Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On the Road: Adventures in traveling with Kerouac and Gibbard

I'm out of town this week, so I've planned a variety of posts from myself and some guests. Here is one from Dane Stickney, former World-Herald reporter and a good friend of mine, about some of his recent travels. Enjoy.

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I took a road trip with Jack Kerouac and Ben Gibbard this winter.

They were odd companions because, honestly, they're two guys I really wanted to like but just couldn't fully do it. I've had friends and lovers who liked Jack and Ben a whole lot. But me, well, I just wasn't there yet.

Kerouac, of course, is famous for writing "On the Road" -- the ultimate road-trip book penned in 1951 and published in 1957. It's the book of the Beat generation. It's written in a distinct style and captures the vagabond attitude of Kerouac and his cronies. Oh, and it sucks. Seriously, the book is bad. It's not that well-written, most of the characters are easy to hate and it lacks that punch of a point that really good books need.

Then there's Gibbard, who's famous for fronting Death Cab for Cutie (and for marrying the indie hottie Zoey Deschanel). Death Cab could be considered by some as one of the most important band of the 2000s. Their 2008 disc "Narrow Stairs" hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. But, again, a lot of their stuff sucks. Indie rock might be too edgy a classification for Death Cab. The band, essentially, writes pop songs. I like a few a lot, but most of their tunes leave me lukewarm.

But Kerouac and Gibbard are both brilliant -- you just need to dig deeper to find examples of their work that is actually good. Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" is far better than "On the Road." Gibbard's work with the Postal Service is far better than his Death Cab cache.

Where the two really shine, though, is where they meet -- Big Sur. And that's where I came to respect them. That's where I decided to let them into my Honda Civic and drive 8,600 miles across the American West.

When I planned my nine-month sojourn of the West, I put California's Big Sur coast at the top of my must-visit list. Not only is it beautiful, but it's been an important spot for artistic creativity. Specifically for Kerouac and Gibbard.

Kerouac's 1962 novel "Big Sur" is, in my eyes, his best. It more-or-less autobiographically chronicles his alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown, resulting from the fame fallout of "On the Road." He descended beneath the Bixby Bridge to a cabin where his life fell apart. The book is so much better than "On the Road" -- it's far better written, far more honest and boasts a far more cogent and poignant point.

Gibbard is an admitted Kerouac-phile. He followed Kerouac's steps into Bixby Canyon, looking for inspiration. He details it in the Death Cab song "Bixby Canyon Bridge." Like Kerouac, Gibbard didn't find much. But that didn't stop Gibbard from trying. He and Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) recorded a soundtrack for a documentary about Kerouac's "Big Sur" called "One Fast Move or I'm Gone."

That Gibbard-Farrar album was the soundtrack for my journey, too. I listened to it through Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington. When I got to Seattle, I saw the two perform the songs at the vaunted venue The Showbox.

The songs are so good because they match Kerouac's writings with simple, folky sounds. The tunes are straight-forward and lack much of the over-production found on Death Cab albums. Gibbard's tracks -- both live and on the recording -- shine brightest. "All in One," "California Zephyr" and "One Fast Move or I'm Gone" are incredible -- poignant, heartfelt, bare-bones.

Gibbard's melodies and Kerouac's words carried me further south down the Pacific Coast through the San Francisco bars they frequented and eventually to Big Sur itself. There, I too descended into Bixby Canyon. But unlike Kerouac and Gibbard, I did find something there. I found the seaside where Kerouac wrote poetry, the creek where Gibbard waded and waited for Kerouac's inspiration.

And I decided something. Jack Kerouac is an iconic writer and a important tragic figure in American art history. Ben Gibbard could be one of the best songwriters of our era, and he needs to be closely watched in coming years.

But neither, in my eyes, is notable for their most famous works. Skip "On the Road." Avoid Death Cab. If you're looking for their best, look in one place.

In Big Sur.

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