For a long time, I thought it was true. Not just me, but all of us that night at the Fillmore Ballroom in 1966. The Fillmore was still new at the time. I was first taken there by a girl I met at a party in Lake Tahoe the previous summer. I’d never seen anything like it, few people had. For a teen feeling alienated at the time, it was a revelation. It changed my life though I’m still not sure if for better or for worse.
I became a regular at the Fillmore and that night between sets, a rumor spread that Jack Kerouac had come to check out the scene. We were excited. I figured he’d be totally impressed at how cool we were, how stoned, how psychedelic the light show was, how we would change the world.
Who were the Beatniks?
For those who don’t know, Kerouac was a founding member of the Beatniks. He’s the one who invented the name, “Beat Generation,” during a conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes in 1948. In a 1958 interview, he said that the beat generation was “a hipness. It’s twentieth-century hipness.” (oxforddictionaries.com/2015/03/11/beat-beatnik-jack-kerouac/).
They were also called “the Beats.” Webster defines them as: “…a usually young and artistic person who rejects the mores of conventional society.” They were predecessors of the 1960s countercultural movements.
I was certain I saw him on stage for a moment with Eric the MC as the next band was setting up. Eric was saying something inaudible to him and we were sure that guy on stage was Jack Kerouac. It seemed right. Eric the MC was nearly as big a celeb as the musicians. He had the coolest hair, the hippest beads, a deep voice and he knew all the right words. He had a whole train of hot young groupies.
Kerouac, the Antidote for Teenage Angst
When I discovered Kerouac he was the perfect antidote for the teenage angst that was hitting me hard. I was the disillusioned High School jock. Plus, the war in Viet Nam was bothering me in a big way. It had been going on for nearly three years and by then, everyone with half a brain knew they were lying about the progress being made and the body counts that appeared in the news every night. A couple of older kids I knew from school had already been killed in Nam and we wondered, “for what purpose?”
Kerouac hit the right tone. To me, his prose was like poetry and his lifestyle, at least the one he portrayed, was the ultimate in cool. I wanted to be like just that. Kerouac’s most famous book was On the Road but I liked Desolation Angels. It was the best writing I had experienced up to that point. Kerouac became my idol.
In 1959, he had made a record of himself reading his work while Steve Allen played jazz riffs on piano. Listening to it today, (see above link) it sounds like an early version of rap. How cool is that? It was awesome and stuck in my mind. But soon after that night at the Fillmore, I heard Kerouac was totally disillusioned and actually horrified by what he saw of us at the Ballroom that night. Supposedly, he’d retreated to his mother’s place where he drank himself to death at age 47.
For a long time, I felt some responsibility for what happened to Jack Kerouac. Were we really that bad? The Fillmore Ballroom in those days was a crazy, sometimes nightmarish scene with the loudest music and some of the best bands anyone had heard. It was all so new that even famous groups like Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane drew crowds of a few hundred at most. Drugs everywhere, liquid light shows flashed flowing colors onto ceiling and walls with occasional melting signs urging everyone to “Stay High.” People lay on the floor, some would dance, a few of the real goners like the guy everyone called “Animal,” would stand in front of the huge speakers swimming in sound waves as their eardrums and their brains were destroyed. It was all so cool, we thought. And in a way it was. It definitely was a departure from the mediocrity of the early 1960s and the shattered politics that followed.
The Harlem of the West
I still don’t know if Kerouac ever was at the Fillmore. It’s possible but I can’t find any reference to it. A few years earlier when the Beats were trending, North Beach became a tourist destination so hipsters moved to the “Western Addition” as it was later called. That was the area around Fillmore Street and it was mostly African American. Black people moved in after the original Japanese American residents had been rounded up and interned during World War II. For a time, it became an important center for artists, musicians, and Beat writers. It was called “the Harlem of the West.” The 2322 Fillmore Building became the meeting place and Kerouac was there for the first reading of Ginsberg’s poem, Howl. By the time Bill Graham opened the Ballroom, Urban Renewal, sometimes called “Negro Removal,” had only accomplished tearing down the old Victorian structures and driving African Americans out. De facto segregation was the norm in San Francisco and the Bay Area at large.
I’ll probably never know if he was there but long after I’d moved on from the hippie scene, I got over that guilt. I wondered if he really was so disgusted by that ballroom of spaced-out young people, early stoners who invented grunge, why didn’t he say anything? I would have listened and it probably would have done me good. In fact, he probably wasn’t there and later I learned he did say plenty about my generation, some of which can be seen and heard in the link below. It’s difficult to watch the bloated, drunk hero. Occasionally he’s funny but he never portrays the Kerouac I had in mind.
So maybe Jack Kerouac wasn’t the man I thought he was but still, he left a legendary image of a handsome young artist living the life we all can imagine and wish for. His writing was good and it’s no wonder generations of young people have been inspired but now, it seems to me Jack was a one trick pony. His work seems all too similar. It’s as if he couldn’t break out of the mold he’d created for himself which is the point of this post and as with most things in life, it’s a bit complex.
“The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac”
Joyce Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend during the high point of his career. She wrote two books about him, Minor Characters, published in 1999 and The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, published in 2012.
Speaking about the first book, she related that Jack was “a very odd person” who treated her “unforgivably” yet he was also the love of her life. In the same interview, she revealed more about Kerouac. He built an image of himself as a spontaneous writer and claimed he’d written On the Road in a furious burst of energy over a three week period in 1951. In reality, he spent years revising and perfecting the manuscript. In The Voice is All…, she explains that spontaneous writing he claimed for On The Road “was a much longer process… Each paragraph had to be a poem.”
That’s certainly not a fault. It’s understandable considering the book had been rejected by publishers for years. But then, why did Jack give up on life? It’s certain he felt responsible for excesses of the counterculture but I’ve already been through that and there must be something more to the question.
It’s certain he crafted an image for himself out of necessity. It’s always been that way. Today we call it “branding.” Kerouac created an indelible brand that stands the test of time much better than he himself did. Maybe that’s the problem. In today’s world branding is everything but in a world where everything’s a brand, is the onset of fake news any surprise?
Maybe that’s the real story here. Kerouac created a self-image that was impossible to maintain in real life. “Kerouac’s frenetic prose conveyed the energy of a postwar generation and the influence of jazz. It is said that he wrote with the freedom of a jazz musician, breaking the rules with grammatically irreverent sentences shaped by sound.” (Dalya Alberge, The Guardian, Sept 15, 2012) In reality, there was nothing new in that. The previous generation had disrupted form to create Modern Art which was more influential than anything the Beats came up with. Modernism in art eventually institutionalized a new aesthetic which shaped our cities and our world.
In the conversation “Who Were The Hippies” (see above link), Kerouac claims he and the Beats started the whole “hip” movement. But that’s not true. The real story is more interesting and is intertwined with the growth of industrial capitalism. Serious study has been made of this and I did a lot of reading about it to try and understand what happened to me in my early adult life.
Right from the start of industrialism, capitalists learned if their design is bad, products won’t sell and all the effort and expense of tooling up for mass production becomes a huge loss. So they were forced to rely on artists and art movements to supply talent and create demand among consumers.
Industrial Capitalists, Hipsters, and “Cool”
Those movements have always been started by outsiders; misfits, brilliant nonconformists, people who don’t or can’t fit in with mainstream society. They are the forward-looking thinkers, the creators of art forms who came to be known as the “avant-garde” or “vanguard.” These are old military terms for the scouts who advanced at the front of the main force to survey the way forward. The terms were applied to the unconventional trail-blazers of the new modern age, individuals who lead in culture, fashion and lifestyles in a system that continually forces change on mass society by the necessities of economics.
In fact, the existence of this forward-looking avant-garde is a defining feature of modern civilization. It’s a source of inspiration and conflict that never stops. So in the end, Kerouac was repeating what previous generations had done since the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries when “The Generation of 1914” institutionalized ideas of “cool” and “hip.” I plan to go more deeply into this in future posts
“What is hip?
Tell me, tell me, if you think you know.
What is hip?
If you’re really hip,
The passing years will show, if
You’re on a hip trip.
Maybe hipper than hip.”
What is Hip
Tower of Power, 1973