Scarcely has there ever been an artist as misinterpreted, or at least slightly misconstrued, as Jack Kerouac. His prose style has forever been mixed up with context, prompting him to pronounce, “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Whilst this may not have been said as an out and out denouncement of his work’s interpretations, like everything he said publicly, there’s more than enough of a tongue-in-cheek undertone to suggest a hint of ambiguity.
His seminal novel On The Road, published in 1957, proved to be one of, if not the most influential literary work of the 20th Century. It spawned the beat generation and became the sacred text of the counterculture movement. Like Bob Dylan, the king of the beatniks himself, put it: “It changed my life, like it changed everyone else’s.” And when Bowie read it at the impressionable age of 15, it prompted him to pack up from the suburbs, dive head-on into London life and never look back.
However, much like fellow preeminent counterculture text, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the novel has been widely misread. Kerouac’s knack of describing the suffering and hardships of life is often misconstrued as the author eulogising struggles through the sort of poetry that brings life to suffering. For the most part, in On The Road, the narrator laments a state of disillusionment in flux, as the great rolling bulge of America unfurls around him in an equanimous upheaval beyond his control; documenting a point in time where seemingly the whole of the developed world was swallowed up in the ensuing sprawl of concrete capitalism.
Of course, there are euphoric highs within the novel, but equally, the lows of an almost somnambulant existence, living in boxcars and rambling around hand-to-mouth, devoid of any security, are also stacked on the scales of the narrative. However, the lines between these discreet peaks and troughs are blurred by the novel’s ‘hero’ Dean Moriarty. Sadly, for want of a better phrase, Moriarty is somewhat of a ‘gintellectual’, a sort of barstool-philosopher, otherwise known as a grating gobshite. It is no doubt his jumped-up ways that have cast some aspects of the book into foggier climes, less easy to navigate amidst Jack’s rarefied poetry.
In Poetry for The Beat Generation, however, Kerouac’s prose is stripped back to the brilliant bare bones and flourishes as a result. Steve Allen’s piano melodies also necessitate a need for unwavering concision. The result is perhaps Kerouac’s best work. It is also a zenith that proves to be the easiest outing to digest. Gone is the nettlesome profligate philosophy touted by Moriarty in On The Road or the pompous Buddhist intellectualism in The Dharma Bums, and in its place is the simple unflinching view of Kerouac’s America. Best of all, it’s a dose of tranquilly tuned, lush literature that can be swilled down nicely with a morning brew.
As the Persian poet Rumi elucidated back in the 13th Century when he wrote, “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposite so that you will have two wings to fly, not one,” poetry is at its best when it encapsulates the true duality of life. With this album, Kerouac captures that in the black and white colours of piano keys. “Old ‘Frisco with end of land sadness,” Kerouac regales regarding life in ’50s California, “nobody knew or far from cared who I was all my life, 3500 miles from birth all opened up and at last belonged to me in great America.” In the sweeping rush of the American boom, he saw both the beauty and the lamentable elements of people getting busy “with not even enough time to be disdainful,” in the opening piece ‘October in the Railroad Earth’.
The album continues in this vein, touching upon odes to the moon “the big blue balloon” in ‘The Moon Her Majesty’ and Kerouac even tries on a style similar to some sort of beat rap in the swinging ‘I’d Rather Be Thin Than Famous’. All the pieces are beautifully written and sumptuously played by Steve Allen in a jazz style that even philistines like me, who usually find a bit too harsh to stomach, can enjoy.
Mostly what comes through on this record is Kerouac’s charm. There is no escaping the mastery of his prose in his novels; when it’s purring, it’s as scintillating as any, but likewise, there can prove to be a few sticking points. The charm, though, resides throughout his work, and with Poetry for The Beat Generation, it is laid bare and unabated.
The lulling and dreamy piano playing coaxes up connotations of sanguine mornings. As the 12-inch whirls around under a stylus, it swirls up café culture notions and window gazing. Kerouac talks of the San Franciscan streets and transports you there in wistful daydreams. Each ‘song’ is a glowing transfiguration of his mellowed twilight outlook, romantic but never romanticised, in a musical encapsulation of America’s jazz, art, and adversities.
This aforementioned charm constantly manifests itself and permeates the record throughout, whether that be syllables held onto for just too long to give his brain a chance to catch up or the rolling of vowels through blues, booze and ooze in racing inflexions that barely make sense. He stumbles over his words from time to time, but this lends the record all sorts of sincerity and heart. The album, with it’s enforced constraints, by contrast, seems to find Kerouac at his most liberated and offers a glimpse at the man at his truest. Thus, if Hemmingway’s assertion that all you have to do is write truthfully is anything to go by then, the record succeeds and surpasses with tuneful aplomb.
The ways of On The Road might prove difficult and troublesome for a few, but the smooth tunes on this LP are anything but; it is spoken word at its sweetest, and that goes beyond merely Kerouac dulcet Boston baritone. His printed word may well have slammed down a behemoth weight on the ways of mid-20th-century life, like a sacred tome on culture, but perhaps it is this humble little record that proves to be the key in understanding the depths of Kerouac.