Beat Soundtrack #16: Paul Maher Jr.
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
Paul Maher Jr. is a writer and visual artist. He is the author and editor of A Vast Glowing Empty Page: The Life and Work of Jack Kerouac (2018), Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (2005), Reading Kerouac (2020), Miles On Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis (2009), Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (2011) and One Big Soul: An Oral History of the Films of Terrence Malick (2012). He is currently filming I Am Nothing, executive produced by Terrence Malick.
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them? Are you drawn to a particular text, novel or poetry?
Specifically, I was attracted to Jack Kerouac because he is a hometown hero. We share our neighbourhood of Centralville in Lowell, Massachusetts. I attended grade school at St. Louis de France and daily prayers and masses at St. Louis de France Church. I was affected by similar nuances and vibrations of Franco-American culture that circulates throughout the veins of Kerouac's entire written work. Everything, from the food he describes in his mother's kitchen, to the speech mannerisms of men talking on a street-corner.
My paternal grandmother's memories of Centralville of the 1920s and 30s were often peppered with recollections of ‘Mrs. Kerouac’ and her bazaars, and her friendship with Caroline ‘Nin’ Kerouac up until her first marriage in the late 30s. And so, though I initially shied away from reading Kerouac until my late teens, I was brought up under his shadow without knowing it. This made it all the easier to read difficult books like Doctor Sax and truly understand the undertow of Kerouac's aesthetics.
Though I am from Lowell, I am not necessarily drawn to his Lowell books. I do feel that The Town and the City is very unappreciated. My go-to when I am in the mood, for I read a great many other things, is Visions of Cody. I have been immersed in the last five years or so in transcribing the original ‘Visions of Neal’ notebooks to edit my own version of the book with the original names and places.
It's a great experience to read Kerouac on the written page, on the spot and how he did relayed it, eye-to-mind-to-hand. It truly is the Kerouac experience that is sorely lacking in reading and understanding Kerouac. Sadly, that on-the-spot sort of writing he did in the autumn of 1952 through '53 fell by the wayside.
To some degree, Book of Sketches matches that, without the same sensorial import. The difference being, I guess, that ‘Visions of Neal’ was targeting a perspective either through Neal, or, they serve as Kerouac's ‘visions’ of his road compatriot. I have written all of this in a book called Reading Kerouac.
What is the relationship between the Beat writers and music? How do you think that literary scene and musical sound connect(ed)?
Kerouac's ear for music is much like James Joyce's ear in his usage of song fragments throughout his books. Kerouac grew up in the golden era of radio. As he writes (as evident in his notebooks) he hears this music, all of which serves as trigger to his memories. He will drop in Dorsey's ‘I Got a Note’ to Tex Ritter's ‘Streets of Laredo’ to the George Shearing Quintet's ‘Move’.
On YouTube, I collected a few of these into a playlist – ‘The Official Jack Kerouac Playlist’ – just to show the range of music Kerouac was hip to. And so, one can get sort of a window on early-to-mid-20th century music just from listening to this playlist. This playlist doesn't include, however, the many classical music pieces Kerouac was attracted to.
I read recently in a 1957 diary of Kerouac's on how he attended an April 16th performance of the St. Matthew Passion at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. For Kerouac, the music was none that he had ever heard before. It was ‘heavenly’. It shook him to such a degree that he began weeping. He envisioned an angel in his mother's kitchen.
This, my friends, is key to understanding to Kerouac. It wasn't just that jazz merely motivated or inspired him, but that it had to contain grains of musical purity. It had to come from a place of truth, whether it be from Bird's horn or Beethoven's pen. Hearing the St. Matthew Passion rendered Kerouac into a condition of aesthetic arrest, much like seeing Van Gogh's paintings in the Louvre around the same time.
On viewing Van Gogh directly, it attenuated Kerouac's interest in painting, which he began pursuing seriously doing once he returned to the States and moved to Berkeley, California with his mother.
As a writer have you been shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
As a boy, I was not brought up much with lots of books. I had my own reading, but it was very run of the mill variety books, stuff I would find in yard sales and flea markets because we didn't have a lot of money to spend. Books weren't reinforced as necessary. Too much reading was thought to be a waste of time. Lowell was very sports-oriented. The emphasis was on materialism and sports.
By the time I left my home for the navy, I was stationed on a ship off the West Coast and introduced to people who did read. I was drawn in by them, their camaraderie. Lowell was a goldfish bowl, always looking out from inside, and it was rampant with xenophobia and racism. Very conservative. I understand why Kerouac had to get out. To remain there was to be subjugated to a crippling form of stasis.
One glorious afternoon, I was in downtown San Diego and went into a Harcourt, Brace bookstore. In there I saw a tabletop display of Jack Kerouac books. I knew his name. Formerly, I had stupidly dismissed it in high school as something square from my father's generation – I had taken a 'History of Lowell’ course and Kerouac was brought up as a quirky anecdote, and brushed away in favour of Benjamin Butler, textile mills, and Lucy Larcom.
Perhaps I was a tad homesick, and so I picked up two Kerouac books, Doctor Sax and Visions of Cody. The former had a back cover squib about Pawtucketville and a disturbed adolescence and me, being 18 at the time, was automatically attuned to this as subject matter and somehow relevant to me.
I had suffered serious head injuries as a boy, and so I was mentally handicapped to the degree that, to this day, possess very poor analytical reasoning. Impaired cognitive skills. I was prone to depression and what Joyce called ‘moody brooding’. Doctor Sax sort of felt right in this regard. It is a book filled with moody broodings.
Like Kerouac, I piece together the world creatively to best understand it. And so I bought Doctor Sax. I also bought Visions of Cody, and read it on a trolley ride from San Diego into Tijuana, and was consumed by it in that town, drinking cheap beers and feeling the sun. It profoundly affected me, and I don't think that experience has ever been matched. It was a clashing of galaxies in that his prose woke up something latent in me.
None of his other books has ever affected me in the same way. I was urged to read On the Road. I was told that it would blow my mind. And so, I bought a paperback copy of it from Prince bookstore in downtown Lowell and was seriously let down. On the Road, to me, was Kerouac selling himself out. It was boring. The rapid prose stylings of Cody and Sax were gone.
Now, being a Kerouac scholar, I know why it's that way, because Kerouac wrote On the Road before he did Cody, and somehow rejected On the Road's prose in favour of spontaneous prose. However, life took a different path for Kerouac and the world latched on to the neutered road novel. Visions of Cody is rightly his masterpiece, and Jack felt that way, too.
Which musical artists from whichever era appear to make links with the Beat Generation – and how?
I'm not a music scholar. I can't answer this with any authority and I'm not an academic. Kerouac's ear for music affected his writing. It even affected his reading, as evident from the several recordings of him performing to musical accompaniment.
There's a recording of Kerouac reading Doctor Sax with a Frank Sinatra record playing in the background. One wouldn't normally pair the two if this were a professional recording session, but it somehow works. Kerouac reads to Sinatra's sobering croons: ‘Where do you go, when it starts to rain ...’
It brought home, for me, the immediacy of Kerouac's text because he had the ear to read to the music. This is what is especially important to me as a reader and a scholar. I don't try to make links to artists’ past and present because it is all very nebulous for me.
I have the soundtrack to Scorsese's film Raging Bull. In it, Robbie Robertson from the Band had performed a rendition of Harry Warren's piece, ‘At Last’. Whenever I hear it, I feel the Kerouac of the 1940s, in New York City, in these little clubs and bars with his friends, perhaps Webster Hall, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, discussing life, books, music, ogling women...listening to such luminaries as Gene Krupa, Harry James, Ella, Mills Bros, etc…this dark, handsome blue-eyed guy with his entire life ahead of him, of his time, of wartime, feverish, alive, energised by the scene.
Kerouac then was of his time, and beyond his time and represented this beautiful, pure and yet self-destructive paradox. He lived solely for writing and somehow was destroyed by it.
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
I listen to all kinds of music. They have nothing to do with Beat attitudes or ideas. If they appear that way to others, it is because it is projected that way. I have complete sets of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Berlioz. All the music of Dylan, Miles Davis and others of that ilk.
Director Terry Malick has provided me stems of his music from his films, and so I have the opportunity to hear a great variety of music that I wouldn't be otherwise exposed to, like Saint-Saëns, Tavener, Preisner, Klaus Wiese, Couperin, and the soundscapes of Arsenije Jovanović.
I am working on a film title I Am Nothing in which the musical score is ambient sounds of nature coupled with drones, Tibetan bowls and ouds. Reading Kerouac had opened my world as a young man, to which I am constantly adding.
Note: Paul Maher Jr. also contributes to a Kerouac centenary feature published by Rock and the Beat Generation on March 9th, 2022. See ‘Jack’s books: A forum of biographers’.