Archives For tom wolfe

Review: One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

One and Only: The Untold Story of On The Road, may have played more to the heart had it been sub-titled The Untold Story of the Desolation Angels.  Published in November 2011, the volume is mainly comprised of Gerald Nicosia’s interviews with Lu Anne Henderson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and first ex-wife of Cassady. Henderson, in On The Road, is referred to as ‘Marylou’.

Although not a character in the latter, her words paint, in the end, a portrait of the desolation of Jack and Neal, both driven to desperate distraction and depression by the roles and expectations foisted upon them in the former novel.  Also, through her words, we see how integral Lu Anne became in the formation of the Beat Generation; that she was not just another pert piece of jailbait Neal was known to chase.

We learn that Jack and Neal did not like each other.  Not many liked Neal, which can be blamed on fear, jealousy, or the thought of a natural born con dropped into the middle of a group of Columbia students.  Neal bared his heart and soul to Lu Anne; so did Jack. The two men came to know each other, not through interacting, but through what Lu Anne told one about the other, in the times they were alone together.  She loved them both and her love shone bright enough for them to see what was good, what brilliance burst from the other man. They became fast friends when Lu Anne introduced soul to soul; before that, they had trouble even having a simple conversation with each other.

On The Road presented Jack with a variety of psychic challenges from the constant worry and waiting for the publisher to accept it, to guilt-ridden doubt about how his friends would perceive the characters he forged from their earthly essences, to living up to being the character of ‘Sal Paradise’ – who with Neal as ‘Dean Moriarty’, gave a new sort of maverick hero to a strange new generation. This generation embraced, emulated, imitated and intoxicated itself into an active cerebral state where freedom of choice in our own fate and existence became true options by following the example of the rebel heroes. Mass emulation forced Jack and Neal into roles they had long outgrown. Not only that, Jack exaggerated and changed facts, so they had to live up to caricatures of themselves. In the meantime, their real blood spilled on the tracks.

Cassady, found himself stuck in Moriarty’s shoes ad infinutum, always ‘on,’ always the superhuman clown who was expected to perform constantly. A cross-over character used by Tom Wolfe, Cassady is seen as the man with the plan in The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, introduced in white tee and doing his famous hammer toss. Lu Anne never saw the hammer toss, although she had heard much of it, secondhand. When Neal finally talked about it, it was in shame, as he had painted himself into a predictable corner. In the beginning he felt obliged to live up to the image Kerouac had created and it had slowly turned into a sideshow, the hammer being the most obvious prop. Now he felt like a performing monkey. “I put on my act at six o’clock and eight o’clock,” he says, in Lu Anne’s best memory.

 

She is like a hip, sexy Dorothy, pulling back the curtains and revealing the Wizard(s)…Her lesson being pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. She knew the real men behind the curtain before the curtain cloaked them in myth and fable. Much of what she tells seems revelatory – but only in the context of how Kerouac tweaked real life into typed adventures. Jack and Neal – Men, not Gods – acted like most men do. If Neal had five dollars in his pocket, it was his five dollars. The Beats were not as communal a society as we would like to recall them as being. They were real people. They were selfish sometimes.One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

During the early 1950s Jack was in a state of high anxiety concerning his future, and the high expectations that went along with the hopeful success of his book, which he had started writing in 1948. Although, in legend, he is said to have written it all in one three-week stint,  he actually typed up the book on the infamous reel of teletype paper in 1951, culled from the notebooks that Jack always carried in his shirt pocket.  It was during the creative process of compiling these notes that Neal abandoned him and Lu Anne in San Francisco in 1949. Added to the frustration of butting heads with his publisher and trying to create a new style of prose, the rejection by Neal (who drove Jack and Lu Anne across the country, only to leave them stranded in the middle of the city with no cash while he returned to live with then-wife, Carolyn) seemed to set Jack off into a spiral of depression from which he would never fully recover. While most of the literary world and readers did not see this, Lu Anne did.

Lu Anne’s lot was not an easy one, either; bouts with irritable bowel syndrome eventually led to dependence on medications and ultimately to morphine and heroin addiction. While she outlived the pair of men, her lot was not easy. In the 1980s, she eventually returned to Denver, where she initially met Neal when she was fifteen years old, and cleaned up. Conducted in 1978, before her death from cancer in 2006, the transcription of the interview runs to some 34,000 words. We are also presented with 55 archival photographs of Lu Anne, Jack, Neal, Allen Ginsberg, Al Hinkle, and other Beat figures, some of which have never been seen before this printing by Viva Editions.

In many ways, it is more sobering than most volumes on Beat history. One telling incident is hopelessness concealed in the question Neal asked Lu Anne, when he finally went quiet and quit acting, “Where do we go from here, Babe?”

Come Join Uncle Sam’s Band

by James D. Irwin

It’s about ten past four on a Sunday afternoon. I feel like I’ve been beaten up; there is pain… bruises… cuts… none of them I can explain with any certainty. I think I have whiplash. I feel dead and decaying on the inside and all I’ve eaten is an apples, washed down with a few cups of coffee— the diet Christian Bale undertook for his role in The Machinist.

I could be doing this in better, more appropriate conditions. At least the sun is shining through the narrow window of my bare, white-walled room that’s covered in dirty laundry— all my clothes— and patches of mould slowly fading back from where it rained a few nights ago. And so I’m in a hovel of a room feeling like death could come at any moment, and would be quite welcome. But today is the deadline. So I better turn my thoughts to the subject I promised I’d write something on…

More build up first: a few months ago I got into a discussion with a few American friends about the notion of the ‘Great American Rock Band.’ We kind of concluded that there was no such thing. No band could compare to the cultural importance and impact of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. America has produced a great many rock bands, but none have the same cache… the same monolithic significance as the British bands that became big in the Sixties and peaked in the mid-Seventies. We talked about how Creedence Clearwater Revival were called ‘The American Beatles,’ but their success doesn’t translate. KISS has the success, but theirs is a success comparable to McDonald’s— the vast sales of products aren’t a signifier of quality.

But then perhaps comparing American groups to British groups doesn’t stand up. Maybe our cultures are just too different. It’s certainly true when it comes to literature. We have different standards… expectations. For example the ‘Great American Novel’ exists, and doesn’t need to compare itself to the British literary canon; it is instead focused more on the truest expression of America. This would draw The Ramones into the mix, but then they’d have to be thrown out. For as much as they embody a lot of the ‘American Spirit’ their music, whilst great, is tied forever to the narrow confines of punk culture, whether it should be or not.

I think perhaps the best we could do is compare the ‘Great American Novel’ to the ‘Great American Band.’ I have a friend who refuses to read American literature, something which I find incredibly narrow minded and downright stupid. There is a perception among some, like my friend, that because ours is the older country, with longer literary tradition ours is just better. And that’s what I was doing with bands earlier on. Maybe CCR are on par with The Beatles.

American literature is slightly different to British literature. Even now ours tends to be in the stuffy, uptight mould of Dickens and the Victorians. It’s modernised, of course, but our literary tradition remains very traditional. That goes for our journalism too. We never had ‘New Journalism’ or ‘Gonzo Journalism’… some of the best writing in the Twentieth Century… Meanwhile I’m getting marked down on my Non-Fictions assignments for not writing ‘properly.’ My tutor writes for The London Times.

I referenced Hunter S. Thompson in an accompanying essay, which didn’t go down well. British writers stuck in the notion of prestigious papers don’t like writers like Thompson. Only poetry professors have any time for Kerouac and the Beats; meanwhile guys like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton don’t get a mention. Neither does Tom Wolfe. So you transformed journalism in the 1960s? Well, not in Britain you didn’t. We like our journalism dry and fact based, keep your opinions to yourself…

Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 introduced me to the band that would eventually become my All Time Favourite Band: the Grateful Dead. They are also the band I think come closest to being ‘The Great American Band’, at least by my measure of comparing them to the ‘Great American Novel.’ Of course for this to stand up I should lay my cards on the table and state what I consider to be the ‘Great American Novel.’ We can safely assume it’s not Spider-Man #1, otherwise I’d still be talking about KISS.

There are strong arguments for a couple of books. It’s not The Catcher in the Rye though— miserable, whiny and a contributing factor to the murder of John Lennon. Huckleberry Finn is basically the sequel to a children’s book— a very good book, but not the greatest. Not the Muhammad Ali of American literature. The Great Gatsby lacks scope and scale… For me it’s not just a case of the Great American Novel, but the greatest novel I have ever read: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Why? Because it has everything; it is epic in the scale of location, of human emotion… it has humour, sadness, is a timeless slice of history and, perhaps most importantly, has the Joad family chasing the same mythical American Dream Thompson failed to find in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It’s not my favourite Steinbeck novel either. That would be Cannery Row, in which Steinbeck revisited the Depression with a more romantic, nostalgic eye. One band wrote a song inspired by a rundown building that features in Cannery Row. Unless you’re mentally retarded, or just plain stupid, you can probably guess it was the Grateful Dead— the song being ‘Brokedown Palace’ from 1970’s American Beauty.

Both Steinbeck and the Dead are uniquely American. Britain doesn’t have any writers or bands than can really compare in terms of cultural relevance and significance. And wasn’t that what we were looking for earlier? Both the writer and the band have always been more popular in their own country than they have been in Britain. However, both have also been outsiders in their own time and place too.

The Grapes of Wrath was banned for a long time in a lot of schools and libraries on publication. Similarly the Dead were always an underground, counter-culture band that only the liberals dug and enjoyed. And it’s not like the Dead have always been cool. Through the mid-70s and most of the ‘80s they weren’t counter-culture, but simply obscure and faded. They had a resurgence though, and in 1987 finally scored a number one with ‘Touch of Grey.’

It took a long time, but both Grapes and the Dead finally got the recognition they deserved. Steinbeck’s novel is now widely regarded as one of the best ever, whilst the band from San Francisco finally got a bit of mainstream attention and recognition.

Maybe it’s a bit of a flimsy comparison… It’s not, I don’t think, meant as direct as a comparison as perhaps I’ve been attempting. I don’t know, but as far as I’m concerned the Grateful Dead are as close to a ‘Great American Band’ as there is.

They played at the President’s inaugural ball: Great American Band or not, they are Uncles Sam’s Band…