BEAT ON

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

Have I made it perfectly clear yet that I’m obsessed with Jack Kerouac?

I think I mention Kerouac and the Beats every time someone asks about my literary influences.  But I don’t really think of myself as a guy with obsessive tendencies.  I don’t have a thousand lunch pails sporting images of Superman or characters from The Andy Griffith Show.  I don’t paint tiny army figurines and play them one against the other on a giant, Styrofoam battlefield in my garage. 

But the way I feel about the Beat Generation…kinda sounds like obsession.

I’m not alone.  There’s a something somethingness about these folks that translates into every language, crosses every border, travels the world and appeals to millions.  I remember feeling crushed when I discovered there were others like me.  The relationship I had with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs felt personal, like I rode shotgun at their side through all the adventures.  I didn’t like the fact that my feelings were not special or unique.  And, when I finally accepted that I was not the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac (every Beatnik goes through the phase where he insists he’s Jack reincarnated), I learned to enjoy sharing the Beat universe with others. 

How do I explain the appeal of the Beats?  

It starts with Kerouac.  He’s the center of the storm.  I posted a blog a little while ago with a link to Kerouac reading from On the Road.  My blog was about the musicality of his writing, the fevered saxophone solo of his words, his syncopation and meter and rhythm.  That’s the first thing that got my attention.  Just hearing Jack read his own work took me to another place.  It was the marriage of music and literature, poetry and jazz.

Last week I was in San Francisco for a too-brief moment and I visited one of my favorite places in the world, the Beat Museum.  

There’s a TV monitor near the entrance playing a continuous loop of Kerouac, with the sound turned off.  It was playing the same segment I mentioned above, the one I have linked to my previous blog.  I watched it again, silent, observing Jack’s body language as he read, hearing the words memorized in my head, knowing every camera angle, expecting the crescendo of music and words as the sequence came to an end and the lights came up and the camera pulled out to a wide shot, in total silence.  And I noticed something I had always seen but hadn’t really acknowledged.  It was a look in Kerouac’s face, a reluctance to let it go, to leave the place in his head where he’d gone while reading his work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Nirvana, where he’d gone.  It showed in the way he seemed to grapple for something lost, something held for a moment in the palm of his hand, before the music ended and the lights went up and the camera pulled back and out.

In that moment I saw Kerouac’s vulnerability.  His complete and total honesty, open for the world to see.  And I think that’s the real appeal, that’s what draws so many millions into his orbit. 

The Beats were nothing if not honest.  They lived lives of chaotic adventure, documenting everything they did, felt and saw.  They weren’t ashamed by their actions.  Their lives were their art, America the canvas. 

Now, remember, this was the 1950s.  Before reality television brought media-starved souls into our bedrooms to entertain us with the wreckage of their lives.  This was before Andy Warhol gave every American permission to seek fifteen minutes of fame.  People didn’t expect to receive instant adulation on a worldwide stage.

It was the era of “Leave it to Beaver,” the Marlboro Man, the Red Scare.  A Post-War America with a black-and-white setting.  Shades of gray didn’t exist until the 1960s.  In the 50s you were either perfectly good or…perfectly bad.  And, if you were just a little bit bad, you were perfectly bad.  If you smoked a little weed, if you liked to listen to jazz…you might as well shoot heroin, pop speed, have sex with your neighbor’s wife and rob your friends.  All of which the Beats excelled at.

So, is there anything to admire about that?  Is that heroic? 

The fact is, they lived, man.  These cats were full of life.  They did not compromise in their search for meaning.  They blew through this land, rolling across our virgin highways, searching out America, testing the caliber of their souls along the way.  Their message was peace and friendship and love.  They lived their lives fully, whatever the cost.  And the cost was high, in the 1950s.

Kerouac was talented and sensitive and vulnerable and he ultimately killed himself with booze.  Frustrated, he drank because he was misunderstood.  His publishers and the media and the critics sold him as America’s “bad boy.”  They didn’t look at his writing, didn’t acknowledge the value of his fresh, new style, didn’t hear the questions he posed about the meaning of life.  He was cast as the harbinger of restless meanderings and delivered to a hungry, eager youth ready for action, encouraged to use On the Road as their map into naughty new places where sex, drugs and jazz defined the essence of cool.

While Kerouac was the match that lit the flame, he was not the whole movement.  One man does not a Generation make.  A number of colorful cohorts traveled at his side, folks like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name a few.  Their writings challenged the conventions of the day, setting the stage for an even greater revolution yet to come.  These were the original road-trippers.  The first hitchhikers.  Doing it all before the hippies hit puberty.

I have a pretty significant collection of Beat literature in my library.  Sometimes I stand in front of the shelves and stare at my copies of On the Road, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Naked Lunch, Queer, Junky, Howl, Kaddish, Memory Babe, The Town and the City...just being near the stuff connects me to my core.

Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I visit the Beat Museum.  It’s a place where I can talk with other obsessive beatniks about the minutia of Beat life.  I also chat with folks who come in off the street, come in from all over the world, really.  Some know their shit while others are taking their first Beat-baby steps.  I love introducing Kerouac to a new generation of readers and fellow road-trippers.

Last week I had nowhere to stay and no money for a hotel and I didn’t want to bug Louise or Allison Davis or anyone I knew and what I really wanted to do anyway was beg Jerry Cimino, owner of the Beat Museum, to let me spend the night in the museum.  Yes, IN the museum.  I’ve known Jerry for a couple years now, ever since he introduced me to the San Francisco beat cop who would become my main source for research on BEAT, my sequel to BOULEVARD

Jerry, being the cool cat that he is, let me stay.  I slept in a period chaise-lounge beside a jacket once owned by Kerouac, in front of a collection of one hundred copies of On the Road translated into 25 different languages.  I was like a Beat Generation centerpiece.  I was like a Kerouac collectible. 

 

(Yes, I slept here)

 

(Right next to Jack Kerouac’s jacket)

 

(Next to 100 copies of On The Road from around the world)

 

It was a Friday night and the world outside the museum walls was a-rockin’.  I was in the center of North Beach and from inside the museum I could hear the wild raucous live music of nearby clubs, the screaming and yelling and laughter of twenty-somethings let loose for the weekend, the crash of beer bottles, the sirens from police cars and ambulances, the hushed sounds of hoodlums smoking pot just outside the door, the call of barkers from Big Al’s strip club across the alley.  And me, stepping softly barefoot on the wood floor, looking at photos of Kerouac and the gang, reading titles from their books, letting their history engulf me.  I felt like a bridge between the San Francisco of their era and the San Francisco that screamed and danced on the other side of the wall.

It doesn’t get much better than that for a Beat junkie.  Except maybe to lie down on Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Which I’ve done.  Twice. 

Jerry Cimino also honored me last year when he let me have my San Francisco launch of BOULEVARD at the museum.  This year will be even better, since I’m launching BEAT, which is set in San Francisco, from the Beat Museum, the night before Bouchercon.

Can you beat that?

Serendipity.

When I saw Jerry last week I read a section of my book to him, which includes the following lines:  “They passed the Beat Museum with its mural of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady standing arm-in-arm.  Hayden saw a man inside waving a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl before a group of Japanese tourists.”

When I asked Jerry to send me a few photos for this blog, he sent me this one, which was taken at an event two years ago…

Come on now.  I knew nothing of this event.  The book I referenced in my excerpt could have been anything, I could’ve written that he was waving a copy of On the Road or Naked Lunch.  I could’ve said the tourists were from Sweden.

Is this a sign of some sort?  Am I supposed to drop everything and move to San Francisco, work the register at the Beat Museum for the rest of my life?

When you’re channeled into the Beat thing, well, shit like this just happens.  I invite you all to join the ride.  Get on the bus.  Drink the Kool-Aid.

Beat On.

Everyone who’s going to Bouchercon is invited to join me at the Beat Museum for the SF launch of BEAT on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, at 7:00 pm.  We’re going to have a nice crowd of Bouchercon attendees, and we’ll hit the North Beach restaurants and bars directly thereafter.  Special Guest Kim Dower (Kim-from-LA) will be reading from her newly published book of poetry as well.  Kim is a wonderful poet and the Beat Museum is a perfect venue for her. 

And next week BOULEVARD comes out in trade paperback, with a fancy-schmanztie new cover.  Tell the friends, and thanks!

 

PHOTO CREDITS:  beat-museum-front.jpg  –  “Helder Ribeiro”  Site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/obvio171/3261609437/
chaise-lounge.jpg  –  “Sara Stell”  Site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scorpiosphynx/3770357809/in/photostream/
jacks-jacket.jpg –  The Beat Museum
jerry-talking-to-students.jpg  –  Sean Stewart  Site: http://babylonfalling.com/blog/?p=251

42 thoughts on “BEAT ON

  1. anonymous

    I have Jack Kerouac’s redwood coffee table from Big Sur that he gave to Herb Caen and Caen gave to a friend and I bought it at that man’s estate sale when he died. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah

    Now I know who to pass it on to if I ever let it go……………

    Reply
  2. anonymous

    Just a note: I really liked this post. It was written like beat poetry.

    After I read it through I read it again. I have this thing where I read a post paragraph by paragraph ……from the bottom up. I don’t know how to explain it but it worked well in reverse. Sort of like reading a score backwards.

    I’m nutz. But it was a lovely post.

    Reply
  3. anonymous

    When you become rich and famous and your books are turned into movies and TV series and you are on Oprah and Larry King, I will give it to you. But you will have to be nice to me. If you turn into an arrogant rock star prick I will set fire to it in front of you.

    ; – }

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for your kind words, Anon – means a lot to me.
    And, I almost want to turn into an arrogant rock star prick, just to see you light fire to the coffee table.
    But, alas, it’ll never happen. I’ll always be nice to you.

    Reply
  5. Chuck

    Hi Stephen:

    You need to meet my friend Mike. He thinks he is Jack Kerouac, and speaks the way Jack wrote. Kinda scary.

    Speaking of scary, I finished Boulevard a few weeks back. Yowza bro, what a read! I had to shower each time I put it down, which was never easy to do. GREAT JOB!!!

    Best,

    Chuck D.

    Reply
  6. Cornelia Read

    Stephen, this was such a great adult version The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (where the runaway kids sleep in the Met), but of course way cooler. And of course now I have ANOTHER great reason to attend Bcon this year–awesome!

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chuck – great to hear from you again, my friend. I should publish a waterproof version of Boulevard so people can keep reading while they shower. Actually, the greatest compliment I’ve ever received came from a good friend of mine. He said that, after he finished Boulevard, he had to take a shower, then go to the beach and meditate.

    Cornelia – please, do come to B-con! I want you in the party!

    Reply
  8. Rae

    Sounds like great fun, Stephen! I’m hoping I can escape long enough on Wednesday night to join the party….

    By the way, North Beach is featuring prominently in Bouchercon this year, as well it should, given its fabulous literary history and overall coolness. We’ll have more info on our blog this weekend, and in upcoming newsletters.

    Reply
  9. James Scott Bell

    Hey Stephen, Kerouac was an early influence on me, too. I think you hit it, these cats "lived." Like in that famous Roman candle passage in OTR. I liked when Kerouac, on a talk show near his end, said Beat was for "Beatitude," the search for it. He was on a spiritual journey, like we all are. It’s sad that he fell to the booze. Part of that was his "failure" to live up to the image everyone had of him; another part that his whole idea of beatitude was, he felt, misused and misunderstood by the hippies. Have you read "Angelheaded Hipster" by Steve Turner?

    Also, for anyone considering the audio of OTR, get the unabridged version read by Matt Dillon. A perfect blend of material and actor.

    Reply
  10. PK the Bookeemonster

    What is that triggers our obsessions? When I was in high school I was obsessed with the Beatles (this was the 80s) and wanted to be a flower child. Of course, my vision of being a flower child was romantic and cleaned up, very far from the reality I’m sure.
    And there may be some of the younger generation who looks upon the 80s as a time they wished they had participated in (why I don’t know but play along with me here) and those (like me) who were in it will shrug and say it was just daily life, nothing special.
    I have an interest now in Elizabethan times — collect books on it — and the Founding Fathers.

    Reply
  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, Rob!

    Jim – I remember Jack’s comment about "Beatitude," was that when he was interviewed by William F. Buckley? I thought he also mentioned it on the Steve Allen Show. It makes the word "Beat" that much more poignant. That’s another reason I used it for the title of my book – for its many different meanings. In the book, Hayden is beat, he’s beaten, he’s beaten up, he beats himself up, he’s on the beat, he’s in the city of the Beats, he beats off. The title is approppos.
    I haven’t read "Angelheaded Hipsters," though I’ve read the Ann Charters and Gerald Nicosio biographies. It’s been a while since I went on a Kerouac binge…no time, too many new mystery books to read. It’s sad, that Kerouac was expected to live up to the image he was marketed as. Same thing with Neal Cassady, as I’m sure you know. Imagine how hard it must have been to be Dean Moriarity for the rest of your life? For every fan that showed up at your door? They really got lost in it.
    Man, I could talk about this ALL DAY.

    Reply
  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    PK – I think the period I wish I could have experienced was the 60s. It speaks to me the most. I would’ve loved to have traveled the country in Ken Kesey’s psychodelic bus, with Neal Cassady at the wheel, visitng Timothy Leary, dropping acid at Grateful Dead concerts, or "Happenings." I wish I could’ve seen CSNY play Judy Blue Eyes live at Woodstock. I wish I was in the Haight during the protests. Instead, I caught the tail end of the 70s, which was cool, but spent most of my youth in the 80s, which was just blah.

    Reply
  13. Mike Dennis

    Very impassioned post, Stephen. You let it all out, just as you should have, just as Kerouac would have, were he writing about a favorite place of his.

    Great job, man.

    Reply
  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brett – it was very, very cool. Except that all the exhibits came to life at midnight. Kinda freaked me out a bit.
    Can’t wait to see you at the launch!

    Reply
  15. Spencer Seidel

    Hey Stephen — Great post! You’ve inspired me to add a few of these titles to my TBR (again) list. AND, you know I’m going to be listening to some hardcore bebop while I read them. Nothing else would work quite right, I think.

    I had a similar obsession with Frank Zappa years ago, but as far as I can tell he wasn’t much of a writer or reader. Helluva guitar player, tho. Oh well πŸ™‚

    Reply
  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    You couldn’t have promised it, Louise, but I bet you would’ve supplied it. Next time, when there’s a little more time.

    Reply
  17. mary lynn

    I was a teenager in high school when I found Ferlinghetti and just had to memorize some of his poems for my joy in them.

    Great post Stephen. Thinking about trying to get to Buchercon, now.

    Reply
  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    By train, plane or bus, Mary Lynn. Or, in the spirit of the Beats, you could hitch-hike.

    Reply
  19. lil Gluckstern

    Man, can you write! Alas, I am of age and can’t come to B’con or your launch, but your book will find its way to me. I read the Beats when i was an impressionable teenager, and it seemed exactly as you said. They lived! And they said what was happening without being processed in some green room. I think California seemed like an exotic foreign country to me. Now that I live near SF I see that it many ways it is, and some of it isn’t. I’ve already applauded "Boulevard," and much luck with "Beat."

    Reply
  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for the kind words, Lil! I wish you could join us in SF for the launch and Bouchercon alike. I hope you enjoy "Beat."

    Reply
  21. JM

    A night at the museum?! Hell yal!!! I especially like that your limited options took you there. The universe has a funny way of getting us to where we really ought to be. You live life beautifully my man….

    Reply
  22. anonymous

    By the way………..the Big Sur coffee table is almost long enough to sleep on………legs might hang over a tad.

    Waiting for BEAT. (Tap, tap, tap goes the sandal) Couple more months. I’m buying a copy and I want it signed with ‘personal’ …….so start thinking of what you are going to say…….I don’t even care if it is rude. In fact…….rude would be funny and unique…..something ‘Beatish’…….would make the book worth more ultimately. !!!! (Oh My God!! Grandma had a copy of Stephen Jay Schwartz’s BEAT !!! and it’s SIGNED !!!! She must have actually KNOWN him. WOW. Grandma was way cool.)

    ; – }

    Reply
  23. anonymous

    (Next chapter) Yeah. Grandma was cool. Look at the collection of Berkeley Barbs she saved from 1964-69! These are great!!!! Pot, Protests, Pigs, LSD…..Man, too bad she set fire to that awesome coffee table in ’11. That would have made a mad old school game console.

    No kidding, Stephen. You ever need late 60’s culture research…….I got original Barbs in all their glory. Wonderful stuff. I already told Cornelia the lending library is open.

    Shabbat Shalom Boogaloo All

    Reply
  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Anon – I’ll take some of that vintage LSD off your hands. And, damn, grandma was waaaay cool.

    Reply
  25. anonymous

    You’re post was a Friday’s stone groove, Man.

    Peace

    (Google Berkeley Barb. I’ll send you some political excerpts which will serve you better than the mind expanding drugs.)

    Orange Sunshine WAS amazing…..but there was a terrible dark side to it……….violence, crime and gangs…………..fodder for a wonderful historical mystery by a guy who is hung up on 60s culture?

    Reply
  26. anonymous

    My "You’re" typo reminds me of a funny website posted by Spenser Seidel today on his blog. It was the ‘worst self-help book title’ awards which Spencer took fourth place in or thereabouts. The one I am referencing is by @realsmivey: Do It You’re Self: A Guide To Self-Publishing

    Check out Spencer’s blog. http://www.spencerseidel.com/

    Also. My daughter is in London and has watched the "NEW" Sherlock BBC production which I think is being picked up by PBS for us in the near future. My daughter said she LOVED it……..but then she is all things Sherlock these days after Robert Downey Jr. did his kung fu dancing to Celtic music. Sigh. ; – }

    Reply
  27. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Fantastic article, Amit! I read it quickly, but I intend to re-read it this week when I can give it the time it deserves.

    Reply
  28. Mike

    Cool stuff. I spent about 2 hours in the Beat Museum a few weeks ago during my first trip to San Francisco. It (the museum & SF too for that matter!) really does feel very welcoming and livable. The museum was one of the best parts of my whole trip. On my way in to the exhibit I was talking to one of the curators of the museum (not Jerry Cimino) and mentioned how, being more of an art buff, I couldn't help but draw a comparison between Jack Kerouak and my favorite Abstract Expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. And even as I'm typing this, I also just noticed how similar their names are! I felt a little bit like a fool when the first thing I saw as I walked in to the exhibit was a very good imitation of a Pollock painting. Talk about OBVIOUS!!!

    Reply

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