Kerouac on Night Lights

Phil Ford

As I’ve written before, one of the best things about Bloomington is having WFIU to listen to. And one of the best things about WFIU is a show called Night Lights. David Brent Johnson, the show’s creator and host, is one of those rare people with equally deep knowledge of both jazz itself and the wide penumbra of what might be called “jazz culture” — the nightlife mythos of jazz, literary excursions on jazz themes, hipsters, jazz movies, etc. Since the 1920s jazz has lived a double life, as both a musical tradition and a cultural symbol, and jazz people don’t always get along with the intellectual audience for whom jazz is a cause or a symptom but not, you know, a thing unto itself. (There’s a great moment in The Sweet Smell of Success where an annoying intellectual type goes up to Chico Hamilton and asks him about The State of Jazz Today; he quickly fobs her off onto a hapless Fred Katz). David’s show has wandered down some nice byways of the jazz canon — Frank Sinatra’s small-ensemble recordings, Mary Lou WIlliams’ Zodiac Suite, Charles Mingus in the 1940s — but he’s also strayed into the borderlands as well, dealing with jazz in films (I Want To Live! and The French Connection, for ex.), hipsters like Oscar Brown Jr. and Mark Murphy, and topics like jazz in the cold war and jazz musicians who appear in cameos on rock records. (All the archived shows can be found in streaming audio format here.) Night Lights is the kind of jazz show that I would do if I had a jazz show. It’s also the kind of show that satisfies the main motivation music-lovers have for listening to the radio at all — you get to hear someone with great taste share a killer record collection with you. Since this experience is something music lovers would naturally treasure, it follows that corporate public radio behemoths* like Minnesota Public Radio will hunt such shows to extinction in order to curry favor with the kind of person who owns four records. But for now, there’s WFIU.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I did an interview with David for a show on Kerouac — another great programming idea.** I never went through the obligatory Kerouac phase as a young man — I always thought he was a big phony, a poseur who made jazz out to be “savage jungle drums and horns blowing up a storm around the flickering fire while the missionary soup comes to a boil” (as Kenneth Rexroth put it in a savage Nation article from April 1958). I never “got” Kerouac until a few years ago, when I heard a track from his album with Steve Allen (!). As I say somewhere on the show, Kerouac’s “voice” as a writer comes out of his actual speaking voice. And it was hearing his voice — a friendly American voice, familiar, musical, by turns wry and rapt — which allowed me to “hear” his prose for the first time.

One advantage of reading Kerouac later in life is that you’re more sensitive to the very great sadness and nostalgia in so much of his writing. I used to knock Kerouac for those passages where he’s pushing so hard on his writing, trying to get you to feel hopped-up by saying “Man, I’m so hopped up!” over and over again — i.e., telling you what to feel, rather than letting you feel it. On the Road has a certain amount of this. But Visions of Cody feels altogether different:

A SAD PARK OF AUTUMN, late Saturday afternoon—leaves by now so dry they make a general rattle all over and a little girl in a green knit cap is squashing leaves against the wire fense and then trying to climb over them—also mothers in the waning light, sitting their kiddies in swing seats of gray iron and pushing them with grave and dutiful playfulness—A little boy in red woodsman shirt stoops to drink water at the dry concrete fountain—a flag whips through the bare bleak branches—salmon is the color of parts of the sky—the children in the swings kick their feet in air, mothers say Wheee—a trash wirebasket is half full of dry, dry leaves—a pool of last night’s rain lies in the gravel; tonight it will be cold, clear, winter coming and who will haunt the deserted park then? (p. 24)

A lovely stream of visual fragments, ending in a double-exposure image: the life of the park and the lifeless park, glimpsed together in an instant. The passage of time; the mystery of passing time and the seasons; the sadness of all the tiny beautiful things that are lost to time—all telescoped into a single crisp line set off by a semicolon. (There’s real mastery in that semicolon, you know.) I’ve been reading Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia, a brilliant book that looks at nostalgia as a defense or rebellion against modernity’s relentlessly progressive conception of time. Kerouac’s compulsive remembering was one way of stanching the flow of time — a fool’s errand, like holding back the tide. But Kerouac’s foolishness was Pierrot-like, made poignant by the impossibility of its aims and objects, and by self-awareness. Something of Kerouac’s mingled sadness and silliness can be heard in this recording, where Kerouac (drunk, as always) tries to sing the blues.

* I don’t usually knock things as “corporate,” but for this I’ll make an exception.

**The audio for this broadcast is now up. If you ever wondered what I sound like, now you know.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Kerouac on Night Lights

  1. Mark says:

    I listened to the podcast of the radio show. Thank you, I’ll bookmark the show. New respect for Kerouac. I had never gone back to On the Road; fear of soiling that initial impression the book made when I was a 20 years old. I got a kick out of the haikus, and the fact that the sax players didn’t give him all the props he thought he deserved. Learn to blow, and you’ll get your props!

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