This article was adapted from my talk at Breaking Convention 2015, held in London at Greenwich University. It has now been published by the excellent Oak Tree Review, which investigates the many branches of psychedelic culture throughout history, specialising in its manifestations in art and literature.
In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.
It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.
At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.
Read more on: The Oak Tree Review
My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.
In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.
So I finally got around to seeing the movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road, not far off two years after its UK release, which, for a writer and film buff who counts the Beat scene as a specialist interest, seems somewhat lackadaisical! I missed it at the cinema and having absorbed the lukewarm reviews and general lack of buzz surrounding the release, I wasn’t in any hurry to catch it on DVD. In a way I was delaying disappointment, putting off a moment of long anticipation that was now almost certainly destined to be anticlimactic. Why would I want to spend two hours witnessing one of the most cherished and influential novels of my life turned into just another average piece of 1940s-’50s period cinema-screen fodder?
Like its companion Great Beat Novel Naked Lunch, On the Road presented challenges to the filmmaker. Its autobiographical narrative is episodic, meandering and strung out, lacking the neatly shaped arc that would authoritively drive a film plot. What holds the book together is, of course, Kerouac’s prose itself, his ‘bop prosody’ with its jazz-like spontaneity, exuberance, fearless rule-breaking experimentation and pure drug-tinged scintillation. Finding a parallel method to inject all that into a film and make it work is no easy task. Go too far from the original – as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch – and you end up with something that’s a bit potty; but try to be too faithful and the danger is your product will be flat and lacklustre in its attempts at reverence.
Walter Salles’ On the Road does at times fall into the latter trap. What was cutting edge in ’50s culture and writing – acting crazy whilst mouthing off about poetry and philosophy, doing Benzedrine and weed and swapping sexual partners – now seems tame, dated and so-whatish in many of the film’s scenes. There is no shock value and not much of a curious spin to make us view the action in a special light. Kerouac the writer manifests in the most conventional of ways – in voice-over narration from the actual text, banging the keys of his typewriter with big close ups of the emerging words, and the usual spiel about wanting to capture life’s evanescence. Finally the moment where he writes the first draft of the book itself, on a continuous scroll of paper (obviously not part of the text itself), becomes the apotheosis of the whole process – again hardly a ground-breaking idea.
This device of real-life framing of the fiction, also employed in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch mash-up, seems almost inevitable in dealing with Beat mythology now, as the biographical details of the protagonists and their writings permeate each other totally. And when you have a ‘fiction’ such as On the Road which is already ‘real-life’ – on the IMDB page real and fictional names appear side by side – one might think there is little point in retaining the fictional armature at all; why not make a film about the events ignoring Kerouac’s own perspective and instead try to say something new? Read more…