Jack Kerouac’s Influence on Music and Kapur’s Songs for the Road

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. 

Kapur on Rock Music and Friendship

By Rhea Kapur (VI)

I have a friend who loves rock music. Floyd, The Who, The Byrds, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Guns N’ Roses…you name it, Sanjana knows it. I don’t just mean their greatest hits, either; she is no poser. Sanjana highlights the forgotten gems, the underrated masterpieces: Cream’s “Badge,” The Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much.” And she has the exceptional ability to detail every step of a rock musician’s life and loves by memory, whether it’s the history of Bon Jovi’s Sanctuary Sound recording studio (built in the basement of his New Jersey ranch home!) or George Harrison’s spiritual beliefs (he embraced Hinduism and transcendental meditation). I knew next to nothing about the genre before I met her, so the fact that I can recall all of this now—thinking alone, off the top of my head—I’d say that only further confirms how vibrant, how infectious, how real her love for rock music is. Sanjana taught me that rock has a beat, a rhythm, a personality and character like no other. It’s an anthem that pulses in stride with your heartbeat, she’d say—one that pushes you to float and strain free and live in the moment, the literal embodiment of carpe diem. There’s something brilliant and creative in rock music: where else can you find a haven where soul, extraordinary lyrics, and every metal instrument imaginable meet in the heat of intensity, charisma, insanity, thrill? To consider a genre powerful enough to define a generation, and to journey back in time while listening now and still feel that indelible, mythic mark…it’s an extraordinary thing. Difficult for me to articulate, but Sanjana—she understands it, she really does. I don’t think I see rock music at her level—what I described is a mere taste of how she feels about it—but honestly? I prefer it that way. Rock reminds me of how different we both are, and of how we’ve grown together to find comfort and our own special place in that difference. That is, without a doubt, what I love most about our friendship. This holiday season, friends, I encourage you to embrace the eccentric music tastes of those you hold dear. Who knows? You might find a couple hidden gems of your own.

Kapur and Chan Bring the Freshest Bops of the College App Season

By Rhea Kapur (VI) & Monica Chan (VI) We’ve reached that dreaded first semester of senior year. While our lives seem to be drowning in the realization that we have no idea who we are (but are expected to tell colleges exactly who we are), it is difficult yet even more necessary to find solace in daily comforts. The one constant comfort, besides the shared empathy of our fellow 21’ers and teachers, is music. We bring you a joint music column to share our college application playlists.

Monica:

When looking to get inspired to write my college essays, I like listening to songs with heavy background instrumentals and introspective lyrics. My first song is “When You Come Home” by Rich Brian. This song is written from a parent’s perspective, “So one day, if you find your way, I’ll be waiting for you  . . . I got all these questions to ask but I’ll save them for when you come home.” My parents have always been the most present people in my life, and so writing college applications is surreal not only for the reason that I am embarking on the next chapter of my life, but also the realization that my parents will have to watch me from afar. 

My next song choice is “Streetcar” by Daniel Caesar. This song was originally written by Kanye West, but I prefer the slower and more melodic version by Caesar. One of the most difficult parts of the application season for me is grappling with a sense of finality. We’ve prepared our entire high school lives for this time, “Let me know, do I still got time to grow? Things ain’t always set in stone, that be known let me know . . . see  I know my destination, but I’m just not there.” At this in-between teenager and adult age, we’re beginning to forge our own futures while trying to understand who we are; these events happening simultaneously make it all the more difficult. 

“Nights” by Frank Ocean is a slight wildcard. The first time I heard this song I was sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car on the way to someone’s house and we were on Route 287 when someone said, “Wait for that beat drop . . .” There was something magical about it being nighttime and zooming down at (legal) highway speeds surrounded by the laughter and company of my friends that I find relatively comforting reflecting on now. Maybe it’s because we can’t hang out with the same liberty we used to have, and those memories are all the more precious. 

Rhea:

When I write, I focus on flow. I study how each sentence glides into the next, I listen to the melody two words sing when side by side, and I observe how each thought fits with every other to form a whole, defined piece. I like to think that how I approach the art of writing – my style – tells just as much of a story as the words do themselves. For me, when it comes to college essays, that’s generally “in media res” storytelling to start, then half stream-of-consciousness reflection, half punchy declaratives. Recently, I’ve designated Spotify’s “Nightstorms” playlist as the soundtrack to my late-night writing sessions. It features recordings of every type of rainstorm imaginable, and in nearly every possible setting; there’s “Thunderstorm in the Cabin,” “Monsoon Storm,” “Lightning Strikes at the Farm,” and even “Oregon Rain.” The storms lift me out of the scramble that is everyday life, offering an escape from the minutia and creating the perfect, focused environment for essay writing. I’m fascinated by how different they sound across the world; Indonesian rainstorms are thundering, intense, incessant downpour, while Swedish ones gently patter along, each large droplet claiming its own, distinctive splash. Every storm tells its own story. And they remind me, too, to write my own stories – to lift my admissions reader into a faraway land where the lighting strikes and little details I craft make all the difference.

Monica mentioned introspection, and I agree; it’s an essential part of the essay writing process. I turn to Lana Del Rey for inspiration in this regard. As an artist, she is intimately comfortable with herself, with natural, human uncertainty. In “Born to Die,” she sings: “Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough – I don’t know why.” In “Freak,” it’s “Looking back, my past, it all seems stranger than a stranger.” Seniors, who can’t relate to that one!?  Del Rey’s voice brims with feeling; listen to how she sings “Ground control to Major Tom, can you hear me all night long?” in “Terrence Loves You.” Her songs build slowly to a close, a finish that is not always final. I see them as the embodiment of a dream – an imperfect, messy, wonderful subconscious world. It’s exactly where I find myself when brainstorming. At times, I’m in the lows, forehead against the cool countertop, reminding myself that, like Del Rey, it is okay – good, even – not to know, not to be okay. At others, my fingers fly across the keys to keep up with my thoughts, chasing the high of the dream and the height of introspection. Lana Del Ray is every end of the spectrum; seniors, it’s okay for us to be, too.