Interview #12: Dave Olson
A Canadian who long went East reveals the ins and outs of a magnificent Kerouac event in Japan forced to dodge the impact of the global pandemic yet which hauled triumph from the jaws of defeat
THE BEATS, particularly those located on the Pacific rim of the US, formed a warm bond with Japan, its poetry, art and religion. In 2020, the city of Kobe planned to stage an exhibition celebrating Jack Kerouac and specifically On the Road.
The event, Jack Kerouac Types On the Road, was scheduled to feature the astonishing Original Scroll, that vast and continuous role of teletype paper on which the novelist penned his most famous novel at the start of the1950s.
But global disaster came calling: the emergence of Covid, and the strict national controls implemented in its wake, forced a year’s postponement of the commemoration and, even then, the actual scroll – still the most valuable literary text ever sold at auction – could not make the trip from North America for reasons linked to ongoing health regulations which would have prevented the attendance of the document’s official curator.
However, the organisers found a stunning solution: a Japanese printing company created a remarkable copy of the text exhibit. Kerouac’s tightly transcribed typing and his endless, unpunctuated paragraphs plus the tears and creases of age, including the very end of the work which suffered dog-chewed damage some 70 years ago, were all faithfully retained in the immaculate facsimile.
Over a year on, Dave Olson, once of Vancouver but now resident in Okayama, talks us through the details of this extraordinary project and gives a highly personal take on the occasion in this exclusive conversation with Rock and the Beat Generation…
What is the status of Kerouac and the Beats in Japan? And how did the Kobe Kerouac event come about?
While the Beats aren’t known to most folks in Japan, in a country of 136 million with a penchant for obsessing on a topic that can become their life passion, there are certainly super fans and noteworthy scholars.
Many of the on-ramps come from the Beats’ connection to Zen Buddhism, via D. T. Suzuki, and haiku poets like Basho and Issa and Gary Snyder who are, along with Nanao Sakaki, the erstwhile Japan ambassadors to the Beat world.
The connections are very evident in contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami and Ryū Murakami, no relation incidentally. Certainly, within the foreign immigrant/ex-pat community, aficionados are well represented.
I returned to Japan in 2019 and soon noticed a preview poster for the Kerouac project and reached out to see how I could be involved.
In the spirit of DIY, when the event was originally scheduled I simply raised my hand to get in where I could fit in with the hope I could participate. The result was an interactive workshop plan which was later thwarted when the original event was cancelled/delayed.
Documenting experiences and ‘personal archeology’ is very much at the core of my personal story making so when the event re-launched, I changed course and aimed to represent the hard work and capture interesting artifacts featured within this event.
Tell us little about the practical problems that befell the 2020 event. Clearly the celebration happened the following year, but how did that impact on the original schedule?
The original event was scheduled with a multi-day series of workshops and symposium in Spring of 2020 but, after the impact of the public health situation was clearly going to stretch on, they called it off in March.
The biggest problem was the intended star attraction – the original On the Road typescript. Its curator Jim Canary would have been subject to a two-week hotel quarantine before entering the country, plus the delicate document would not have been stored in a temperature-controlled atmosphere, so this ambitious plan had to be abandoned.
Additionally, participants and attendees would not have been able to safely convene for the scheduled workshops so the organisers sent out a letter saying that everything was paused indefinitely. After recalibrating and reimagining the event, it was rescheduled in a very different format for 2021. While there were no workshops, there was still a symposium but shorter and mostly with remote speakers which you can, with translations, link to here.
Pictured above: The original 2020 poster for the Kobe exhibition and the 2021 version which superseded it
The biggest change was an incredible reproduction of the sc/roll typescript which was created from high-resolution scans and an exceptional job by a Japanese-based printing firm, down to the dog chews and pencil scribbles.
Additionally, the scope of the exhibit was widened to include more of the Beat Generation experience in Japan with an incredible assortment of ephemera, chapbooks, posters, literary journals and other artifacts, mostly from the stunning collection of Kazuhiro Yamaji of Flying Books in Tokyo.
Did you still contribute to the 2021 re-scheduling?
I was very excited initially to be invited to present an interactive workshop called ‘We are the Stories we Share’ in which the participants would connect their own life story to the experience of their Beat heroes by creating trips with maps, passports, scissors and glue, and so on. I was ready and the workshop was listed in the original programme…
However, in June 2020, we welcomed a son, Ichiro Stanley Thorvald, in the midst of one of the waves. I also have a compromised immune condition and, as such, we were in very cautious mode with the public health situation. This all meant I didn’t participate significantly in the re-imagined event aside from promotional social media support, documenting with the video and, later, sharing packets of ephemera and artifacts from the event with collectors and archivists around the world.
We had hoped to go to Kobe and stay for a few days for the Symposium and enjoy the exhibit at our leisure. However, the plan for a five-day visit turned into a three-day visit which turned into a quick one-day back and forth trip because of the specific travel restrictions. So we go on…
You produced a celebration in film of the exhibition. Tell us more about that venture and your creative approach.
My initial hope was to bring lights and proper cameras and microphones and set-up for a more carefully orchestrated interview section but, instead, showed up with a tripod and an iPhone and just started. As such, I had rather mediocre quality audio and dodgy video to work with. All of the production stumbles and adjustment further demonstrate the lesson that: you work with what you’ve got, both in terms of equipment and timing.
Some amazing materials and illustrations were used to evoke the spirit of Kerouac, On the Road and the exhibition in your documentary Kerouac in Kobe. Please describe the challenges involved in producing such an impressive package…
I definitely didn't want to just have two talking heads with a lousy fluorescent lights and fortunately there were great artifacts, many of which I shot in panorama and ran as cutaways to elucidate the riffs.
I then combined with items in my personal collection, especially in the opening montage, some of which I had acquired for the cancelled workshop including vintage passports, maps and other other ephemera, alongside my hitchhiking signs from back in the day, and then combined then with books from my collection, including some Japanese editions of On the Road. And I also added snapshots from my own life of ‘living Beat’ to show that these stories can be your stories.
Plus I sandwiched the interview with the rollicking intro montage and finally an extended outro in my barn studio to say ‘thanks’ and let folks know how to further participate in the conversation and receive some treats…
Obviously Matt Theado [the Japan-based Beat academic] was involved in a detailed exchange with you regarding the exhibition and the amazing reproduction of the scroll. How did you get to know him and involve him in your own movie overview?
Shortly after I settled in Japan in 2019, I caught news of the Kerouac exhibition bubbling up so, intrigued, I reached out and connected with Professor Theado by email and call to suggest a few ways in which I might participate and help out, especially as a non-academic bringing loads of hands-on Beat-life experience. Previously, I’d presented a TEDx talk called ‘On the Road to Creativity’ and a couple of SxSW keynotes and felt my skills and stories could help.
Because of the schedule changes and precautions, we hadn't actually met in real life until moments before we hit ‘record’ on the video... Basically we whisked in, cracked some jokes, and started recording so the video was really us getting to know each other in real life as well. He’s a very smart and genial gent and I very much enjoyed our visit and continuing friendship.
Probably worth noting, he was one of only two foreigners I hung out with in the intervening 18 months!
How did you go about choosing music for this film version? What were you trying to evoke by your selection?
I wanted to use music which felt like Sal and Dean would have listened to on the radio or records and/or something specifically referenced in On the Road plus a track which ‘burst outta the gates’ to kick off the montage… so I dug into the Internet Archive and found a capture of a 78rpm recording of ‘Congo Blues’ by Red Norvo and His Selected Sextet, with pops and scratches and all.
I’d also considered various Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker tracks but this sweet bebop felt slightly more obscure and fit perfectly with my vision for the intro (later added in the transitions to give some breaths within the conversation). Keen observers will note this is the record a woman breaks over Dean’s head, at Sal’s suggestion, in the novel itself, adding an irreverent feel which fits the video.
As a huge music enthusiast (as is Matt), we worked a few more music culture references into the conversation. My hope is to help folks find an entry point or on-ramp to the Beats from something they already know and love whether it be jazz, Grateful Dead, punk or anything else with a ‘do it your own way’ spirit.
May I also note, in another video (Brief) Intro the Beat Generation made especially for a high school class included more specific Beat and rock touch-points with Allen Ginsberg and the Clash, Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs, DOA and Pete Seeger hanging out, plus splashes of many others – including dropping needle on vinyl in my barn studio
What is the aim of your Kobe filmed account?
My purposes for making the film were…
Most importantly, to have a contemporary artifact which young people particularly can watch and understand the interestingness and context of the Beat writers from their era to current times and realise there really not that much different, i.e. they hung out with friends, had adventures, tried new paths and expressed their feelings with the tools they had available.
I find a lot of the materials about the Beats are either heavy-duty biographies or archival footage, including interviews with contemporaries, both of which of course are very important. However, can be a daunting on-ramp for curiosity seekers. As such, I wanted to make something which, while addressing historical topics, also includes a jovial spirit and weaves in personal narrative to share my feeling that ‘We are all part of the Beat Generation in continuum if we choose to be’.
Additionally, the story of the Beats and Japan is a lineage I feel connected to since first arriving in Japan in 1992 with Gary Snyder's The Backcountry stuffed in my rucksack heading up in the mountains to work as a mushroom farmer. Somehow, Japan is still ‘mysterious’ to western countries at large so I wanted to dispel preconceptions and amplify Japan as an influence by gently showing the connections.
Finally, to thank and acknowledge the people who put a lot of work into the exhibit – especially considering their efforts weren't fully realised or noticed because of the rescheduling and adjusted version of the exhibit.
What sort of responses have you had so far?
So far – since releasing the video at the start of the ‘Lowell Celebrates Kerouac’ event – a positive reaction as strangers and friends alike have asked me ‘Ok, cool but well, where should I start reading?’ Plus grateful for comments from some noteworthy poets and educators who have an interest in enlightening students and emerging writers about Beat culture.
I’ve also sent out a stack of dossiers (including one to you) of brochures, postcards, bookmarks and posters from the event to people who share the project so they can have something tangible at home for their collection and to share with their friends.
A few pals have told me, ‘It’s too long’ for their short attention spans. It's definitely not made for TikTok! That said, I’m always a bit shy about promoting my own projects so very happy for you to introduce to the other readers of your great newsletter and invite them to come hangout with Prof Matt and – plus importantly, chime in with their thoughts, questions, musings, etc.
Last, but hardly least, how did you come to be a Canadian in Japan?
My story in Japan started decades ago as a mushroom farmer, a lousy job I literally ran away from and then hitchhiked to remote parts of Japan finding all kinds of interesting counterculture bubbling below the surface of the ‘Bright Lights Big City’ cliches. I came across festivals, Deadheads, Rastas, renegades and people living on their own terms, especially in formerly abandoned mountain villages.
Through this time, I loved tapping into the tradition of poets from the Haiku masters Issa, Basho plus Nanao Sakaki and of course understanding more about Gary Snyder’s time in Japan (along with Ginsberg, Whalen, Kyger and others).
I left Japan on a visa run to Guam and found myself suddenly employable there working as a submarine tour guide and private beach club host and didn't come back to Japan for over 20 years. In the interim, wandering through dozens of countries, filling up endless notebooks, journals and scrapbooks, scattered publication, plus making documentary film and audio collages about my adventures.
Then, after some extreme personal life challenges, while visiting a friend with a goat farm in Okayama in 2018, everything changed and six months later I was married and living in this under-appreciated corner of a country undergoing significant changes.
As for learning about the Beats…in 1986 in Utah, I bought a VW bus I started going ‘everywhere’ and when I read The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and On the Road etc., I realised ‘Oh my goodness, I'm part of this tradition and I want to be part of teaching other people about this, all the time!’ I tend to deep dive into topics which spark me and the Beats became an intrinsic part of me.
At the time, it seemed there wasn't much respect for the Beat writers in colleges/universities plus many people were rather indifferent about my enthusiasm but my community college creative writing sensei, Larry Harper, took an interest in explaining that ‘These were real people and here’s how they match up…’
Obviously in recent years, especially with internet groups, there's a huge reawakening and awareness about the writers and roots and branches of the culture.
As a kid, I loved Tin Tin books, later JD Salinger, HD Thoreau, and James Joyce and the Beats seemed like the next step, especially felt an affinity to Snyder as he is also from the Cascadia bio-region and there’s a clear difference in world-view from the West coast and the East coasters.
I also enjoyed finding the Beat connections to my home city of Vancouver which was fertile ground for poetry, music, and eco and peace activism for the years leading up to my youth. In this youth time, i started making mimeographed community newsletters, xeroxed punk rock fanzines, hand-bound poetry booklets for friends and quickly learned the power of medium and message when intentionally combined.
I’ve made other Beat-related videos including one starting at the Six Poets at Six Gallery – Meet the Beats – which riffs about movements from (pardon the general terms) hippies, folk, pranksters, punk, grunge and so on to introduce the Beats’ rippling impact on society. Besides readings from the usual suspects, I share ephemera and artifacts and tracing the threads as I feel these words are not frozen in amber.
I make frequent audio and video dispatches from my studio in a converted storehouse barn in provincial Japan, built before foreigners or electricity and now with a great record player and shelves of wonderful books. I also send loads of mix cassette tapes, painted postcards and typed aerogrammes, so drop a note and I'll reciprocate.
Everything – from poems to panoramas – can be found at my creative life archive: https://daveostory.com
Thank you, Dave, for you ongoing work so many projects, particularly your film on Kerouac in Kobe, and also for answering our questions!
Note: The exhibition Jack Kerouac Types On the Road was originally scheduled for the Kobe Museum of Art between April 25th and May 31st, 2020. It was re-scheduled at the same venue between July 3rd and August 8th, 2021
I was intrigued, Dave, by your reference to those abandoned Japanese mountain villages. Why were they deserted and what did they become?
Thanks, Marc, for comments and insight.