Take It To the Bridge
Kerouac’s Big Sur screens at Henry Miller – with a side of amazing music.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Death Cab For Cutie’s multiple-Grammy-nominated 2008 CD Narrow Stairs, which debuted at the top of the Billboard charts, begins with “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” On it, songwriter Ben Gibbard opens the track by airily singing: “I descended a dusty gravel road/ Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge/ Until I eventually arrived/ At the place where your soul had died.” But then, after several more lines about an attempt to commune with someone or something, Gibbard’s vocals get lost in a forest of guitar noise. When his vocals re-emerge at the end of the track, he sings: “Then it started getting dark/ I trudged back to where the car was parked/ No closer to any kind of truth/ as I assume must have been the case with you.”
A big fan of Jack Kerouac, Gibbard was hoping to come to some kind of epiphany by visiting the Monterey County canyon where the Beat writer wrote his dark novel Big Sur about descending into the depths of alcoholism and madness.
“When I got to go down there, it was a really emotional experience for me,” Gibbard says from New York City, where he is accompanying his wife, actress Zooey Deschanel, on a project. “You can just feel the demons down there. Maybe I was just projecting them because of knowing what happened down there. That location is in a canyon. There is not a lot of daylight down there. It’s a dark place, literally and figuratively. That song is about me coming face to face with this real place and wanting to get some answer down there. The reality is that there is no answer.”
While the canyon and cabin where Kerouac stayed as he wrote Big Sur is located on private land inaccessible to visitors, Gibbard says he got to visit the area while being interviewed for the documentary One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, which receives a special concert screening this weekend. Later, he stayed in Kerouac’s cabin for two weeks as he finished up work on Narrow Stairs.
After contributing to the documentary, Gibbard decided to join Jay Farrar – a musician who basically kick started the whole alt country music scene of the ’90s with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt – to create a soundtrack for the film. This Saturday night, at the Henry Miller Library, Gibbard and Farrar will perform a concert of material from the soundtrack, and the documentary will be screened for the first time in Big Sur.
It might seem initially odd that the alt rocker Gibbard, who is also half of the electronica and indie pop act The Postal Service, would collaborate with Farrar, whose work mines classic Americana music for inspiration. But the soundtrack works because Gibbard adds a necessary dose of light to Farrar’s dark, earthy twang. The Gibbard-sung and relatively upbeat “All in One” comes on like a refreshing blast of coastal air next to the potent dark acoustic blues of the Farrar-sung numbers “Breathe Our Iodine” and “Final Horrors.”
Gibbard says that while there were a few discussions of Kerouac’s books as they recorded the One Fast Move Or I’m Gone album, the two Kerouac fans also had plenty of lighter moments. “I’d like to tell you that we sit around and wax poetic about Kerouac and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso and stuff,” he says. “We are as much interested in talking about that as we are reciting the infamous bootleg tape of John Wayne drunk at a USC commencement speech. I wish I could say our interactions were highbrow, but we are still a bunch of rock dudes.”
Like many others, Gibbard was introduced to Kerouac in college through the writer’s most popular novel On the Road. “I’m sure it’s been said millions of times about that book, but it really did change my life,” he says. “That was the voice I’d been wanting to hear for so long and had yet to find it. I completely related to his brand of romanticism. I, at the time, had that same pull of wanting to travel and be on the road and find my way to do that.”
After reading every Kerouac book he could find at a used bookstore over the course of a year in college, Big Sur became Gibbard’s favorite Kerouac work.
“I see it as a very cautionary tale, and I’ve always loved it for that,” Gibbard says. “It’s just a brutally honest book. All of the romance of On the Road is out the window. He’s really facing himself and writing about himself in a way that is brutally honest. I really admire that.”
It’s the same kind of honesty that makes Gibbard’s “Bixby Canyon Bridge” so effective.