Driving down Melrose on the fringes of Hollywood a couple nights ago I stopped at a light and saw, painted on a wall in big brushed strokes, “Read Kerouac”. I can’t remember if there was an exclamation point or not. It was kind of cool, the idea that 21st century beatniks still hunker down with dog-eared paperbacks of On the Road. They probably don’t, though.They read it on an iPad at a coffee house. This was Larchmont, one of those very nice L.A. neighborhoods with a whiff of the westside. This is an ebook kind of place. Ebooks and iPhones and electronic cigarettes. I suppose you can still be a beatnik that way. I suppose you can still read On the Road on an iPad and fantasize that you, too, could have been a road buddy with Jack Kerouac, drinking in the same bars and banging the same women and doing the same speed. There’d be poets and painters and method actors. Crackers and spades and PR’s. Parties and readings and brawls. Jazz, lots of jazz. And free verse. Not a rhyme in sight.
Maybe some little Walter Mitty of a hipster stares into the screen as he clacks away. Maybe he’s transported by his own vivid imagination to a land where everything is wood or metal or paper and black and white and good or bad or nothing at all. Yeah, baby. The high tech coffee house disappears and he’s playing the bongos and a chick who looks just like Ava Gardner can’t keep her eyes off of him. His fingers ripple across the bongos like he was born in Havana, effortless, African, Left Bank, Harlem, real, baby, real. She purrs that she loves him. She wants to love him right now, anywhere, right there. He doesn’t even look up. The coolest never do. Got no time, baby, no time, he tells her, I’m playing the bongos. She sighs but doesn’t leave. He knew she wouldn’t. They never do. Dames like her are always there. But great moments on the bongos are special.
Me, well, I don’t really read Kerouac. On the Road didn’t send me. Not my thing. I never played the bongos, either. And sadly, I know it ain’t the 1950’s. Seeing Read Kerouac on that wall was like seeing a Bird Lives! or Clapton is God on a wall in New York or London. You’d wonder where the scrawler had been. I mean Bird is decidedly not alive. Clapton is not divine. And Kerouac ain’t my idea of somebody you have to read. But some little nostalgic visionary down there in a nice apartment off Larchmont thinks we do need to read Kerouac. He knows what the is is. What the be of the is is. The to be, baby, or the not at all. Dig? The reefer smoke unfurls around our heads. Time to split. Sirens dog us as we head down the street. But they’ll never find us. We’re invisible. Invisible men. Ultraviolet. You need the right shades to see us and baby, you ain’t got ’em. He and Ava and Cassidy and Marlon Brando’s gardener disappear into the night. It’s a big city. They’re out there somewhere. Read Kerouac is written on the wall, in letters big and red and glistening.
Of course, Melrose being Melrose my first reaction was that Read Kerouac was a band name. Or maybe some viral marketing for an upcoming film of the same name. Or maybe it was left there by an independent film production crew. Or maybe someone was making a video.
Maybe it’s an art project.
I like the Walter Mitty of a beatnik idea best, though. Some little internet nebbish at a Starbucks stares into his screen which dissolves to black and white and the clatter of a manual typewriter. Words flow, in streams, in torrents, like a Charlie Parker solo. He’s playing the bongos, and making literature with every word he speaks. Oh do the women love him. They cling to him, glom onto him, breathe when he breathes. They can’t help themselves. He’s read Kerouac.