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Arts and Entertainment

"Hey Jack Kerouac" in America's Loneliest City

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Someone very dear to me has recently developed the theory that the music we listened to at 17 is the music that stays with us all our lives, and has the most profound influence on us. When I was 17 I listened to 10,000 Maniacs virtually without pause; this was when their MTV Unpluggedalbum was released, which, as part of the popular televised series, features live acoustic renditions of many of their most popular songs, including "Hey Jack Kerouac" from their 1987 release In My Tribe. As many adolescents are inclined to do, I was eager to latch on to any offered strand of cultural definition in the hopes of locating the essence of identity (read: "find myself") I took Natalie Merchant's eloquent bait and purchased a copy of On the Road.

I may not have readily admitted this then, but I can now: Kerouac's spiraling prose and THC-laced musings about life, liberty, and women swirled over my naive head. This kind of writing was a far cry from the Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck, and Hawthorne my high school English teachers were pressing upon me, and even farther from the pocket book trash I devoured in my free time. But doggedly I took the literary journey with him, posturing, as those in my age category are wont to do, as someone cool, bohemian, intellectual. Very Dylan McKay of me. For all that escaped me in my self-enrolled "Intro to Beat Lit" course's first text, I am thankful that what On the Road did do was to turn me on to more of the great Jack's other--and better--works, and then, in retrospect, I can see that Road was like my user-friendly gateway drug to the work of Kerouac's contemporaries, like Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, and his successors, such as Bukowski, whom we here at LAist are also feting this week (see another LAist take on Jack here). And now, many years after my first reading, I can still connect to the text, although it's in a very different manner, and for different reasons.

Although Kerouac's roads lead predominantly to the urban hubs of the beats, New York and San Francisco, there is one segment of the novel that features our hero and his beloved gal Terry right here in the City of Angels, prompting him to remark that "LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities" and that "LA is a jungle." In this brief portion of the text the reader gets a rare literary glimpse at our city in the 1950s, and the pages work for me like a time capsule to a very much by-gone era. In just a few manic pages they stop at a Sunset & Vine drugstore, cruise a nefarious stretch of the seedy Hollywood Boulevard, and have a meal at one of the original Clifton's Cafeterias:

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"Terry and I ate in a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto, with metal tits spurting everywhere and great impersonal stone buttockeses belonging to deities and soapy Neptune."

Perhaps even more bittersweet to a contemporary audience aware of the plight of LA's public transit system might be the fact that in On the Road the travelers were able to hop a red car to the Santa Anita Racetrack, making the trek with ease all the way from Downtown. Somehow, reading just these passages makes 50 years seem like an awfully long time.My sentimental predilection for Kerouac and On the Road are what prompted me to start teaching the LA-excerpt in my own classrooms at CSULA, in a composition course on the theme of Los Angeles. Admittedly, it breaks my heart a little when I stare at a sea of faces of young people who have no idea who Kerouac or the entire Beat Generation are. I take a deep breath and try my best to explain. It makes me wonder what kind of music these recent 17-year olds are listening to, and whether they are being influenced to pick up books at all. I hope so. We talk about that tiny piece of the On the Road, and I try to market it just a little: "Hey, if you liked this little bit of the book, why not go get the whole book and read it? You just might like it."

What I don't suggest to them, or to anyone, is that On the Road just might change your life, like in some small way it did mine. Those are the discoveries you make on your own, made easier only when someone offers you something to hang on to. So I guess I should thank the 10,000 Maniacs and I know I should thank Jack Kerouac.

Happy 50th Anniversary, On the Road.

Excerpt from On the Road in Writing Los Angeles, David Ulin, Ed. (Library of America, 2002).