Beat Soundtrack #15: Brian Hassett
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
Brian Hassett wrote a Beat Trilogy – The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac, How The Beats Begat The Pranksters and On The Road with Cassadys – and has been performing them live all over North America since 2015. He wrote two of the keynote essays in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats (1999), and explored the connection between the Beats and the Grateful Dead in Kerouac on Record (2018).
In 2017, he began a partnership with original Merry Prankster and close Cassady friend George Walker, performing a ‘Jack & Neal Ride Again’ roadshow up and down the East and West coasts. He hitchhiked 3,500 miles from Vancouver to Boulder and back for the 1982 Kerouac ‘Woodstock of the Beats’ and, by the '90s, was producing numerous Beat-themed shows in Manhattan. His most recent Beat-spirited book, Blissfully Ravaged in Democracy, is about adventures on the campaign trail spanning 1980–2020.
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them? Are you drawn to a particular text, novel or poetry?
The Beats are the rock’n’roll of books. It was a pretty easy and natural attraction.
First encounter was the summer of 1980. Just out of high school, I was on the road with my tattered copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I met a babe who was on the road with her copy of On The Road, and we traded. I kept seeing references in interviews and articles to this author with the weird last name and the cool book title. ‘Why does this keep showing up?’
What attracts me is they're rebels with a cause, they kick ass, and they changed history.
I love Kerouac's road books, Allen's political poetry, Holmes' essays, Burroughs' dry twisted humour, and any story about that generation-jumping Cassady cat.
What is the relationship between the Beat writers and music? How do you think that literary scene and musical sound connect(ed)?
The Beats put the beat in the Beatles and rock’n’roll. Dylan, the Dead, Tom Waits, and that King Crimson album Beat should all be in bookstores. And the hits just keep coming. I just discovered, in an obscure Beatles book, George Harrison telling Paul McCartney about seeing Michael McClure's play The Beard – which led to a delicious onion-peeling detective investigation into how that happened. [https://brianhassett.com/2021/08/the-beatles-the-beats-the-beard/]
The masterful playful linguistic narrative poetry of Hamilton telling a rebel story of an underclass kid surfing the cutting edge of his time sure sounds Beat to me. Hip-hop artists using poetry to extol the virtues of smoking weed and chasing skirts is Jack & Neal in the 21st century. And the whole festival culture that embraces the power of the collective is the Six Gallery writ large.
As a writer have you been shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
My whole life's been a Beat experience. And then I write about it. Real Life Adventure Tales. Five books in five years. That's Beat personified. I love writing fast and making language sing. I love jazz joints in basements, and jazz cigarettes on rooftops. I love falling in love with a stranger's stories, and zapping an audience from a stage with electric words.
I sought out and became friends with some of my heroes, and sat at the end of their cocktails learning how to keep The Spirit alive. Do as the Beats did – be part of an extended family of like-minded practitioners of magic and shenanigans – and get into good trouble together whenever you can.
Which musical artists from whichever era appear to make links with the Beat Generation – and how?
And how! You and I have written whole books on the subject. Just the Power Trio alone – the Beatles, the Dead and the Bob – have changed music more than just about anyone who ever lived, and they're dripping Beat from breakfast to nightcap.
Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ before Jack ever coined ‘the Beat Generation’. And there's kids today writing songs with a Beat spirit who've never heard of Kerouac. It's eternal and isn't limited to just people who name-check the originals. My take on ‘the Beat Generation’ is very expansive. It's not some small exclusive club that existed in the 1950s. The Beat Generation were just one verse in an epic song that's still being written.
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
I just mentioned a bunch above – but here's the pile of vinyl sitting next to me that I just played and haven't put back yet – Abbey Road, Ringo, the Hey Jude album, Milk & Honey by John & Yoko, Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Alan Parsons Project, Exile on Main Street, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Billion Dollar Babies, a new 180 gram version of Anthem of the Sun by the Grateful Dead, and Solar Fire by Manfred Mann's Earth Band.
I love both simplicity and complexity. Some people can't hear the internal rhymes and rhythms going on in Beat writing, or miss the humour, or dismiss the romanticism. I hear it and see it and love it. Music needs to have a lot going on to keep my ears.
David Crosby described the Grateful Dead as ‘electric Dixieland’ which sounds right to me. Here's how he put it in a Variety interview a couple years ago: ‘It's four running streams of melody at the same time. It’s the lead guitar, the rhythm guitar, the bass and the keyboard. They’re all playing a melodic line all at the same time. That’s Dixieland. The trombone and the clarinet and the trumpet and the sax, they’re all playing a melody at the same time. That’s what the Grateful Dead were doing, playing four running, explosive, inventive lines of melody at the same time.
‘I call it electric Dixieland. Nobody else ever invented it. They thought it up, and it works. It’s a kind of jazz. It’s a new kind of American music, the same way bluegrass and jazz were thought up. It's the singer-songwriter bands expanding and extending themselves into jazz improvisation – that’s the thing the Grateful Dead pioneered.’
It's that same inventiveness and blending of styles that's in Beat writing. Whitman, Wolfe, Twain, Eliot, jazz cat lingo, working class bar talk – I can hear all those instruments playing in Beat symphonies. And you can hear them playing in every person's language every time you leave your house.