Rip this joint…

In 1972, the Rolling Stones, about to begin a larger than life, full-blown rock and roll journey across America, released what became one of their most important records—Exile on Main Street.  A mythic American landscape unreels in the music, like a deafening low-flying crop duster veering from one end of the continent to the other, a classic road trip worthy of Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty; one song alone referring to nine locations—points on Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s romantic mental map of the country.  Documenting the tour, along for a photographic ride on an always out-of-control tour jet, was an older man, eastern European in appearance, Robert Frank.  In 1956, he had published an important book of black and white photographs of an America few had seen in the placid postwar 1950s—The Americans.  Jack Kerouac wrote that book’s introduction.  He described Frank as “Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America and on to film…to Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”   Kerouac is the subterranean taproot between these two strange, savage trips through America.

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Torn and frayed

Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was, like Frank’s book, a sad poem and his spontaneous prose, a rhythmic “bop prosody” that is, like the best poetry, sound captured on the page. He told his Viking Press editor and early champion Malcolm Cowley, “If it isn’t spontaneous, right in the very sound of the mind, it can only be crafty and revised…the requirements for prose and verse are the same i.e. blow…let the writer open his mouth & Yap it like Shakespeare and get said what is only irrecoverably said once in time the way it comes, for time is of the essence.”  He took a lot of heat on spontaneous prose.  Truman Capote called it “typing, not writing.”  And indeed, a continuous pouring out of words and sounds, the conviction that “you’re always a genius” has its risks.

But by using simple, sturdy words, athletic and free-flowing, Kerouac produced passages like the following, that but for the insertion of line-endings, is aural, visionary excellence:

“We wheeled through the sultry old light of Algiers, back on the ferry, back toward the mud-splashed, crabbed old ships across the river, back on Canal, and out; on a two-lane highway to Baton Rouge in purple darkness; swung west there, crossed the Mississippi at a place called Port Allen. Port Allen—where the river’s all rain and roses in a misty pinpoint darkness and where we swung around a circular drive in yellow foglight and suddenly saw the great black body below a bridge and crossed eternity again. What is the Mississippi River?—a washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees, down along, down along by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orleans and Port of the Deltas, by Potash, Venice, and the Night’s Great Gulf, and out.”

That paragraph would not have been out of place during the first public reading of his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.  The percussive riffing; Port Allen, Port Allen, the alliterative river’s rain roses, down along, down along and the incantation of towns and cities, strung out like train stations on a beat up map, echoes forward to the Stones’ dope and tequila-sunrise fueled tune, a five hundred mile-an-hour race through the American continent, Rip This Joint.

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Improvisational speed is another aspect of Kerouac’s sound.  Like the sad, beat Hudson driven by Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s prose feels improvisational where involuntary thoughts, start-stop crazy notes, urgent gut-reactions form into velocity-driven sheets of word-sound:

“Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it: I’ve never seen a guy who could hold so long” I wanted to know what “IT” meant.  “Ah well”—Dean laughed—“now you’re asking me impon-de-rables-ahem! Here’s a guy and everybody’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind…and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it.  All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries.  Time stops.”  Dean could go no further; he was sweating telling about it.”

Kerouac stood at the top of that passage’s slope and skied the steep mogul-strewn path he heard in his head without poles, fast, new thoughts and impulses appearing like big bumps in the snow. But he sacrificed a standard “grey-faced” narrative strategy when he turned up the volume of his jazz-driven improvisations.  Narrative causality took a back seat in the Hudson as plot progressions are limited to mood changes, tension and release and the ups and downs of narrator Sal Paradise. 

Other than east, west, north and south, plot direction was of little importance.  Sound, and the search for an authentic new unconstrained hipster voice were what mattered. As Dean Moriarty said, “Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”  “Where we going, man?  “I don’t know, but we gotta go.”

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You got eyes.

 

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