Venice’s Beyond Baroque became school, refuge, and gathering place for a loose array of tribes last weekend with a packed marathon 13-hour open reading of On The Road, the famed 1950s beat ur-text by Jack Kerouac. By 2 a.m., a few dedicated readers remained to hear Los Angeles poet and co-editor of the Outlaw Bible SA Griffin utter the last singing praises of road pirate and life force Neal Cassady. Many of the 70 people who read and the larger number listening noted not only the propulsive words, but the chance to experience, unadorned, what has become one of the most influential experimental texts ever written. In the words of performance artist and teacher Terrie Silverman, the event was “pure free speech.”
The weekend commemorated the 50th anniversary of the book’s Viking publication. It began with a Project Room show by photographer and film essayist Fred Camper, ending with a panel on the book featuring Griffin, Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally, host of KPFK’s “The Music Never Stops” Barry Smolin, marathon host and weekend co-producer Richard Modiano, and others. The weekend concluded, strangely, if perhaps appropriately, on the anniversary of Kerouac’s 1969 death.
The Saturday marathon was the United States’ first complete reading of the original scroll text, as typed by Kerouac, on taped- together sheets of paper, over three weeks in April 1951, and published for the first time this year. Subsequent versions, including the one most of us know, fictionalized the characters and removed or reduced scenes. The original scroll text, as many commented during the day and night, felt like a new book — leaving us vividly among cited friends Allen Ginsberg, Bill Burroughs, wives, girlfriends, children, road friends, those abandoned, stolen cars, actually screwed up lives, and so on. These were real people, and if they became legendary, they were certainly not mythological. The cyclical structure defied cliché, the experience as much Bop jazz as a relentlessly circling Phil Glass opera — continually passing through Denver, to Texas, Frisco, the Mississippi bayou, New York, round and round, back through Denver, ending, almost by chance, in Mexico, there to start again. The form of the stories was mind-numbing and challenging — those at the podium found themselves stumbling over the absence of paragraphs and emphasis.
Why Kerouac, and why now? Quite apart from siring the beats and hippies, Kerouac, in the words of marathon participant and panelist McNally, wrote the book to “give the people back their freedom, in all its many forms.” Some of this came from Kerouac’s French-Canadian roots, some from fear of the American society and the bomb. The book marked a longer journey that was to become quite dark, for Kerouac and for America as a whole, though not for the usual reasons cited — that Kerouac, the beats, and the hippies somehow destroyed American values. What the marathon revealed, and the panelists discussed, was how much Kerouac exposed the American dream, struggled for responses to it, and how challenging the book remains. While Kerouac is said to have broken open square society, this was instead to be an initiation into America’s machinery of cons, something Cassady himself embodied.
All day and night, people streamed in from the literary world, film, music, outside the arts, carpenters, the homeless, the crazies, and so on. The marathon had a clandestine, workmanlike quality, as if the trials of listening to language and gathering face to face had been unsuccessfully outlawed. What drew them? For an answer, I visited Rocco Intaglia, owner of the used bookstore Angel City, in Ocean Park. Kerouac, he said, represents “freedom from illusion, from untruth, from dishonesty, from the glass darkly. Kerouac represents fighting all one’s demons, and, yes, he lost, but he saw clearly.”
Not many these days credit Jack Kerouac with seeing clearly. Recent and prominent reviews of the reissued books hide their sneers in sociable and embracing congeniality. They speak of his late years soaked in alcohol and misery as pathetic and misguided, then fail to treat the books seriously. Kerouac discovered that America killed, as Burroughs warned over and over, with opportunity and embrace, with junk sickness. America is based on misrepresentation, a society of the substitute, for thinking, for justice, for reality, for freedom, for people. Kerouac really did seek a way out. While his politics became increasingly reactive — praising Billy Graham as a guide for the counterculture, insulting blacks, Hispanics, youth, women, and especially his old friends — he created an amazing, still barely understood body of work that jangles around inside a deadly system. The system can copy him, can cite him, can even justly attack him, but they cannot kill the need to see and hear things as they are, however deeply we are in what Jack called, in Visions of Cody, “unreal reality.” As deft author Michael Simmons put it on Sunday, from the audience, “It’s not about what ought to be, MAN! It’s about what IS!”
Like breaking bread, the sharing of a text in real space and time, as equals, answers an unmet yearning in dangerous times. You could almost hear the echo of Kerouac’s father singing, in the distance, the Wobbly anthem, “Hallelujuh, I’m a bum.” When asked on a panel, “Is there a beat generation?” Kerouac answered, “We should be wondering tonight, is there a world?” For a few moments, we were able to gather, in the dark, to remember such questions and, tapping our feet, enter into their living reality.