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On the Road with John Fordham

PostPosted: Fri Aug 08, 2008 5:04 pm
by Charlie
A friend spotted this on the Guardian's website:

John Fordham

Jazz audiences are always On the Road

One ingredient of Jack Kerouac's On the Road remains noisily vivid - jazz

August 7, 2008 9:00 AM

Kerouac was trying to capture the sounds of 40s jazz in the rhythms of his book. Photograph: Corbis

For some reason, my holiday reading includes Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The only roads I've traversed in the past week, however, have been in a rented Citroen Picasso, enjoying air-conditioned drives across French vineyards interrupted only by the occasional upscale barn conversion or lazily amiable small town. So it's safe to say it can't have much to do with emulating Kerouac's 1947 trip into a drunken, mind-jangling post-war American vortex in an assortment of jalopies, the occasional racy Buick convertible, hobo-packed boxcars, huffing Greyhound buses and dementedly driven farm trucks.

I hadn't read On the Road since I was a student (and 10 years younger than the 29-year-old Kerouac who wrote the novel in three weeks flat), so I suppose I was curious to find out if this breathless, one-damn
(but-damn-fascinating) thing-after-another book had kept the magic ingredient that led Bob Dylan to say "it changed my life, like it changed everyone else's". It didn't seem to have done, because the zig-zagging race toward the next horizon, the next girl, the next doss-house, the next meaning-of-life conversation, the next dollar, or the next meal had come to feel like being stuck in a revolving door in a way it hadn't when I read it first.

But one ingredient has remained noisily vivid.


Kerouac often made it clear that the sound of jazz in the 1940s had a lot to do with the kind of tone, intensity and unpremeditated drive he was trying to capture in the rhythms of his book. And there are plenty of references to it in On the Road. In Los Angeles, Kerouac describes "the wild humming night of Central Avenue - the night of Hamp's (that's swing-band leader Lionel Hampton's) 'Central Avenue Breakdown'
- howled and boomed ... they were singing in the halls, singing from their windows, just hell and be damned and look out."

Or, one night in San Francisco, this episode:
"Boom, kick, that drummer was kicking his drums down the cellar, and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom! The pianist was only pounding the keys with spreadeagled fingers, chords, at intervals when the great tenorman was drawing breath for another blast - Chinese chords, shuddering the piano in every timber, chink and wire, boing! The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around; his hat was over his eyes, somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn, and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air.

Dean (that's Kerouac's alias for his crazed, elusive road partner Neal
Cassady) was directly in front of him, with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man's keys, and the man noticed, and laughed in his horn a long, quivering, crazy laugh, and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct."

OK, it sounds like the 1950s and pretty innocent, not the all-knowing 2000s. And it's a pre-rock era when jazz was still the pop music, even if the improvisational impulses in passages like that one, show that pop was still flexible and emotional enough to allow the wildest departures from the hook that the crowd could still hang on to, and want to.

But I could hear the free-improv English saxophonist Evan Parker, or the post-bop American master Dave Liebman in that description - and many more. Because the playing of such fearless individuals still embodies the spirit of On the Road - an uncalculating confidence in free-fall, an optimism about what unimaginable thing might be around the next corner, an indifference to what fashions or arbitrary marketplace rules might demand. Places where you hear that kind of thing today have smaller, and quieter, audiences - but ones that are just as open to the music's often raw emotional state. Jazz audiences are always on the road, in a way. And because it's an impulse that can't be quelled, neither they nor the spirit of the music will ever go away.

PostPosted: Sat Aug 09, 2008 12:53 pm
by will vine
I always seem to preface any positive remarks about jazz with "at it's best..." and so, at its improvised best, it can be like joyriding; up'n'down all the gears, handbrake turns, highways, byways, and all that chicanery. A lot of Rock just gets you straight ahead, between the overtaking lane and the fast lane.

I'm sticking with that, but fully expect to see it as my first entry in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner.

PostPosted: Sat Aug 09, 2008 4:34 pm
by Adam Blake
Funnily enough, I suspect that Kerouac's poetic depiction did more harm than good to the music - or at least to how the music was perceived by its audience. He was writing at the time of the Bebop explosion which must have been tremendously exciting. Really one of the most seminal musical moments in the American 20th C. But what does Kerouac celebrate? Chaos, disassociation, disorientation, intoxication, emotional dysfunctionality etc etc etc. I guess that was what he was looking for and that's what he found. Charlie Parker being the perfect example of the New Music was a junkie and an alcoholic. I've often thought of him as a benign psychopath - as in someone who is completely amoral and self-obsessed but doesn't actually intend to hurt anyone, just leaves emotionally scarred victims in their wake! Kerouac and the Beats tended to celebrate all that, rather than wonder and marvel that such extraordinary music could be made IN SPITE of such obstacles! But it's just a point of view.

PostPosted: Sat Aug 09, 2008 8:01 pm
by Hugh Weldon
Adam wrote:

But what does Kerouac celebrate? Chaos, disassociation, disorientation, intoxication, emotional dysfunctionality etc etc etc.

Yes to some extent, but there is also deep nostalgia for home, order, family, the past etc developing into an embarrassing alcohol-fuelled sentimentality of the grossest kind in the later books.

Also I don't think he can be accused of celebrating those things in the music. Wildness and excitement certainly in the On The Road passages, with regard to Slim Gaillard, George Shearing and a record by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray called 'The Chase' (but which I think he called 'The Hunt' in the book).

Kerouac has generally been misunderstood, largely because people took him for the mythicised Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) character he created. And Burroughs is surely the more sinister influence amongst the beats.

PostPosted: Sat Aug 09, 2008 8:05 pm
by Adam Blake
Hugh Weldon wrote:. And Burroughs is surely the more sinister influence amongst the beats.

Definitely agreed. "The Naked Lunch" is one of those rare books I've given up on because it made me feel sick. Henry Miller's "Tropic Of Cancer" was another. (Orwell, my favourite modern writer, wrote a wonderful essay about Miller called "Inside The Whale" which I'd bet dollars to doughnuts is better than anything Miller ever wrote himself!)

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 8:12 pm
by matt m
Why is/was Burroughs a sinister influence?

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 8:31 pm
by Adam Blake
The vibe ! The vibe! The horrible nasty creepy vibe! I love what Burroughs is reported to have said about "The Naked Lunch" - "it's where everybody finally gets to see exactly what's on the end of their fork." But I'm way too squeamish for him, or Miller.

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 8:57 pm
by Hugh Weldon

Why is/was Burroughs a sinister influence?

Perhaps 'sinister' is not the best choice of word. It just occured to me to make the comparison given that Adam had, I felt a little unfairly, accused Kerouac of celebrating dysfunctionality.

Burroughs went further in that direction than any of them. I'm sure Adam is not the only reader to find that Naked Lunch had an emetic effect. He was a rich kid who never had to work, 'accidentally' shot his wife dead, developed a lifelong junk habit and seemed devoted to the dirty and the ugly in most of what he wrote. Nevertheless he was lionised by the sort of people who found something hip about his schtick, most bizzarrely the caring Christians U2.

Worth knowing about I suppose but not really worth wasting your time reading when there are so many better books around. Though if somebody wants to offer a defence of him I'd be interested.

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 9:04 pm
by Adam Blake
Hugh, I didn't mean to give the impression that celebrating dysfunctionality was ALL that Kerouac did in relation to his writing on jazz. He really loved the music and that's why the writing still resonates.

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 11:32 pm
by Hugh Weldon
He really loved the music and that's why the writing still resonates.

True Adam, I didn't read what you said as a total dismissal.

The miserable Burroughs rarely had a positive thing to say about jazz or anything else.

For those interested, one of the lesser known Beats, John Clellon Holmes, was also a big jazz buff. His books are hard to get hold of now. Compendium in Camden used to have them but it shut down about seven years ago. One was called Go similar to On the Road in themes but more conventional in style. And a jazz themed novel called (I think) The Horn

Kerouac was such a jazz nut he even recorded with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, I also have an awful record I downloaded from Emusic in which he embarrasses himself over what sounds like a pretty professional band, murdering standards like 'Aint We Got Fun' and 'Come Rain or Come Shine'. At least he sings in tune, but the phrasing is way off and he can't be bothered to learn the words. Though the recordings of his readings from the novels on the same disc are well worth checking out if you are a beat fan.

PostPosted: Sun Aug 10, 2008 11:43 pm
by Adam Blake
My favourite Beat was Allen Ginsberg. I remember being lucky enough to have a hip English teacher when I was about 14 who gave us "America" to read out loud. We were all so shocked by that line: "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb". It still packs a punch to this day. I also love the story of when Ginsberg was called as a character witness in the trial of the so called Chicago Eight in 1968. There was pandemonium in the court and Ginsberg started Om-ming to calm things down. This was being duly recorded by the court stenographer when the judge exclaimed: "Mr Ginsberg, the language of this court is English!"

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2008 12:05 am
by Ted
I occasionally pick up "On The Road" or "The Subterraneans" and browse - I find myself cringing at Kerouacs sentimentality and self pity. I find him almost unreadable. But Kerouac is always more life affirming than Burroughs, whose books I can still read (Although just as I don't often listen to "Sister Ray", I rarely find myself in the mood for "The Naked Lunch").
Its Burroughs coldness that has always appealed to me - his voice seems to come from a place that I hardly recognise as human.

Kerouac and Burroughs were both pretty unpleasant men - and the characters they adopted were almost archetypes of their addictions - Kerouac the slobbering whining drunk, Burroughs the cold, self-centred junkie.

Oh and that "The Horn" is awful sub-Kerouac tosh - although it does give you the opportunity to say "I see you've got The Horn" if you see it on someones bookshelf...

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2008 10:31 am
by Charlie
Ted wrote:Kerouac the slobbering whining drunk, Burroughs the cold, self-centred junkie.

Thanks for those pithy summaries, Ted. They will do me fine and save me the trouble of trying to read those books again.

I tried reading On The Road when it was the thing to do, and probably never admitted to anybody that I never managed to finish it. A few years ago, I gave my original 1950s paperback to somebody who had had his stolen, and so now I can't check it to see if I would feel any differently.

The Naked Lunch - couldn't even get started on that one.

There was a powerful novel by a Scottish junkie, Cain's Book - I think the writer's name was Alexander Trocchi - which I did manage to finish, despite feeling uncomfortable most of the time.

Just looked this up on the invaluable Wiki and discovered Trocchi was part of that Left Bank scene in Paris. Was Cain's Book first published by Olympia, who specialised in printing English language versions of books banned in the UK the US? Exciting times, to read forbidden literature.

Reading this passage from Wikipedia, I now wonder how much I understood in Cain's Book:

[Trocchi] left Paris for the United States and spent time in Taos, New Mexico, before settling in New York City where he worked on a garbage scow on the Hudson river. His time is chronicled in the novel Cain's Book which became something of a sensation at the time. Cain's Book is a study of heroin addiction. Its descriptions of sex and drug use got the book banned in Britain, where it was the subject of an obscenity trial; in America, however, the reviews were favourable.

Trocchi was deep in the thralls of heroin now, he failed to attend his own launch party for Cain's Book, and his wife Lyn was prostituting herself on the streets of the Lower East Side. During a televised debate on drug abuse, he shot up live on camera, despite being on bail at the time being charged with supplying heroin to a minor, an offence then theoretically punishable by death. A jail term seemed certain, but with the help of some friends (including Norman Mailer), Trocchi was smuggled over the Canadian border.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2008 11:48 am
by NormanD
Charlie wrote:A jail term seemed certain, but with the help of some friends (including Norman Mailer), Trocchi was smuggled over the Canadian border....
...and links with Leonard Cohen followed, involving (if I remember correctly) a lump of ingested opium.

Trocchi was an early-50s ex-pat, living in Paris, and writing pornography for the Olympia Press. The publisher Maurice Girodias did publish the first Olympia Press edition of Cain's Book, an existentially bleak book which did not especially glamourise heroin addiction, but was vile to its female characters.

I won't rise to Hugh's challenge to defend Burroughs, but will admit to having read most of his early books, on several occasions, got on well with them, and even enjoyed them. Perhaps I should say that after Naked Lunch, books like The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded were effectively the same book, endlessly chopped about (the so-called Cut Up method, a way of turning verbal gibber into art, as we well know from some of our over-regarded songwriters).

Burroughs did take the glamour out of his own heroin addiction, with his talk of collapsed veins and permanent constipation, and he has left an overly-influential legacy. Perhaps more than any other literary figure he has had a high number of pop music hangers-on, from Debbie Harry to Kurt Cobain, and spawned quite a few band names too. I think his visual art was crap: filling balloons with acrylic paint and then blasting them with a sawed-off shotgun, indeed. I'll buy!! (Just make sure he signs it).

OK, I can think of one thing in WSB's favour: the fact that you can be a serious heroin addict for most of your life yet still live into your 80's.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2008 12:00 pm
by Adam Blake
NormanD wrote:OK, I can think of one thing in WSB's favour: the fact that you can be a serious heroin addict for most of your life yet still live into your 80's.

Only if you have money and a regular supply of clean heroin.