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> The Melody of Words - Jack Kerouac: From Bebop to Punk <
Published on 6/19/2007 By Aleksander Sienkiewicz

To be an artist is to cross the boundaries. More. It is not to see the limits whatsoever. It is to cast for the means to express oneself everywhere and not to fear to trespass the forbidden or uncharted zones for the sake of ingenuity. It is not to seek the inspiration, but to know how to take hold of it when it appears, and how to translate it into the language of art. Ingenuity and inspiration - these are the key words to understand the heart of art. There is a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism, between ingenuity and tautology. To be an artist, again, is to know just where the right balance is. But what does this mean, to express oneself? Of all plausible glosses, it does seem particularly justified to state that it means nothing else than to drag the within into the outside, and, however oxymoronic might it sound, to shape and embody the emotions. This is the point where further clarification is necessary: according to the dictionary, emotion is an instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge. Emotion, therefore, becomes an antinomy of reason, hence it cannot be bound by any constraints or restrictions as an outcome of ratiocination. Since art as it is reflects emotions, no frontiers can be imposed on it. No frontiers of contents. No frontiers of aim. No frontiers of form. It is not the matter of crossing the borders if there are none. Not only is it the matter of reflecting soul in a form that an artist reckons would be appropriate and feels confident with. It is the matter of daring a journey into an uncharted area that an artist themselves or anyone else has never been before. Some might say that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. True. But what if an artist wishes to incorporate a bit of a foreign ground into their own dominion ? What if a writer does not actually want to talk about music but to make his words sound like one? A great, wide open field of originality suddenly stretches before them and invites for exploration. Those who choose to enter this field, get a gift of opportunity to change the literature the same way as the composers who did not fear to broaden their horizons changed the music. More: they get a chance to, if not influence, outrun and predict the development of music. One of such writers, who not only sowed the seed of music in his magnum opus, "On the Road", but also outran and inadvertently supported the development of musical genres was Jack Kerouac.

It is an undisputable fact that Kerouac's "On the Road" was written under heavy influence of jazz (Janssen), just as perhaps was whole American beat literature. In order to understand this, we need to walk back to the very beginning of the movement and focus on its mere name. The beat generation took its own name from nowhere else than jazz slang, where the word "beat" would mean down and out, while at the same time it refers to a main accent or rhythmic unit in music or poetry. This might have been the obvious musical innuendo which evoked Kerouac's paradoxical connotation of "beat" with "beatific", "upbeat" - surely enough, meaning optimistic but also, again, refering to music as an unaccented beat preceding an accented beat - and "on the beat", one more time denoting a sensation of tiredness along with uncontrolled, improvised performance of live music. Such was the generation's fascination with jazz, that, as J. C. Holmes ( Janssen) states, "It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life, a way of walking, a language and a costume; [...]", whereas J. A. Maynard ( Janssen) adds that what they fervently worshipped was artistic [musical] spontaneity. Here again one is getting back to being "on the beat" as a spontaneous and continuous act of creation, something sensually imperceptible, yet at the same time instinctively discerned. Jack Kerouac ( Janssen) couldn't therefore explain it any other way than "You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz, real cool jazz". And he did feel it indeed.

"On the Road" is full of jazz, it seethes with beat, spontaneity pours out of it and draws the reader in just as the jazz jam draws the listener. Jazz music, especially that of bebop subgenre, which is said to have influenced the beat writers the most, does not show much preoccupation with the idea of form or composition as a fixed recipe of consequent constituents which eventually lead to creation of an orderly whole (Andrews). On the contrary, the whole has to subdue to the moment, to the current development of harmony and each individual part may, but does not necessarily have to relate to the subsequent part. Bebop therefore relies rather on complex improvisation than melody and imposed structure, becoming an incarnation of the raggedy spirit, roughly sewn together by a ragtime, yet unkempt rhythm. To appropriate the modernist nomenclature, this needs to be named a stream of musical consciousness, an idea which evidently appealed to Kerouac so much that he simply applied it to his writing. The style itself, the bop prosody of "On the Road" (Janssen) is submerged in the stream of consciousness, sentences are chopped, words rapidly spat out, scarcely and often erroneously punctuated, and the whole seems to have never been revised, just as though what was written down had instantly been left alone. Kerouac himself explained his method of writing by saying " No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)" (Kerouac). The book is reported to have been written in only three weeks in a burst of artistic trance, on one, long scroll of teletype paper which Kerouac used not to break his stream of consciousness (ABC, NPR). The master copy of the roll has no margins, no paragraph breaks. Combined with the frayed language, it gives a clear impression of one, long literary jam. Like bebop. This jazzness of Kerouac, however, has to tackle one significant matter: the very act of creation followed seven years of his travels (Asher), during which he would note down everything that crossed his mind in tiny notebooks that he would always carry with him. It is also reported that Kerouac had spent a whole lot of time on tedious preparation before his creativity eventually exploded. How does this refer to the idea of jazz-ish improvisation and, as Allen Ginsberg ( Janssen) called it, "First thought, best thought" method of writing? One cannot become a musician of pure coincidence. The genius is inborn, but unless cultivated it will vanish. There cannot be an improvisation if it is not preceded by insipid arrangements and excercise. One must know how to play the instrument before they are able to charm the audience. Kerouac's instrument is words, so before he could immerse in the stream of his consciousness he had to know how to do this and how not to drown in it. And this still was the jam.

Kerouac's jazzness is tri-dimensional. First and foremost, he incorporates the characteristics of music into his writing style. Then he introduces onomatopoeias, from very simple, like "Ah! Hmm! Wow!" to complex representations of melody and singing.

"He does and says anything that comes into his head. He'll sing 'Cement Mixer, Put-ti Put-ti' and suddenly slow down the beat and brood over his bongos with fingertips barely tapping the skin as everybody leans forward breathlessly to hear; [...] Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, 'Great-orooni ... fine-ovauti ... hello-orooni ... bourbon-orooni ... all-orooni ... how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni ... orooni ... vauti ... oroonirooni ..." He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can't hear." (Kerouac, 102)

With the term of bop prosody having been created, several excerpts of the book, if not require, deserve another term: literary impressionism. Just as the impressionist painters depict the visual impression on the moment with their brushes and paints, Kerouac uses words to portray the very moment he senses music. Finally, he actually writes about jazz and bebop:

"Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and subtlety--leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie--Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night." (Kerouac, 139)

The excerpt quoted here seems profoundly interesting also by reason of another issue: it acts as an example of the jazz-ish style. Should one take a closer look at the structure, they will instantly notice the formal structure. First sentence does not draw attention at all, whereas the second one sparks a little attraction, since it introduces a micro-scale, musical, even symphonical approach - to start with an idea, then make an u-turn, explore an area vaguely connected with an initial one and then make an u-turn again and return to the beginning. The preludium. And then the explosion comes. Two long, improvised, chaotic yet virtuosic journeys through the explored matter - a perfect example of the stream of consciousness. The interludium. Should it not be the place where the postludium comes to conclude the piece, to soothe the reader and return to the point of beginning? It certainly should, but provided this is not bebop. Here the whole smphony of words is just cut, as if the musician suddenly changed his mind and his mood for jam was gone as unexpectedly as it had appeared.

The middle of the 1960's saw the demise of the beat movement (BBC). The apolitical beatniks had to give in to politically active, blatantly anti-establishment, not-that-distant descendants: the hippies. The psychedelic hippie movement inherited a whole lot from the beat generation. This still was a counterculture. It acted against: against the Vietnam war, against consumerism. It shocked, it stuck to its own law, it was rooted in tiredness. It acted into the within and into the outside, influenced and was influenced itself, created its own rules and standards. Its growing popularity, however, lead to a paradoxical situation: those, who had initially boasted of being outlaw and out of the mainstream became the convention. The beat art, which in itself might be considered the crème de la crème, took its eliteness from jazz. What the hippie movement did adopt was the style, the coolness and freedom of the beatniks. What it rejected, however, was jazz. The voice of the generation was to become completely different: rock, the enfant terrible of blues, the genre polarily distant from jazz. Whereas jazz has always focused on virtuosity, freeform and improvisation, blues preserved the structure (twelve- or sixteen-bar), the groove and the rhythm (usually 4/4) as the main characteristics of a musical piece (PBS). The great mystery of music is that liberal jazz is in fact conservative - it has not changed a lot throughout its history in its purest form. Its greatest challenger, the conservative blues, has on the other hand proved to be extremely liberal, fertile and open, having created rock 'n' roll, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and countless other "voices of the generation". However psychedelic, stunning, jazz-ish the performances of rock artists may seem, they always bear the seed of fixed-note, composition-wise, structural blues within. It certainly has a beat, but it is not the beat, it is a beat of different kind, in-your-face, imposed by force, with nothing of the subtle delicateness and impalpability of the jazz beat. If it had been blues which inspired Kerouac, would "On the Road" have been written? Yes, perhaps, but indubitably it would have been different than we know it. The beat had to wait another decade to revive, even though in a slightly changed form...

People gathered at the gates of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, in the cold, rainy evening of 6 November 1975 probably had no idea that Jack Kerouac's spirit was just about to reincarnate again (Taylor). The band at the backstage perhaps had no idea either. More - they must have had no idea that very soon they would become one of the most important and influential punk bands in history. The Sex Pistols. It wasn't that they created punk. It had been developing for some time already in the UK and in the USA, and bands like The Misfits or Hawkwind had made some progress at that time. But the punk explosion was on its way to come. Slowly evolving under the ever-mighty, overwhelming ground of rock, it was like a cancer - barely giving any signs of existence, suddenly bursted out and started devouring the tissue that had covered it for such a long time. Punk was rebel-wise. Mutinous. Broke ties with every musical convention ever invented. It had no melody, it had no structure, it had no aim and no boundaries of form. It was down and out. Pure expression of the soul, mutant reincarnation of musical impressionism. It had the beat, the one that needs to be felt, again, and the soul of bebop was back, again, reborn in another world and in another time. And if anyone of the audience that day had ever read "On the Road" before, a thought or two might have crossed their minds - that they seemed to know the feeling of the beat inside, the feeling of being dragged and drawn by the stream of consciousness. And yes, had Jack Kerouac been born at that time and let himself be inspired by the punk, his masterpiece would still have had got the beat. Still the words would have rattled from the paper like bullets from the machine gun barrel. Still it would scorch ahead at full speed and brake abruptly, just to scratch his tires and make his engine choke and retch and screech again, as though he wanted to smell the smoke coming out of the bulging pistons underneath the hood. Still he would conduct his orchestra in a mad fury, playing his symphony of rebellion and dissent. Still no one would sway to the rhythm, only listen in disbelief and amazement. And the symphony would go on in a frantic stupor. It would have got the beat.

Had the beat generation never appeared, jazz probably would have carried on as we know it anyway. Had "On the Road" never been written, perhaps none of the great jazz artists would have bothered. But luckily enough, the peak of bebop and emergence of the beat generation converged at the same place and at the same time. This was not a marriage. Not even a relationship. This was a blind fascination instead. According to M. Janssen "Many Beats used heroin, Benzedrine and other drugs in adulation of the jazz musicians which used them, hoping that the drugs would do for them what they supposedly did for greats like Parker". But as such fascination would usually end up in fatal conclusion, this one, fortunately again, gave the world the masterpiece of "On the Road". The masterpiece which gives the reader a unique sensation of not only reading the book, but also contemplating the music - music which does not necessarily mean sheer melody, but is a means to reflect own thoughts and soul, music which adds something more to pure words, which enriches them and at the same time acts as a silent accompaniment. This is the beauty of the beat. This is to be an artist - to beautify and beatify, and not to be afraid to go into a terre nouvelle.


. Andrews, John, What bebop meant to jazz history - A comment on a recently-published history of the birth of a significant jazz form, bebop; 1998,; entry date: 5.31.06
. Asher, Levi, Jack Kerouac; 2001;; entry date: 5.30.06
. Janssen, Mike, The influence of jazz on the beat generation;; entry date: 5.30.06
. Kerouac, Jack, Essentials of spontaneous prose (Kerouac on sponteaneity);; entry date: 5.30.2006
. Kerouac, Jack, On the Road; New York, Viking Press, 1959
. Taylor, Craig, A rotten remory; 2005;; entry date: 5.31.06
. 'On the Road' manusc*r*i*p*t piece on display - San Francisco Library will display part of Jack Kerouac's 120-foot 'On the Road' manusc*r*i*p*t; 2005;; entry date: 5.29.06
. The beat generation; 2002;; entry date: 5.30.06
. Understanding the twelve-bar blues;; entry date: 5.29.06

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