Portsmouth-based blogger and critic Jordan Osborne looks at the less romantic aspects of Beat icon Jack Kerouac’s cultural legacy.
‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.’
They were words that inspired countless road trips and adventures. Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road redefined an American Dream that was waiting for every teenager to go out and make their own. It called for a sacrifice of everything you knew and everything you had. But sometimes that sacrifice came at a bigger cost. As the Beat legacy twisted out of control in the decades that followed, America’s rolling plains became littered with alienated individuals rich in experience but not much else.
‘There are a lot of unhappy, damaged people out there wandering in America,’ Richard Grant tells me. His book Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads is a study of the nomadic-road lifestyle in America. Like Kerouac, Grant has spent much time wandering across the American West. ‘Especially on the freight trains. War veterans with PTSD, the mentally ill, drug addicts, alcoholics, victims of abuse. Many die young, partly because they can’t afford medical care. But any book or movie that describes a lifestyle is going to leave out the boring, depressing, mundane parts of it, because they spoil the story.’
There will always be romantic notions of adventure and self-discovery about Kerouac, but his lifestyle has had negative as well as positive influences. Kerouac sought to change literature, not the way people lived. Unfortunately for many nomads and open road denizens, it’s a message that’s been lost.
‘It seemed very appealing when I was living in a horrible council flat in East London,’ reveals Grant, ‘London in the late seventies and early eighties was a dark, violent place. Cruising down some open road in the American West sounded like the perfect respite. We were after the same spontaneous, kind of thrills. We had the same faith in serendipity.’
Grant interacted with Beat culture in the same way as millions of adolescents not just in America, but across the world. On The Road portrayed America as a place where solace could be found among picturesque, sprawling plains. But what we don’t see amidst the cinematic gloss is the negative side of Beat culture’s long arm of influence.
In Ghost Riders is a volatile character called BJ McHenry who lives on the roadside. His existence is a lottery: ‘He is amazed at some of the things people throw away: pistols, […] bags of weed, wraps of coke, untouched cheeseburgers, […] Sometimes a driver will brake and swerve, perhaps avoiding a deer, and the loose objects on his dashboard will slide out of the open window.’
Later in the same passage McHenry recreates the scenario by dragging a deer carcass into the middle of a road, hoping that more treasures would be flung into the gutters. Grant’s account reflects not only the sense of adventure the road offers but the unstable characters lurking in its shadows.
McHenry seems like an evolution of Kerouac’s famous ‘mad ones’: ‘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!”’.
McHenry is another victim of the era of free love and drug experimentation of the ‘60s and ‘70s that turned into a lonely path of abuse, violence and discontent. The hedonistic cocktail of drugs and alcohol, the dark side of this excessive lifestyle that Grant exposes in his book, is not nearly documented enough.
Ace Backwords has been a part of the Berkeley street scene in California for three decades. In the 1980s, he published the punk rock tabloid Twisted Image, featuring interviews with Johnny Rotten and Charles Bukowski. Backwords became homeless when the building he lived in was sold and his publisher went out of business.
‘Life on the streets is a constant series of unexpected challenges,’ Backwords tells me. ‘Things can be rolling along uneventful, but rarely for long.’ He recalls a hippie couple that were camping close to his campsite. ‘This is the only bit of privacy I have in the world and these two dumb-ass clunkers have decided to invade it,’ he spits, ‘Tonight or tomorrow morning I will have to figure out some way to deal with them.’
Backwords’ predicament, in some ways, mirrors the clash of the Beats with the Hippies, spearheaded by Kerouac and Ken Kesey. Like Grant, Backwords too sees the negative effects of Beat culture. According to Backwords, Kerouac was one of the first to criticise the negative effect these countercultural movements were having on society. Figures like Kesey took influence from Kerouac and changed how the counterculture was received.
But as Backwords notes, ‘Kerouac was about personal experimentation, not publishing manifestos for how people could live.’ What Kerouac stood for was misrepresented; his novel was a documentation of his own personal discoveries, not a guide for alienated youth. Sadly, his legacy was shaped by his followers. On The Road was blamed by the media at the time for the excesses of the permissive ‘60s.
‘The Beat Generation was a generation of the attitude, and the pleasure in life, and tenderness,’ argued a drunken Kerouac on a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s TV show Firing Line. ‘But they called it in the papers, a Beat mutiny, a Beat insurrection. Words I never used.’
‘It was very brave how Kerouac “rejected” his fellow Beats and the Hippies,’ says Backwords. ‘In the late ‘60s, Kerouac could’ve easily played at being the great cultural guru. I think he rightly viewed the “anti-American” aspect of ‘60s counterculture as the poisonous effect that it was.’ Beat culture had turned from a new form of literature into a different way of living and the fact that On The Road took much of the flak for it hurt Kerouac deeply.
‘In the end, he was just so depressed about how he was being misrepresented,’ said Neal Cassady’s widow Carolyn in an interview with The Guardian in 2007. ‘How his great and beautiful book was being blamed for all the excesses of the Sixties. He just couldn’t take it.’
The medical cause of Kerouac’s death, just 12 years after On The Road’s publication, was cirrhosis of the liver, caused by alcohol abuse. But Kerouac’s close friends suggest that he died of disillusionment with what Beat culture had become and how it changed people’s opinions of him. Kerouac, Beat culture’s shining light, couldn’t live with being blamed for a youth culture he didn’t intend to create.
Backwords’ homelessness is a part of America that America doesn’t want the world to see. ‘I generally warn anyone who’s on the verge of becoming homeless: if at all possible, do whatever you can to keep a roof over your head,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy to end up on the streets but often very difficult to get off of them.’
According to Reuters, 500,000 people were homeless in America in 2015 and the poverty rate stood at 14.8%. Todd Gitlin’s book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1993) argues, ‘If the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty.’ Kerouac wrote in a time of prosperity and it’s ironic now that America is riddled with poverty. But as Gitlin’s phrase ‘voluntary poverty’ suggests, Kerouac may have been cast as the fortune teller rather than the author of America’s depressing decline.
‘For all of his bohemian leanings, Kerouac never lost his identification as “the All-American football hero,”‘ says Backwords. ‘He yearned to be normal just as much as he yearned to be this street lunatic who burned and burned and burned. Reconciling all the different conflicted sides of himself was probably impossible.’
The theme of impossibility ran through every notion of Kerouac and his Beat culture. There was so much to contend with: the excessive drugs and alcohol, the struggle to survive as symbolised by BJ McHenry. Kerouac’s exploration of the American Dream acknowledged these hurdles and laid them out for everyone to see. The honesty of On The Road revealed not only the beauty, but the grotesque in pursuing your own American Dream.
That and Kerouac’s premature demise should have stopped so many nomads before they descended into doom.