by Christopher Lloyd
Jun 20, 2008
If Jack Kerouac had been born in 1982 instead of 1922, he'd probably
be blogging away like a madman in some obscure corner of the Web. Or
thrashing out power chords in a garage. Or doing guerrilla street art
with spray paint and found objects.
Indianapolis artist/poet/publisher John Clark believes the
freewheeling creative process was a hallmark of the Beat Generation,
which Kerouac captured in 1957's "On the Road," based on his
cross-country travels with Neal Cassady. The Beats were rebels who
took a look at the straight-laced '50s and felt compelled to defy convention.
Clark, the man behind pLopLop, an occasional self-published literary
magazine, or zine, pointed out that it took Kerouac six years to get
"On the Road" published. And he never felt comfortable with the
celebrity it brought him -- much preferring the type of anonymity
millions of do-it-yourself artists happily toil away in today.
"Kerouac was writing when no one wanted to publish him. Then when
("On the Road") came out, he already had 10 books in the bag," said
Clark, 47. "He did it just for the love of it. It's like indie
rockers and bloggers, people who are writing because they love to
write, and are not so concerned about being read or published in a
The influence of the Beats is hard to measure but is easily glimpsed
in the writing, music and other art that sprang up after them in the
1960s, and beyond. Some of their heirs are obvious -- the drug-addled
first-person "gonzo journalism" of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas" was a natural progression of Kerouac's own
(often pharmaceutically assisted) adventures.
Other art that was inspired by the Beats is not so apparent. But
observers say it can be seen in the guitar freakouts of the '60s, the
found art movement, even modern rap recordings.
"Things were pretty straight in the '50s, and this came along and
blew everything open," said Jim Canary, the head of conservation at
Indiana University's Lilly Library, who's responsible for preserving
the original 120-foot scroll on which Kerouac wrote "On the Road"
over three weeks in 1951.
"After that, you've got (Allen) Ginsberg and (Bob) Dylan and then
you've got the (Rolling) Stones -- all of that starting to happen
once that crack developed. It just started becoming a massive flood
of people doing their own creative things."
Kerouac wrote on long sheets of tracing paper because he, like the
rest of the Beats, prized spontaneity.
"He loved jazz, and that's sort of like going off on a riff and
continuing. He typed 100 words a minute. He wanted to be able to flow
with his thoughts, what he called spontaneous prose. If he had to
stop and take a sheet out of the typewriter, he'd be interrupting
that flow constantly. He wanted to just let the words fly off his
fingertips and lay themselves down like asphalt," Canary said.
Other Beat figures employed this spontaneous sensibility in different
ways. William S. Burroughs was known for using the cut-up method for
his book "Naked Lunch," literally slicing up his text and rearranging
it. Jazz musicians valued improvisational melodies, which helped
usher in the era of extended rock 'n' roll guitar soloists like Jimi
Hendrix and blues artists like B.B. King.
Clark says he uses spontaneity in his paintings and drawings.
"I call it bypassing the intellect. Because your mind is saying,
'What, are you crazy? You can't put something down on this blank
piece of paper!' If you listen to that, you'll never get anywhere.
But if you just start something and see what happens -- so you're
both participant and spectator. You're waiting to see what happens."
Like a musician, though, one has to build up "chops" before the words
or music or art will come, Clark said. "You can't just pick up a pen
and do great automatic writing. You have to read a lot and write a lot."
That sentiment is backed up by David Amram, a composer and jazz
musician who was part of the Beats' inner circle. When "On the Road"
was published, Amram was playing French horn in a symphony while
performing with jazz greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and
working on classical compositions.
"Spontaneity and formality we always felt were linked," Amram said,
adding that it was a topic Kerouac and the other Beats "talked about
Amram points to an occasion when he was painstakingly copying musical
scores. Kerouac joined him and talked through the night. He was
recounting a visit with French soldiers he made with Burroughs, and
how the spirit of camaraderie is a human trait that extends beyond
"I looked over and the sun was up ..... I said, 'Wow, Jack, if only I
had a tape recorder that could be transcribed. That could be a whole
book.' And he said, 'That's what I try to do in my writing, to make
my reader feel that I'm talking to them. And I can never quite get it.'."
Many people, of course, would disagree with Kerouac's bleak
self-assessment. Amram said that Hunter S. Thompson, whom they both
knew, spoke glowingly of Kerouac's writing. "And Kurt Vonnegut told
me what he loved about Jack's writing was he stayed true to his own
vision in seemingly disparate works. It was like one gigantic
Amram said for a while in the late 1950s, he and Kerouac worked on
improvisational combinations of music and poetry made up on the spot.
This formed the cradle of what we now know as spoken word and slam
poetry. Amram described it, somewhat dismissively, as something they
fooled around with for a few months and then dropped out of boredom.
To them, it was a natural outgrowth of the jazz tradition of
scatting, but substituting real words for nonsensical ones. In this,
one can glimpse the roots of modern rap and hip-hop music, with their
focus on rhyme and cadence.
Amram, who still maintains a busy performance schedule, said in
recent years he has been asked to freestyle with hip-hop groups like
the Flobots. "They said, 'You're the best 77-year-old rapper we've ever met!'."
The Beats' experimentation with drugs and alternative lifestyles --
poet Ginsberg was among the first major American figures to be openly
and unapologetically gay -- eased the way for counterculture
movements of the 1960s and beyond. Disaffection and alienation became
a shared experience, even something to be celebrated.
"They set a trend that we follow today. It's as if the mainstream
skewed off in their direction instead of it being a dead end. The
abnormal becomes the normal," said Martin Krause, curator of prints,
drawings and photographs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
In a sense, the Beats were a very personal association of friends
that morphed into a movement. John Gosney, a lecturer who teaches a
class on the Beats at IUPUI, says they were more politically
apathetic than their cultural descendants.
"Unlike the '60s and hippies that followed, they weren't, I think,
trying to be an instrument of radical change. I'm not sure they
really cared if everyone else followed them," Gosney said.
Gosney thinks the Beats were heavily influenced by the threat of
nuclear weapons, which led to their desire to live in the moment. "If
we could literally die any minute with the flash of light and the
mushroom cloud, we need to make the most out of every second."
Numerous modern artists have talked about the influence of Kerouac
and the Beats on what they do, from actor Johnny Depp to Death Cab
for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Colts owner Jim Irsay, who bought the
Kerouac scroll in 2001, says he discovered the Beats through his love
of musicians like John Lennon.
"When you're growing up in the early 1970s, there were certain
staples that were out there. You start tracing people back, like when
you become a big Bob Dylan fan or Tom Waits fan, you start hearing
those guys talk about who influenced them, and then you go back to
that person, whether it's Kerouac or Woody Guthrie," Irsay said.
"You get that trail that goes backwards."
On the Road Again with Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank
When: Thursday through Sept. 21.
Location: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road.
Info: (317) 920-2659, or visit www.imamuseum.org