The seismic impact of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road cannot be mistaken. On the cover of most recent editions is a quote from Bob Dylan, who states, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else.” And David Bowie was so moved by it as a young lad that he ditched the suburbs for good, headed for the bohemian roads of London and never looked back.
Over the years, its influence has not waned; although the counterculture movement may have mutated beyond recognition, the impressionable impact of the novel remains. Most of that is down to the fact that, unlike many trending novels, it had the prose to support the proposition.
And boy, oh boy, was On the Road a trending novel! In John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography, he recalls a period where the beatnik craze was rife on London’s Bond Street and having a roughed-up and dog-eared copy somehow jammed into the pocket of a cambric shirt was a must-have accessory.
Aside from this overt presence in the early sixties Greenwich Village scene, it has to be said that its spiritual philosophy had a hand in spawning the folk renaissance. Pretty impressive, considering he states he knocked it up in only “three weeks”.
In the final pages, Kerouac gorgeously elucidates the ethos of the novel, encapsulating the trials and tribulations, highs and lows, and loss and discovery of wayfaring America as the concrete began its steady sprawl.
In this recital, he was joined by Steve Allen on piano for The Steve Allen Show back in 1959. Kerouac is evidently nervous, and there is a very charming mix-up over teletype paper. Still, he composes himself enough to lend his fantastic reading voice to the poetic last page.
The album that is mentioned in the clip is Kerouac and Allen’s Jazz spoken word team-up for Poetry for the Beat Generation, which for my money is the key to understanding the notoriously elusive author (you can read an exploration of the record here).
Sit back and enjoy the culmination of the origins of a social movement in the clip below – befittingly underscored with style, soul, charm, daring and the visceral rough around the edges characteristic’s synonymous with its place in history. It is not often literature and society collide like this and rarer still that it can be preserved in such a captivating distillation.