Category Archives: Neal Cassady

On the Road: Words beat pictures despite Salles’ best intentions

Well, you wait over 50 years for an On the Road movie to arrive and then two come along in fairly quick time. Within recent weeks, director Walter Salles’ original and longer version of the feature – coming in at around 140 minutes and seen in that format at Cannes in the spring – has been trimmed by close to 20 minutes and it is the latter, tighter cut that has pulled up at the network of independent movie houses in the UK in the last fortnight or so. Its autumn press reception in Britain has been lukewarm to say the least – a handful of positive notices amid the general feeling that this is not the piece we’d been hoping for, maybe half-expecting, but not ultimately the one we’d anticipated.

I went in determined to ignore the worst of the reviews and take glimmers of hope from the few, more upbeat reactions. I had consumed probably a dozen media responses to the production, yet believed that I could, despite those steers this way and that, still make my own decision on this. After all, the trailer had looked appealing, full of vigour, so I did not enter Manchester’s Cornerhouse complex without a certain optimism. But I had, I must confess, already been disappointed by decisions to excise the initial release: for me, I thought, more would probably mean more and less would leave me hungry. But I’ll return to that in due course.

On the Road on the big screen has a number of things to recommend it. The visions that Salles concocts, with the aid of his acclaimed cinematographer Eric Gautier, are often breath-taking: the shots of landscape – the road snaking ahead, the car shooting along the ribbon of highway from left to right, right to left, through new country, the immensity of a Mexican vista as a Manhattan of cacti spikes is dwarfed by the misty mountains beyond – are frequently splendid. Bridges caught in fog, the sunset-touched shore of New York City, the spark of a cigarette mounted against the neon horizon at night…these eye-catching shots are in many ways the stars of the film.

But what about the true stars of the picture, the actors who have attempted to bring to life a gallery of familiar characters, dramatis personae who have already been doubly cast in so many of our minds: as the genuine flesh and blood individuals – Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and so on – and the fictional ciphers who inhabit the page, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, particularly.

And this is where my faith in the new version starts to waver. Sam Riley’s Paradise may have tried hard to frame Sal’s understated intensity, his introspective reflection, his deep and brooding soul, but he feels more like a ghost to me: a shadowy, somewhat insipid presence. Good you may think: Paradise is, after all, the observer, the recorder of the chaotic events unfolding around him, rather than the architect. But then you need the white flame of Moriarty to get this feast cooking and I’m afraid I have to say that Garrett Hedlund’s stab at incarnating this iconic Beat emblem is game but simply short of the mercurial spirit I required. He has a handsome cool but is lacking the alchemic fire that Kerouac toils to describe in the book – and does so to huge effect. Meanwhile, Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx/Ginsberg is also a pale imitation of the intellectual dynamo I perceive: his take is neurotic, near autistic, submissive. The brain-power, the potency of the nascent poet, is reduced here to mumbling sycophant.

Other supporting characters in the drama are more convincing though. Kristen Stewart’s Marylou is dark-eyed and aloof but brings a crackling tension to the scenes she inhabits. She is sexy and confident and her performance as manipulative temptress transcends the brief moments when she actually beds Moriarty or Paradise, or both together. Viggo Mortenson’s Old Bull Lee – for which we, of course, read William Burroughs – is excellent, too, capturing the author’s mannerisms and drawl quite brilliantly. Kirsten’s Dunst’s Camille, Carolyn Cassady’s character, illuminates a couple of fizzing exchanges along the way and Elisabeth Moss’s feisty cameo as Ed Dunkel’s discarded wife also brings something memorable to the table.

What else catches the eye or under-delivers? I have to say that as a period piece, On the Road does not, in some ways at least, always feel like a 1940s re-creation. The storefronts, the automobiles, the domestic settings, the difficult expensive details, are plausibly of their time. But the main protagonists don’t necessarily suggest they have stepped from that immediate post-war era. The hair-cuts are indistinctly based on indie kid styles from a later, unspecified moment. I can’t believe that Moriarty’s Western neck would have let the hair hang there so long, or that Paradise’s floppy fringe or Marx’s untamed mane are really true representations of their day. Other simple matters don’t add up either: the white T-shirt Dean wears has that tight, short, slim cut that Gap would be flogging us here and now, not the stretched and shapeless billow, maybe oil-dotted or ketchup stained, that Moriarty’s functional vest would surely have displayed.

On the Road the book is, of course, episodic, picaresque and fragmented. Salles’ film tries to be all those things. But while the story that Kerouac conceived, the autobiographical material that he moulded into one of the century’s great tales of restless wandering, was brought to vivid life through prose that said things, that described relationships, that painted horizons, that expressed the rushing wind of the timeless journey, in utterly fresh ways, crafted words are a most difficult currency to translate into sketched out storyboards and final celluloid frames.

I really did feel that it was the prose that had held me all those years ago, when I first read this writer and speedily consumed most of his oeuvre. Someone once said that they preferred radio to television because the pictures were better, the imagination produced more convincing impressions than the literal images on the box that had been served up whole to us. The same I feel applies to this project: the sentences and paragraphs that had me breathlessly running, at least in in my mind’s eye, down Denver streets, up San Francisco hills or the back alleys of Greenwich Village, could not quite be replicated in this bigger, brasher medium. I simply could not make a visceral connection. The all-talking, all-moving marathon of the motion picture left me longing for stillness, for intimacy, for that original discovery when my eyes met Kerouac’s adjectives and images bloomed in my younger cortex.

True to this thought, one of the very best moments in the movie for me is linked more closely to text than to visuals. While Kerouac’s phrases and descriptions are occasionally present in the screenplay – from the Scroll more than the book interestingly – they never quite take off: they have a somewhat cliched quality in this context, and when Paradise sits down at the end of film to actually write On the Road on teletype paper, there is a strong and surprising sense of banality: the device feels hackneyed and short of inspiration, a lazy way to wrap the ramble up.

However, when, a little earlier, Paradise’s eyes run over the new poems that Marx has written and presented in a pamphlet called Denver Doldrums, the lines – are they from On the Road? are they a Ginsberg pastiche? – are quite wonderful. They seem (just as ‘Howl’ did) to condense impression and emotion into a series of evocative word-snaps – ‘the tin cans of Cincinnati’ – and it is that intensity, that concentration, that great poetry has the ability to convey, something that this particular movie interpretation singularly lacks.

The film is free-form, free-wheeling and far-flung and while the barely-resolved arcs of the various chapters will be familiar to Kerouac readers, the average movie-goer, less acquainted with the classic Beat odyssey, will find the threads interminably lacking in shape and substance, bereft of purpose and thin on resolution. For me, as a Kerouac fan and follower, I had a certain admiration for its existential looseness: the impressionist splashes of light and shade, mood and meaning, that Salles throws on the canvas do suggest the anarchic irresponsibility of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic mission. But this technique will not, I fear, spark light-bulbs in the heads of the mainstream audience-member.

On the plus side, various party scenes throb with youthful life and the live jazz interlude, with saxophone at its beating heart, has an authentic energy, and the bordello scene, south of the border, has a hypnotic, proto-psychedelic allure. Less compelling, more stilted even, is Coati Mundi’s on-screen rendition of a Slim Gaillard tune. His version on the soundtrack recording is admirable but the movie take, as the singer exhibits a risible toupee, feels more like an excerpt from a Marx Brothers cabaret than a homage to a significant R&B innovator.

To summarise, On the Road is an unmissable experience for the Kerouac aficionado. You have to see what a major film-maker has attempted with this remarkable work of fiction; it is going to be fascinating for that reason alone. But this movie’s flaws are manifest and its treats strictly rationed; a tour de force it is not. Frankly, the production’s tangible rewards are few and far between and, after two hours, when the end-titles roll accompanied by a re-imagining of Cassady/Hedlund walking the railroad tracks to his early death in 1968, I have to say that I had seen enough. The excised section, I’d been sorry to hear was now on the cutting-room floor, perhaps to be restored at some later stage in a director’s cut DVD, was not, ultimately, missed by me at all.

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Review: Heath Common & The Thin Man – Bohemia

Poetry and pop? Beat and rock’n’roll? Over the last half-century, several generations of rockers and rappers, folkies and freaks, melodists and mavericks, balladeers and beat-boxers, have tried to distil the essence of the art of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, and embroider it, re-shape it, re-cast it, with the riffs and licks of popular music.

In fact, few of the true giants – from Dylan to Lennon, Waits to Strummer, Patti Smith to Kurt Cobain, Stipe to Bono – have been immune to the notion that those revolutionary Fifties wordsmiths had something quixotic, something energising, to add to rock music at its more radical edges.

Whether it has been Beat’s literary style – its rolling, insistent momentum or the jolt of its fragmented verse – or merely its clarion call to freedom and the open highway, the pulse of the prose, the spark of its language, has remained an ongoing inspiration to younger hordes wielding electric guitars and rebellious vim.

That enduring, picaresque spirit is a frequent presence on Bohemia, a new album by a band of salty survivors from England’s north who take pieces of that potent Beat narrative, insert iconic figures from the popular cultural landscape, spout urban legends and churn in ancient myths, and weave them all with craft and charm in a ten-track debut odyssey.

Heath Common and The Thin Man are the principal wizards behind this eccentric yet alluring project, joined by a gang of seasoned and adept troubadours who add their atmospheric flavours to a string of imaginative set-pieces: tales of the weird West and timeless Bible fables, incidents from downtown New York City and even inner city Manchester, all brought to impressionistic life by some eclectic, rootsy, bluesy, folksy tunescapes.

The soundtrack has hints of Cooder’s Buena Vista adventure, taints of another Ry work-out in Wenders’ Paris Texas, yet also the twinkle and tinkle of Tales from Europe and the dark melancholy of Yiddish klezmer with all the barbed wire embers that evokes. This is spoken word with a worldly-wise, even world-weary, eye, but its sage-like tones hint enticingly at the long, deep drift of an alternative history.

As for the Beat influence on the collection, Neal Cassady, the frenetic hero of On the Road, makes a cameo appearance in ‘A New Bohemian’, the words of poet Gary Snyder form a portion of ‘Why Truck Drivers Rise Earlier than the Students of Zen’, legendary street musician Moondog crops up in ‘The Angel of New York’, a Beat-linked comedian is at the heart of ‘I Don’t Want to Be Lenny Bruce Anymore’ and there are yet more subterranean nuggets to unpick in the folds of the text.

But if you’re looking for some rock gods in the pages of this Pynchon-esque fantasia, look no further than Lennon in the nostalgic, even valedictory, ‘Candlestick Park’ or Keith Richards in ‘Performance (The Toronto Bust in Waltz Time)’, who, to add another layer to this saga, was actually heading, as star guest, to the Nova Convention, a major Manhattan tribute to William Burroughs, when his notorious drug arrest occurred.

In short, Bohemia is an ambitious compendium of boho snapshots riddled with reference to the literary and the musical, offbeat monologues to be recited around campfires of the mind, dreams to be decoded by the light of a mandolin moon, fairy stories for a new millennium, twisted tales engagingly unwound to the twang and spittle of a Soho saloon.

Heath Common & The Thin Man’s Bohemia is released on Platform 54, Summer 2012. Visit: http://www.heathcommonandthethinman.com

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Muse news: Cassady birthday honour

My good friend Mark Bliesener, rock’n’roll manager and long-time Beat follower, shares news from the Mile High City, Denver in Colorado, where the annual celebration of Neal Cassady’s birthday takes place next month. Denver’s East High School, which Cassady attended in the 1940s, will present an honorary diploma to members of the Cassady family at a school assembly on February 3rd. In granting the diploma, East cites Cassady’s major impact on American literature as an author and as the muse of Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe.

The Third Annual  Cassady Birthday Bash will  take place on the same day from 8-10 pm at the city’s Mercury Café located at 2199 California.The “Bash” is free and features musical performers and special guest readers including Neal’s daughters Jami and Cathy Cassady, noted musician and composer David Amram, guitarist Janet Feder, director of Lowell Massachusetts Celebrates Kerouac the Rev. Steve Edington, and core faculty member of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University Junior Burke. The event will be hosted, in person, by noted Denver Beat historian Mark Bliesener himself.

Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, would have been 86 years old on February 8th. His hyper-energetic life came to a premature conclusion in 1968, one year before Kerouac’s own death.

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