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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Episode 17 - October in the Railroad Earth

[October in the Railroad Earth]

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Jack Kerouac - defest of poets, reading October in the Railroad Earth, accompanied on piano by Steve Allen.

In the "Rich Man, Poor Man" episode of "Theme Time" Dylan includes Kerouac in his list of famous hobos; an appropriate label, as the common definition of "hobo" is "a wanderer who is willing to work."

"I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else's," Dylan notes in an interview. Dylan also mentions Kerouac and On the Road several times in Chronicles. And like with many of us, Dylan's appreciation of Kerouac remained, even as his taste for the Beat lifestyle and characters began to fade away. As Dylan writes, "... [I] lost my interest in the 'hungry for kicks' hipster vision that Kerouac illustrates so well in his book On The Road. That book had been like a bible for me. Not anymore, though. I still loved the breathless, dynamic bop poetry phrases that flowed from Jack's pen, but now, that character Moriarty seemed out of place, purposeless..."

Later in Chronicles Dylan relates a funny story as he and Bono kill a case of Guinness and... "[talked] about things that you only talk about when you're spending the winter with somebody -- talked about Jack Kerouac. Bono knows Kerouac's stuff pretty good. Kerouac, who celebrated American towns like Truckee, Fargo, Butte and Madora -- towns that most Americans never heard of. It seems funny that Bono knows more about Kerouac than most Americans."

As the case is finished off, Dylan recommends that if Bono wants to see the birthplace of
America, he should go to Alexandria, Minnesota. Dylan details an itinerary for Bono, telling him to "follow the river through Winona, Lake City, Frontenac," a road trip that if Bono ever took would involve a drive up Highway 61.

And, of course, Kerouac was a source for Dylan. Kerouac's novel Desolation Angels was published in May 1965, and Highway 61 Revisited recorded in August 1965. "Desolation Row" and "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues" include quotes from Desolation Angels, including the phrases "a perfect image of a priest," "her sin is her lifelessness," and "Housing Project Hill."

Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at age 47. Allen Ginsberg and Dylan visited Kerouac’s grave at Edson Cemetery, in Lowell, Massachusetts during the Rolling Thunder tour of 1975, a pilgrimage chronicled in the movie Renaldo and Clara. They read choruses from Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and Ginsberg asked Dylan how he knew Kerouac’s poetry. Dylan replied, "Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language."

This has been Fred Bals with the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show. Until next time, may you dream well during October in the Railroad Earth.

Sources: Kerouac Corner, with Dave Moore and friends. The invaluable Boblit site. And don't miss the wonderful "Highway 61, Visited" NY Times article where the writer and friend take a road trip based on Dylan's directions to Bono.

The opening and closing recordings are from The Jack Kerouac Collection, a complete collection of the three jazz/poetry albums Kerouac cut. Highly recommended.

The two October foliage photos are courtesy P.W. Bals.

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