God’s Empty Chair

On the Road continues to impresses me, as it has always done. Notwithstanding Truman Capote’s famous quip—“That’s not writing, that’s typing”—it bears up not just as a cultural manifesto but as literature in the tradition of Thomas Wolfe. It really is intricate, weirdly atmospheric, mythic, ingenious in its re-grafting of quest romanticism onto the American landscape. Kerouac begat the sixties, though accidentally and with a sense of having been misunderstood. He was a devotee of the old weird America, of train yards and saloon-lined streets, which he set out to find and experience; like Bob Dylan, another folk hobo, he was a cranky ridiculer of progressive schemes and utopian hopes. Kerouac’s “road” had no social or political dimension; he was merely digging his hands into the rich loam of America, getting it under his fingernails. His long friendship with the proto-hippie Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx in the novel) was not a meeting of minds but a rapprochement between two almost diametrically opposite minds.

Kerouac’s jeans-clad questers, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, hear much jazz as they careen from coast to coast in Dean’s ’49 Hudson. The novel alludes to Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon, Slim Gaillard, Red Norvo, Lester Young, and George Shearing.

Here is a photo of Neal Cassidy (aka Dean Moriarty) and Jack Kerouac (aka Sal Paradise), circa 1952:

Readers will remember the novel’s particularly extravagant homage to the blind Anglo-American jazz great:

Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played […]. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!”. Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. “Yes!” Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. “God’s empty chair,” he said.

This clip, a torrid version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” makes the point:

Here’s a very different version of “Lullaby of Birdland,” at once silky and propulsive, with Peggy Lee gamely gliding through Shearing’s harmonic obstacle course. Kerouac would call this “cool and commercial.”

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David Ross

Dr. David A. Ross is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats (2009) and the co-editor/co-translator of The Search for the Avant-Garde, 1946­–1969 (2012), the descriptive catalogue of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies and has served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. His enthusiasms include high modernism, modal jazz, Chinese ink-brush painting, and really well-made pizza.