Saturday, September 1, 2007

On the Road - Words as Jazz

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Jack Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road. To commemorate the occasion, original publisher Viking Press (now a part of the Penguin Group) is issuing an unabridged anniversary edition - a must have for readers.

Kerouac coined the phrase Beat Generation, and influenced countless readers, poets and seekers with his wonderfully beautiful prose. He certainly influenced me. I carried Dharma Bums around in my backpack hitchhiking from Orange County to Big Sur back in the day. Thanks to my early mentor and guide, Diane Smith, for introducing me to the Beat Poets and Kerouac.

A 120 WPM typist, Kerouac famously wrote his breakthrough novel in an often-cited three week marathon - typing on a single scroll so he wouldn't have to change pages and shuffle papers. Rooted in progressive jazz and loosely based on the jounals of cross-country trips he'd kept, the lyrical novel was his attempt at spontaneous, improvisational prose. It *so* worked. Once he finally got the book published, six years and many rejections after it was written, On The Road was an instant best-seller and critical success.

Kerouac's personal spiritual journey led him to jazz and the bliss of spontaneous performance. His contributions were many, including his debut album, Poetry for the Beat Generation, recorded with Steve Allen accompanying Jack on piano in 1959. Jack described himself as a "Catholic," not a Beatnik, but in the end he adopted many Buddhist spiritual practices. Personally, I get the impression that for Jack, it all worked together in harmony, like a tenor sax, bass fiddle with snare drums & cymbals.

Significant cultural movements have many voices. The Beat Generation (Kerouac hated the term Beatnik) had progressive jazz at its musical core and a group of avant garde thinkers, poets and novelists as principal literary proponents. Along with his friends Allen Ginzberg, William Burroughs and Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac defined an iconic, American age. His life was characterized by hard partying, passion and profound quests of personal discovery - all documented in his books. He died in 1969 of the complications of Cirrhosis at the age of 47, after a life of heavy drinking.

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