The Sadness Of Kerouac’s Legacy
Interview by Lindsey Cuthbertson. Aug 2009.
First off, what is your favourite novel?
it’s a bit like choosing the favourite child but I’d have to say Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur is my favourite book.
What is the novel about?
well by 1960, after the 1957 release of his ‘road’ novel Kerouac was a huge star kinda like a rock star of his time. he really was heralded as the voice of a whole generation of people (’the outcast, the downtrodden, the beatnik…’) in some ways similar to Cobain after Nirvana exploded. he was, like Cobain, very reluctant to be that voice and it led, also like Cobain, to his demise. but i’ve jumped ahead of my self… the novel is set around 1960, Kerouac has been heralded as this living legend and as I said above he’s like this rock star writer and he’s not coping very well with it all. he’s drinking a lot and partying a lot and feels like he’s losing control. his buddy beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti owns a cabin in the quiet, serene woods of Bixby Canyon which is in Big Sur (a beautiful sprawling, rocky area of coast line north of LA, south of San Fran) so he decides to take off for a bit of r&r to the cabin.
while he does find some peace at the start in his stay at Big Sur he also is driven mad with loneliness, for a partner but also an incurable loneliness for drinking (at that time he’s drinking 3/4 of a bottle of whisky a day) and a loneliness for times he likes to describe as, and i’ve used a lot in my song writing to ‘burn up in the night’ which i perceive as the kind of feverish excitement you get when you’re drunk and high and running around in the night with friends feeling safe, mad and invincible. (hopefully you’ve all been there even if you don’t know you have!)
he’s in and out of the cabin for the whole book basically staying till he can’t stand his own company anymore (a couple of days at a time) then hoping up to San Fran to meet Neal Cassady for huge crazy nights and long sombre hangovers. There’s a brief, intense love affair with his best friends lover which only adds to his desperateness and madness. the whole book culminates in the most visceral, gut wrenching ending where Kerouac basically has a nervous breakdown in the cabin. He was never the same after his stay at Big Sur. he documents this breakdown in a very real, sad way. Kerouac loved Dostoyevski and you can tell with the end of this book. It’s like a scene out of crime and punishment, an intense look into the eyes of a person having a real breakdown. It’s sad because he waited almost 10 years for his ‘road’ book to be published (while waiting he wrote 10 more novels and had three novels rejected) all he wanted was to be seen as a serious writer like Thomas Wolfe or Hemmingway, his heroes, and when it finally did get published and was a smash hit he turned to drink to cope with his meteoritic rise.
Since Big Sur was published there’s been an add on of sorts which is a long poem kerouac wrote while staying in Big Sur. It’s a great poem about the ocean and the sounds it makes. it’s full of lines like: shhhwwooooooooooooooooosssshhhhhkkkkaaaaa kkkkaaaaaaassshhhhhhhhoooooouummmm bbrrruushhhhhhhhhhwwwkkaaaaaaaaaa wwhoooooshkaaaaaaaaa sshhhhiooooooowww… seriously.
What initially drew you to the novel, and why do you think that it has remained so endearing to you?
well after i read on the road when i was 17 i was hooked on kerouac, i hungrily read everything he wrote and by the time i was 18 I wanted to become a beat poet writer my self.. i have diaries full of bad poetry, the self reverential, ‘woe is me, woe is you’ and all that other great stuff you write as a kid groaning up.. Big Sur just stood out as his best novel to me. My second favourite novel of his would have to be Dr. Sax.. That’s a great read also. Dr. Sax is basically kerouac looking back, writing about his childhood but in the way we all remember our childhood, in hazy dream/sometimes nightmarish like vignettes.. I recommend it.
What do you like about the writing style of the author who wrote the novel, and did it lead you to read other novels by this author?
see above. i literally read everything kerouac wrote in a matter of a year or so. the only book i haven’t read of his is mexico city blues. it’s a book of poetry. kerouac is famous for his stream of conciseness writing and that really had a big impact on me when i first started reading him. i remember reading the forward of on the road and it said something along the lines of: …when you read this book don’t read it as you would a normal novel, run your eyes over the words and take in the meaning of the sentence but don’t stop to understand it just keep on reading and it will all become clear… (very zen i know..) i’m paraphrasing obviously but what they were saying made perfect sense to me, basically they were saying read this book as kerouac wrote it. it made the book so much more to me than a road novel about kerouac chasing around this anti-hero (Dean)… it turned that book and subsequently all of his books into one long, fast paced stream of conciseness read. I read all his books the same way, in a type of frenzied speed reading that to me lends weight to the words as a whole.
that’s why in the scroll version of on the road that was just released there’s no sentence breaks, there’s no punctuation or chapters, there’s no speech breaks or quotation marks.. it’s totally bare of any breaks of concise thought as if he were in a trance writing it and i believe that’s the way it should be read as well.
How has it changed your view of yourself, the world we live in, and how you as an individual fit into society?
whoa, heavy… well i’ll speak mostly on the legacy that kerouac left behind as a whole rather than the way this particular novel changed my view of my self. actually i’ll speak mostly on the sadness of the legacy that kerouac left behind. i’ve seen a lot of footage and read a lot about kerouac, i was quite obsessed with him for a long time, and as i said above I thought i wanted to be him in my more formative years. then i started to rethink things a little the more i delved into this guys life, especially his later life. When I first started reading kerouac I started writing a lot of bad beat poetry and hung out in cafe’s smoking cigarettes, i was down on ‘the man’ and revelled in kerouac’s way way of life, his way of thinking, his whole ideology (laid out nicely in the book he wrote directly after on the road: The Dhama Bums). Then one day (i was probably wearing a beret, smoking a rolled cigarette, sipping a cappuccino and thinking about drinking… for the record i’ve actually never owned a beret..) a friend said I should read this book called ‘off the road’ by Carolyn Cassady. that book kind of turned my whole world upside down. Carolyn was the long suffering wife of Neal Cassady who was the Dean character in kerouacs ‘road’ novel, and the Cody character in some of his other novels. off the road by Carolyn Cassady isn’t the most amazingly written book, as in it’s a bit all over the place stylistically, but the over all theme of the book struck me deeply.
it’s basically about the adventures of jack and neal written from the other side of the coin. the way a real person; a mum; a partner of a mad man; a friend/one off lover to a drunk saw the goings on that kerouac wrote about in on the road and a couple of his other books. reading her book i instantly saw how deranged and uncaring neal was and how lost and unhappy jack was. i hate to say it but they were losers. i was suddenly faced with the dilemma that my favourite author, my heroic writer who i looked up to was a depressed drunkard who had mother issues and died a sad slow death of alcoholism and that his muse (Neal Cassady) was an unfaithful underachieving madman who was always in trouble with the law and out of money with three kids he left at home so he could go chasing after tail around the country.
When you break it down like that, the books start losing their luster and magic and it’s only been recently that i’ve been able to go back and read big sur and the original scroll of on the road and enjoy them again. i get different things out of them these days, i no longer want to be kerouac, i feel i understand him more and can empathise with him on his adventures. But after reading off the road I find my self loathing the man that is Neal Cassady. He’s a crook, he’s a liar, a misogynist, a dreamer yes, but a selfish dreamer dreaming only of him self. And with this realisation I found my self feeling sorry for kerouac for following this guy around the country like a puppy follows it’s master, he was a great writer don’t get me wrong but at his core he was a lost soul with a great sadness in him, and left behind him. he has a great novel called visions of gerard where he speaks about his brother who died when he was young. in that book you see a sadness beginning in kerouac from an early age that seemed to just intensify as he got older and definitely after he became world famous.
i was crushed to learn the truth about kerouac after reading off the road. i urge fans of kerouac books to read it, you’ll see him, and Neal in a new light that will add, i think even further weight to his books.
Has this novel had an effect in any way upon your musicality/songwriting? If so, how?
I’ve written a couple of songs about Big Sur (i have found a place (from our first album), nothing ever changes (from billboard noises) In the Devoted song: Our Life Is Passing Us By (from billboard noises) i sing about kerouac’s time in San Fran during a particular bender in Big Sur.. I have mentioned or written about or quoted or sung about Kerouac in a lot of my songs in Devoted Few. Desolation Angels from Billboard Noises was all about obviously his great opus of the same name. Your Summer Dress, an old b-side of mine was written after reading Kerouac’s book on his high school love called: Maggie Cassady. My Devoted Few song: Tom Said is a ode to the sadness of Kerouac’s legacy. I think the line in that song really sums up how I feel about him when I sing: ‘the higher you get the smaller you become…’ there’s something so sad about the latter half of his life, to be so desperate and lost that his only way out was to drink him self to death. But without that sadness I’m sure we wouldn’t have the great books from him we have.
Lastly, how has it helped shape your opinions upon artistic creativity and vision?
re-reading this… diatribe of mine makes me seem like i’m very torn about kerouac but I’m really not. I love his works, I love his prose, I still go to his books first when i need inspiration to write and I admire and envy his drive and vigour to ‘burn up in the night’. it’s just he was something (a super human/enlightened being) to me for a long time then when I delved into his life I saw what his stories (that were just about all autobiographical) really were and who he really was and that was quite shocking to me.
It makes me think of all my childhood/young manhood heroes and what became of them. Cobain, Kerouac and more recently Michael Jackson they were these great artists, writers and free sprits and some where along the way they took some left turns and then a right and another left and lost their way and one day they wake up and they’re a million miles away from where they started or where they want to be and they don’t know how to find their way out. so they turn to drugs, or drink or change their face thinking that will help them find their way back home but it’s a slippery slope and all of them fall. I mean Kerouac was pro Vietnam war just before he died, he hated beats, and what became of the movement he just seemed so far away from where he began and that to me speaks loudly on the sadness kerouac’s legacy.
I realise that sometimes in this interview I’ve over simplified things to make my point so I’m more than happy to talk more about/back up any of my views if anyone would like to contact me do so through the devoted few website: http://www.thedevotedfew.com or hit me up at: http://www.twitter.com/benfletcher
I’ll leave you with my favourite passage from a Kerouac book, or atleast the one I always remember:
[God] …sayeth, Go thou across the ground; go moan for man; go moan, go groan, go groan alone go roll your bones, alone; go thou and be little beneath my sight; go thou, and be minute and as seed in the pod, but the pod the pit, world a Pod, universe a Pit; go thou, go though, die hence…