In the Bathtub with a Jazz Musician and Beat WriterBooks, Essays — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on June 26, 2012 at 5:29 am
The apartment I shared sat at the border of East Harlem and the Upper East Side. I lived in the spoiled girl’s version of the 1950s coldwater flats I read about in dogeared paperback—exposed brick walls, lack of a private bedroom but plenty of closet space, and–at least most of the time–hot water. My bedroom was the living-room/kitchen. The bathroom–the only room where I could close the door, sequester myself–became my makeshift study. I sat book in hand in too hot bathwater. Also in my hand were a black-ink ballpoint pen and ruled index cards. Every time I lifted an index card from the stack next to the plastic 99c shampoo bottle, water from my hand dripped onto the lines of the card. I was reading David Amram’s Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, taking notes, in case I ever got my act together and wrote a book about the Beat Generation.
I’d been studying the Beat Generation on and off for years. I’d read Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking 1957 roadtrip novel On the Road when I was in high school, and when I got my first job in publishing I took my own road trip and wrote about it for Burnside. I’d even previously interviewed jazz french hornist David Amram, who when I called him up told me he was ensconced in a hotel room, drinking carrot juice. (Naturally, I then contemplated drinking carrot juice, thinking it the elixir of genius.) I knew about how the poets and novelists associated with the so-called Beat Generation said there was no such literary movement, that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso were friends, certainly influencing each other, but still doing their own thing. Still, I remained curious about the Beats and about Amram’s and Kerouac’s jazz-poetry collaborations in New York City. I kept on reading.
Research can sometimes become another name for procrastination. You can follow the rabbit hole til you’re so far from what you set out to study. I turned the page of the library book, and Amram and Kerouac walked into a church. Kerouac was baptized a Catholic and attended a French-Canadian parochial school in Lowell, Massachusetts, where students studied Catholicism. His writing is steeped in thoughts on religion. His 1963 novel Visions of Gerard, about the life and death of his older saintlike brother, depicts his early life in the church and explorations on the meaning of life. As an adult, Kerouac became interested in Buddhism, but his 1965 novel Desolation Angels shows he ended up growing disenchanted with the religion. Shortly before his death in 1969, he told a reporter, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”
More than ten years prior to that, during the Cold War, San Francisco journalist Herb Caen had melded the words “beat” and “sputnik” together to form the word “beatnik.” In other words, it wasn’t a flattering term. It suggested the Beats were somehow anti-American, and indeed to this day Kerouac has been charged with somehow destroying American values. The Beat Generation became seen as the countercultural movement that was the precursor to the hippies of the 1960s–with all their freewheelin’, freelovin’, antiwar lifestyles. Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the America of the 1940s through 1960s. Beyond Chuck Berry, poodle skirts, and Tupperware parties were the atom bomb, the Red Scare, the mass commodification of culture, Playboy (founded in 1953, four years before On the Road was published), and the Housing Act (read: gentrification that led to dislocation of minorities). I believe in the power of literature to inspire people to action, I really do, but it certainly seems a stretch to blame a roadtrip novel on the decline in American values when clearly there were larger issues already at play.
I take the criticisms toward Jack Kerouac more personally than I should. Maybe because I first read his books when I was a naïve, sheltered, seventeen year old, I turned a blind eye to Kerouac’s lesser qualities. Well past seventeen, I now see those character flaws, but I continue to be more moved by Kerouac than almost any other writer. Through Kerouac’s writing and life, I see the insane beauty of God’s creation. I also see just how abundant His love is.
Kerouac writes about the beauty of the everyday, the mundane. He didn’t close his eyes to the life going on outside his car window as he crisscrossed the country. Never was a landscape so dripping with poetry as in On the Road, when he writes of “a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon field.” He saw beauty where others saw simple farmland. He saw God out in America. He wrote, “As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, ‘Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.’”
Kerouac also refused to close his eyes to people’s real lives. In an era in which I Love Lucy couldn’t even use the word “pregnant” on television to describe a married woman who was expecting a child, Kerouac wrote openly about taboo lifestyles. He hung out with a car thief, a couple of murderers, and hustlers, searching out the beauty in them and loving them as they were. He writes, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round heads in the square holes. The ones who see things differently….” Maybe Kerouac was too accepting of the sins of others in some people’s eyes, but I think of the verse that comes after John 3:16, the one that says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (New International Version), and I think of Jesus chatting with tax collectors and prostitutes and adulterers. The bible inspired Kerouac, who said the definition of the word “Beat” included the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the blessings that start:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:3–5)
As the hot water in my bathtub turned my skin pink, I read how Amram wrote of Kerouac inviting him to church. He didn’t make a big point in explaining this in Offbeat, but years after reading this, it still sticks out in my mind. Here was Jack Kerouac, who conservative critics say ushered in the hedonism of the swingin’ sixties, inviting a friend to church, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to him. David Amram was Jewish. Why did he go along with Kerouac to a Christian church? Why did he make a point of including this memory in his book so many years later? Would he have accepted an invitation by just any Christian? It made me think. Do I hesitate in inviting friends to church? Do I come off as a plankeyed goody two shoes knowitall that no one would want to come to church with? Am I embarrassed by my faith?
The water in my bathtub in my apartment situated at the border of East Harlem and the Upper East Side was no longer hot but had not yet turned cold. It was lukewarm. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot,” says the Amen to the Church in Laodicea. “I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15–16). Arguably the most famous line from On the Road is:
…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
I’m a woman who reads books in her bathtub, who lives a comfortable life defined by borders and temperature-controlling faucets and careful research. Maybe I need to be a bit more like Kerouac. Mad to be saved. Writing prose-poems declaring the beauty of God’s creation. Befriending the misfits. Cheering on the meek, the poor in spirit, the ones who see things differently, the underdogs, the Beat. Anything but lukewarm.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos finally got her act together and wrote a book about the Beat Generation. Burning Furiously Beautiful, cowritten with Paul Maher Jr., tells the true story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.