During my recent foray to New England for Louie Vortis’ wedding—one of two reasons I’ve been absent from this blog of late—I took a brief detour to the sad, gray, and beyond-depressed town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to stop at the grave of a literary hero.
I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jack Kerouac as a teen, at the same time I was devouring the writings of the late great rock critic Lester Bangs. When I became Bangs’ biographer, the realization of Kerouac’s enormous influence on him made perfect sense.
Though Kerouac moves in and out of fashion in literary circles, one aspect of his legacy remains alive and well in the rock world: that wandering quest for kicks so poetically depicted in On the Road. For what is the indie-rock van tour if not the modern analog of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty criss-crossing the country in that old jalopy?
I’ve been thinking about Kerouac a lot lately, since reading this piece in The Los Angeles Times early last month about the auction of a letter that the greatest of the Beats wrote to two of his friends in 1961, mulling in particular the comments he made about his disdain for interviews and “self propaganda.”
"I can just see the shabby literary man carrying a 'bulging briefcase' rushing from one campus to another, one lecture club to another, nodding confirmation with his hosts that he is right, hurrying to the next town... a whole gray career of proving himself to others, to as many as can hear him, that he was right... till finally people say: 'Here comes the self-prover again, O dear ... bring out the papers and the canapes.' This my friend is what I will become if I accept all lecture offers, TV appearances, radio interviews and start arranging with reviewers and critics who want information and my books through me, a great long lifetime in a briefcase proving my work and my work itself stopped dead at the level where I took to proving myself. So, I say, life is too sweet to waste on self propaganda, I quit self promotion, I enter my page."
Reading those words, I can’t help wondering what Kerouac would have thought of this new age of boundless self-promotion and banal solipsism, as typified by the endless proliferation of Tweets, Facebook updates, and blog posts that pretty much say absolutely nothing beyond “Hey, look at me!” No matter how much I admire someone as a writer or love them as a friend, I have no interest in reading their Tweet about the Giants in the World Series or their Wall post noting that today is Bill Gates’ birthday. (Now, you wanna discuss sports as an opium for the masses, or Gates as the Anti-Christ, I’m all ears. Otherwise, don’t waste my time). And let's not even go near Reality TV.
I’m pretty sure that Kerouac and Bangs both would have hated this Golden Era of Self-Obsession, though as Bangs’ biographer, I have long since adopted a policy of never second-guessing what any such infamously mercurial character might have thought about anything. “Wouldn’t Lester have loved Nirvana?” I don’t know; out of sheer perversity, he may have championed ’N Sync!
In any event, I hate empty, self-centered communiqués that say absolutely nothing at all. And I hope this one doesn’t qualify.