevant history. Second:?Kerouac described Mexico better than any new-age “Rough Guide” travel writer or New York Times journalist. The old Buddhist-Catholic Kerouac took Mexico to his spiritual heart. He understood the sorrow of Indians and the “beatness” of the ancient world where “thousands of hipsters in ?oppy straw hats and long lapelled jackets over bare chests padded along the main drag, some of them selling crucifixes and weed in the alleys, some of them kneeling in beat chapels next to Mexican burlesque shows in sheds.” Kerouac’s Mexico defines his idea of the word “beat.” Beautiful, holy and sad.

If the book has drawbacks it’s the archaic hip dialogue usually attributed to the Neal Cassady character: Everything is “wow,” “dig,” “man,” “crazy” and “wild.” Sadly, this was what the popular media of the 1950s picked up on and exploited. This Benzedrine chatter dated the book. The boys were ?ying high and wild, and they crashed. Cassady walked out into the Mexican desert and died there. Finally, Jack crossed over the Bridge of Sighs into Eternity.

The book’s most significant gift is the in?uence it had on young writers. It told guys like me it was okay to be different. It urged me to explore the edge of this culture and write about it. It freed young Dylan, as he left Hibbing, Minn., with a duffel bag full of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs, and probably a dog-eared copy of On the Road. It was deeply absorbed by Hunter S. Thompson, too. On the Road led to Highway 61 Revisited and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Beats left their mark on the birthing of literate rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s. Beat writing loosened up modern poetry, journalism and song. On the Road led the way.

The paper scroll on which Jack wrote the book is now touring America. It reminds me of Van Gogh’s major world exhibition in the early 1980s, nearly a hundred years after the Dutchman died of self-in?icted wounds. Kerouac’s book will not go away.

The highpoint of my 1972 Kerouac-ian Greyhound trip was a stop in Austin at the University of Texas archives. I held Kerouac’s diary in my hands and ran my ?ngers over a deeply indented phrase he’d written in ballpoint ink: “the book will be published!” He’d underlined the phrase at least a dozen times. Ah! The raw enthusiasm of the young writer—before the world, the ?esh and the devil of fame caught up with him. Jack went out and rediscovered America and handed kids like me the scroll. Reading that diary reminded me, years later, of the time I held a tiny red notebook that had the songs-in-progress and outtake lyrics to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. You could feel the personal ?re in that little book. These are two American voices that changed our cultural history and pointed me toward the path.

Jack perceived his art in songwriting terms. He wrote in On the Road:

We seek to ?nd new phrases; we try
hard, we writhe and twist and blow;
Every now and then a clear harmonic
cry gives new suggestions of a tune, a
thought, that will someday be the only
tune and thought in the world
And which will raise men's souls to joy.

The above words define my daily job. My deep desire to become a songwriter was forged squarely on the night I watched Dylan sing “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. In that masterpiece I could feel and hear bedrock poetic influences, and one of them was Kerouac. For some Americans, On the Road marks a nostalgic time of youth that is long gone. For myself and others, it led us into the wild, and we never returned. Jack’s book will stand for what it has given us, and where it has led us.

It’s a touchstone for what we’ve become.

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