Friday, May 25, 2012
Ode to Jack: An Open Letter to Jack Kerouac
It took me too long to find you, and for that I'm eternally sorry. I'm one of those late bloomers, someone who stayed too close to the farm for too long and it took some discomfort and some courage to get out there on the open road you so eagerly invited us to ride upon.
So, I was close to thirty when I read it. You know the one. The scroll that sent you into orbit and made you an avatar overnight. The one that put you on the map, Smiler, and the one that started you down a road to ruin.
It took me even longer to step out beyond the beatnik - God, you hate that word, don't you - ok, the beatific fray and get to know you all casual-like. To sit down with a good cup of black coffee and really listen to what you wanted me to hear. Eyes open, ears perked, mouth shut.
It wasn't the lure of the open road, but the cries of the open soul you were trying to get me to react to, but I'd have none of it. To me, it was all about the hip and the hep, the birth of the cool, the everlovin', never-ending rhythm of the tomes and the poems and the rhyming and the times. Romancing the stoned. Digging it because it was cool, not because it was true. Birth of the Fool.
It got so you couldn't take a piss without someone setting it to a backbeat and calling it a beat poem. You couldn't answer your door without some young girl wanting to screw you or some cat wanting to share a drink with you, or punch you in the stomach just to say, "Yeah, I brawled with Kerouac." Everyone wanted a piece. It got so "The Road" was more like a prison.
Disciples were born - hundreds of them - and they took some of the weight off, and put other fetters on. The spotlight might've shifted, but now someone else was 'the new Kerouac' and you were 'whatever happened to...'
What happened was you crawled into a cave, Lawrence's place out on Big Sur. You were transcontinental, riding that California zephyr to somewhere you could just go and be again. A place to chop wood, take a walk, and write. Write like there was no tomorrow, because for the first time, it really seemed like there might not be one. At that point on the map between despair and disaster, you realized the only hope was to disappear. One fast move or you were gone. You had to escape for a while, because that glint of hope and promise and the spark of enthusiasm in your eyes all dimmed because so many others had to feed off of them. Your spark, their fire. Their desires, your demise.
And so, you tried to wear a jovial cap and make it all seem ok, but the only way to do that was the dharma and the drink, and the drink started to win. The world drank you dry, and so you responded in kind. But Big Sur became as much a dark cave as a retreat. The damage had already been done. A snail across a straight razor, a slow painful sinking into the desolation for our beat angel.
What drew me to you, and still does, pal, is the heady mix of the profane and the sacred, the search for truth in a world tattered and frayed by our own turpitude. You may have been the King of the Beats, but you were also a Dharma Bum. Freight trains and detours and Catholic guilt and girls with long silky legs, Charlie Parker on the bandstand and something cold in a glass. There was swagger and wonderment and hunger on the page, and that's because you lived it. Some of us cowards don't, but you did...until it caught up with you and you ended it. Not like Hemingway or Thompson. There was no gun blast to signal the tintinnabulation of the funeral bells. No, this was a slow, sinking suicide by drowning. Drowning inside a bottle we put in front of you and you opened. Drinking deeply from the chalice of life, then deeper still from Diablo's bottomless jug.
But writers have the distinction of never really dying, because they leave this trail for us to follow, and it's a living, breathing trail of words and pages and dreams and murky journeys that take us through muck and confusion and fear and eventually, if they did their job right (and you did, kid), out into the light of day, out into a warm sunlit field sparking with enlightenment and Elysian song.
I don't give a flying f what Capote said about you. Who was he anyway? No, I look down the road of what you left us and I see your brother, the sea, and the subterraneans the and dharma bums and Maggie and Mexico City and scattered poems and visions and towns and cities. Orpheus emerging and lonesome travelers finding a home. I see a Book of Dreams. I see Allen and Gentleman Bill and Lawrence, I see Dylan and Kesey and Dr. Thompson and Pynchon and Robbins and Bangs and Murakami and Waits and Shepard and Miles and Trane and Diz. And they're all smiling, Smiler. They're all smiling because you put a little fuel in all their tanks for their Road.
And mine too. Mine too, Memory Babe.
You never signed on to be larger than life. You just wanted to live it all. Live it all with gusto and gratitude. But so did we, and some of us - most of us - lacked the courage, so we clung fast onto your coattails as you flew down boulevards and blind alleys. I'm sorry if our endless enthusiasms slowed you down, but it was a hell of a ride.
I'm headed up to Lawrence's cabin sometime soon. The one where you wrote "Big Sur". I'm headed to Jack Kerouac Alley and the City Lights Bookstore and the streets where you wandered looking for a good sandwich and a smoke. I'll probably romanticize you a bit. That's what I do. But I'll do it honest. Like an early morning in China and I'm five years old in beginingless time. If all of life is - as you said - a foreign country, then I hope to get acquainted and inspired by some of the ones on your map.
I assume the invitation is still open, one Dharma Bum to another.
You once said "I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life."
I'm here to tell you it's true, Dreamer. You tapped into something primordial and true and alive in the ever-present now, and you spread it around like some sort of Bodhisattva Johnny Appleseed. And I just wanted to say "thanks".
See you under that empty sky.