Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jack Kerouac Changed My Life. I grew up reading, reading everything. When 'On The Road' came out, it had a dangerous and forbidden reputation. I had to read it.

The stream-of-consciousness writing style captured my imagination: 'The only people for me are the mad ones, 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 like fabulous yellow roman candles.'

Jack Kerouac holding a first edition of 'On The Road'

As a young and impressionable guy I was mesmerized by the stories of the beatniks, chasing sex, drugs, alcohol, the aimless wild life on the road, and all the pleasures I was denied by my austere religious background. It rivaled anything I had read, but it was so real, so earthy, and so alluring. I had to drive!
Kerouac reading from "On The Road"

The pursuit of the sensual pleasures drove Kerouac and his friends across the country to Denver, San francisco, Los Angeles, the South, and even Mexico. Driving at high speed, fueled by drugs and alcohol, with a car full of friends reciting poetry, visiting friends, including women in the towns they visited. It was then I first realized that women were as sexual as men. It opened a new world to me, a world that Coleridge's Xanadu seemed mild by comparison.

There were parts of "On the Road" that just hummed in my mind. I remember going downtown Salt Lake City with my childhood friend Bobby Nelson to "The Abyss", an underground coffee house on Second South street where I could wear a black turtleneck and listen to Rosalie Sorrels sing folk songs. I had entered the world of the beats. A world filled with poetry, wine, and a free lifestyle. It was the antithesis of the strait-laced Mormon culture I had been reared in.

As soon as I got my driver's license and a Jeep, I drove with my friend Milt Hokanson from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole and climbed the Grand Teton. A few weeks later I got Ted Wilson and Bob Stout to go back with me to climb Mount Owen. Living in the campgrounds and the mountains with friends, I was in my element. Later I ended up working in the Tetons for sixteen years and drove back to Salt Lake at least once a month to visit...I'm sure I've driven that road over a hundred times.

Late the next winter Milt, Dave Wood, and I hopped into the Jeep and drove to Shiprock, New Mexico, and climbed Shiprock. We dumped the jeep on its side in a ditch in the middle of the night on a dirt road near the rock, but we were young and strong, and quickly lifted it back upright.

I didn't pick up the drinking...just the driving, and I drove everywhere. As the years went by, I drove across the US almost a dozen times, going to graduate school in Baltimore. And now that I'm retired, I travel constantly: two years ago I drove my diesel pickup from Alaska down and across the West, climbing, visiting, and enjoying the good life.

The suggestive cover of a paperback version of 'On The Road'

Kerouac wrote versions and pieces of his life on the road for many years. It wasn't until the mid-fifties that he found a publisher willing to take it. However, it needed a good job of editing, and the names had to be changed, less to protect the innocent, than the publisher, I believe. When I heard a year ago that the original scroll of 120 feet of teletype paper Kerouac had Scotch-taped together and typed the script for "On The Road" had been published, I had to read it. It wasn't the edited version I had read four times in the past five decades; The Scroll still had the original names: Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg... And, all the wild times. As I read it, it seemed so real, perhaps even better than the published edition.

The recent edition of 'The Original Scroll'

As the years went by, I read many of Kerouac's books. I was particularly taken by "The Subterraneans", the story of his affair with Alene Lee in New York in 1953. At the time I remember feeling so sad for Alene, an African American woman who seemed to be so disadvantaged and lost in the book.

First edition of 'The Subterraneans'

William Burroughs & Alene Lee

A month ago I heard that One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, was out in a DVD. It is tribute by Jay Ferrar of Son Volt and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cuties, interspersed with footage of Kerouac and commentary from the like of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tom Waits and others. "Big Sur" tells the story of how after the success of "On The Road", Kerouac went back to San Francisco to dry out at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin near Big Sur. It didn't last long, and he hiked back to San Francisco and lapsed into a huge binge with old friends.
Trailer for "One Fast Move Or I'm Gone"
So....I picked up my copy of "Big Sur" and re-read it. I was sad for Kerouac, unable to kick his booze habit, not wanting to sit like a hermit in the wilds, wanting to be with his friends even though it killed him.

First Edition of 'Big Sur'
And tonight I'm thinking of getting in my car and driving the 4,000 miles in 4 days down the Alcan Highway to the "Lower 48" to visit my friends for Christmas....

1 comment:

Kathy Grossman said...

Thanks for this terrific little compilation of Kerouacabilia. I love it all! Though I've read about the film, this was the first Big Sur trailer I'd seen. That book was so personal and highly disturbing: you could see Ti Jean's sad inevitable gears creaking. I'm setting my life up to do a huge road trip myself, around the edges of America. Stay safe. See you out there.