Kerouac on Record
Kerouac on Record

Simon Warner

Simon Warner is a lecturer, writer, broadcaster, and Visiting Research Fellow in Popular Music at the University of Leeds in the UK. He is the author of Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (2013). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Jim Sampas

Jim Sampas is a music and film producer whose work often focuses on major cultural figures such as Jack Kerouac, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, the Smiths, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. In 2017, he was appointed Literary Executor of the Jack Kerouac Estate. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018


Content Type:

Scholarly Books

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Simon Warner

Simon Warner is a lecturer, writer, broadcaster, and Visiting Research Fellow in Popular Music at the University of Leeds in the UK. He is the author of Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (2013). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

DOI: 10.5040/9781501323386.0006
Page Range: 1–18

We’d stay up twenty-four hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee, playing record after record of Wardell Gray, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Willis Jackson, Lennie Tristano and all the rest, talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets.

Kerouac, 1994a, pp. 47–8

This collection explores the rich association between literature and music which exists so clearly in that terrain carved out by the novelist Jack Kerouac, an American writer who lived a relatively short but intense life, much of it infused by the sound of songs, listening to and vocalizing with records at home and in others’ apartments, the playing of and accompaniment by instruments at parties, engagement with live performances in bars, clubs and theatres and the pleasure of hearing new hits on the radio, in cars on road trips, on jukeboxes, in cafes and restaurants, the riffs and solos of jazz and the ballads of Broadway and Hollywood, the melodies and lyrics of blues and country. These multiple sources provided a potent soundtrack to this prolific observer of the US in all its varied character – urban and rural, the plains and the mountains, the seas and the forests. This book endeavours to illustrate those musical connections he made throughout his 47 years, but also extrapolate them beyond his life. For if Kerouac was so influenced by the many kinds of musical experience he enjoyed himself, here was a writer who would also influence several generations who followed in his wake, popular musical artists who found in his stories, his adventures, his poetry, from the mid-1960s to the end of the century and beyond, a pulse of inspiration so powerful that they could not help but bring some of his spirit, some of his craft, to the art they themselves created.

If, for Kerouac, it was jazz that would have the principal impact, then it was rock on which the writer would have the main effect. In this book we will pay most attention to the way recorded materials developed from these interactions. These examples can be categorized in various ways: albums that Kerouac recorded himself, two emerging from his close relationship to jazz, one centred on a medium we would now call spoken word; albums that are actual tributes to the novelist – either creations by specific bands or compilations featuring various acts; soundtracks to films and documentaries that have been based on Kerouac’s work – from Pull My Daisy in 1959 to Big Sur in 2013; and work on record which displays a sense of association with themes expressed in his literary imagination – compositions and compilations that appear to rise from, even pay homage to, the creative aspirations, the cross-country odysseys and the bohemian lifestyle that the On the Road author pursued between the early 1940s and the end of the 1960s.

Alongside these descriptions and dissections, we will encounter the symbolic power of music to writer, and the emblematic inspiration of writer to music. Jazz, particularly in the 1940s as bebop commenced its artistic rise, became a potent symbol of rebellion to white men – and some women – in the US, individuals who wanted to shake off the dust of the conventional mainstream and experience the excitement and danger of life on the urban edges. Bop – its clubs, its instrumentalists – represented an ideal of outsiderdom when America was experiencing the post-war confusions of race and politics. In this thrilling, marginalized milieu, it was possible for those rejecting the narrow confines of expected social and economic existence to experience something wilder, something perhaps even dangerous, particularly when drugs of various kinds became part of this semi-hidden enclave. Out of this allegiance to the outlying fringes would emerge subcultures like the Beats. For rock musicians, from the mid-1960s particularly, as that platform of expression began to extend its visions, its horizons, beyond the moon-in-June simplicities of the singles charts and mere commercial motivation or the visceral rhythms of dance, Kerouac’s ideas and ideology, his unique imaginative impulse, provided a model for music-makers who wanted to escape the formulaic straitjacket of love’s vicissitudes, framed in three minutes of plastic, and, further, transcend the constrictions of celebrity and show business, rejecting the standard pop star tropes of the day for those of the thinking and engaged artist.[1] In this transformation they attempted to make art that commented not just on the romantic threads of life but also on social and political ones and they found in this writer’s words – and those of his other Beat associates – a template on which they could build. Thus, talents as diverse as Bob Dylan, the Fugs and the Grateful Dead, the Doors and Van Morrison, Jethro Tull and David Bowie, made sometimes elusive, occasionally even explicit, references to this writing world as they concocted their experimental lyrics and sounds during a particularly productive decade. Nor were those influences dispelled once, in the 1970s and 1980s, punk and new wave, indie and grunge came along, with the Clash’s Joe Strummer, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, REM’s Michael Stipe and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to the fore, as others continued to fly that identifying flag.

There has been a gradually growing body of writing investigating these genre-breaking connections in recent times. To identify a selection of these, jazz and Kerouac has been addressed in books by Roy Carr et al. (1987), Stephen Ronan (1996), Lewis MacAdams (2002), John Leland (2004 and 2007) and Nancy M. Grace (2007), articles by Jim Burns (1993), Brian Hassett (1999), John Swenson (1999), Douglas Malcolm (2004), Larry Kart (2004) and Michael Hrebeniak (2017), and Sam Charters’ 1982 address at the Naropa Institute on ‘Jack Kerouac’s jazz’.[2] Rock and Kerouac has been more tentatively approached, but some authors have begun to explore this relationship, too. Dave Perry (1990), Ronan (1996), Steve Turner (1996), Holly George-Warren (1999), John Leland (2004), Laurence Coupe (2007), Simon Warner (2013) and Brian Hassett (2015) are among those who have started to analyse this Beat/rock entwining.

Kerouac on Record will engage further still with these musico-literary overlaps, these intertextual and trans-generational extensions, these multi-generic instances, these intriguing disruptions to long-standing understandings that assumed a natural divide between high and low culture where literature and popular music were barely nodding acquaintances, in a number of ways and via a range of different voices. Kerouac and his fellow travellers – the so-called Beat Generation, christened in a Manhattan conversation he had in 1948 with John Clellon Holmes, the writer who would publish the first recognized Beat novel, Go, in 1952 – were more than happy to straddle the worlds of the literary and musical, particularly the area of jazz, an especially fertile sector at a time when racial tensions remained high and music associated with black artists was regarded with caution, if not downright fear, its earthy sensuality often regarded as subversive and threatening. The Beats enjoyed the tensions this implied: in the black American life they perceived possibilities unavailable to white Americans and sought experiences in the company of those at the ethnic margins. As Kerouac famously wrote in On the Road:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver coloured section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.

 --1972, p. 169

By straying from the accepted path, the Beats marked themselves as outsiders to the mainstream but also, by their actions, early integrationists, progressive souls to a small minority but irresponsible transgressors to many,[3] a decade or so before the Civil Rights movement began its earnest and organized quest to dispel the deep-held reservations of the white population that the granting of equal status to those of different skin colour in society might be fatal to the stability of the national community, still profoundly separated by the dictates of race, to a greater or lesser degree, across all the states.

Just as Kerouac and the Beats set out to disrupt norms – whether literary, cultural, social or racial – this collection will perhaps challenge some pedagogic ones. It will be eclectic in its enquiry, not only drawing on academic analysis but also journalistic readings; involving cultural historians and novelists, lyricists and playwrights; incorporating input from critics, broadcasters and biographers; showcasing recollections from musicians and producers; featuring essays on various phases in this panoramic story, including chapters focusing on key individuals but also on important genres; embracing conversational exchanges and interviews with significant figures attached to the scene but also with notable authors who have written about this world, that productive intersection of the fictional and the poetic with the realm of the musical. It will, indeed, even feature poems that reflect on that association, a piece of intertextuality actually commenting on that intertextuality.

The transatlantic, indeed the global, academy has been quite slow to recognize that there are cultural practices of importance which lie outside the traditional architecture of elite art, an issue with which that Anglo-American quality journalism has been comfortable for rather longer. But as we canter deep into the second decade of the post-millennium century, those heavily-defended precepts in the halls of learning have been considerably undermined. In the years since the Second World War, there has been a gradual liberalization in the lecture room, and vistas have broadened. The mass media, a pejorative term still when applied by the educated establishment even as recently as the middle of the last century, finally prised open the well-guarded door of academe, when, first film from around the 1960s, then radio and television in the 1970s, then an overarching discipline of media or communication studies, tentatively began to acquire a recognized study status that broke the older rules of engagement. Within these mass produced and massed consumed formats, it was eventually deemed that they possessed worthwhile, even complex, meanings transcending concepts of mere transient entertainment. Yet even within this more liberal learning atmosphere, there were anomalies.

The writings of the Beat Generation, initially emerging for public consumption in the 1950s,[4] gained a wide readership but still generated a deep suspicion within many of the ivory towered literary departments of the following 30 or so years. Whether for reasons of style, intent, language, inclusion of drug use or rejection of traditional mores, there was a reluctance to regard this literary subset as serious or substantial, perhaps too shocking on the one hand but maybe too accessible or populist, or even popular, on the other. Popular music – and by that I use the broad umbrella embracing rock, pop and folk, blues and country, soul, hip hop and reggae, and multifarious other genres, including even jazz – also had a slow and difficult gestation in terms of its earning serious scholarly consideration. It took until the end of the 1980s in the UK, and longer elsewhere, for dedicated degree programmes focusing upon the historical, cultural and sociological significance of these musical developments to appear within universities, a trend initially prompted, I do believe, by the output of new waves of singers, songwriters and groups, particularly from the mid-1960s, which clearly had a gravitas, a gathering of insights, that went beyond the trivial and ephemeral confines of adolescent life, teen love and loss, and strayed into territory once assumed to be the exclusive domain of the dons and the policymakers – politics, culture and society.

The maturity of engagement between popular song and an era of high drama – the threat that Cold War would ignite into something more ferocious, Civil Rights demands and anti-war demonstrations, headline-grabbing assassinations to the emergence of fervent calls for notions of individual identity, from gender to sexuality and ethnicity, to be properly regarded, student attacks on the accepted educational canon and the reorientating effects of narcotic stimulation – sowed the seeds that would blossom in university courses and campus classes around 20 years later. In other words, it was eventually realized that to seriously study the times, you also had to understand the sounds. If important sub-fields of study, like punk and metal, hip hop and grunge, for instance, would follow in time, it is hard to see how these specialized foci could have existed without the unique circumstances engendered by the 1960s and its cataclysmic and globally influential musico-political interaction.

I do not think it is any coincidence that the tentative acceptance of popular music as a substantial thread of expression and creativity – solidified in the study terrain of Popular Music Studies – happened within a similar timeframe to the rather grudging agreement that Beat literature possessed worth and value, potential and impact, beyond the confines of the courts of censorship,[5] characterised in the consolidation of Beat Studies.[6] In fact, although Kerouac found nothing agreeable about the 1960s revolution, particularly not its aggressive campaigning against the Vietnam War, the elision of rock as a force of protest with Beat as a platform of resistance provides a fascinating lens for our deeper understanding of the last third of an increasingly open-minded, if still somewhat chaotic, last century. In Allen Ginsberg, who took a quite alternative view of that volatile era of demonstration and psychedelia to his long-time friend, many of the most impressive of the new rock stars identified their guru (most felt the same, too, about Kerouac, and his vision of a freewheeling America where the individual could pursue his, maybe possibly her, destiny, even if the often idolized author had by now abandoned such wide-eyed, near childlike, optimism, embodied in the vivid descriptions of his travels); in Dylan, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, the Doors and later others, Beat poets – including Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, naturally – perceived a fresh generation of energetic, inventive mavericks ready to sound the same trumpets of rebellion that the versifiers had initially played with such discordant majesty some ten years before, challenging the status quo to change. How do we know this?

Let us share a few pertinent examples. Ginsberg befriended Dylan and McCartney, appeared on the Rolling Stones’s ‘We Love You’ (1967) and Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ (1969) and later became an ally of the latter in his Green Card fight in the early 1970s; Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and a multitude of Bay Area Beats welcomed Dylan to San Francisco and City Lights bookstore, the so-called ‘Last Gathering of the Beats’, during the difficult touring months following his controversial electric set at Newport, in December 1965; Neal Cassady was part of the Dead entourage and members of that Haight-Ashbury band paid Herbert Huncke’s Chelsea Hotel rent in later years; McClure collaborated with Jim Morrison; McCartney organized recording facilities for Burroughs in mid-60s London and, with his fellow Beatles, chose the writer as a celebrated face to feature on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Ginsberg, McClure, Ferlinghetti, Snyder and Lenore Kandel joined the Human Be-In cast in January 1967 in a Golden Gate Park demonstration against the war in Vietnam when the stage was shared with the acid rock battalions of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish among others; and McClure and Ferlinghetti were on the bill when the Band played their final gig at Winterland in San Francisco, a commemoration that became Martin Scorsese’s movie The Last Waltz in 1978. Kerouac is one of the few absentees – and a very notable one – from this parade of alliances. It would take until November 1975, when Ginsberg and Dylan, a long-time fan, visited the writer’s grave as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue, for this particular Beat legend to be, posthumously, the focus of a high-profile rock celebration. Yet, as this book in many of its chapters will show, popular musicians of many stripes would ensure the Kerouac name would ultimately possess, we might argue, the greatest legacy value of all.

So, the evidence is there: once academicians were ready to make genuine sense of the huge stories of that pivotal period, they realized they could not be interpreted without regarding the power of Beat writing and an increasingly literate rock music as crucial components in this complex network of disturbed power relations between the mid-1950s and on to the present day. As we have more than hinted, Kerouac, who came of age as a writer in the 1950s, would be an unwilling participant in the activities that the following decade generated, with a new version of the politically aware rock as its ubiquitous soundtrack. But if the 1960s was a period of extraordinary change, the man who had penned On the Road, to some positive reviews but also, perhaps more importantly, to the acclaim of a rising generation of mostly young men, who found in its pages a blueprint to challenge the stifling orthodoxies of that era when Eisenhower’s America enjoyed unequalled economic benefits but lived in the constant shadow of possible nuclear annihilation, regarded the US, in the dozen years after the appearance of his signature text, as a worrying place indeed.

These waves of baby boomers, including those very folk and rock musicians who would help to orchestrate and solidify the new vision from their appearances at the March on Washington, in 1963, to the festival of Woodstock, in 1969, and many places in between and beyond, saw in the pages of his attention-grabbing books[7] the possibilities of freedom through travel, through adventure, through music, sexual escapades, religious quests and drug experiences, too. Yet Kerouac believed his idealized account of two young men – Sal Paradise, his own alter ego, and Dean Moriarty, a thinly-veiled portrait of the real-life Neal Cassady, whom he had first met 1946 – traversing his homeland, his continent, in the late 1940s, seeking meaning, spiritual understanding and a father figure in the open West, was no conceivable excuse for the revolutionary behaviour that crackled across the US nation in what we might call the long 1960s. From Greensboro in 1960 to Wounded Knee in 1973,[8] and on regular occasion in those intervening years and since that seminal time, rebels and demonstrators have laid the inspiration for their resistant strategies at the door of the Beats, very often On the Road itself.

William Burroughs, a principal and founding Beat protagonist, may have stated of Kerouac that ‘Woodstock rises from his pages’ (2010, p. 324), and Ed Sanders, one of the key players in the counterculture as poet/musician in the Fugs, might have identified Kerouac – in front of the writer himself on live television in 1968[9] – as a catalyst for his own personal rebellion against the US establishment, but also for the hippy nation that became such an incandescent symbol in the later 1960s. However, the man who conceived the Duluoz Legend – the overarching Proustian umbrella he devised for the autobiographical tales recounting fictional retellings of his picaresque life – had no time for such assertions or claims. He believed that LSD, that extraordinary chemical compound which promised mind-expanding visions and even personal revelation, was a Soviet plot to sabotage America, an intriguing turn of the tables considering that the Beats had been marked by some commentators in the later 1950s as little more than unwashed, workshy commies, and possibly entryists, operating on behalf of the feared Russian regime.

The term beatnik, conceived by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen in 1958, was a reflection of this paranoia. As the USSR launched Sputnik, a radio satellite, into space late the previous year, with the implication that the US could now be spied on from up above, Caen added the Russian suffix ‘-nik’ to Beat to stress, in a jokey fashion the journalist later claimed, this guilt by association. But the satirical nickname well and truly stuck and Kerouac spent much of the time subsequently trying to disassociate himself from this particular allusion, even going as far as writing articles that acknowledged that Beat had various connotations but one he particularly wanted to stress was strictly religious: beatitude and the beatific, or behaviour linked to saintliness, a deep-seated reflection on the writer’s lifelong, and almost unflinching, commitment to the Roman Catholic creed.[10] Connecting Beat to the good works of Rome may have been seen as a means to deflect some of the harsher criticisms he and his writing allies were by now attracting. When he made his famous appearance on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, he strove to maintain this charm offensive. His host asked him what Beat meant. ‘Sympathetic,’ he replied, a long way from the ‘beat up’, ‘beat down’ and ‘beaten’ suggestions that had been in mind when the street hustler and junkie Herbert Huncke introduced Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs to this term in the all-night, neon cauldron of Times Square around 1944.

For Kerouac, as we have already outlined, this volatile state of affairs that gripped the US, and indeed much of the West, during 1960s was not going to meet his approval. By then, his alcoholism had reached a point of no return and this was certainly a factor in his disgruntled demeanour towards events and even to former close friends, like Ginsberg and Cassady. The latter inevitably became identified with the Moriarty persona that Kerouac had ascribed to him on the page in On the Road, and, in the wake of the novel’s bestselling stature and widespread publicity, drew the negative attention forces of law and order leading to his jailing after undercover police officers sold him marijuana in an act of entrapment in 1958. Although this seriously damaged their friendship, Cassady bounced back from his incarceration, befriending a younger novelist, the West Coast-based Ken Kesey, who had, in 1962, published an acclaimed work of fiction entitled One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the wake of its critical and financial success, Kesey, who had been part of a an LSD test programme as a university student at the end of the 1950s, decided to spread the news about this psychedelic wonderdrug to a largely unsuspecting American public in a series of so-called Acid Tests from 1964 onwards. Kesey employed Cassady, in a move that had more than a symbolic ring to it,[11] to drive the school bus, adapted and floridly decorated, that would deliver the writer and his clan of fellow travellers – friends, artists, musicians – around the country, distributing their lysergic cargo to townspeople across the breadth of the nation, an audacious but not illegal jamboree as the drug was only banned in the US in 1966.

On this initial trek, Kesey and Cassidy and their crew – the so-called Merry Pranksters – invited Kerouac to Manhattan as that drug-fuelled odyssey hit the East Coast and, although the older novelist, by now living out of the city on Long Island, did turn out to meet this harlequin gang, Kerouac’s suspicion of the crowd of protesters, the proto-hippies who would preface the gathering the tens of thousands of freaks and flower children in San Francisco and across the US from around 1966, was already deep-seated. Kerouac’s conspiracy concerns, in respect of LSD, continued to invoke the spectre of the 1950s when the Soviets’ undermining of the US was regarded as a very distinct possibility, a perception far from dispelled as the next decade began, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and growing tension in South-East Asia, which would quite quickly see an ideological struggle between communism and capitalism played out militarily in the jungles and paddy fields of Vietnam, as matters escalated from 1964. This conjunction of impending war, psychedelic mischief-making and the onset of alcohol reliance turned Kerouac into a scathing critic of this carnivalesque subcultural regime and the rest of the decade would see the On the Road creator play out a deep and dark psychodrama in which figures like Cassady and certainly Ginsberg – a vocal figurehead of the anti-war movement – would be demonized by their one-time soulmate. His conservative instincts roused, his Republican tendencies confirmed, his pro-war position entrenched, Kerouac even took his mother’s anti-Semitic cue, attacking Ginsberg’s Jewish affiliation in a way that characterized the fading writer’s disturbed and deranged condition as he hurtled towards a drink-soaked death, in October 1969 in Florida, before his burial in the cemetery of his childhood home in Lowell.

Kerouac and jazz

Bop began with jazz but one afternoon somewhere on a sidewalk maybe 1939, 1940, Dizzy Gillespie or Charley [sic] Parker or Thelonious Monk was walking down past a men’s clothing store on 42nd Street or South Main in LA and from the loudspeaker they suddenly heard a wild impossible mistake in jazz that could only have been heard inside their own imaginary head, and that is a new art. Bop.

 --Kerouac, 1994b, p. 113

Kerouac’s real interest in jazz was cultivated after he left Lowell to head to New York City on a football scholarship, with Columbia University awaiting him, in 1939. On the cusp of a European war that would eventually suck him, his Manhattan friends and all-America into its drama in various ways, he would undertake a year of preparatory study at a prestigious private institution called Horace Mann School for Boys. There he would meet more knowledgeable aficionados of this vibrant musical form, like Seymour Wyse (see Moore, 1986, pp. 79–88). Together, they attended shows by musicians up and down the isle, at venues such as the Apollo and the Savoy.

With his friends, Kerouac would encounter jazz players at the height of their powers, meet and talk to some, even conduct interviews and write about those musicians – Count Basie and Glenn Miller, for example – for his school magazine, a clear sign that even from his late teens there was going to be a crossover between this musical style and a distinctive writing voice that was developing in such an interesting way.

Not only was the young Kerouac beginning to express himself through reportage and fiction but, intriguingly, he was also in the city where jazz music was also about to undergo some extraordinary changes. The swing bands, which had become dominant by the end of the 1930s, with many of these ensembles led by white musicians, faced a fresh creative challenge. At the start of the 1940s, black musicians, who had been at the heart of the birth of this musical form a quarter of a century or more before in the city of New Orleans, endeavoured to reassert control once again over this fluid métier. The ubiquitous swing sound was about to be tested by a quite different approach to jazz music-making – bebop, often shortened to simply bop.

Some of the most talented players of the New York scene – such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke – began to formulate a new musical language that resisted the predictable dance rhythms of big band swing and, instead, within a small group format, extemporized on structures and scales that were far too complex to dance to but rather encouraged a thinking audience to test their cerebral reflexes in the hothouse clubs in Harlem and, in time, on 52nd Street.

At Minton’s Playhouse, founded in 1938 at 118th Street, this novel and dynamic musical form, testing for players and listeners, began to make its mark. Bebop confused existing jazz fans, triggering fierce debate in the pages of magazines like Down Beat and Metronome (see Gendron, 2002, pp. 150–1), but attracted new waves of followers who were tired of the bland predictability of swing tempos. The location of the theatre made it an obvious draw to young black audiences, but living not far away in an apartment on the edge of the ghetto district were Kerouac and his largely Ivy League clique, a motley gathering of would-be writers who, by the mid-1940s, were ambitious and indeed confident enough to have developed a so-called ‘New Vision’, a manifesto that would proclaim radical approaches to making art, writing prose and penning poetry, a gospel that preached anti-establishment positions and unconventional solutions to the creative process. They identified ‘uncensored self-expression’ as the seed of creativity, looked to expand artistic consciousness ‘by non-rational means’ and believed that art superseded ‘the dictates of conventional morality’ (see Watson, 1995, p. 40).

For Kerouac and his closest allies – the more senior figure, Harvard graduate Burroughs, and their younger protégé, Columbia undergraduate Ginsberg, among others – the city of New York, by now caught up in the global crisis of war but filled with a near reckless, almost existential, urge for pleasure and gratification, from its upper echelons to its febrile street community, provided an extraordinary laboratory for these uncompromising early experiments in life and literature to be played out.

In the abstract and frenetic stylings of the new bebop, there appeared to be a fragmented mirror to the kind of energies that Kerouac and co. were bringing to their subterranean existences. The fact that drugs – as marijuana gave way to harder addictions like heroin for so many of the leading instrumentalists – were part of the scene provided a further parallel, as these white dropouts from conventional society also saw in narcotics a potent emblem of contumacy, a disorientating means to add stimulation and invention to their lives and their nascent experiences, in conversation and on paper.

In time, for a writer like Kerouac, however, jazz would become more than just a symbolic force. He would aim, particularly in his 1950s output, to emulate the very rhythmic shapes, the actual syntax, of those ground-breaking and influential jazz stylists – like Parker, Lester Young, Lee Konitz – to whom he was so drawn. He speculated that his writing, built on his own original notions of ‘spontaneous prose’,[12] could be as thrilling and inspiring as the improvised solos of the musicians. And so this musical form became not just a source of content – often specific individuals and bands and named songs from the jazz world regularly appear in his novels and his poetry – but also a catalyst for a distinctive style of prose and verse. His passion for this scene is well conveyed in his essay ‘The Beginning of Bop’, which originally appeared in Escapade in April 1959, an entertaining, if imaginative and somewhat fanciful, retelling of the founding of that musical style.

This relationship between jazz and Kerouac’s literary outpourings is very much the focus of the first section of this book. In Jim Burns’s opening chapter, this long established poet, editor and commentator, on matters both Beat and musical, explores the very evidence we find of jazz in the author’s novels – instrumentalists and performers from George Shearing and Slim Gaillard in On the Road to Charlie Parker in The Subterraneans and many more beside, who bring a verve and verisimilitude to the action of many of the novels. Then we include that classic Kerouac essay on how the musical seeds were sown to flourish as the sounds of his beloved bebop.

Next, Larry Beckett, poet and rock lyricist, examines Kerouac’s own jazz poetry from San Francisco Blues to Book of Haikus, then the UK-based Canadian Marian Jago explores Kerouac’s relationship to the work of Lee Konitz, a saxophonist whom the writer held in high regard and saw as a key catalyst in his construction of his spontaneous prose theory. The veteran Konitz is also interviewed about this connection.

To follow, US academic and poet Jonah Raskin explores the history, content and context of Kerouac’s own three key album releases, while eminent scholar-critic of Beat A. Robert Lee pursues another body of significant poetic output, Mexico City Blues, a cycle of verses drawing quite deliberately on the intertextuality of poetry and jazz, specifically the notion that instrumental solos can be emulated through poetic passages.

We proceed with an interview with jazz musician, cinematic and symphonic composer David Amram, Kerouac’s friend and collaborator, the subject of a conversation with countercultural historian Pat Thomas. Finally in this section, Michael J. Prince, the Norway-based American academic, examines the place of jazz and its meanings in the significantly reconstituted 1960 film version of The Subterraneans.

Kerouac and rock

Then we sailed down into the Irish Sea, laid anchor off Belfast, waited there for some British convoy boats, and crossed the Irish Sea that afternoon and night straight for Liverpool. 1943. The year the Beatles were born there, ha ha ha.

 --Kerouac, 1982, p. 204

Although Kerouac wrote an essay celebrating the greatest rock ’n’ roll icon and even considered the possibility of calling On the Road, Rock and Roll Road instead (Brinkley, 1999, p. 115), there is no real evidence that rock music had a direct bearing or impact on the writer, even if he does briefly namecheck the Beatles in his late book Vanity of Duluoz (1968). In 1957, screen icons James Dean and Marlon Brando who had attracted accolades for their performances in movies aimed at young adult and late adolescent audiences – filmic representations of a rebellious spirit chimed with a new age and assurance of the increasingly visible and economically assertive teenager – were praised by Kerouac in a piece called ‘America’s new Trinity of love: Dean, Brando, Presley’, narrated by the alternative comic Richard Lewis on the 1997 tribute collection Kicks Joy Darkness.

Although, in this brief piece, Kerouac spoke of a hero already dead – James Dean, killed in a car crash in 1955 – and touches upon Presley only tenuously, he does talk of ‘three young men of exceptional masculine beauty’, adding ‘[n]ow the new American hero . . . is the image of compassion in itself’, so he found clear sympathy with these new developments. It is perhaps worth adding, too, that if his most discussed title had indeed been Rock and Roll Road, it would have been, for sure, an anachronistic choice, as the pleasures and travails of the journey recounted had been played out some years before rock’n’roll was first used to describe a new brand of music, a hybrid of blues and country, on a Cleveland radio station around 1951, as Alan Freed, the seminal if later discredited DJ,[13] borrowed a black euphemism for the sex act and applied it to an energetic hybrid form of white-tinged rhythm and blues.

This apparent disconnection between the writer and the musical style of rock’n’roll – quickly abbreviated to rock even from its early eruption in the mid-1950s – has been no discouragement to later musicians flying the banner of rock and linking their output with Kerouac and his influence on them. Although it would be the mid-1960s before rock cast off its role as mere good-time dance music, when it did, many of the most influential players felt comfortable in revealing the importance of literary inspiration, with Kerouac frequently identified as a writer who had shaped their songwriting, even their wider lives. As we will discover in this very volume, major creative figures in the field from Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Tom Waits to Ryan Adams and Death Cab for Cutie have found the On the Road author a totemic figure in their artistic and personal development. As Steve Turner wrote, ‘One of the achievements of Kerouac and his Beat contemporaries was in making literature, whether spoken or written, as “sexy” as movies, jazz and rock ’n’ roll’ (1996, p. 19).

Still others carry traces of the Kerouac aura – John Cale, Joni Mitchell, the Incredible String Band, Warren Zevon, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, 10,000 Maniacs, Steven Tyler, Morphine, Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Buckley, the Raveonettes, the Hold Steady, the Gaslight Anthem and Hurray for the Riff Raff – in the work they have produced. The late, great David Bowie said that On the Road ‘showed me I didn’t have to stay in Bromley’ (Turner, 1996, p. 21), the suburban London borough of his youth. Many too have recorded material that pays tribute to the author – from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Mark Murphy, King Crimson to Ulf Lundell and the Waterboys – and literally hundreds of songs (see the voluminous listing in Appendix V) mention Kerouac in their titles or their lyrics. Leading young actors – Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon and Keanu Reeves – at the height of their credibility in the 1990s pinned their colours to the Kerouac mast. And the trail of acknowledgement continues. The young British band the 1975, much touted in their homeland and around the world at the present time, borrowed their name from a handwritten inscription in a Kerouac paperback that their lead singer Matty Healy picked up in a second-hand store.

It seems most unlikely that Kerouac would have been appreciative of this kind of near canonization, but he might have been pleasantly surprised. He would have been more taken aback, perhaps, when respected UK rock journalist Tony Parsons told readers of the New Musical Express (NME), at the height of the British punk explosion in 1977, in an article celebrating the novelist, ‘Acknowledge your roots, kid – the counterculture starts here.’ Yet cult authors and the independent spirit of the best rock music seem to share a cause in mind: making art on the fringes, often reflecting on the underbelly of life, relating to the renegades and rulebreakers rather than mainstream society. Kerouac did all of those things and, actually, at certain points in his erratic career almost achieved stadium status – when the reviews were almost hysterically good and the sales were capable of achieving a place on the bestseller charts – but his final years, his ugly decline and his premature death damaged his reputation and almost extinguished the kudos his golden years in the later 1950s had secured. But, if in the 25 or so years after his passing his work was little regarded and much fell out of print, there were several generations of intelligent songwriters and music makers who could not ignore his effect. Even when he was being little read, he was, paradoxically, still being sung about and listened to, not to mention being commemorated by music journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

The mid-1990s would see him and all the members of the Beat Generation revivified, as a major nationwide touring exhibition of the US, ‘Beat Culture and the New America, 1950–1965’, helped to contextualize their achievement and influence, and, somewhat paradoxically, the deaths of Ginsberg and Burroughs in close succession in 1997 further regenerated interest in their lives and work and those of other novelists and poets who were part of the prolific circle, Kerouac, of course, included.

The essays that deal here with a sequence of significant rock bands and singer-songwriters consider those who were drawn to the writer during his lifetime, those who remained intrigued by him even during the more fallow years that followed his demise, and those who have discovered him in more recent times, the younger composers and lyricists who remain adherents of the Kerouac vision. It seems several generations of music-makers with aspirations beyond mere Top 40 acceptance have found in this writer, in the Beat ethos more generally, an authentic and authenticating source, a blueprint to rebel yes, but also a template on which to build a body of songs of substance, material that may still deal with human relations but which goes beyond the formulaic, adopting socially minded, political and spiritual positions that question the world as these artists find it, just as Kerouac and his clan of radical poets who preceded them did in the 1950s.

Journalist Michael Goldberg contributes a section on Bob Dylan, charting his Kerouac-like journey from his early college days in Minneapolis, on to New York and from folk to rock. Lowell-based writer Paul Marion offers a short, personal account of the aura surrounding Kerouac’s grave, the visitors it has attracted, and still draws, to its stone. Canadian Brian Hassett, whose life of journeying has echoed that of his literary hero, contemplates the relationship of the Grateful Dead to the Kerouac legend. And Mark Bliesener, rock band manager and Denver resident, draws on local knowledge to portray the musical tastes of Kerouac’s closest compadre Neal Cassady.

Playwright Jay Jeff Jones grapples with the brief and brilliant flame that was Jim Morrison, while British lecturer Peter Mills considers the enduring impact of Kerouac’s writing on Van Morrison’s work from his early days in Them right up to the present day. Journalist and Beat specialist Holly George-Warren describes an extraordinary exodus of Texan beatniks who headed west to California with Janis Joplin the star turn, while UK-based academic Douglas Field explores the unique manners of Tom Waits and his commitment to the Kerouac code.

Established US Beat expert Nancy M. Grace unravels the Kerouac strains in the output of Joni Mitchell, and fellow American scholar and Beat movement specialist Ronna Johnson pursues a similar course in relation to Patti Smith. Journalist and lecturer Simon A. Morrison engages with the influence that the writer has brought to Bruce Springsteen’s style and his musical content, while Japan-based American academic Matt Theado considers the ways in which country music has picked up and run with many of the themes that the novelist brought to the page. The highly reputable rock critic James Sullivan offers an account of the evidence in punk and new wave of the writer’s sustained influence.

The final chapter, with rock in mind, revisits a sequence of tribute albums to Kerouac which have emerged in the last 20 years, a cycle of releases overseen by one of this book’s co-editors, music and film producer Jim Sampas. He offers a personalized account of the creation of this gathering recordings, but also engages in conversation with his fellow co-editor Simon Warner to cast further light on the development and realization of this body of work: tributes, homages and also movie and documentary soundtracks that have been conceived and released over the previous two decades.

In the midst of these essays you will also find interviews with the Kerouac-influenced legend of rock criticism Richard Meltzer; a conversation with Jim DeRogatis, biographer of Lester Bangs, an acclaimed journalist much shaped by the novelist, by James Sullivan; an exchange between Allen Ginsberg and Pat Thomas, who also interrogates new wave survivor Graham Parker; and the sharing of thoughts between Tom Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns and Simon Warner. Further, two poems by Marc Zegans consider the relationship between rock music, the Beats and verse itself. To conclude, the appendices incorporate a new and comprehensive Kerouac discography compiled by independent Beat scholar Dave Moore; a detailed discographic overview by Jim Sampas of his own tribute productions; and an updated listing of those songs that mention or reference Kerouac and Cassady, overseen by Moore and Horst Spandler, alongside two classic Kerouac texts on his own writing method.


Anderson, Terry, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Brinkley, Douglas, ‘King of the road’, in Holly George Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of Beats, London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 109–22.

Burns, Jim, ‘Jack Kerouac’s jazz scene’, Transit 3 (Summer 1993).

Burroughs, William, Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader, London: Fourth Estate, 2010.

Coolidge, Clark, Now It’s Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds, Albuquerque, NM: Living Batch Press, 1999.

Carr, Roy, Brian Case and Fred Dellar, The Hip: Hipsters, Jazz and the Beat Generation, London: Faber, 1987.

Coupe, Laurence, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Farrell, James, ‘The Beat of personalism’, in James J. Farrell, The Spirit of the Sixties, London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 51–80.

Gendron, Bernard, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

George-Warren, Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Grace, Nancy, Jack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination, New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007.

Hassett, Brian, ‘Abstract Expression: From Bird to Brando’, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 22–6.

Hassett, Brian, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac, n.p.: Gets Things Done Publishing, 2015.

Hrebeniak, Michael, ‘Jazz and the Beat Generation’, in Steven Belletto (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to The Beats, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 250–64.

Kart, Larry, ‘Jazz and Jack Kerouac’, in Jazz in Search of Itself, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 330–5.

Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972 (1957).

Kerouac, Jack, ‘Aftermath: The philosophy of the Beat Generation’, in Good Blonde & Others, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1994a; Esquire, March 1958.

Kerouac, Jack, ‘The Beginning of Bop’, in Good Blonde & Others, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1994b, Escapade, April 1959.

Kerouac, Jack, The Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935–1946, London: Penguin, 1982.

Leland, John, Hip: The History, New York: Ecco, 2004.

Leland, John, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road, New York: Viking, 2007.

MacAdams, Lewis, Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop & the American Avant Garde, London: Scribner, 2002.

Mailer, Norman, ‘The White Negro’, in Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (eds), Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, London: Panther, 1960, pp. 288–306.

McNally, Dennis, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003.

Malcolm, Douglas, ‘“Jazz America”: Jazz and African American culture in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road’, in Harold Bloom (ed.), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004, pp. 93–114.

Monson, Ingrid, ‘The problem with white hipness: Race, gender, and cultural conceptions in jazz historical discourse’, Journal of American Musicological Society 18, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 396–422.

Moore, Dave, ‘“My Really Best Friend and collaborator . . .” an interview with Seymour Wyse’, in John Montgomery (ed.), Kerouac at the “Wild Boar” & Other Skirmishes, San Anselmo, CA: Fels & Firn Press, 1986, pp. 79–88.

Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Kerouac as musican: Notes and interpretations of Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation’, booklet essay, The Jack Kerouac Collection, Rhino Records, 1990.

Parsons, Tony, ‘The legend of Jack Kerouac, Beat chronicler supreme’, NME, 8 January 1977.

Perry, David, ‘The Jack Kerouac Collection’, booklet essay, The Jack Kerouac Collection, Rhino Records, 1990.

Phillips, Lisa (ed.), Beat Culture and the New America, 1950–1965, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995.

Ronan, Stephen, Disks of the Gone World: An Annotated Discography of the Beat Generation, Berkeley, CA: Ammunition Press, 1996.

Roszak, Theodore, The Making of a Counter Culture, London: University of California Press, 1995.

Swenson, John, ‘Beat jazz: The real thing’, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 27–31.

Torgoff, Martin, Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, Beats And Drugs, Boston: Da Capo, 2017.

Turner, Steve, Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster, London: Bloomsbury, 1996.

Warner, Simon, Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Watson, Steven, The Birth of the Beat Generation, New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Weinreich, Regina, ‘The Beat Generation is now about everything’, in Josephine G. Hendin (ed.), A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, pp. 72–94.

Whaley, Preston, Blows Like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style and Markets in the Transformation of US Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.


Kerouac, Jack, ‘Fantasy: The early history of bop’, orig. in Escapade, April 1959, Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, Rhino Records, 1990.

Kerouac, Jack, ‘America’s new Trinity of love: Dean, Brando and Presley’, Kicks Joy Darkness, Ryko, 1997.


Charters, Sam, ‘Jack Kerouac’s jazz’, talk given at Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO, 26 July 1982, 25th anniversary of On the Road conference, the Allen Ginsberg Project, http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/sam-charters-jack-kerouacs-jazz-1-intro.html (accessed 17 March 2017).

[1] For example, both Bob Dylan and the Beatles appeared to pursue potentially career-damaging trajectories – the singer rejecting his folk fan base in his controversial electric set at Newport in summer 1965 and the group abandoning touring the following year – but each became all the more credible having made those huge artistic decisions in the face of commercial logic. Dylan was a committed fan of Kerouac and friend of Allen Ginsberg; McCartney first, then Lennon, were close to Ginsberg.

[2] Sam Charters, ‘Jack Kerouac’s jazz’, talk given at Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO, 26 July 1982, 25th anniversary of On the Road conference, the Allen Ginsberg Project, http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/sam-charters-jack-kerouacs-jazz-1-intro.html (accessed 17 March 2017).

[3] Norman Mailer’s essay ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, published in the Fall 1957 edition of Dissent, controversially explored the rise of a new phenomenon where young white men were attracted to the lifestyle and values of black men at the margins. It appeared almost simultaneously with Kerouac’s On the Road, which was published that year in September. Note that the latter’s description of his Denver visit has attracted criticism for over-romanticizing the condition of the black US community.

[4] Kerouac’s The Town and the City, his debut, appeared in 1950 but is not generally regarded as a Beat novel. Holmes’s Go (1952), then Burroughs’s Junkie (1953), Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), On the Road and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) might be regarded as landmark moments in this history.

[5] Although Kerouac did not face the stress and strain of legal action over his writings, his two main colleagues, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, did. Proceedings initiated in the US on obscenity grounds against the former’s poem ‘Howl’, in 1957, and the latter’s novel Naked Lunch, in 1965, brought widespread publicity to the Beat Generation circle but also prompted negative reactions and public criticism.

[6] It is perhaps interesting to note the early convening of researchers in these areas. IASPM (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) was launched in 1980; the BSA (the Beat Studies Association) was founded a little later in 2004; and EBSN (the European Beat Studies Network) was established in 2010.

[7] After On the Road, numerous titles would follow in quick succession, among them The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), Maggie Cassidy (1959), Lonesome Traveller (1960), Big Sur (1962) and Desolation Angels (1965).

[8] At Greensboro in North Carolina, four young black Americans took places in the whites-only cafeteria of F. W. Woolworth as the non-violent struggle against racial inequality gained purchase. At Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, members of AIM (the American Indian Movement) seized and occupied the town in a rights dispute amid corruption claims, an incident which galvanized the Native American population in their wider protests. Terry H. Anderson’s fine history, The Movement and the Sixties (1995), uses those very historical markers in his subtitle to delineate the range of his enquiry.

[9] William F. Buckley Jr’s talk show Firing Line featured a drunk Kerouac and an eloquent Sanders debating the hippy phenomenon in the 3 September broadcast. Academic Lewis Yablansky completed the line-up.

[10] Although Kerouac took an important and substantial interest in Buddhism from the 1950s – experiences particularly recounted in The Dharma Bums (1958) and reflected in his adoption of the haiku as a verse form, his prose poems in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960) and the extensive meditative notes of Some of the Dharma (1997) – he never abandoned an allegiance to Catholicism, a religious paradox that engaged the author into the 1960s and fed into his work.

[11] Cassady’s astounding feats of skill and endurance at the wheel of an automobile became an enduring motif of Kerouac’s fictional account.

[12] See Jack Kerouac, ‘Essentials of Spontaneous Prose’, Appendix I.

[13] Freed faced payola charges – allegations he had been paid to play particular artists’ records – at the end of his breakthrough decade which seriously damaged his career, though he remains an important figure in the history of rock’n’roll and subsequent popular music incarnations.