Arts: On the road to nowhere

Fifty years after Jack Kerouac coined the term, the Beats are more hip than ever. Pity they were wrong about jazz, black people, women and pretty much everything.

For a movement that was all about the "now", the Beats have had a pretty good run. It is 50 years since Jack Kerouac found a publisher for his first novel, The Town and the City, and coined the term the Beat Generation, but interest in Kerouac and the Beats has never been higher. In the past few years the Beats have been celebrated by the novelist Toby Litt and in the Welsh film House of America. When Francis Ford Coppola held an open casting call in New York for his intended film of On the Road, more than 5,000 people queued all day for it.

We can expect the Beat industry to move into overdrive this year, the 30th since Kerouac's death. His On the Road is the central text of the Beats, a jumble of car journeys, joints and jazz that had already skipped a musical generation by the time of its publication in 1957. It has continued skidding down the generations ever since, moving further and further from the context in which it was conceived. Reading it as a Home Counties teenager in the punk/disco era was captivating - which teenager would not prefer the ecstatic wonder of the Beats to the scepticism and sourness of the British alternative, Larkin and Amis Sr? But divorced from its roots in modern jazz and repressive Forties America, On the Road has become a simplified statement of youth rebellion for its own sake, a celebration of the institutionalised adolescence that has been such an intimidating force in Western culture since the Fifties. In this, Kerouac has probably suffered as much at the hands of his friends as at those of his enemies; in any case, some reassessment is long overdue.

Fortunately for its reputation, On the Road is not a book many people read twice. Supposedly written in three weeks - and it feels like it - it now comes over as repetitive and baggy. Everyone seems to be sweating and shouting all the time: "sad", interestingly, is a term of approbation.

But there are more serious problems with it. There is the appalling treatment of women, none of whom is ever allowed a single intelligent thought. "There's a real woman for you," Kerouac has his hero, Dean Moriarty, say at one point in the book. "Never a harsh word, never a complaint - her old man can come in any hour of the night with anybody and have talks in the kitchen and drink the beer and leave any old time."

He is not being ironic. When Dean and the narrator Sal Paradise take their pleasure at a Mexican whorehouse, they show no glimmer of discomfort or imaginative sympathy; that Mexican girls must sell themselves is held to be the natural order of things.

In this solipsistic world black people are treated mainly as a source of fantasy. In a famous passage, Sal Paradise speaks of "wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered me was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night". This sensibility - common enough still among white suburban youths who have been told that their lives are rootless and shallow - formed the basis of Norman Mailer's ponderous 1957 essay The White Negro, inspired by the Beat example. "In the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash bottle-break, what-have-you," Mailer opined, "the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom..." This in the year that courageous black schoolchildren were forcing America to live up to its own ideals by desegregating schools in Little Rock, the year that Duke Ellington recorded his Shakespeare suite Such Sweet Thunder and Miles Davis the score for Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud. But to Mailer and the Beats, jazz could only be about wildness and abandon - "Jazz is orgasm," Mailer observed.

This misunderstanding of jazz is one of the central problems of the Beats. In On the Road, Kerouac's characters travel all over America enthusing about jazz to find its apotheosis in, of all people, the entertainer Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a fine musician, but he played his whole act for laughs. The real musical father of the Beats was the saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, who almost single-handedly invented modern jazz - bebop - in the mid-Forties. Kerouac's failure to understand Parker's music is revealing. Parker's music, for all its extroversion, speed and sense of freedom, was intensely disciplined, the product of a kind of single-minded musical study almost unprecedented in jazz at that time. Parker's weakness for drugs and high-rolling should not obscure the serious musician within.

But bebop inspired in Kerouac and the Beats the mistake that white intellectuals have continued to make many times since - the assumption that other cultures must be more spontaneous, more intuitive, more soulful than their own: a sophisticated version of the "natural rhythm" fable. Charlie Parker's own attitude to the Beats can probably be gauged from a story told by Ted Joans, about a party where a Beat poet had proposed reading an "Ode to a Piece of Vaccinated Bread". Joans reports: "Bird interrupted, 'Stop right there. We are all brothers and sisters. This man here is going to tell us about this piece of bread that has been vaccinated. Now, you know there's no idiots in the house; and, if you want hear these poems you can... but, if you are like me, we will continue the party."

Of course, the Beats' misunderstanding proved highly saleable. "As it turned out," says the music historian Martha Bayles, "the Beat sensibility was a lot easier to popularise than bebop. Certainly, the flyweight nihilism of Beat poetry proved more appealing to the average movie-goer than the daunting complexity of a Charlie Parker solo."

Kerouac's subsequent books, The Subterraneans, Darma Bums and Doctor Sax, were really more of the same. More revealing - unintentionally so - was 1960's The Lonesome Traveller, a kind of On the Road goes to Europe. No longer pioneering descriptions of coast-to-coast car journeys and the Beat underworld, Kerouac pitched himself against London and Paris, where European readers could compare his impressions with reality - indeed, compare his writing with the great literature of those cities. In this context, Kerouac's superficiality and naivety are startling.

In the Sixties he descended into alcoholism. There is a late report of him drunkenly haranguing the great saxophonist John Coltrane in New York's Village Vanguard for "not liking jazz". In any case, by the mid- Sixties the Beats' message had found a new home in the hippie counterculture, which was even less likely to get to grips with the music of Charlie Parker and his followers. Kerouac died, a few days after a beating in a bar, on 21 October 1969.

Kerouac and the Beats were widely held to be the expression of atomic- age angst. We can now see their writing and poetry - with honourable exceptions - as a kind of low-budget transcendentalism, profundity on the cheap for lazy minds. If, having once passed over Philip Larkin in favour of the Beats, we find that he speaks to us more directly in middle age, it is not only for being, as he put it, "less deceived"; it is also due to the disciplined and sustained virtuosity of his writing. And, for all his prejudices, he wrote about jazz better, too.

The power of On the Road is much to do with the age at which we come to it: it is often one of the first "grown-up" books we encounter. It stays on the shelf, fixed by the period art of its paperback cover to the person we were then. We prefer to remember it fondly, if only because criticising it feels disloyal to the selves we were when it moved us: the selves we may still be from time to time, pensively drunk in a jazz club, listening to a smoky ballad and dreaming of the vastness of the city outside, the streets open under the starry sky, the lives that might have been.

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