FREE THE WEED 49
A Column by John Sinclair
For the past several months in this column I’ve been presenting excerpts from my book called It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader, soon to be issued by the publishers of this magazine. In fact, I’m in New Orleans right now working with my daughter Celia on designing and producing the book for publication this spring. This month’s offering—in honor of his birthday on March 12—is an edited version of my assessment of the great American poet and writer from Lowell, Massachusetts who started it all.
THE PROPHESY OF JACK KEROUAC
America after World War II was well on its way to becoming the kind of ugly, spiritually desolate world it is today. The dehumanization of American civilization began in earnest when they dropped Fat Man and Little Boy on the people of Japan and flew smugly away, back to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
The mental and moral landscape of America was flattened and irradiated like Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Americans dropped their atomic bombs on human beings in Japan, and the fabric of American life would remain terminally warped forever after.
After the bomb began the homogenization and commodification of our culture and the establishment of the endless networks of suburban modules to house the white people outside the limits of our nation’s cities.
Here too began the rigid economic stratification of our society into the tripartite reality of modern America—the rich get richer, the people who are allowed to work for them prosper in suburban bliss, and the uneducated, racially segregated underclass is left to wage a bitter struggle for simple survival in the vast urban ghettos that remain as the ruins of our great industrial centers.
But after the war small pockets of resistance gathered and stood bravely against the raging tide of conformism and conspicuous consumption that swept over post-war America—tiny clumps of intellectuals both street-level and academic, including a handful of inspired writers determined to chronicle the joys of modern life as well as measure the relentless disintegration of the nation’s human and emotional resources during this ghastly period of decline.
The greatest of these writers was Jack Kerouac, a literary prophet who illuminated post-war America with his epic tales of ecstatic and complicated life outside the narrowing cultural mainstream. Jack Kerouac left our humble planet for places unknown on October 21, 1969 at the age of 47.
That day also marked the 52nd birthday of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, genius of modern jazz, born in 1917. Kerouac’s birthdate, March 12 (1922), coincides with the death of the great Charlie Parker, one of Jack’s idols and prime artistic influences, on March 12, 1955 at the age of 34.
It is not at all strange that these three contemporaries, born within a five-year period, should be linked by their vital dates on the great wheel of karma. Together they forged a complete revolution in the sound of modern music and prosody.
Kerouac was an habitue of the after-hours sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where he heard Monk, Bird, Dizzy, Max Roach and other young jazzmen wrestle nightly with moving the music to a higher level of complexity, intellection and rhythmic thrust.
Kerouac spent the rest of the ’40s trying to infuse his own writing with the wild methodology of bebop, finally succeeding in 1951-52 with Visions of Cody, On The Road and Dr. Sax.
He attacked narrative writing as an exercise in epic poetic composition driven by the imperatives of an inspired bebop saxophonist—to make it happen, say something and make it swing.
Bird and Dizzy and Monk are playing inside Kerouac’s ears as he writes: Sometimes he’s a tenor saxophone, other times he’s the singer, then again he might be the drummer whacking and boomping away beneath the horns.
But the music is always there, in the writing, and all around it, defining it, all ways, always there.
“You guys call yourselves poets, write little short lines, I’m a poet but I write lines paragraphs and pages and many pages long,” the bard insisted in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen in the mid-’50s.
Or, to Donald Allen in 1959: “Let there be no equivocation about statement, and if you think this is not hard to do, try it.”
Let there be no equivocation about statement. Say something, brother man, and make it swing. If you think this is not hard to do, try it. Bird made it sound so easy, but you can hear hundreds of players every night, 60 years later, all over the world, still trying to get inside of Bird’s sound.
Kerouac’s brilliant series of novels—On The Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Visions of Cody—detailed the exploits of “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….”
Blasted on marijuana, benzedrine or cheap wine, Kerouac sat at his typewriter and captured the spirit and frenzy of the “mad ones” he encountered between the early years of the war and the end of the 1950s, the “mad ones” and the improbable lives they devised for themselves in a sort of jazz and dope and poetry underworld of their own fabrication—an underworld that maintained a precarious existence on the cutting edge of urban civilization, living outside the law in the rotted underbelly of the beast, feeding on the excess produce of the hostile world of commerce around them and transforming this purloined energy into magnificent works of personal expression in music, dance, painting, poetry and prose.
On The Road, Kerouac’s best-known work, written in one continuous burst of creative energy in 1952 but not published until 1957, chronicled the beginnings of what’s come to be known as the Beat Generation during its formative years just after the war.
“Once started,” William Burroughs pointed out, “the Beat movement had a momentum of its own and a world-wide impact. In fact, the intelligent conservatives in America saw this as a serious threat to their position long before the Beat writers saw it themselves. A much more serious threat, say, than the Communist Party.
“The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear.....There’s no doubt that we’re living in a freer America as a result of the Beat literary movement.”
The great Kerouac persona has relentlessly been reduced over the years to the well-known caricature of the graceless drunken beatnik lout. Bullshit! Kerouac, my friends, was full of grace, and a “great creator of forms that ultimately find expression in mores and what have you.”
This was what Charlie Parker said when he played:
‘All Is Well.’ You had the feeling
of early in the morning,
like a hermit’s joy, or like the perfect cry
of some wild gang
at a jam session—
Yes, All is Well. Or like the end of the Blues and Haikus session, when producer Bob Thiele asks Kerouac if he can get home okay. “Yeah,” Jack says. “We got a car.”
March 15, 2015
© 2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.