By Rhea Kapur (VI)
I recently finished reading the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. You might have heard of it—the novel is an American classic, a roman à clef, an autobiographical chronicle of Kerouac’s (in the text, Sal Paradise’s) adventures hitchhiking across the country with his writerly friends: Neal Cassady (the infamous Dean Moriarty), Allen Ginsburg (Carlo Marx), and William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), to name a few. Rife with casual sex, drugs, alcohol, poetry, jazz, and endless exploration, On the Road paints a comprehensive portrait of 1950s America, and it has come to define the Beat Generation: postwar nonconformists, disillusioned bohemians… those who championed spontaneity, psychedelics, and the journey, not the destination. On the Road is an anthem, the Beatnik ode to freedom, to wanderlust, to the quest for “it,” whatever “it” is—authenticity, purpose, the American ideal. The novel’s influence on literature and writing has been widely studied, but I’d like to explore how On the Road has shaped music and individual musicians as well as introduce a playlist that, to me, matches the novel’s message.
There’s no better place to start than the 10,000 Maniacs classic, “Hey Jack Kerouac.” Natalie Merchant, the band’s lead singer and main songwriter, penned the folksy tune, infusing her own opinions and frustrations with Kerouac and other Beatniks—like Ginsburg and Burroughs—into her work. She sings directly to Kerouac, who is at once the “brightest star” (after On the Road caught fire) and broken “little boy lost in our world that hated;” she recognizes the “tear-stained shock of the world” that hit when he “[went] away without saying goodbye.” Perhaps this line is a reference to Kerouac’s early death (caused by his excessive drinking), but I think it also speaks to the departure of the greater Beat Generation. Their call to pack and drive—to hit the road and see where it travels, to stand by the emptiness of the harsh red horizon they chased—faded almost entirely as the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s took root. And what about where it stands now, in the progressive, fractured 2021? The wanderlust is relatable, and the lifestyle alluring, as Merchant sings, but in today’s context, On the Road reads like an anachronism—a privileged, misogynistic, old boy’s travelogue that offers no place of worth for women and people of color.
Nevertheless, many other artists revered Kerouac and the Beat Generation, or were at least considerably influenced by their message at its prime. There’s John Lennon (“Beatles” derives from “Beat!”), a huge fan of the writings of both Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg. There’s Bob Dylan, the regular Dean Moriarty himself! On the Road “blew his mind… and changed his life,” an influence particularly clear in Dylan’s songs “On the Road Again” and “Desolation Row” (inspired by another Kerouac work, Desolation Angels, along with Allen Ginsburg’s city poetry). There’s Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead… and the list goes on. Kerouac’s anthem of freedom, transcendance, and exploration lends beautifully to music, an art that itself strains to be free, to embody being free, to provide subconscious escape. Aspects of his subject matter may now read as out of touch, but it is because of this paralleled identity that Kerouac’s influence will always remain in tune.
I leave you with a playlist of my own, entitled “There was nowhere to go but everywhere.” The title is derived from one of my favorite passages in On the Road: “…because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars, generally the Western stars.” I’ve filled it with all of the songs and artists mentioned above, along with others that embody Kerouac’s resigned, inexplicably consuming wanderlust. You’ll hear the AC/DC classic, “Highway to Hell”; Train’s “Drive By” and “California 37;” “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers Band; Green Day’s “Stray Heart;” and many more. It’s a playlist for the open road – Kerouac’s road, yes, but also the Beatnik road, my road, and maybe even yours, too. Give it a listen, and keep faith; music will take you everywhere.