I remember my first experience with Jack Kerouac. I was on a classic literature binge; the more risqué, the better. I was in the midst of reading everything I could afford with my mangled selection of bills and picked up a copy of On the Road. All I knew about the beat generation at that point was gleaned from an episode of Leave It to Beaver where Wally became a beatnik. Apparently, beatniks consumed coffee, smoked cigarettes, wore French hats, listened to live jazz spiked with poetry, crossed their legs like ladies and did little else. On the Road started me on a Kerouacian journey with wide eyes and a yearning for the carefree life the novel proclaimed.
Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard was also bitten by On the Road at a young age, but I’m going to guess he never saw that episode of Leave It to Beaver.
“I was in college in Bellingham, Washington,” Gibbard says. “I was on this path, as many people are in their lives at that age. You’re not really sure what you want to do with yourself and where you want to go. I was studying to be, basically, a scientist, but figured out that’s not what I wanted to do.
Nick [Harmer, Death Cab’s bassist], was my roommate in college. He was an English major and had this big stack of books on the shelf. He’s like, ‘Have you read On the Road?’ and I’m like, ‘No, I haven’t read this, actually.’ I just fell in love with it.
“I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic or anything like that, but in reading that book and going on a huge Kerouac kick where I dove into every book that I could find in used bookstores
around Bellingham, it kind of set me on a particular path in my life where I’ve been able to live a version of that life as a touring musician for over 10 years, 12 years, something like that. So being on the road and traveling, having friends spread all over the country — you get to swoop in for one day, see [them], then you’re on your way. I really fell in love with the notion of that life.”
Recently, Gibbard’s admiration for the revered novelist found fertile soil in his collaboration with alt-country legend Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo) on the soundtrack to the new documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone:
Kerouac’s Big Sur. The film and soundtrack deal with Big Sur, a novel that details the realities of Kerouac’s life after the success of On the Road, along with the struggles of persistent alcoholism, disenchantment and unwelcomed fame.
“On the Road, that’s kind of like the Sgt. Pepper’s of the Kerouac canon,” Gibbard says. “That’s the one that everybody knows and it’s the most revered, well-known book, but Big Sur, that was my favorite one when I read it.
It was just so dark, and it was so honest. Kerouac, throughout all of his work, has always been very honest and very heartfelt in every way, but what he chose to share with everybody in that book was really powerful to me at the time and still is.
“I think that even at a young age, I remember reading that book and going, ‘Oh yeah. The road has to end at some point. This is what happens when you continue on this path and you don’t look back and you don’t stop for a second and recognize that you can’t live your life like this all the time. This is a way to live your life for a period of time, but if you don’t heed the warning signs along the way, this is one of thepotential outcomes of your life.”
The soundtrack’s tunes, mostly penned by Farrar, contain words taken directly from Big Sur and have a sparse, Americana feel that blends well with the text from beginning to end. Acoustic guitars, lap steel, organ, piano, warm vocals, electric guitars and drums take the listener on an engaging ride.
“Of the songs I sing, I really like ‘Willamine,’ because that was the first thing we recorded,” Gibbard says. “We were in the studio relatively early in the day. We had really only hung out for maybe an hour or two total before we went in there to do that song. The basics of that track are Jay on piano and me on guitar and vocals, and those three elements are totally live.
“In that song, the rhythm sways a little bit back and forth as we’re trying to figure out how to play with each other. I think the vocal turned out really well because I was trepid about how to go about singing this tune and also kind of learning it at the same time. I also really like ‘Breathe Our Iodine,’ because it’s just Jay. I added a vocal or something like that, but it’s just a minimal, cool arrangement.”
“California Zephyr,” however, is perhaps the best song on the disc. The acoustic guitar- and organ-fueled tune has an almost Death Cab-like melody and contains the poignant lyric, “I’ve hit the end of my trail/can’t even drag my own body. I’ve been driven mad for three years. Too much fame keeps a body busy and the mind full of tears.” Kerouac paid dearly for his celebrity.
“One of the nice things about being a musician is that you kind of get to have your cake and eat it too,” Gibbard says. “I’m sure that I probably pass more people on the street who have one of my songs in their iPod than actually know what I look like. I sometimes feel people’s eyes on me in public, but it’s really not that often. It’s not enough to be something that is to an extent where I feel like I could relate to Kerouac and what he was going through.
“What he was going through was on a national scale and at a time when there really wasn’t a playbook for dealing with success, and certainly not for somebody who spent the majority of his time alone. When he decided to venture out into the world, he would go to a series of dive bars and bookstores and places like that, and all of a sudden those places that used to be his haunts, they’re overrun with the people who are there to see him and want to get a piece of him. I’m thankful that I can’t really relate to that.”
On the Bill: Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar play the Boulder Theater on Jan. 26. Doors open at 7 p.m. All ages. Sera Cahoone opens. Tickets are $29.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.