Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Confessions of a Running Junkie

[UPDATE, April 2022: this post is more about my running fixation than my health, but just recently I had a CT scan of my heart and learned I have signs of atherosclerosis (calcium plaque in my arteries) and unless I take steps I could have a heart attack. I thought my diet was good, but maybe not. Although both my parents lived long lives, it could also be heredity. Anyway, regular exercise and low cholesterol levels are not necessarily a guarantor of a healthy heart. I urge everyone when they get older to have a heart CT scan. They only cost about $100 and could make a big difference.]

Last week I donated blood.  The Blood Center folks always check vital signs before inserting the needle.  For the third visit in a row after taking my vital signs, the nurse had to phone the doctor to “clear me.”

Although my blood pressure was slightly high (blame coffee, age, and Washington D.C.), that wasn’t the issue.  It was my pulse: only 44 beats per minute.  Halfway to dead.  A minimum pulse of 50 is required to donate.

Before phoning the phantom doctor, the nurse tried to get it up.  “Think of something exciting,” she instructed me.  So of course I concentrated on hardcore sex.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after taking my pulse a second time.  “It actually went down.”

Fortunately, my visit to the bloodsuckers wasn’t wasted, because Dr. Mysterioso “cleared me” after hearing that I was a daily runner.  Evidently runners and other athletes have lower heart rates.

This latest longitudes yammer isn’t to puff myself up.  No athlete am I.  Like my man Lou Reed, I’m just an Average Guy.  But running is a big part of my life, as you’ll soon see.

Back in high school, inspired by running icons like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, I ran cross-country for one season.  Then in college I got sidetracked with my studies: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  (The sex part was a distant third.)  Then I continued my studies while living the single life in Florida, but also began jogging along the beach.  I needed to work off the cheap beer from the previous weekend. 

I didn’t commence a regular jogging routine until 1992 at age 34.  I’d been laboring several years at a strenuous outdoors job, then suddenly found myself behind a desk doing sedentary work.  This abrupt venue change triggered some long-suppressed anxieties.  Then the anxieties triggered depression. 

Running helped lessen my mental struggles.  I found that—once I dragged myself out of the recliner and stepped outside—the sustained cardiovascular activity provided by running helped me escape the inside of my head.  And during the in-between times, the bleak moments weren’t quite so bleak.

Therapy and benzodiazepines also played a role, but there’s no doubt running helped pull me out of my deepening funk.

In 1993 I got hired by a company that co-sponsored a popular local road race: the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon.  I’d been jogging regularly now for a while, so I registered.  This race was the turning point.  It was like a giant party without the booze.  And instead of a hangover afterwards, I experienced the oft-cited “runner’s high.”  I had so much fun running those 9.3 miles downtown, I began doing smaller 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles).  Then 10K races.  Then marathons (26.2 miles).

At this stage—before age began chipping away at my testosterone level and male ego—speed was paramount.  Pushing myself to set PRs became a minor hobby.  Sometimes, the night before a race, I dreamt of being pulled by a giant conveyor belt strapped around my waist.  (And sometimes I was sprawled on the edge of the freeway and clawing gravel with my hands.)

My speed peak arrived in 1998 at age 40 when I qualified for the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of road races.  In Boston the following year I set a personal best time of 3:11 (three hours, eleven minutes). 

After Newport (RI) Marathon, October 2013 (photo by Mom)

My times soon slowed, but the marathons continued.   Altogether I’ve run 32 marathons in 22 different states.  (It would have been more, but I had two multi-year marathon layoffs due to back trouble…probably running-related.)

These days I average about 18 miles a week.  This includes an eight-mile run every Saturday morning on the nearby Little Miami River Scenic Trail, where I’ve co-adopted a four-mile segment.  I supplement my volunteer hours by scooping up litter that the fair-weather slobs have discarded.

My weeknight runs are two miles through my neighborhood.  This is also social time.  My wife asked me recently, “How did you get to know this person?”  I told her to join me on a run and I’d show her how.  (She declined.)

Running is my TM and yoga combined; it strengthens both my body and brain.  I can’t imagine what my BP reading would be without it.  Also, as with mountain backpacking, I like the outdoors solitude.  I get a lot of writing ideas while running alone.  The first few paragraphs of this essay came while running along Little Miami.

There have been occasions when I couldn’t run, such as after breaking my ankle in 1995, or after surgery in 2019.  The sudden indolence actually brought on physical withdrawal.

So that’s where the “running junkie” in the title comes from.  It’s an addiction.  I realize running isn’t for everyone.  Some people can’t run due to bad knees or back or other health constraint.  Others, like my brother, claim running is “boring.”  Some have exercise alternatives like walking, bicycling, swimming, or weightlifting…all good. 

Still others enjoy massaging their gluteus maximus with a recliner cushion.  Hey, I figure if you remain undistracted, that’s good too.  In these digital-compulsive days, doing absolutely nothing is vastly underrated.  As we say on the Appalachian Trail, Hike Your Own Hike.  As we said in the Sixties, Do Your Own Thing

My thing is running.  See you on the sidewalk.

A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

February was a somber month for fans of the progressive rock music genre.  Both Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum died.  Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims a jaundiced eye at progressive rock (fondly called “prog rock” or just “prog”), this music coincided with my hormones becoming jumpy and has enhanced my life. 

Brooker was the lead singer and main arranger in Procol Harum, and multi-instrumentalist McDonald was the chief musical force behind King Crimson’s first and best album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.  (He later helped start Foreigner.  For me, that’s like going from champagne to club soda.)

Prog rock might loosely be defined as music that evolved from Sixties psychedelic and that mixed straight rock with classical, jazz, folk, ambient sounds, or tape looping, often with an English or European veneer.  Arrangements became longer and more complex than previously, and lyrics—if there were any—flowed with florid poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and the mythological.  Electric guitar was still prominent, but keyboards, Mellotron, brass, woodwinds, and strings became equally important. 

Debate continues as to when and where prog began, but I date it to the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed album and Procol Harum’s grandiose single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” both from the year 1967.

Prog fell out of fashion starting in the mid-1970s.  The biggest groups, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, began overreaching themselves.  Punk rock also helped deflate the balloon, with its return to short, fast-paced songs and simple chords and lyrics.  Today, there’s a small but enthusiastic cult of prog-rock fans who help keep the flame burning. Most of them, like me, have thick eyeglass lenses and thinning hair.

In honor of Messrs. McDonald and Brooker, here are my 15 favourite progressive rock albums, in order of increasing obscurity. (Note my British spelling of “favorite.”):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973).  A powerful album, musically and lyrically, and a sonic wet dream that no respectable record collection should be without.  A rock-music masterpiece. If you’re a young person, DO NOT listen to this album with the songs digitally splintered up. It flows, like a river.

Genesis, Foxtrot (1972) or Selling England By The Pound (1973).  Peter Gabriel was still the focal point of Genesis at this time, especially onstage.  Early Genesis emphasized melody and were like a musical version of Lewis Carroll, which is why I love them.

Emerson Lake & Palmer, Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970).  THE supergroup of prog, with a sinister and heavy edge. Keith Emerson had fronted the Nice, Greg Lake was King Crimson’s original singer, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer was with hard rockers Atomic Rooster.  ELP’s first four studio albums are prog classics.

King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969).  Some say true prog-rock started here.  Guitarist Robert Fripp was the only constant in the ever-changing Crimson, but arranger Ian McDonald is all over this stunning debut, which Pete Townshend of the Who called “an uncanny masterpiece.”

Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly (1968) or A Salty Dog (1969).  Why Procol isn’t in that museum in Cleveland is, well, “beyond these things.” Procol has a sound all its own. Imagine Mary Shelley married to Howlin’ Wolf. These two classic LPs feature guitar-god Robin Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.  (I saw him four times and my ears still ring.)

Renaissance, Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance, Turn Of The Cards (1974).  Renaissance came closer to a straight classical sound than any other prog band.  Lead singer Annie Haslam has a voice like a bell. Notable song on this LP: the timely ”Mother Russia.” I also recommend Ashes Are Burning.

Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971).  Led by histrionic vocalist Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf was more dark and apocalyptic than other English prog bands.  Pawn Hearts was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.

Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971).  Caravan was part of the “Canterbury Scene,” which grew out of a musical collective in Kent called Wilde Flowers.  The Canterbury Scene musicians were more ingenuous and witty than their non-Canterbury peers.  Serious prog fans know of them; why others do not is as mysterious as why David Crosby is still alive.

Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969) or Third (1970).  The first Canterbury band to record, they got their hallucinogenic start at Joe Boyd’s underground club UFO along with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Volume Two is more psych-sounding, while Third is a double album of very heavy prog.

Kevin Ayers, Joy Of A Toy (1969).  A founder of Soft Machine along with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen (Gong).  Some Ayers fans think his third album, Whatevershebringswesing, is his best.  It’s excellent, but I prefer this solo debut, more whimsical and psychedelic than most prog, and with shorter songs.

Egg, Egg (1970) or The Polite Force (1971).  An organ-dominated three-piece (no guitars!) with a Goth sound not unlike ELP’s.  Bass player and singer Hugo Montgomery (Mont) Campbell wrote most of their best music.  They’re on the fringes of the Canterbury Scene, so they have to be good.

McDonald and Giles, McDonald And Giles (1970).  Very under-appreciated spinoff from King Crimson.  Crimson lost its melodic element when Ian McDonald split, taking inventive percussionist Michael Giles with him.  If you love Crimson’s first album (see above), you must get this, which continues the pastoral side of Crimson.

Curved Air, Second Album (1971).  Critics didn’t like this band much, but their second album is quite good, very dreamlike.  Key musicians were singer Sonja Kristina and violinist Darryl Way.  A later lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police.  (He and Kristina married.)

Jade Warrior, Floating World (1974).  A two-man group, their all-instrumental albums on Island Records are the best, with lots of Oriental flourishes.  Both Kites and Waves are also good, the latter with Steve Winwood guesting on ivories.

Gryphon, Gryphon (1973).  This unique and obscure band once opened shows for Yes.  Their musical zeitgeist were the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and they played every instrument in the cosmos.  (Ever hear of a crumhorn?)  I prefer the eponymous debut to their other records because it has playful lyrics and vocals.

***

Why no albums by Yes, some of you ask?  Good question.  Yes might be prog’s signature group.  I liked Yes in high school and college, especially the Close To The Edge album.  Maybe I became oversaturated with their music, plus I discovered lesser-known artists who intrigued me much more.  I will admit, they were masters of their respective instruments.  But these days, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I just like a good song.

There are many other progressive rock groups, most of them British: Moody Blues, Nice, Hawkwind, Family, Strawbs, Colosseum, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Eno, Phil Manzanera/801, Gentle Giant, Electric Light Orchestra (which evolved from the Move), Barclay James Harvest, Camel, and Canterbury offshoots like Daevid Allen/Gong, Steve Hillage, Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, and National Health. 

Germany produced denser, more machine-like bands (not surprisingly): Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust, Can, and Amon Düül. 

Italy had Premiata Formeria Marconi (P.F.M.).

France spouted Magma (and Gong lived communally in France).

Holland had Focus, featuring guitarist Jan Akkerman.

Japan had Stomu Yamashta and Far East Family Band.

North America produced Kansas, Styx, and Happy the Man (all U.S.) and Audience (Canada). 

Johnny-come-lately progressive rockers include Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Alan Parsons Project, Kate Bush, Sky, Marillion (a Genesis clone), Klaatu, Starcastle, Porcupine Tree, supergroups U.K. and Asia, and Rush, who began as a hard-rock trio.

Some folks consider Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Frank Zappa to be progressive rock, though I might question that categorization.  Same thing with “glam” bands like Roxy Music, Queen, and David Bowie.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Lindisfarne might be classified as prog, but I’ve always considered them English folk rock. 

Did I leave any out?  What are some of your favorite progressive rock bands?

Lastly, thanks for the music, Ian and Gary. Here’s a prog-rock taste test: a demo of King Crimson’s beautiful “I Talk to the Wind,” written by McDonald and lyricist Pete Sinfield. The singer is Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention. (Greg Lake would soon replace her in Crimson.)