When I was a teenager, the novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac was the bible for any aspiring bohemian, a book that was passed on from one generation to the next almost as if it were a talisman. I was given a battered copy by an aging hippy and, even before I read it, knew that it carried within its pages some deep, abiding truth about youth, freedom and self-determination. On the Road instilled in me a belief that, in order to find oneself, one had to throw caution to the wind and travel long distances with no real goal and very little money.
It was a belief that has endowed me with priceless memories.
I’m writing this, with the hope of offering some opinion of the book. But I admit it is difficult for me to summon a critical distance from it. Rather like trying to summon a critical distance towards the shape of my own face or the smell of my own sweat. For me, On The Road is inextricable from the time and place that I first read it. I was 15 years old and I got it with the insistence that it was nothing short of amazing. This was also the first time I’d heard the American Stars’n Bars album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I can’t downplay any of this in terms of shaping who I became as a young man, and for that matter, who I am now.
But all detail and admitted nostalgia probably shouldn’t have anything to do with my assessment of the book. I did, after all, read it at the absolute “perfect” time for me. I was young and “discovering myself.” And this book knocked it out of the ball park for me. So what if millions of other kids had enjoyed the same sort of “spiritual” experience with the book? I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew of Jack Kerouac was his faded picture on the cover of the book. I was a typical teenager going through typical teenage angst, and On The Road made me not depressed. It made me want to hitchhike, hop freight trains, and more importantly, to write. It made me mad for life, delirious, exploding outward from myself in search of undiscovered roads. It made me want to eat vanilla ice cream and apple pie in roadside diners. It made me want to drink black coffee and seduce small town girls and smoke cigarettes all night long.
The Sixties began in 1957 with the publication of On The Road. Jack Kerouac wrote his magnum opus in 1951 in a lunatic, 20-day burst on a continuous 120 foot scroll of teletype paper. The manic energy required to type it was fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and Benzedrine. It then took another five bitter years to find a publisher. The literary world was unsure how a novel about drifters, sex, and drugs would be received in 1950’s America. This was a period of growth in the country, when consumerism was king and the American Dream was being sold to every citizen. Just pick up an old copy of any magazine from that time and see how things were from the advertisements.
On the Road inspired everybody and was a huge influence on poets, writers, actors, artists, and musicians. Bob Dylan once said: “I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” The author had unwittingly become the absent father to the Consciousness Revolution.
Kerouac was a mess of contradictions. He was a Buddhist, benny-toking, free-thinking, jazz-loving, bisexual poet, novelist, singer and hard drinker as a young man. Within a decade, he was a bitter, right-wing, alcoholic, born-again-Catholic, pro-Vietnam war and absolutely anti-hippy. He despised what the Beat Generation had turned into. ‘Beat’, he theorized, was the beat-up-by-life underclass of American society, imbued with beatitude, blessed by the Grace of God.
In writing this, I watched two rare television appearances he made and they show the contrast, the before and after images of fame and alcoholism. The first was from 1959 on The Steve Allen Show. Jack Kerouac reads excerpts from On The Road while Allen accompanies him with jazz-inflected piano tinklings. Jack is cool, in control, and intellectually sober. The second is from the year of his death, 1969, on The Firing Line. He is drunk, bloated, and rambling about his hatred of hippies, his once-handsome face ravaged and haunted. He was only 47 years old.
It’s difficult from a distance of 50 years to understand the impact On The Road must have had. I read it again last summer, trying to imagine the effect it might have had on the public at the time. In a society where men wore gray flannel suits, here was an autobiographical novel in a first-person voice, of two men drifting across America, indulging in casual sex, boozing epics, and consorting with junkies. And nowhere in the book does its author ever make a moral judgment.
While living in New York City, Jack Kerouac met the varied bunch of characters and fledgling writers who would later become the Beat generation. Most significantly, he met Neal Cassady. Kerouac had grown up in a relatively stable family. Cassady, on the other hand, was a womanizer out of a Denver reform school, a car thief, son of an alcoholic bum, and possessed of a manic energy that bordered on insanity. To Kerouac, Neal Cassady was the real thing, an authentic free spirit at a time when authenticity, of experience and expression and vision, was everything. Neal Cassady was an energetic and instinctively brilliant, self-educated guy with a photographic memory. Because of his background, most academics didn‘t like him, didn‘t trust him. But Jack Kerouac was blown away by the guy, by his restless energy, his love of life, the way he talked, the way he lived purely for the moment.
“The only people for me are the mad ones,” Kerouac wrote, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who . . . burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Kerouac’s “mad one” was Neal Cassady, the original prototype and world’s first hippie, and when he leaves for the west, Jack hitchhikes in pursuit of him, catching up with him, losing him, finding him again. This takes place across the great, sprawling geography of America, from New York City to San Francisco, through Denver, Texas, Chicago, through farm country and deserts. Rock and roll hadn’t yet been born yet, and this journey was undertaken to the musical accompaniment of jazz. They gun their Chevy to 110 mph across the plains to the hard bebop of Charlie Parker and Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillispie. They pick cotton to fund their lifestyle and witness the Birth of the Cool Miles and bed down promiscuously with small town girls and prostitutes. Getting their next dollar was paramount. Some scrounging, an occasional check from a family member, but mostly it was menial work that paid the way. A little bit of slavery for a lot of freedom. Work a little, move on. The jobs were tough and barely paid, but it was enough to score their next hit, go on their next bender, purchase some cheese and bread to keep their bodies and souls together. And everywhere, in the openness and beatitude that lay across the heart of America, they find innocence, the ease with which two drifters got lifts from respectable couples, farmers, traveling salesmen, people just being friendly to strangers.
Sure, Jack and Neil were jerks and they were bums and they were full of a lot of bullshit, but as the book progressed, it became clear that they knew it. These guys are also WW2 vets, and not very similar to the hippy movement that followed them. They didn‘t have any anti-American or anti-establishment feelings. Also, they showed a deep remorse and guilt over their actions. There was a shame, because they recognized what jerks they were. After several weeks of living with a Mexican girl and her son, the author deserts her and he knows that he’ll never live up to his promise to come back. He hates himself for this but it doesn’t stop him.
On The Road has become the cliché of purposeless, youthful hedonism, but Jack Kerouac felt this interpretation destroyed his life, his friends and his intent. It drove Jack’s fragile psyche on a downward path. Ten years after its publication, he was living with his mother in Florida, hiding away from the long-haired power flower generation that sought him out. He was a shell of a man, spending most of his time drinking whiskey and hanging out in nudie bars. The rare interviews he gave were rants opposing the youth of that time and supporting the war in Vietnam. He died of a stomach hemorrhage while watching a game show on TV. I don’t think the world had passed him by. I just think he had chosen to leave the world behind.
I remember watching a movie in the early eighties about the last years of Jack Kerouac’s life. Towards the end of the film, an ailing Jack is briefly reunited with Neal Cassady, who would soon die a bizarre death by drugs and exposure in the Mexican desert. “What the hell did we do wrong?” Jack asks Cassady.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Cassady replies. “We just did it first.”
Kerouac was absolutely a “cultural pioneer.” He was more than just a nostalgic figure from the 1950’s. He was the uncanny archetype for a whole generation of Americans who trekked through the 60’s and 70’s. He went through, as the rock song says, “all our changes,” and he went through them 10 years ahead of everybody else. His sympathy and mingling with blacks and Chicanos anticipated the civil-rights movement. His communing with poets in the mountains, and his enthusiasm for Zen and other forms of Buddhism broke ground for Ravi Shankar, the Beatles, Carlos Castaneda, the Whole Earth Catalog, and all manner of Eastern and ecological spiritualisms. His flirtation with drugs previewed the “tripping” of the next decade. The sexual escapades he shared with Neal Cassady, and his occasional homosexual episodes, modulated into the free-love movement of the 1960’s and even foreshadowed the advent of homosexual rights.
But as much as Kerouac was the archetype of the rise of the counterculture, he was the archetype of its fall as well. If he entered the era like Percival, the silver knight of the New Consciousness, he departed the era like Uncle Scrooge.
For most young people now, the name Jack Kerouac means nothing at all. In an age where youth culture is increasingly defined by shallow consumerism, where the road trip has been replaced by the gap year, and where it is considered not cool to be radically long-haired and free-spirited, where is Jack Kerouac and his beatific vision? On The Road illuminated a world that didn’t involve having the shiniest iPod, the biggest widescreen television, or having security. It was a world that required us to have a certain kind of courage.
Last summer, as I stretched out in the front seat of my jeep at the Burning Man festival, rereading the book and its hymn to wild rides, all-night conversations with strangers, lunacy, letting life happen, and getting out of your own way and experiencing the world, it struck me that no one is even pretending to be beat anymore. I watched three young white guys with dreadlocks and New York accents amble nearby and start oiling their well-developed muscles. They opened a cooler and shared designer drinks. They were not partaking of the great adventure that was traveling. They had flown here for music, drugs, and sex, and it seemed more like a middle-class, college vacation ritual. The notion that you would throw yourself at the mercy of the road, and by doing so, gain some self-knowledge or even maturity, is long gone. It’s all about money and surface now, the clothes you wear, the things you buy, and no one is the slightest bit ashamed of being superficial.
And yet, for all that, On the Road continues to sell 50,000 copies every year. But what was once a book that defined a transformative moment in our culture has become a historical artifact. To today’s young, the book is just a glimpse into an already distant past when things seemed simpler. “Did you like it?” I asked one of my twentysomething friends, after having twisted his arm to read it. “I liked parts of it,” he said, “but it seemed so old-fashioned.”
It’s an old book, so what, but that doesn’t mean you can’t connect with it in some way.
“I suppose it does make you feel like you had missed out on something.” This, it was added, was a familiar feeling among the younger generations. What was that something? “Oh, some kind of meaning. When traveling and smoking weed or whatever, meant something.”
I remember a young girlfriend from the 80’s, and we were sitting in our car by the side of the road somewhere in southwest Georgia wondering which direction we should journey. I asked the girl for a preference. It was dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields. The sun was the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and southern mysteries. Direction? The little lady just smiled at the notion and laid her head back against the seat. She closed her eyes and whispered:
“There is nowhere to go but everywhere.”
Travel the road less traveled, the poet once said, and it will make all the difference. When I was fifteen, I devoured On The Road and it devoured me. I am beholden to the book in ways many of you wouldn’t understand. Twenty-six years ago, I pushed down on the gas pedal of my car, and my girlfriend and I went for a midnight drive to nowhere and everywhere. We ended up at a ruined flour mill somewhere on the Florida border, where we drank and smoked cigarettes all night long with the tape deck blaring Like A Hurricane by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and we were not afraid to capture the rapture and all those thrills and kills of the heart. In such mysterious ways was my personality built.
I used to have an old photograph of that night, but it has long, long since disappeared. I realize it is old snapshots like that the young will look at someday with wonder, thinking we had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual nights, the hell and beauty of it all, out there, somewhere, on the road.