We're ears- and eyeballs-deep in Summer of Love 40th anniversaries in San Francisco, but September marks another local birthday of import, one that's also pretty pivotal in the music world. We're headed into the month Jack Kerouac's On the Road was first published in 1957, a novel inspiring and justifying legions of wanderers who hopped into crappy cars, buses, or other wheeled monstrosities (for my drummer uncle it was a bright-yellow mail truck with tires that gradually melted onto the highway) in the name of finding your inner free spirit.
Everyone from Bob Dylan to Aerosmith to the Hold Steady to David Dondero claims Kerouac as a lyrical inspiration, and it's easy to see why. His iconic tales of wanderlust embody the romance of the rock 'n' roll life: going from one town to the next with nothing tying you down; gigs and parties are the only things on the appointment calendar. But what the romantics usually forget or ignore is that, in his personal life, Kerouac was a brooding boozer, an angry and difficult man. So while his writing represented the romance of rock, his private life reflected the dark side — the self-destructive one.
Like many other songwriters before him, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie is a huge Kerouac enthusiast who has written a couple of tracks in tribute to the author. But it's interesting that while On the Road was an early favorite for this eloquent lyricist, it's Kerouac's later, darker novel Big Sur that Gibbard relates to most these days. "In Big Sur, Kerouac's in his mid-30s and he's already kind of over the mythology that's been created around him since On the Road," says Gibbard. "He's a woeful alcoholic and everywhere he used to haunt is now overrun with these wannabes. He's cynical and he's drinking more and at some point [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti says, 'I have this cabin and you should go down there and just dry out for a couple weeks.'" The book shows Kerouac in a struggle to pull meaning out of his fame, his drinking, and his friendships. "He's trying to re-create all these moments in his life that are so important to him, but now they're so long gone it's kind of pathetic," adds Gibbard.
It just so happens that Gibbard has embarked on a two-week solo songwriting trip to the Big Sur cabin where Kerouac wrote his novel named after the picturesque beach community. He lucked into the rental by taking part in a documentary about Big Sur produced by Kerouac's nephew and so far involving such luminaries from the writing and music worlds as Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Tom Waits, and Jay Farrar.
At 31, Gibbard talks candidly about the arrested development many artists — musicians and otherwise — realize they've stumbled into once they leave their 20s behind. The parties and the travel and the excitement of youth get a little more complicated once you hit an age when your peers are worrying about diapers, marriages, and mortgages. "I don't want to be overdramatic about it, but I'm starting to see a lot of my bad habits get the best of me," Gibbard admits. "Living this life in the same sorta way that Kerouac lived ... you get to hang out at shows and drink and you're able to not really face reality and adulthood the way most of my friends are."
As an example, Gibbard cites a passage in Big Sur where Kerouac invites his old cohort Neal Cassady to relive the good old days, but his friend declines because of work and family commitments. "I'm seeing people in my own life who are in their 30s and having kids and settling down," says Gibbard. "And I feel comfortable with my life, but it's certainly a different perspective seeing your friends truly turn into adults. There's always going to be that fork in the road where you went one way and they went another way, and they probably envy the shit out of me for what I get to do and I envy what they get to do."
He adds that musicians are sort of like "war buddies" whose insular experiences can create difficulties in civilian relationships, another issue threaded into Kerouac's work. "I feel like a lot of people in my life are sort of drifting away, but that said, the people inside my circle also get closer because we all recognize that we need each other," says Gibbard. "When you go back to your straight life, you can't relate those experiences to anybody; they don't make sense. I still recognize what an amazing life I live. But that being said, I've missed so many birthdays, I've missed so many important points in my family's and friends' lives, because of my ambition and my sole drive to do this in my life, and that fact takes me emotionally and physically out of the presence of people that I cared about so much."
Gibbard says these complex themes will most likely find their way onto the next Death Cab record, the details of which the singer will comb through as he holes up in Big Sur, following a vital literary idol into the dark.