Acid Heroes

October 6, 2010

“ANGELHEADED HIPSTER: A Life of Jack Kerouac”: a book review

I found a great bio of Jack Kerouac the other day, “Angelheaded Hipster” by Steve Turner. I found it, appropriately enough, sitting on the curb by the road.

Like a lot of people, I identified with Kerouac. But maybe for different reasons than most. Like me, he was a counterculture figure who largely repudiated the counterculture later in life. He found both Leary and Kesey noxious. He blamed Kesey for “ruining” Neil Cassady. And he so over-powered Leary when they did acid together that Leary had his first bad trip. And he described Alan Watts as a cocktail party phony in “Dharma Bums.”

Among the surprising revelations in the book, when Kerouac died he had only $91 to his name. All of his books were out of print, and he was a somewhat disgraced figure in his hometown of Lowell. “People in Lowell never recommended that kids read his books because they were always afraid that youth would try to emulate him,” said Lowell resident Reginald Ouellette. And Kerouac himself was disgusted by the youth who were emulating him. So he existed in an ironic state during his last years. One of his final pieces of writing was published in the Miami Herald entitled “After Me, The Deluge” an anti-hippie, anti-Communist diatribe.

The Gary Snyder character, Japhy Ryder, exuberantly described the up-coming counterculture in “Dharma Bums.” “Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody.” One wonders what Gary Snyder thinks of the millions of lost homeless people tramping across the country today with their backpacks on their backs.

It was during the 60s, when he could have consolidated his position as an elder statesman of the counterculture and basked in all the glory — as his contemporary Allen Ginsberg certainly did — that Kerouac turned his back on the whole lot of them. In 1969, the year of his death, he wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune in which he attempted to answer the question, “What does the author of ‘On the Road’ think of the hippie, the drop-out, the war protester, the alienated radical?”

“I’ve got to figure out,” he responded, “how I could possibly spawn Jerry Rubin, Mitchell Goodman, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg and other warm human beings from the ghettos who say they suffered no less than the Puerto Ricans in their barrios and the blacks in their Big and Little Harlems, and all because I wrote a matter-of-fact account of true adventure on the road (hardly an agitational propaganda account) featuring an ex-cowhand and ex-footballer driving across the continent north, northwest, midwest and southland looking for lost fathers, odd jobs, good times, and girls and winding up on the railroad.”

How indeed? How indeed did this book, “On the Road,” inspire all that and much more?

“I read ‘On the Road’ in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan.

According to college friends, John Lennon avidly read “On the Road” in 1960 and was always talking about “this Beat Generation thing.” Royston Ellis, who was known at the time as England’s Beat poet, claims he’s the one who convinced Lennon to change the spelling from “Beetles” to “Beatles.” So yeah, Kerouac’s influence is far-reaching.

Who knows why. He was just the guy who was situated at that exact juncture where history is made. Perhaps he would have been remembered as little more than a tragic fag icon of the ’50s if not for the spiritual yearning he injected into his best work. “His novels all resound with the question, ‘How can you make sense of life in the face of suffering and death?'” wrote steve Turner. How indeed.

All I know is, I have one remaining goal in my life.  When I die I want to have $92 in my pocket.  That way I can say I was more successful than Kerouac.




  1. I loved Kerouac before he turned his brain completely to mush with alcohol, but get off the whole Gary Snyder thing please. There aren’t “millions of lost homeless people tramping across the country today with their backpacks on their backs”, due to Gary Snyder. He was a naturalist, and a responsible outdoorsman. Most people who are homeless don’t want to be homeless, live in urban areas, are children, and probably never heard of Kerouac, let alone Japhy. Snyder, was and still is, the real deal. Kerouac was until he drank himself retarded.

    Comment by Alcohol is bad. — January 7, 2013 @ 11:36 am | Reply

    • I wasn’t blaming Snyder of Kerouac. Though I do blame some of the ’60s counterculture figures that came in their wake for helping to create the mess American society has become (start with the Drug Epidemic and work your way from there). I was just making the point that the glorious counterculture predicted by many people didn’t quite come to fruition. OK?

      Comment by Ace Backwords — January 15, 2013 @ 12:01 am | Reply

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