Jack Kerouac, jazz and the sound of a generation

Dr Simon Warner has co-edited a new book on Jack Kerouac. (Picture: Simon Hulme).
Dr Simon Warner has co-edited a new book on Jack Kerouac. (Picture: Simon Hulme).
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A new book brings together a collection of essays about Jack Kerouac and his impact on popular music. Chris Bond spoke to its co-editor Dr Simon Warner.

OF all the Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac is arguably the most famous.

It was Kerouac, of course, who wrote that great counter-culture bible On the Road. A book about which Bob Dylan once said: “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”

Next year it will be half a century since his untimely demise at the age of 47, though the passing of time has done little to quell his influence on popular culture.

There have been all manner of films, books, TV documentaries that have attempted to dissect Kerouac and separate the man from the legend, and in his latest book Dr Simon Warner, visiting research fellow in Popular Music Studies at the University of Leeds, has teamed up with Kerouac’s nephew, Jim Sampas, to edit a collection of essays on the Beat writer, called Kerouac On Record – A Literary Soundtrack.

“I felt there was a gap harking back to Kerouac and his relationship to music, particularly jazz, and also his relationship to subsequent music and his influence on it,” says Warner.

Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka were influenced by the jazz scene of postwar America and so, too, was Kerouac.

“He was drawn to figures like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk,” says Warner. “He saw in the life of the African-Americans a verve and vitality

that he wanted to bring to his writing.

“He’s sometimes criticised for over-romanticising Black American life but he heard in jazz certain rhythms and syntax that he wanted to bring to his prose on the page. And you can see Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style in a number of his books such as The Subterraneans and the Dharma Bums.” The relationship is often seen as a one way street with the Beat writers getting more out of it than the jazz musicians.

“Figures like Gillespie became aware of the Beats and he actually released a track called Kerouac and when Allen Ginsberg showed Thelonious Monk a copy of Howl, Monk turned round and said ‘it makes sense.’ So there was an interaction between them but it was more to do with young, white men being excited by the apparent freedom and intensity of Black life that seemed absent from the conformity of Cold War America in the 1950s.”

Kerouac went on to influence high-profile figures from the 1960s, notably Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Tom Waits and Jerry Garcia who, in turn, brought his work to a new youth generation.

“There was this cavalcade of important rock music figures who read Kerouac and in his stories found inspiration and excitement. They connected with the world he had written about and in books like On the Road, found templates for their own writing and their own lives.”

Kerouac became totemic figure for the counter-culture at the time though it wasn’t something that sat comfortably with him.

“He remains a paradoxical figure. He was this emblem of rebellion but died a committed Republican who spouted patriotic views,” says Warner.

“He didn’t like the fact that he’d been adopted by later generations of rebels because he felt out of step with their attitudes.

“In the later 60s he hid himself away and became an alcoholic and resented what was happening with hippie America.”

Nevertheless, his body of work still strikes a chord with many people. “There are hundreds of songs right up to the present day where bands and songwriters have referenced Kerouac... there’s this underlying mythology of the road that still resonates today.”

Kerouac On Record – A Literary Soundtrack, published by Bloomsbury Academic, is out on March 8.