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Jack Kerouac – The World’s First Rock n’ Roll Star

keroac radio

 

He sounds like your old drinking buddy down the bar. He sounds like an existentialist philosopher. He was both of these things and more, but, more importantly, Jack Kerouac was the world’s first rock n roll star.

   The history books will tell you that rock n roll properly exploded into the public consciousness when Elvis first swivelled his pelvis on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. The nation’s youth heard the wake up call and responded in kind, adopting the same outsider rebel stance that had beamed into their living rooms. A self-conscious sense of image had suddenly flowered in the hearts and minds of American youth. Before rock n roll, the sons and daughters of Uncle Sam all looked like miniature versions of their parents; pipes, side-partings and sensible cardies for the boys, twin set and pearls for the girls. After Elvis and his electrifying wake-up call blasted a canyon-sized gap in the generations, these model citizens in waiting were replaced overnight with a tribe of slick and sneering aliens who had seemingly crash landed from the Planet Bebop.

   A year later, with impeccable timing, Kerouac’s “On The Road” was published – the bible of the self styled Beat Generation. Although seemingly riding on the back of the current adolescent obsessions for fast cars, sexual abandon and wild music, the lifestyle described in On The Road was a memoir of a life Kerouac had lived some ten years previously. By the time America had woken up to the idea of a nation’s white youth bopping to a back-beat born of black culture, Kerouac had already trail-blazed the width and length of the country several times over in search of personal epiphany, strung out on Charlie Parker jazz and Benzedrine.

   The early Beats were in many ways the first punks; buzzing off cheap amphetamines, forming their own communities, rejecting the conformity of their fathers and the conservatism of post-war America. Like the punks, the Beats celebrated the marginalised and the disaffected and imbued them with an heroic sense of style.

   After celebrating the rock n roll lifestyle ten years in advance, Kerouac’s next book predicted the hippy movement. Instead of serving up more juvenile delinquent high jinks, “Dharma Bums” gazed into the crystal ball of the zeitgeist and offered a meditation on anti-materialism and Eastern Mysticism, visualising thousands of young Americans leaving behind the 1950’s consumer capitalist dream in favour of a simple life of self sufficient spirituality; that which the children of Timothy Leary later called “turning on, tuning in and dropping out”.  A decade later it all came true, the term “hippy” being interchangeable with “beatnik”. Twelve months after that, the King of The Beats was dead, choking to death on a can of beer at the age of 47 whilst watching The Galloping Gourmet on his mother’s TV.

   There have been over 250 songs that mention Kerouac, from artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Beastie Boys. His freewheeling persona and romantic spiritual hobo image has wandered like a tattered ghost throughout the last forty years of rock n roll, influencing everyone from Bob Dylan to Pete Doherty. In the States, his brooding matinee idol looks are used to sell everything from postage stamps to jeans. Every year a new generation of artists setting out on the road of self-expression and self awareness picks up his pages and finds their blood stirred for ever by the transcendental power evoked through his writing. Jack Kerouac – visionary, mystic, proto-punk, madman, angel, romantic drunk; a weaver of dreams and imagination, an inspiration for a generation.

(this article first appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com

Write, Noise …

beatles book

 

“I can make it longer if you like the style, I can change it round and I wanna be a paperback writer …”

 Macca may have been having a sly dig at his song writing partner for having literary leanings, but John Lennon wasn’t the only rock n roller to recognise the powerful connection between pen and guitar. As well as being a public mocking of Lennon’s pretensions, Paperback Writer was perhaps also a grudging acknowledgement of his pioneering achievement. Lennon’s two books “Spaniard In The Works” and “In His Own Write” were not just the indulgences of a bored rock star. Both are absorbing collections of Joycean gobbledygook and Goonish surrealism and were made accessible to a new generation of readers by virtue of the rock superstar status of their author. This in itself was another of The Beatles small but important acts of revolution. Because although it may be a curious notion from today’s perspective, where top 40 CD’s and Nick Hornby novels sit happily side by side on the shelves of HMV, back in the day they occupied very opposite ends of the social spectrum.

   Back in the late fifties and early sixties, literature was supposed to be highbrow, intellectual, of the academy. Rock n roll’s triumph was to be the untutored scream from the street, the brazenly low-brow yelp that articulated a feeling wrenched up from the gut or groin. DH Lawrence never wrote a book called Tooty Frooty and Buddy Holly would never release a single called The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Different worlds, different languages.

     Rock and roll and literature first came together in the public consciousness with Jack Kerouac’s beat generation epic “On The Road”. Although the book had been first drafted in the early fifties and took as it’s narrative time frame the be-bop jazz of the immediate post war years of the late forties, it’s publication in 1957 perfectly coincided with the massive impact of Elvis Presley and the emerging teenage pop culture in Britain and the USA. As far as the mass public was concerned, “On The Road”, with its fast cars, wild music and tales of juvenile delinquency was the very first rock n’ roll novel. Kerouac’s love of jazz phrasing directly influenced his writing style, crafting epically long stream of consciousness sentences that meandered across the page like the joyful exhalations of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo. This method of writing to the rhythms of the current music of the times was echoed forty years later when Irvine Welsh laid down the brutal lines of Trainspotting to the hard repetitive beats of acid house.

   The other writers that made up the loose collective of the Beat Generation – most notably William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg – were to play a huge influence after the first primal beats of rock n roll had echoed from the swamp of a post-Hiroshima America and evolved into the musical counter-culture that reverberated into the sixties, seventies and beyond. Ginsberg’s “Howl” was a massive influence on the young Bob Dylan, who soaked up and spat back out its angry political energy and vivid freewheeling verbosity on his own incendiary early releases. His self-penned album sleeves were writ heavy with the hand of the Beats, all anarchic imagery and amphetamine-fuelled synapse. By 1972 Dylan had took the next logical step and published his own Beat Novel, the largely incomprehensible “Tarantula”. Unfortunately hardly anyone read it, and of those who did only the most determinedly devoted Dylan follower pretended to know what it was about. Thankfully Bob abandoned his literary career and kept his lyrical energy cooped up where it worked best, in three or four minute bursts of melodic bile.

   Over in New York City, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground didn’t so much as wear their literary influences on their sleeve as drag them around on a dog collar and lead. They were named after an S&M themed pulp fiction novel and sang songs inspired by the Marquis De Sade and the poet Delmore Schwartz. During his later solo career, Lou Reed made explicit his debt to hard-boiled realist writers such as Hubert Selby Jnr and Raymond Chandler in his tough and tender tales of New York street life.

   Later on, Burroughs perfected the “cut-up” – a method of writing that involved slashing an established page of text to pieces and re-assembling it at random in the name of spontaneous juxtaposition. By using the cut-up, the artist absolves himself of any authorial responsibility and restrains his own ego from directing the narrative flow. This was an approach that hugely appealed to David Bowie, who at the time was pretending to be a cold-blooded alien from outer space. The idea of formulating song lyrics from such a dispassionate process fitted right in with his then remote outsider stance. When applied to the actual sonic fabric of music itself, the cut-up theory later found it’s natural correlation in the art of sampling. Much of the early hip-hop and electro music that came out of New York in the late seventies and early eighties was the musical equivalent of a Burroughs collage, plundering bass lines and beats from such disparate sources as ancient soul records, UK bubble gum pop and early seventies Krautrock.

  After punk exploded, literature and rock music were locked in a loving embrace, never to be disentangled. Perhaps not surprisingly Irish and Anglo-Irish musicians have always dipped their pens in the deep inky tradition of their country’s lettermen and women, from The Pogues’ early Brendan Behan inspired suits, The Waterboys adaptation of WB Yeats poetry and Morrissey’s early insistence of being photographed with an Oscar Wilde Collection to hand. Other musicians noted for their lyrical prowess such as Nick Cave and Julian Cope have took the next logical step and become credible published authors in their own right. The very best rock music and literature share much common ground – particularly the power to transport the human soul above the mundane. It’s a rich and fertile country. Someone should write a book about it.

 

(This article also appears on Sabotage Times)

Inspiration and Respiration – The Beginning Of Kingdom

kingdom - bodybag-2

 

I believe in ghosts. I know its not a popular viewpoint among more rational members of society, but forgive me, I am a product of my upbringing. Like most fishing families in Hull, mine were steeped in superstition and held a casual credulity for the supernatural. Added to this, a friend of my mother’s was a medium and she would talk to unseen spirits whilst she was getting her hair done in our back kitchen. So I grew up with the idea that there was an unseen world happening alongside ours. It never seemed all that unusual or far-fetched to me. I’ve always thought that if you could imagine something then that made it real enough. I suppose, like most people, I try to have an open mind on most things.

   I’ve never seen a ghost, although I have sometimes caught strange shapes and movements in the corner of my eye or heard odd noises where there should be none. All very normal, I suppose. The mind can play tricks, especially if you leave it wide open to suggestion. But it remains a subject that fascinates me. So I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would try my hand at a ghost story.

   The idea for “Kingdom” was borne out of illness. For most of my adult life I had not been able to breathe properly on a night, especially during the winter months. The slightest bout of the sniffles would result in a mushy head, a bed full of dampened tissues and hours of broken sleep. Sudafed would provide some brief respite, but too much of that stuff can wire you up tighter than a tour of duty in Vietnam, so I tried to keep the medicine to a minimum. Damp November nights would have me tossing and turning and trumpeting like a wounded bull elephant. No fun whatsoever.

   I struggled for years with this nonsense until fatigue finally forced me to the doctors. My GP is a pragmatic fellow with a rash of bad art adorning his walls; horrific portraits of mangled faces, all hard angles and garish colours. He tells me they’re hung there to dissuade persistent malingerers. And they are truly horrible. Even the hardiest of hypochondriacs would have their stomach turned by this gallery of broken-faced ghouls. It is for this reason, among others, that I try and keep my visits there to a minimum.

   But desperation drove me to his door, where he told me that I had a deviated septum. It was so deviated that I only had one functioning nostril. This was why a simple seasonal cold would reduce me to a spluttering, gasping heap. I was firing on one single barrel. So I was sent to the hospital where they put me to sleep and smashed and then re-set my septum.

   Upon waking from the operation I found myself in that strange, woozy, half-awake state of existence peculiar to the after-effects of a general anaesthetic. From where I was laid I could see a sign swimming in and out of focus: NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. My brain struggled to compute this. Wash my hands? Why did I need to wash my hands? And why NOW?

   I got off the trolley and took a few tentative steps towards the wall where the notice was displayed and caught sight of myself in the reflection of a window. The sickly grey pallor, the flowing white robes. I felt like I was floating.

   I stood staring at myself, dumbfounded, for what seemed like an age, not knowing what to think or do, until a passing nurse took me by the arm and guided me back to my repose. I fell back to sleep and dreamt of ghosts and long white corridors.

   After the post-op rest and recuperation I found that I could inhale and exhale freely through both nostrils. This was a revelation to me. All of my life I had become accustomed to impaired breathing and now, as I walked home from the pub one icy dark night, I found I could pull the world in and out, in and out, clean fresh air flooding in and out. Unbelievable! Glorious! I imagined it must have been fairly similar for a short-sighted person, putting on glasses for the very first time, being able to see tiles on rooftops and distant landmarks. After years of nocturnal gasping and snuffling, I could finally breath properly. I loved this newfound sensation. I was ecstatic, drunk on fresh air.

   The book got properly into gear after another medical occasion, this time a visit to the dentist. The dentist I use is near a street of derelict houses. I parked my car up near these steel-shuttered boxes and mused on the likelihood of homeless people setting up camp there. It was the depths of winter, January or early February, remorseless biting cold. I thought about a person setting a fire in a room, and all the problems associated with that. Then I thought about a man not lighting a fire, and dying in the cold in such a place, like in the story by Jack London. I started writing a story about a man waking up in a derelict house. At this stage I didn’t know who he was or why he was there.

   A few days later, the words “My name is Alistair Kingdom and I was born a ghost” arrived in my head. Of course, a ghost is an irresistible narrator, because he is potentially a witness to everything. A ghost can drift in and out of the action unchallenged and nothing is hidden or censored. I started writing the story anew.

   I’d recently written a thing about a blind girl, written it in the second person with a heavy reliance on smell and listening and the sense of touch. When I started writing from the viewpoint of Alistair Kingdom, I decided to stick to visuals. If this guy was a ghost, then he couldn’t interfere or interact. There was to be no sensory perception in the narrative, save for sight. This ended up as part one of the five parts of the book.

   Around three or four weeks into messing about with this, I drifted onto Facebook and found a video of a band called Wilco doing a song called “Handshake Drugs” live on the Letterman Show. I’d never heard of this band before, but I loved the song. I looked up the album. It was called “A Ghost Is Born”.

   I took that as a signal and got down to the proper graft of writing. A year and a half later the book was finished and now it’s a real thing existing in the real world. It’s an odd book, but I think it’s a good one. I hope you like it.

Niall Griffiths – A Literary Star

RED ROAR – 20 YEARS OF WORDS

 

NiallNewPhoto

 

Photo © Deb Jones  

Ever since his first novel lit up the literary skies at the turn of the millennium, Niall Griffiths has been my favourite British writer by a country mile. At the time I read Grits I was living in a shared house very much like the one depicted in the book – a disparate community of bright minded waifs and strays brought together by disparate circumstance and a shared passion for hedonism under difficult circumstances. Like Colm and Liam and Mairead and Maggie, ours was a life scorched bright by a relentless succession of ecstatic highs and rendered dark by the resultant grubby comedowns. The characters in Grits and the turbo-charged prose that painted their inner and outer worlds in such vivid colours captivated me to such an extent that I fancied for one brief moment that Griffiths may have been peering through our window and taking notes.

The other works followed and I lapped them all up like a thirsty man kneeling at an oasis. To my mind, nobody else was documenting life in modern Britain with such an intense and unsparing eye for the telling detail. So much of the stuff offered up in the guise of new and vital modern writing was falling from my hands with a barely suppressed yawn. This, though, this was proper gear, the real deal. By turns harrowing, heart breaking, holy and hilarious, these books were like lanterns of truth in an otherwise murky landscape and they made my brain fizz with delight.

So it is with an enormous sense of pride and privilege that we present for the first time the collected and selected published poetry of Niall Griffiths. Red Roar documents a life lived raw, a mind that illuminates the dankest corners of existence and a voice that never ceases to ring anything but clear and bright and true. We have presented the poems more or less as they arrived, a continuous stream of verse scrolling across the pages, one long song of the heart written on the run, dipping in and out of a life lived hard and well if not always wisely.

As someone once remarked, Niall Griffiths is an actual literary star. To that I would add that he’s also one of the brightest and most beautiful of souls currently lighting up the pages of this gorgeous fucked up world with awe and rage and wonder.

Long may he burn.

 

 

THE WRECKING BALL SWINGS

wrecking ball swinging

 

 

“The Wrecking Ball has been wire-brushed and oiled. I gave it a little push this morning and when I last looked tonight it was still moving. I think we have momentum …”

Stacked on my desk are eight manuscripts. Very soon they will be primped, polished, printed and bound and sent spinning out into the world. Individually, they are among the most vital and refreshing blasts of poetry and prose you will come across in this or any other country. Collectively, they form the Wrecking Ball list of 2015. And what a list it is. From the swaying golden cornfields of Indiana to the prison cells of London, from a 10 am hangover in Aberystwyth to a swimming pool in the middle of the night in Hull, here are stories demanding to be told from voices beautiful, brutal and bizarre.

Brace yourself – the Wrecking Ball is swinging and it’s headed straight to you.

RELEASED IN 2015

Pete Knaggs – You’re So Vain You Probably Think This Book Is About You

Pete Knaggs’ poetic landscape is populated by the tender and the surreal, the deranged and the dislocated: quietly seething factory workers, domestic mermaids in bath chairs, foot fetishists in Scunthorpe book shops, exuberant van drivers blasting Showaddywaddy on the tape deck. Welcome to a world that holds a fractured mirror to the seemingly mundane scenery around us, a singularly slanted worldview that imbues the everyday with a deliciously skewed and subtle magic. All life is here. You may not think this book is about you – but it probably is.

celeste doaks – Cornrows and Cornfields

Cornfields and Cornrows is a heartfelt journey from the childhood fields of Indiana to the glittering metropolis of North America. Spinning together memory, popular culture and personal politics, celeste doaks makes words dance, weep, wail and sing – often in the space of just a couple of lines. This sublime collection of delightfully bold and vivid poems burn upon the mind’s eye long after the final page is turned.

Cliff Forshaw – Pilgrim Tongues

Dense, rich and complex this collection draws on a fertile heritage of myth and legend, evoking lands long forgotten and landscapes rendered new by this most modern and lyrical of voices.

 Kath McKay – Collision Forces

This beautifully intricate collection betrays a gimlet eye for detail and a huge passion for the tiny dramas of everyday life. Kath McKay’s dense and fragmentary lines recount the quiet firestorms that fuel human relationships and the seismic reverberations that can often ensue.

 Niall Griffiths – “Red Roar – 20 Years of Words”

A giant of modern literature, Niall Griffiths’ first poetry collection is every bit as exhilarating as his celebrated novels. Culled from two decades of notebooks, diaries and the sodden backs of beermats, “Red Roar – 20 Years of Words” celebrates Griffith’s journey towards ecstatic redemption through language. Here is poetry that strips the human experience back to its barest bones and exposes the raw and unflinching essence within.

 Russ Litten – Kingdom

A stranger appears out of nowhere in a prison library and assaults a guard. Locked in solitary confinement, he relates his story to a listener over the course of one night. Kingdom, the third novel from Russ Litten, spins together magical realism and hard-boiled psychodrama into a heartbreaking urban fable of human awakening. Ghosts may not exist – but sometimes they are real. Do you believe in life before death? 

 Andy Fletcher – How To Be A Bomb

Fuelled by mind as sharp as a scalpel and a heart bigger than the Humber, Andy Fletcher’s poetry ranges from simple, stark, haiku-like lines to rambling dreamlike prose, by turn both delightfully surreal and as clear as a raindrop caught by sunlight. You will return to these words again and again and be rewarded with something fresh and arresting at each visit. 

Alex Green – The Heart Goes Boom

Take a fortune teller, a has been TV soap star, a wise man and a writer and a silver eyed magician. Set them on a quest for true love and immortality. Make the road ahead fraught with mishaps and mayhem, with unforgettable characters at every turn. Make it funny. Make it really funny. “The Heart Goes Boom” is the most joyous, life-affirming story you will read this year. 

 

 

Camden Lock Books

Some of our extensive back catalogue displayed at Camden Lock Books, St.Agnes Well, Old Street Station, London. 

camden book store display

Prince In Baltimore – celeste doaks reports

prince baltimore

 

Prince’s Rally 4 Peace Another Step Closer to One Baltimore

 A multi-racial, multi-generational crowd donning grey sweatshirts, tank tops and even scarves greeted me as I entered the Royal Farms Arena this Sunday. And I have to admit I was doubtful (after purchasing my scalped ticket-shhh) as I made my way to the upper tier, that this venue would fill. However, to assume that Prince’s Rally 4 Peace would be poorly attended on Mother’s Day was a sad mistake on my part. As the floor began to fill up with energetic fans, I knew this day would always be fondly remembered in the hearts of Baltimorians. Just behind the satin purple curtain, Prince was waiting. He came to Baltimore attempting to do what all the marches and protests aspire to—unite a city struggling for justice.

 Before I begin let me note that this was not the only event this weekend that was symbolic of Baltimore’s slow recovery. The Maryland Film Festival took place primarily in the neighborhood of Station North and received national attention. Writers and filmmakers such as John Waters, Ta-nehisi Coates, and Taylor Branch attended and it attracted a turnout well-over 20,000. And at $375 for an all-access pass, it provided a much-needed economic stimulus for the city. The festival showed both films of general entertainment value, as well as films that tackled challenging issues such as race and sexual orientation.

 Despite the concert starting almost an hour late, Prince entered the stage cool, calm and collected in a matching gray, flowy pantsuit. This was apropos considering he instructed the audience to wear grey in honor of slain Freddie Gray. He and his band 3rdeyegirl, jumpstarted the concert with many vibrant classics that got the crowd riled up and up on their feet. And of course the crowd knew all the words to songs such as “Take Me With You,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Let’s Go Crazy”. However, the first major highlight of the show occurred when Prince projected a “Breaking News” icon on the screen behind him and debuted the first live version of “Baltimore.” Erin Allen Kane performed a fantastic solo on the new track and Prince brought out Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, dressed in a sparkly black dress. She and her husband shared a brief moment on stage next to the purple one before returning to their special on-stage seats. While she received some negative push back from social media, her appearance seemed to please the already-roaring crowd.

Prince is no stranger to using his celebrity platform to draw attention to injustice. One of the first times he did this was in the early- to mid-90’s when he started appearing with “slave” written on his face. This was his way of showing his disapproval of his Warner Brothers album contract. But more recently as a presenter at this year’s 57th annual Grammy awards ceremony Prince was lauded for saying, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” So when he spoke to the audience and said “to those who have lost loved ones, we are your servants tonight,” it was no surprise.

 Of course, a Prince without some heavy sexual overtones is basically a sin. A second major highlight of the night was when Prince did an outstanding rendition of a Muddy Water’s original, “Electric Man.” Lines like “when I plug into your socket, I can make you awful hot” made the ladies swoon, and their men shake their heads in surrender. The blues track was an attractive addition to Prince’s repertoire. And the steamy set had to include the classic “Little Red Corvette.”

 The concert was chock full of surprises. One major surprise was when Doug E Fresh appeared on stage with Prince to perform “Kiss.” The Rapper/MC hyped the crowd up and became temporary side-kick to Prince. A bit later Prince brought out Judith Hill, another well-known female vocalist. Ms. Hill possesses a powerhouse of a voice that I can only compare to Prince’s old vocal companion Rosie Gaines. Hill has a gospelly feel that can melt even the most stoic patron.

Of course there are things that everyone expects at Prince concerts—his iconic symbol microphone stand, wardrobe changes, guitar playing femme fatales and infamous dance moves. Despite the fact Prince was wearing sneakers (and not his usual 3-4 inch heels) as he jumped around like a youthful teen, he hasn’t lost any verve as he’s gotten older. Even his vocal range is still intact as he transitions between tenor to falsetto with ease. With only two wardrobe changes, both of them having caricatures of the man himself on the front and back, the Purple One still managed to be fashion forward.

The fake ending was when Prince sang Purple Rain and disappeared off the stage. The audience stomped and cheered until the he returned and said, “ya’ll gone have to buy me a house out here. A brother could get used to this.” He returned for the “real ending,” his finale, to sing three more songs, including the groovy tune “Dance Electric.” This track was produced by Prince and André Cymone. In a final gesture of solidarity, Prince urged the crowd to chant “Baltimore” in the final moments of the concert.

 I must mention that during one musical interlude Prince began to speak to the crowd like a preacher does his congregation. He said, “The youth is our answer.” No more than with his Grammy statement, I wasn’t taken aback by this suggestion. He also advocated for economic viability. He said, “One day I want to return and stay in a hotel owned by YOU. One day I want to be driven to the airport in a car service owned and operated by YOU.” Prince was urging young people to take the forefront both in protesting for justice, but also in changing the economic inequality that exists in Baltimore. In a city where too much of the population is plagued by unemployment, homelessness, and racial unrest this was a needed call-to-action. If you needed concrete evidence, you didn’t have to look far. “Stop Murder by the Police” signs, which were being handed out before the concert began, littered the ground right outside.

As I left the arena I happened to look up and see the American flag hanging from the top dome. How appropriate to see the symbol of American freedom flying above a stadium full of hard-working, hopeful people. And while many grass roots organizers and government officials have spoken, few have used the universal language of music to send an inspirational message to America. And in my heart I am hopeful that tonight’s concert will be another step towards gaining the national attention needed to rescue this American city. Financial stability and civic responsibility come both from within and externally. One day I know the city I teach in will really be able to lay claim to those iconic benches located all over the city which boast Baltimore as “the greatest city on earth.”

 Celeste Doaks is a lifetime Prince fan, poet and journalist who teaches at Morgan State University. You can tweet her at @thedoaksgirl