Graded on a Curve:
Jack Kerouac,
Poetry for the Beat Generation

Jack Kerouac changed my life. I read On the Road and just like that I went from being this adolescent CYO nerd with no goals or dreams to a cut-rate beatnik wannabe who drank Tokay wine and sought out angel-headed hipsters and gone beat characters in the pool halls and greasy diners of nearby Gettysburg and Taneytown, drove like I had a death wish in imitation of Dean Moriarty, and hopped a moving 2 a.m. freight train and rode in an open coal car the whole way to Harrisburg.

It was all a ridiculous fantasy, I know; there were no angel-headed hipsters or beat characters to be found in the pool halls and diners of Gettysburg and Taneytown, and one late night train ride hardly made me the second coming of Sal Paradise. But Kerouac did more for me than just turn me into a poseur; he fired my imagination and turned me on to literature, and fueled my desire to escape my one-horse town and have big wild adventures in the American night. He even made me think that, who knew, one day maybe I’d even write a meaningful sentence or two.

Kerouac has similarly inspired innumerable other kids, which is why all of those detractors who mocked him when On the Road came out in 1957 were 100 percent wrong. It’s hard to fathom, today, the savaging he received from a clueless press. If Time was content to ridicule him as “a latrine laureate of Hobohemia,” other, more hysterical voices, sniffing the downfall of Western civilization in his descriptions of junkies, small time criminals, and (gak!) “negroes,” proclaimed him the spearhead of a nihilistic and violent death cult.

Why, you’d have thought he was the Sex Pistols. Norman Podhertz seemed to think murder was the theme of Kerouac’s writing. And an obviously deranged writer for The San Francisco Examiner went so far as to submit that Kerouac’s “degenerate” followers were prone to feeding strangers hamburgers laced with ground glass. And, with a few notable exceptions, the literary establishment was no more charitable; Truman Capote, for one, famously dismissed Kerouac’s work with the words, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

How to fairly judge Kerouac’s work? Depends on who you’re asking. But I’ll say this–it’s a mistake to gauge the man’s talent by On the Road alone. The book owes its lasting fame to its critique of the conformity of modern America and its revelation that there was a way out, not to any true stylistic breakthrough. It’s a conventional novel, when at heart Kerouac was anything but a conventional writer; to discover just how radical a prose stylist and poet he was you have to turn to novels like The Subterraneans and Visions of Cody, stories like “The Railroad Earth,” and his many books of poetry. HIs jazz-based “spontaneous bop prosody” marked him as a true innovator, and not everyone was blind to the fact; poetic titan Charles Olson ordained Kerouac “the greatest poet in America.”

Kerouac’s books of verse suffer from the simple fact that his sound-based approach to poetry doesn’t translate all that well to print; to gain a full appreciation of what he was up to, you have to hear the stuff coming out of his mouth. Which is why the 1959 recording Poetry for the Beat Generation is so neat.

The album’s back story is worth a mention. The shy Kerouac–who was then at the height of his fame but already precipitously descending into hopeless alcoholism–reluctantly agreed to an extended engagement at legendary jazz club the Village Vanguard. It was a disaster from the start. Every night the crowds grew thinner, and every night Kerouac got drunker. But at least one unlikely fellow was impressed, namely Steve Allen, the popular TV host and jazz pianist. Arrangements were made, Dot Records was approached, and Allen himself was asked to provide accompaniment.

Allen may not have been the best pianist for the bop-loving Kerouac; while a skilled player, he was hardly part of jazz’s vanguard, and one can only wonder what might have resulted had Kerouac been paired with Bud Powell, Bill Evans, or Thelonius Monk. That said, Allen’s playing is tasteful and restrained, and he doesn’t step on Kerouac’s toes. Which isn’t to say he’s always in synch with Kerouac; the lounge piano on “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception” jars with the adamantine bleakness of the poem itself.

The LP’s centerpiece is “October in the Railroad Earth,” with its evocations of the life and sounds and sights of the streets and rail yards of San Francisco. Kerouac approaches the text like a bebop musician blowing sax. He slows, picks up steam, sings a phrase or two, imitates a black minister, describes a drunken night in a black bar, even resorts to playing with pure sound for a bar or two. It’s a tour de force is what it is, and a revelation to anyone who’s read On the Road and said, “Really? I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

Given Kerouac’s love of music, it’s hardly surprising that the LP includes brief paeans to both Charlie Parker (“Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed of what the speedsters wanted, and what they wanted was his eternal slowdown”) and Dave Brubeck (“Dave Brubeck’s the swingingest!”), as well as a very free-form parody called “Deadbelly,” the last of which reveals the playful side of a man whose sense of humor is not always evident from reading his works.

He demonstrates the same on the very funny “I’d Rather Be Thin Than Famous” (“I don’t wanna be fat/And a woman throws me out of bed calling me Gordo/And every time I bend to pick up my suspenders from the davenport floor I explode loud huge grunto… paste that in your Broadway show!”) and “Goofing at the Table,” on which he plays hilarious variations on the phrase “ham and eggs.”

The pair of blues are rock solid, if bleak; on “Bowery Blues” Kerouac talks about the “cold horror of the world” and describes a “Russian boxer with an expression of Baltic lostness”; in “McDougal Street Blues” he describes the human parade passing in Greenwich Village and concludes “Good God the sorrow! They don’t even listen to me when I try to tell them they will die!” To which they respond, “Why so tragic and gloomy?”

No simple answer to that one, but suffice it to say Kerouac’s grand theme was sadness, and sadness was at the root of his outlook on life. He was, after all, the man who said, “I’m just a human being with a lot of shit on my heart.” The Buddhist/Catholic Kerouac deplored the endless cycle of birth and death, and once horrified close friends by castigating them for bringing children into the world. It’s an attitude best summed up in “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception,” which closes with the words, “I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel, and safe in Heaven dead.”

On “I Had a Slouch Hat Too One Time” Kerouac channels the voice of a thief, perhaps that of legendary Beat character and junkie Herbert Huncke; in a conversational tone he recounts the ingenious methods he uses to purloin neckties and wallets and various and sundry other items in the stores and clubs of New York City. “Sounds of the Universe Coming in My Window” is a more cosmic proposition; Kerouac sounds almost at peace with the world as he describes a pastoral morning in Marin County.

Less impressive are the cringe-worthy “One Mother,” which invites Freudian analysis (“I keep falling in love with my mother… “ “the doll she is, the doll-like way she stands…”) and the mediocre Old Testament parable “Abraham” (“Abraham the dew is in your beard/Abraham my eyes are open/You are weird”). Somewhat better is “The Moon Her Majesty,” which goes nowhere until Kerouac livens things up by babbling his way into surreal territory.

What strikes me after rereading Kerouac all these years later is not his frantic search for joy and kicks; it’s his conviction that the world is a kind of penal colony to be suffered through in order to get to Heaven. If his hero Neal Cassady lived his life like a human version of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil, wreaking havoc wherever he happened to touch down, Kerouac trudged through life hauling an inhuman weight of all too human sorrow. He drank to forget his pain and his drinking begat more, and he died an alcoholic death at age 47 in St. Petersburg, Florida, lonely and estranged from his fellow Beats. But his genius lives on, and is in plain evidence on this amazing LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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