“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
In the last blog post, I talked about the writing of On the Road, how Kerouac’s manic, three-week typing delirium led him to find a fundamental way to write Beat, as well as the influence of Walt Whitman, America’s great poet, the living embodiment of the land, the poet of a continent.
But On The Road has another great influence: jazz.
Flicking through the book, even absentmindedly, there are numerous references to bebop, ‘that wild unkempt sound’, ringing from every doorway in America, the rhythm and pulse of the streets from LA to New York. Walking through LA, Kerouac hears the pounding of the jungle, and sees the ‘children of the American bop night’; pimps, hustlers, drug-addicts, hobos, street-walkers, young people out for a time, ‘cracked out on substances’:
“The wild humming night of Central Avenue – the night of Hamp’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.”
He and Dean often connect over jazz in the novel, musing about jazz and the soul of music; Dean embodies the wild sound, his madness bloomed into a ‘wild flower’, a mystical thing, the crash of the cymbal, the rip of the horn. Dean is jazz, in a person, he is on a path to self-destruction and immolation, uncaring, feeling the journey deep within his spirit, unconcerned with the ending.
Beat is a literary equivalent of jazz; Kerouac directly equated his novel to jazz, describing his style of writing as ‘the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between out blown phrases)’. And just as in the world of bebop, Kerouac hit it in one take, an all-out tumult, a synaptic seizure of rhythm and inspiration; jazz and Beat alike didn’t need a destination, or never expected a destination, living for the journey, the movement, the beauty along the way, the snap of the music, the pure spontaneous stimulation of being in complete control, while at the same moment being unable to control anything, pulled along down the road. The sound of Kerouac’s fingers, crackling over those keys, must have been like the pop and crackle of Mingus, or the wail of Coltrane.
At the time, bebop was the major style ripping through American subculture, a precursor of modern day jazz, headed by such figures as Charlie Parker (above), Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. It was the former who fully embodies Kerouac’s dream of bebop; like Kerouac, he embodied his art completely, down to the troubles with drugs and the authorities. Parker, Monk, Gillespie, all were seen as intellectual figures, creators, pioneers, embodiments of the great American soundscape; like the Beat Generation after them, they didn’t conform to conservative social convention, questioning the sexual, religious and political taboos of the day, using drugs frequently, which also influenced their actions.
The Beats had their own drug troubles (there are constant references in On the Road to ‘bennies‘, benzedrine, a kind of amphetamines used copiously by Cassady and Ginsberg); LSD informed their actions, leading them into ever more creative and distinct channels. Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction fuelled the wild unpredictability of his music, life imitating art. Drug abuse, heavy drinking and problems with the law were all cornerstones of early bebop and jazz, yet the inspiration and lifestyles of the early jazz pioneers accurately reflect the mindset of Kerouac as he was writing and creating On the Road. Take this from Keyboard, describing Thelonious Monk’s rituals for creativity:
“So absorbed was he in jazz that he would walk the New York streets for hours or stand still on a corner near his apartment on West 63rd Street, staring into his private landscape and running new songs and sounds through his mind. As he himself succinctly explained it, ‘I just walk and dig.”
This sounds like the eternal wandering of Kerouac, at every stage of On the Road, digging what he sees, completely filled with the road, the landscape, the sights and sounds of America.
Parker and Kerouac’s lives culminated in a similar fashion, both dying before their time, thanks mostly to their hard and free lifestyles; Kerouac at 47, Parker at 34. They were both icons of the same idea, the notion of freedom and exuberance, the idea that the way life was lived in America, the way things were done, was not the only way, that there was something wild and pure out at the horizon, where the sunset bloomed, and it could be grasped, it could be held onto, if only for a second, only for the fleeting moment the eyes can stare at it.
Whitman, to Parker, to Kerouac; the pure ancestry.