Kerouac–Kicks Joy Darkness
By Monica Kendrick
In his memoir Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut tells a harrowing story about his son Mark meeting Jack Kerouac very late in Kerouac’s life: upon observing the young man’s bohemian work clothes and his duffel bag, Kerouac took him for yet another of the On the Road-inspired slumming, ranting, mooching hippies whom the writer hated more than Dr. Frankenstein hated his monster, and challenged the college boy to a fight. “But then Kerouac sat back down in his chair heavily,” Vonnegut writes, “shaking his head and saying over and over again, ‘Doesn’t understand me at all.'” The sad punch line is that Mark Vonnegut had never read Kerouac. And a sadder punch line is that though Dean Moriarty (aka Cody Pomeroy, aka Neal Cassady, the hero of On the Road and the great love of Kerouac’s life) got to ride off into immortality, his faithful road-trip buddy and fast-typing chronicler Sal Paradise (aka Jack Kerouac) died in 1969 an alcoholic and paranoid bigot who cared only for his mother, the first and last of the many interchangeable women who were embracing but silent presences throughout his fiction.
Kerouac should have seen trouble coming when Life began the ( apparently ongoing) work of marketing the beat generation as a source of vicarious kicks to generations of rudderless youth to come. But can you really blame those kids for falling in love with what Kerouac described so lovingly? If as a teenage girl I could cut free from the constraints of shyness and gender and become in imagination one of the highway adventurers (and not one of those boring girls in his books who simply fucked or cooked) popping bennies and digging mad jazz and Zen Denver, there must be something pretty powerful there.
And there is. But it’s not in the events of his books, it’s in his writing, of all places–Kerouac wanted to pair the wild energy of bop and the oceanic rhythms of drifting memory with the intellectual stimulation of literature, but also to stay true to his working-class roots by liberating literature from the intellectuals. He worked hard to do it, too, spending years jotting down everything that moved him, inventing ever more rigorous writing exercises for himself, and delving deeper into the work of writers he admired–Melville, Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, among others. Especially in his less commercialized works, like the long elegies Visions of Cody and Visions of Gerard and his dreamlike extended prose-poems Dr. Sax and The Town and the City, it’s remarkable how often he succeeded.
On the other hand, he has to answer for On the Road, The Subterraneans, and The Dharma Bums, as well as his rationalizing essays on “spontaneous bop prosody.” Not so much for the novels’ casual romantic racism, cultural tourism, or oblivious sexism–he was a product of his time, and after all we’re doing so much better now–but for all that bullshit about automatic writing and refusing to revise and four-night speed-fueled typing sessions and long continuous rolls of computer paper. His letters to Allen Ginsberg before On the Road was completed demonstrate quite clearly that he’d in fact been working on it (and revising a lot) for at least two years. Kerouac expressed severe dissatisfaction with On the Road shortly after its publication, and tried the same theme again in the much deeper and richer Visions of Cody–but it’s On the Road, the conventionally structured first draft, that has inspired more reams of self-indulgent stream-of-semiconsciousness crap than anything save maybe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I should know–I wrote quite a bit of it myself, and it’s all because the bastard made it look easy.
Now Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo has organized Kerouac–Kicks Joy Darkness, a well-meaning tribute album that with any luck should show the MTV spoken-word crowd once and for all how difficult it really was to achieve and maintain Kerouac’s gloriously teetering balances. Morphine, for example, leads things off with exactly the kind of cappuccino-marketing drivel that drove Kerouac to the bottle (and me to the fast-forward button). This is the sound of someone much more interested in Kerouac’s legend than his writing–and for the most part the record’s offerings can be categorized along those lines.
The artists are the usual suspects: original beats, rock artists who have experimented with literature, and writers who have experimented with rock. There are very few complete surprises. While this is obviously a star trip, it’s notable that many of the participants choose lesser-known pieces from Kerouac’s immense ouevre and handle them with intelligence. Not surprisingly, the most successful pieces are the ones that directly engage Kerouac’s text with an individual voice but a minimum of extraneous bohemianisms. The humble reading of an unpublished wistful childhood story by Steven Tyler (one of the real shockers) is actually a standout in this category, as is Juliana Hatfield’s playful rendering of “Silly Goofball Pomes.”
Sometimes just the nature of the reader’s voice adds a new dimension: Anna Domino’s matter-of-factly female voice transforms “Pome on Doctor Sax,” a rumination on spiritual failure by this most manly of writers, into a broadly humanistic tale; John Cale’s Welsh brogue lends “The Moon” a gloss of Celtic mysticism you wouldn’t expect from this most American of writers (though Kerouac did set it up by dropping Yeats in there); Michael Stipe’s Georgia drawl brings a temporal humility to “My Gang,” a memory piece by this writer so closely associated with speed-freak ranting. Of course both Lydia Lunch and William Burroughs have a sort of Midas touch that turns anything they read into themselves. And though of all the writer-musicians here, probably only Patti Smith has the literary discipline to extemporize without stumbling into severe self-indulgence, she admirably resists the temptation. Even Jim Carroll plays it close to the word.
Far more perilous are the attempts to render Kerouac in the medium of the pop song: on “Madroad Driving…” Johnny Depp and the band Come avoid the worst effects of this by emphasizing Depp’s voice, though the reverb on it is a little heavy-handed, and Maggie Estep skirts the edges of cliche with her raucous and vengeful “Skid Row Wine,” squeaking through on her experience as a performance poet. Her rhythm and emphasis are on when it counts.
In this risky business of filtering a problematic writer through a pop paradigm that’s overglorified him for all the wrong reasons, it’s really pretty amazing that so many managed not to embarrass themselves. But the stinkers are truly putrid: Why are Hunter S. Thompson’s drooling sounds preserved like some sort of utterance from an oracle? His aura is fading much faster than Kerouac’s, as he hasn’t managed to produce much work of note in the last 25 years and doesn’t have the excuse of being dead. His gonzo machismo wears very thin when you can hear so clearly how it has wasted him, especially when he reads a fragment of a letter from Kerouac to William Burroughs about “rigid manifestations of a firm and manly will”–seemingly oblivious to its homoerotic subtext. Lee Ranaldo’s own breathless recital of an excerpt of a letter to John Clellon Holmes, about being picked up on the road by a bikini-clad babe who happily accepts his Benzedrine, smells much too much like unquestioning wish fulfillment. But by far the most misguided and cringe-inducing piece on the record is Joe Strummer and Richard Norris’s attempt to “update” Kerouac by adding tin-eared, outdated beat-box boings and squirts to Kerouac’s own reading of “MacDougal Street Blues.” There’s no attention paid to Kerouac’s own rhythms–appalling from the man who incorporated a reading by Allen Ginsberg so brilliantly on Combat Rock.
With Ginsberg’s recent death and Burroughs’s fading health, a whole new wave of reflection on the beats and their legacy is at hand. But so much of the pop approach relies on surface and image that a true appreciation of what the movement really had to offer isn’t likely to be found in such jeans commercials waiting to happen. That’s not to say that music has no place in an homage like this–Kerouac saw and appreciated the tenuous balance between passion and discipline in his beloved jazz as well as in literature. But what the beats really have to offer the current age isn’t recklessness or some impossible ideal of a “carefree” life or art without tears; it’s their sense of rhythm and unflinching determination to capture life in both glory and squalor. Kerouac–Kicks Joy Darkness winds up being a fitting tribute because it separates the wheat from the chaff–and because where it succeeds it returns the focus to the hard work of the word, where it belongs.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.