Music News

Happy Birthday, Jack Kerouac, America's Original Road Warrior!

Born March 12, 1922, Jack Kerouac was one of the seminal novelists of the Beat Generation. That group of writers, poets, and vagabonds of the 1950s set the stage for the counter generation and youth revolution of the 1960s. His books -- On the Road and The Dharma Bums -- are considered classics, required reading for the young people who flocked to London, San Francisco, and other havens for those who sought to further their spiritual horizons. 

Notably, Kerouac established his counterculture early on; his first book, The Sea Is My Brother was written in 1942, while he was in the Merchant Marines, although it wasn't published until just last year, some 42 years after his death. Though he later deemed it a failure, his description of it -- a novel about "man's simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies" -- set the stage for the rebellious, revolutionary attitude that would take root in the mid-'60s. 

Aside from stirring the restless spirit that would later take root among the hippie hordes, Kerouac's writings dealt with issues that were rarely explored up until that point. He examined religion, modern music, sex, drugs, and social inequality, topics that later became common on college campuses and in philosophic circles. 

What's more, he had a marked influence on the evolution of modern jazz, in his recorded readings and in a writing style that echoed the rhythms and cadence of such avant-garde be-bop pioneers as by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. Years later, Kerouac would be embraced by rock royalty, a legion of devotees that would include Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, and writer/critic Lester Bangs.

On the Road was particularly significant in so far as America's cultural shift was concerned. Developing it from earlier essays titled "The Beat Generation" and "Gone on the Road," he completed the book in April 1951. Largely autobiographical, it describes in striking detail the author's roadtrips across the United States and Mexico with companion Neal Cassady and an assortment of other Beat writers and compatriots. It was said that Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, taped them together into a 120-foot-long roll, and fed the spool into his typewriter so that he could type spontaneously, continuously, without interruption. It resulted in a manuscript that was devoid of chapters or even breaks for paragraphs, a freewheeling approach that was remarkably candid and explicit for the time.

Consequently, it took Kerouac a long time to find a publisher. Many thought the experimental writing style and sympathetic look at those on the margins of society was incendiary in the context of postwar America. Others were skittish about his references to drug use and homosexual behavior. Kerouac himself described On the Road as "a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God," a description that defies the common notion that it was a buddy story and an adventure tale at its essence. 

Kerouac's success made him a celebrity, but his life was never easy. His next great effort, The Dharma Bums, was widely criticized, and with the Communist conspiracies that preoccupied Washington in the 1950s, he found himself alienated from both sides of the political spectrum. A legal squabble over the television show Route 66, which seemed to be modeled on the On the Road story line, drained him even further. He slipped into physical decline, aggravated by depression, drug use, and alcoholism, eventually succumbing to internal bleeding at age 47 on October 21, 1969. 

Still, Kerouac's freewheeling attitude lives on and continues to be celebrated in song. Here are a few examples: 

"On the Road Again" 
Willie Nelson shares the joy of the endless highway, while keeping company with family and friends. 

"Long May You Run" 
More than an ode to his Buick Roadmaster hearse, the car that brought him from Canada to California and the fateful meeting that led to the Buffalo Springfield, it tells of what it takes to reach one's ultimate destination. 

"Endless Highway" 
The Band frame persistence and perseverance in the context of traversing the ups and downs of life's roadways. 

"Ole '55" 
Tom Waits -- and later the Eagles -- sing the praises of a classic automobile and its ability to take us on a journey to freedom. 

"Up Around the Bend" 
Adventure lies just beyond the horizon, and this Creedence Clearwater Revival song summons up the excitement of all that awaits. 

"Thunder Road" 
Just one of many classic Bruce Springsteen road songs that tap into the desperate desire to find freedom and escape the bonds of everyday existence. 

"Roll Me Away" 
Bob Seger searches for a path that will take him toward liberation and contentment. 

"Highway Star" 
Nobody better mess with Deep Purple, so if you encounter them on some secluded byway, you're best advised to give way.

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Lee Zimmerman