On The Road, published 60 years ago, freed young (and young at heart) Americans to trust their guts for the first time
As the anniversaries of major events pile up—world wars, assassinations, pop festivals, terror attacks, etc.—we often neglect those quieter events that are equally noteworthy. Some of these may even have far greater impact on the future than the more celebrated or memorialized “red letter dates”.
One such event was the publication of On The Road, the novel by Jack Kerouac, which occurred 60 years ago this month. The novel hit like a fresh blast of pure oxygen across the stale air-raid shelter of Eisenhower America. On The Road was more than just a literary sensation. The novel—based on real-life characters and events—launched an entire generation, the so-called Beat Generation, which in turn launched another generation and another and is still launching young people today. The best way to illustrate the lasting influence of On The Road is with the following three recordings:
First, here is Jack Kerouac reading from On The Road on the Steve Allen Show in 1959. Allen was one of the few “squares” who actually “got” Kerouac, who didn’t condescend to or mock the Beats and who was clearly carried along by the power and momentum of Kerouac’s language. The entire clip is worth watching because it’s one of the few sober interviews Kerouac gave when he was in his prime.
Second, here is Jim Morrison, reading from “An American Prayer.” The poetry was recorded in the late 1960s and the musical accompaniment was added later by the Doors after Morrison died in 1971. Morrison was one of many members of the 1960s generation who were influenced by Kerouac. A few others out of the countless numbers who have openly avowed the influence of Kerouac and the Beats on their work include Bob Dylan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ken Kesey, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Laurie Anderson, John Cale, Lou Reed, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, and on and on.
Finally, here is Henry Rollins in the 1980s, in a “spoken word” appearance, when he had long hair in the early days of Black Flag. He, too, admits the influence of Jack Kerouac and the Beats on his writing and music.
The point of these three examples is to show the lineage that grew from On The Road across three generations. No doubt there is work being done, and filmed, today that could be added to this lineage in the future. And there are many more examples I could post here to further make that point.
“…I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” – from On The Road
If Jack Kerouac was the Roman candle, it took the right person at the right time to light the fuse. That person was Gilbert Millstein, a music critic for the New York Times who, because the newspaper’s regular book reviewers were on vacation in September 1957, was assigned On The Road to review. As if ordained to the job, Millstein shouted his praise from the rafters, writing that Kerouac’s novel was nothing less than a “historic occasion.” He hailed the book as “an authentic work of art” and “a major novel,” and he drew the line in the cultural sand by suggesting it was “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.”
So, in a sense, to return to my headline, Gilbert Millstein may have been the one who actually saved Western Civilization.
Where else has Kerouac’s influence been felt? Like ripples in the vast pond of the cosmos, Kerouac’s impact has traveled to so many places that it would take several postings to document them all. But here are some items from television and cinema that would not have been possible without him.
Route 66 (1960-64): Martin Milner and George Maharis played two buddies on this popular weekly series who drove around America looking for kicks (though, contrary to the series’ title they found very few kicks on Route 66). The characters were so clearly modeled on On The Road that Kerouac briefly considered suing the producers for copyright infringement.
This short video provides the opening segment of an episode from June 1961 that is fairly typical of the show’s appeal.
Staccato (1959-1960): An early vehicle for John Cassavetes, who portrayed a New York private eye named Johnny Staccato. When he wasn’t solving crimes, he was playing jazz piano at a beatnik bistro in Greenwich Village. The following is a clip from the opening of an episode of this underappreciated show.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963). The real star of this youth-centric situation comedy was Bob Denver, who portrayed the loopy beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. Krebs was the projection of all the stereotypes of the “beatnik” in one person: goateed, lazy, irresponsible, muddled, disheveled in appearance, played bongos, sputtered hipster lingo. However, Denver brought something poetic and subtle to his portrayal, which is why Maynard G. Krebs (“the ‘G’ stands for Walter”) is the only thing anyone remembers about that otherwise bland show.
The Beat Generation (1959): The best part of this exploitation film is Vampira (yes, THAT Vampira) reading from her beat poetry at a nightclub. Check it out:
The Subterraneans (1960): This was the only film made during Kerouac’s lifetime directly from one of his novels—he was, in fact, paid $15,000 for the rights, his single biggest payday for anything. Massive liberties were taken with the plot for the film, but it did at least contain music by Gerry Mulligan, who appears as “Reverend Joshua Hoskins” in the film, and has a nice cameo from Arte Johnson as a beatnik poet. Here’s an excerpt from the film:
Greenwich Village Story (1963): Written and directed by Jack O’Connell, this film is not without its charms, largely because it was filmed documentary-style in the Village. Rolling Stone called it, “the most affectionate, least clichéd of all the beatnik movies of that time…it closes the door on the real Beat world, and leaves all subsequent portrayals to be seen as ludicrous afterthoughts.” The entire film is available here:
Take Her, She’s Mine (1963): A ridiculous romantic comedy starring the un-Beat Jimmy Stewart and Sandra Dee that was rescued by Bob Denver, reprising his beatnik character to portray a singer at the Sleeping Pill Coffee Shop. The lyrics of his song hilariously echo Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “Hopingly, pantingly, squallingly / Outward thrusting in pain and shock and disbelief… / Hopingly, graspingly, aspiringly… / Impermanently permanent / All interest canceled / Repossessed / Howl! Hoooooowwwwllll!”
Here’s the wacky trailer:
Easy Rider (1969): Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper wrote the screenplay. Hopper and Peter Fonda portray two road buddies on motorcycles who pick up Jack Nicholson along the way and have adventures along the road. Great soundtrack, great cinematography, violent ending.
Here’s one of the classic scenes:
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Are you kidding me? James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as a couple of “car freaks” who are obsessed with racing the grizzled veteran racer, portrayed by the great Warren Oates? This is as hip as hip gets for 1971.
Here’s the trailer:
Electra-Glide in Blue (1973): The flip side of Easy Rider, with Robert Blake playing a motorcycle cop who eventually finds that the hippies are really his kindred spirits, only to discover that they were, by 1973 at least, just as prone to violence as the rednecks in Easy Rider.
Here’s the trailer:
Stranger Than Paradise (1984): Practically any film by Jim Jarmusch contains a tincture of Kerouac in it. The most obvious are Down By Law and this one. Here’s a scene from Stranger Than Paradise that captures its Kerouacian essence:
Drugstore Cowboy (1989): Gus Van Sant, writer and director of this acclaimed film, was greatly influenced by Kerouac and the Beats. He also made the brilliant decision to cast Beat icon William S. Burroughs as a defrocked priest who offers advice to two junkies, played by Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch.
Thelma & Louise (1991): A road-buddy movie directed by Ridley Scott that featured women this time, played with great gusto and heart by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.
Here’s the classic ending sequence: