Retracing Jack Kerouac’s rocky road

Studio portraits of Kerouac taken by Tom Palumbo are included the box set.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

There are those who return to Jack Kerouac just to get lost in the ride. Not across lonesome America but in the serpentine locomotion of his prose.

It’s the music of the page: long blasts of blue-streak narrative that don’t yield to periods, semicolons, commas; mile-long sentences that twist onto side-road tangents before -- in their best moments -- leading to a clear, untrammeled epiphany.

Kerouac’s ear was tuned to a different set of rules: that herky-jerk flow, the misplaced modifier mining something different, something else. The “not writing” but “typing” for which Truman Capote famously wrist-rapped Kerouac had its own incantatory power. His switchback sentences, when read aloud, required a horn player’s circular breathing prowess: the correct embouchure.

Not surprisingly, in the five decades since his novel “On the Road” entered our vernacular, scores of musicians have been drawn to his body of work, finding some way to sit in, staking out a space within the prose. Plush Hollywood composer-arrangers, jazz singers, art rockers, post-punkers, conscious MCs have all attempted to interpret the mood, the motion, the after-effect.

“One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur” (F-Stop/Atlantic Records: deluxe version, $59.98) is another one on the pile. Out this fall for the 40th anniversary of Kerouac’s death, the compilation -- a 2007 documentary and its soundtrack -- comes handsomely packaged as a worn, hardcover book. But the cover opens to reveal a cavity. In it are two disc sleeves -- a CD and DVD -- along with a copy of the Penguin paperback of “Big Sur” as well as a slim booklet filled with production/liner notes and never-before-seen photos of a wary-looking Kerouac. Slipped in, as if an afterthought, is a folded sheet of manuscript (a previously unpublished page from “Reflections on Big Sur,” 1963) that looks as if it were just dashed off, typewriter on newsprint.

The CD “One Fast Move or I’m Gone” features a dozen songs composed and performed by indie rockers Jay Farrar of Son Volt and Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. The 150-minute film of the same name, directed by Curt Worden and produced by Kerouac’s nephew, Jim Sampas, along with Gloria Bailen, is an eccentric mélange of talking-head documentary, music video and line-reading/reenactment, featuring poets, ex-lovers, agents, biographers and, of course, musicians: Tom Waits (a longtime admirer and interpreter of Kerouac’s prose), Patti Smith, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter. Worden’s portal opens sometime way-back mid-last century, with black-and-white footage of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and a crew of writers, thinkers and talkers floating through the East Village, as actor John Ventimiglia, eerily, note-perfectly channels Kerouac’s New England cadences.

After this gorgeous time-capsule moment, the documentary wanders a well-worn path: Kerouac’s meteoric rise and difficult, often self-steered descent. While Worden tries to use “visual imagery as a simple backdrop letting the prose take center stage,” Gibbard and Farrar set themselves up with the trickier mission. How does one convey a man’s unraveling through music without edging toward the cliché?

“Big Sur” is a bleak and beautiful book. It’s one of Kerouac’s best in that he records not only the ravages of depression, alcohol, vulnerability and mania but also, in an almost agonizing stop-motion, offers a long documentary take on what it’s like to cycle through it all again and again.

Published in 1962, it is the flip side to the enormous and dislocating success of “On the Road” -- a road novel, yes, but in an altogether different sense. If “On the Road” is about igniting the soul, “Big Sur” is about the moment when the road runs out.

By 1960, when the book takes place, Kerouac’s life had been upended, both by outer forces and his persistent inner-demons. "[S]ince the publication of ‘Road’ I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phone calls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers,” he writes in “Big Sur’s” early pages. “Teenagers jumped the six-foot fence I had built around my yard for privacy. . . . Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils. . . . Me drunk practically all of the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all of this but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered . . . .”

It’s a particularly affecting horror story because it shadows the tight-wire path we walk every day: a man, slowly, inexorably closing down on himself. It’s Kerouac’s “The Crack-Up.” Like F. Scott Fitzgerald did in his account of a disintegration into paranoia (also fueled by alcohol), he is not simply writing but whispering in your ear.

The novel opens at the center of a hangover. Already beat, Jack Duluoz (Kerouac’s alter ego) has slipped into San Francisco with a plan to avoid his usual circle of cronies and carousing. The idea is to escape to the quiet of the Big Sur cabin owned by friend and poet Lorenz Monsanto (a.k.a. Lawrence Ferlinghetti), to be “alone and undisturbed for six weeks just chopping wood, drawing water, writing, sleeping, hiking etc., etc.” But in a matter of hours, it’s off: "[I]nstead, I’ve bounded drunk into . . . City Lights book shop at the height of Saturday business . . . and ‘t’all ends up a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody ‘King of the Beatniks’ is back in town buying drinks for everyone.”

What does paranoia sound like? Madness?

“Big Sur” is a cold, dank basement of a book, the long digression of a man wavering between depression and desperation but still seeking -- sometimes glimpsing hope’s light, a weak sun passing through the Northern California coastal fog. How does one interpret someone’s “coming undone” without straining, without relying on pat convention? Especially when Kerouac articulates it so well for himself, in the ache of these lines:

“I can hear myself again whining ‘Why does God torture me?’ -- But anybody who’s never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it’s not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don’t drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility -- The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth. . . . You feel guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness -- You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it sicksicksick, your soul groans. . . .”

Like so many projects, “One Fast Move or I’m Gone” does much casting about for the whys. It’s in this exercise that one begins to understand how long Kerouac has been gone. The onscreen questions don’t change so much, but that’s not true of the people who gather around those nicked wooden tables at Vesuvio’s or Caffe Trieste in North Beach. They have “conversations” set up meticulously in places where Kerouac walked, slept, caroused, copulated and sometimes attempted to write.

All this, quite poignantly, points up who’s gone. With the exception of people such as Ferlinghetti, Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord, writer and ex-lover Joyce Johnson or Carolyn Cassady, widow of Kerouac’s madman archetype, Neal Cassady, the storytellers now recycle memories of other memories, like third-generation photocopies, beginning to get fuzzy, indistinct.

Songwriters Gibbard and Farrar go through this process in music rather than in words, channeling an attempt to approximate mood. Still, for all its earnestness, there’s something discordant. The tracks seem self-effacing enough, a sad voice against a simply strummed guitar, a wail of a pedal steel. But ultimately, this is someone else’s take on someone else’s story -- instead of that raw expression you get handwritten in a leather-bound journal.

One wonders at the choices. Though the filmmakers have fit in a bebop track or two, it feels like a mere brush stroke of verisimilitude.

Most of Kerouac’s books -- the poems, the novels, the day books and essays -- burst with jazz. “Big Sur” doesn’t stray from that motif. We get “booming loud Stan Getz jazz on the Hi-Fi,” Sinatra and Chet Baker in the wings. So in a certain way it’s courageous for Gibbard and Farrar to imagine a score that diverges from the expected, to try to fit Kerouac into today’s outsider vernacular.

Yet such a decision raises a larger question: Why did jazz suit Kerouac?

Jazz is spirit music, Nat Hentoff once wrote. And so much of Kerouac’s life was predicated on his search for ecstatic experience, writer Brenda Knight notes early in the documentary. Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, extends the thought:

"[A]s long is Jack is running Jack is going to live. And as long as Jack is living Jack is going to write. And we benefit from that hangover, those of us who love this book. This is an ugly, ugly book. Of ugly places of the mind, places in the psyche and Jack has to wring himself out . . . he has to do it.”

Kerouac wrote in the language of jazz -- its nouns, verbs, its cadences. He cleared out space sometimes to make the reader look at this improvisation, this solo, before he continued on with his story.

Indeed, Kerouac wanted to be considered a “jazz poet blowing a long blues in a afternoon jazz session / on a Sunday.” His dissolution too -- at the very least, it seems -- would always feel more like a blazing bebop horn.

“Big Sur” is a book about a descent, a life and death battle, “One fast move or I’m gone. . . .” It is sobering to know that Kerouac had only seven more years left after he published this novel, although clearly he already had a sense of that himself.

Without his frankness, his dogged search, his drive to go deep inside, we wouldn’t have this document.

Which is why there is something bracing about revisiting this text at this moment, when so many are deep in the canyon thinking: What next? If you look at “One Fast Move” as an extrapolation, you start to see how the next puzzle piece fits: Kerouac has, for decades now, been a voice for those looking to convey one of life’s inescapable amalgams: a hormonal / chemical combination of joy, kicks and despair.

It’s a passed-down story, speaking across 40 years; another generation’s take. Gibbard gets it right in the documentary, sitting on what looks like the deck at Nepenthe, nudged back off the curves of Highway 1 along one of those gorgeous / deadly Big Sur drops.

“Every place he goes,” he says, earnest eyes wide behind thick plastic frames, voice without a note of irony, “there’s just this barrage of young people who want to buy him drinks, want to take a piece of him with them. Even though he’s already given them the most important part of his life -- which are these books.”

George, a Los Angeles-based journalist-essayist, is a visiting assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount University and a fellow at the Horizon Institute.