The Beat Goes On
Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur dreams – and nightmares – are memorialized in an ambitious new DVD/CD.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
After the success of On the Road made his mind all goopy with fame, celebrity, Beat wannabe kids yakking, hangovers ringin’ his head like an empty bell, Jack Kerouac decided to dry out in Big Sur – He got a ride down Highway 1 past swishing seashores splish splashing and past redwood trees quietly meditating to Bixby Canyon where a bridge was stretched out like a spider web over a deep ravine – In the canyon, where a creek gurgled like an old man gargling and wrecks from the road above sat in the vegetation like twisted puzzle pieces, the so-called King of the Beats went lights-out crazy and wrote his 1962 novel Big Sur in the creepy crawly cabin that belonged to his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
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A harrowing chronicle of alcoholism and self-doubt, Big Sur finds Kerouac replacing his alter ego Sal Paradise from On the Road with another troubled, thinly veiled stand-in, Jack Duluoz. Five years after a New York Times review of On the Road compared the novel’s importance to that of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and proclaimed Kerouac the “avatar” of the Beats, Big Sur received a decidedly more mixed reception. The Times stayed behind Kerouac in their review of the book, proclaiming it “certainly Kerouac’s grittiest novel to date and the one which will be read with most respect by those skeptical of all the Beat business in the first place.” But Time magazine felt the work revealed Kerouac as a “confirmed one-vein literary minor.”
Two years ago, a reissue of On The Road marked the 50th anniversary of its 1957 publication, earning renewed kudos. Now F-Stop/Atlantic Records is honoring the 40th anniversary of his death on Oct. 21, 1969 – while his legend lives on, living up to the legend proved intolerably hard for the writer – with the release of a 98-minute documentary about Big Sur. An album featuring an unlikely collaboration between alt country icon Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) and Ben Gibbard of the Grammy-nominated indie pop group Death Cab for Cutie will accompany it. Directed by Curt Worden, the documentary is a collage of passages from the book read by The Sopranos’ John Ventimiglia, images of the Big Sur coast (fog dispersing into the sky like creamer clouding coffee, waves creating a rind of whitewater on the shoreline) and a parade of talking heads: some essential, some seemingly scattershot. The DVD and CD are both titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.
The film includes the necessary interviews with individuals who were important characters in the book, including Ferlinghetti, the poet and co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers who lent Kerouac his Bixby Canyon cabin, which Kerouac refers to as Raton Canyon in Big Sur.
In addition, the documentary captures revealing information about the famed writer by getting collaborators and colleagues including jazz artist David Amram, Beat poet Michael McClure and Carolyn Cassady, the wife of Kerouac’s dear friend Neal Cassady, to speak on film. But there are also some unexpected contributors to the movie, like Amber Tamblyn, who was the star of TV’s Joan of Arcadia, and Donal Logue, the scruffy Canadian actor from the 2000 film The Tao of Steve and the former Fox sitcom Grounded For Life.
While some of the contributors lend more authority to the project than others, there’s a handful of scenes that truly illuminate the book Big Sur and Kerouac’s state at that time.
Early on, Tom Waits tosses out the gem that “Big Sur always reminded me of a chronicle of a man being eaten by ants.” Before delivering a bebop influenced reading of Kerouac’s drive down the Big Sur coast, former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter echoes Waits’ sentiment by enthusing that the 1962 novel “is an ugly, ugly book of ugly places in the mind, of sordid places in the psyche.” And it’s poet Aram Saroyan who nails the tone of Big Sur before Kerouac descends into madness. He says: “It’s like a goofy holy man’s journal in this wonderful place. The first 40 pages, or whatever it is, of the book is just like a little kid exploring in nature.”
During the film, Ventimiglia’s reading of selected passages from Big Sur is like a narrative Highway 1 connecting wide-ranging themes and scenes together. Except for a scene of Farrar playing that almost seems like a detour into a music video, the acoustic blues riffs and organ swells composed and recorded by Farrar and Gibbard course naturally through One Fast Move or I’m Gone like Bixby Creek.
The CD, which blossomed from the recording of just a few songs for the documentary’s soundtrack, is now a 12-song set of original music paired with lyrics adapted from Kerouac’s Big Sur. “California Zephyr” finds Gibbard – who penned some of the songs for his band’s Billboard-topping album Narrow Stairs in the cabin that Kerouac describes in Big Sur – singing lyrics about the author’s train ride to California over acoustic guitar strums as wide open as the American countryside that passed outside Kerouac’s window. Others, like “Low Life Kingdom” are typical Farrar country rock compositions complete with dense verbiage delivered in his unmistakable molasses drawl over steel guitar lines strung out like taffy. Some standouts include “All in One,” a more upbeat number that’s as refreshing as a blast of coastal air, and “Final Horrors,” where the dark blues sound of the music perfectly suits the lyrics describing the despairs ofalcoholism.
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The dual releases of One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur are the first ventures for Kerouac Films. The fledgling company began when music producer Jim Sampas contacted veteran TV man and documentary filmmaker Curt Worden about getting into the film business two years ago. Worden’s resume includes a decade – long stint as director of photography at ABC News in New York. Following his time on staff at ABC News, Worden worked as a freelancer on 60 Minutes, 20/20, The Oprah Winfrey Show and PBS’ NOVA. He also has taken home two Emmy Awards for his work covering the first Gulf War and for a project titled The Making of a Summit, which featured President Bill Clinton and Ted Koppel.
Sampas also has quite a pedigree. First off, his aunt Stella married Kerouac in his later years, so that makes him the writer’s nephew, even though Kerouac passed away when Sampas was just 4 years old. He doesn’t remember much about his famous uncle but jokes that, “one of these days, I’ll get a hypnotist to bring me back there.”
After a try as a singer/songwriter, Sampas realized that his true love was producing projects. In 1996, he created a Books on Tape album where British rocker Graham Parker read Kerouac’s novel Visions of Cody with music by David Amram. That endeavor was followed up by 1997’s Kerouac: kicks joy darkness, for which Sampas somehow wrangled a diverse set of impressive talent, including Allen Ginsberg, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, Johnny Depp and comedian Richard Lewis, to read from the works of his uncle.
In 1998, Sampas was working with another uncle, John Sampas, the executor of the Kerouac estate, sorting through the Kerouac archives before handing over some material to the New York Public Library, when he discovered a piece of treasure for Kerouac fans: an until-then-unknown screenplay adaptation by the writer of his 1959 novel Dr. Sax. Sampas decided to turn the script into a radio drama spanning two CDs and including the late Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), poet Robert Creeley, Robert Hunter and Ferlinghetti providing the voices of the characters.
Sampas has produced several other tribute albums that have nothing to do with his famous uncle. These ambitious projects include the 2000 CD Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska with contributions from Johnny Cash, Los Lobos and Chrissie Hynde and 2005’s This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, where The Fiery Furnaces and the Cowboy Junkies, among others, contributed their interpretations of Rubber Soul tracks.
Sampas says that the purpose of Kerouac Films – which is run by Worden and Sampas along with Gloria Bailen and Roger Yergeau from an office in Rhode Island – is to discover fascinating stories that would make great films, even if they have nothing to do with Kerouac. “The idea is to create artistically driven, culturally significant projects that have meaning,” he says.
Already, Kerouac Films is developing feature films of both Big Sur and Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. (Currently, Francis Ford Coppola owns the rights to Kerouac’s masterwork, 1957’s On the Road). Worden says that the screenplay for the feature film version of Big Sur is completed and being passed around to some directors in Los Angeles. “It’s definitely going to be a motion picture,” he says.
Before embarking on creating a feature film together, Worden and Sampas decided to put their newfound collaboration to the test by doing a documentary film. Surprisingly, they easily settled on Big Sur, a challenging read depicting Kerouac’s downward spiral into madness and alcoholism.
“Here’s a book that unlike all the others he was creating something that was really about him,” Sampas says. “Certainly in Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax and On the Road and these other books, you know there’s Jack Duluoz or Sal Paradise or whatever name he’s going by, but the focus is not that person. Whereas this book, he’s really laying it all out, everything that he’s thinking at that moment. It’s quite personal, and, frankly, it can be quite dark, but there’s some soul searching there that we found very intriguing.”
Sampas says the diverse set of musicians, writers, poets, actors, historians and Beat figures in the documentary were chosen to represent a range of ages and groups, but they also had to fit the feel of the film. “I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t think we’d interview Barry Manilow,” he says. “I’m sure it would be great to interview Barry Manilow for something but not for this.”
One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur was shot over the spring and summer of 2007 in New York City, San Francisco, Carmel Beach and Big Sur’s Bixby Canyon, where the cabin Kerouac stayed in is located. Over an almost weeklong period in June of 2007, Worden and his 20-person crew shot the documentary’s Big Sur segments.
The veteran cameraman says he employed a philosophy for shooting the film that allowed the words spoken in the film to stand out as One Fast Move or I’m Gone’s primary attraction. “I intentionally chose to keep the shots very, very simple,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of camera movement. There’s none of this dolly and zooming in. It wasn’t a ton of camera motion. I mean there are some beautiful shots. They were hand selected so that they worked for what they were supposed to work for, but they didn’t overpower Jack Kerouac’s prose.”
A few minutes later, Worden continues on about why he decided to keep fancy camera moves to a minimum. “It’s all about Jack,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sampas was creating the film’s soundtrack, with some input from his partners at Kerouac Films. “Although there is just a bit of jazz in the film, we wanted to stay away from the whole jazz thing, because we thought that it might be too predictable for a Beat poet,” he says. “Keep the bongos away, so to speak.”
Rather than utilizing the sort of bebop jazz that Beat writers gravitated towards, the music producer saw a parallel between the themes of Kerouac’s works and that of the Americana/alt country genre. Having worked with Farrar on the Badlands tribute, Sampas realized the songwriter might be an ideal choice for the soundtrack. “I had researched and found that he was a big admirer of Jack’s and that his writing style had been influenced by the spontaneous prose method that Jack ‘invented,’” he says.
Knowing that Gibbard was also a fan of Kerouac’s work – his “Bixby Canyon Bridge” from Death Cab for Cutie’s Grammy nominated Narrow Stairs seems to describe the musician searching for the soul of Kerouac in Bixby Canyon – Sampas invited the alt rock bandleader to collaborate with Farrar. “One of the reasons we picked Ben, I think, is because we wanted something left of center,” he says. “We wanted to put something in the mix that wasn’t so predictable.”
Farrar and Gibbard had never met until the night before the soundtrack’s first recording session, when the two got together for drinks. Inside San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios, where classic albums including Santana’s Abraxas and The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty were recorded, Sampas was bowled over by Farrar and Gibbard’s musicianship. “It was striking,” he says. “How natural it all felt was unbelievable. It was one of the most incredible sessions I’ve ever witnessed.”
After the two-day session, where the two recorded the basic tracks for seven of the songs, Farrar and Gibbard were inspired to create a whole album’s worth of material together. Over the course of the last two years, they completed recording the project in St. Louis, Missouri and Los Angeles. In an August article in Paste Magazine, Farrar describes why the two decided to keep collaborating. “We were the last ones standing,” he says. “We both believed in the spirit of Kerouac enough to know that we had to see the project through.”
The unlikely collaboration has piqued the curiosity of music fans and led to articles detailing the release of the One Fast Move or I’m Gone soundtrack on Billboard.com and Pitchfork.com.
Next Friday, Farrar and Gibbard will embark on a six-stop tour where they will perform songs from One Fast Move or I’m Gone and “other surprise material.” (The closest they will get to Monterey County, alas, is an Oct. 24 performance at San Francisco’s Bimbo’s 365 Club.)
On May 9, 2008, One Fast Move or I’m Gone made its film festival debut at the opening night of the Santa Cruz International Film Festival. Since then, it’s been shown at the 2008 Lone Star International Film Festival in Fort Worth, Texas and at this year’s Litquake, a weeklong literary event in the Bay Area.
With the documentary screening at more film festivals and gaining a higher profile due to the release of the accompanying CD, Kerouac’s overlooked novel may undergo a critical reappraisal. “I really hope that people watch the documentary and decide that they have to read the book,” Worden says.
Already, the director inadvertently turned a handful of folks onto the book while filming the segments of his documentary on location in Big Sur. “I think most of the crew knew who Jack Kerouac was but they had not read Big Sur,” he says. “And then you start interviewing these really cool people, and they start talking about the story. After two days of shooting, every crew member had a copy of Big Sur in their back pocket, and they were reading it every chance they get.”