“If he (Jack Kerouac) hadn’t written ‘On The Road,’ The Doors never would have existed.”
— Ray Manzarek
Manzarek might have added that if Jack Kerouac hadn’t written “On The Road”, none of the late 60’s might have happened the way they did, with kids hitting the road in search of themselves and the transcendental experiences that Kerouac had described in his novels.
“On The Road” came out at a very formative time for the Baby Boomer generation, 1957, and depending on what year you consider the start of the baby boom, they were in their early to late teens. The draw to Kerouac was almost irresistible, with the romantic descriptions of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise’s travels across the country, meeting people and adventures head-on as they traveled a road seeking enlightenment; they weren’t sure of what it was, but would recognize it when it happened. Kerouac’s visceral descriptions of music also coincided with Elvis and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Even though Kerouac was describing Jazz musicians Kerouac saw the correlation between his descriptions of the Jazz scene and rock ‘n’ roll, urging his publisher to get “On The Road” published before the rock ‘n’ roll “fad” had passed.
“On The Road” opened up the possibilities of the world to a generation whose parents sought comfort in conformity and safety in prefabricated suburbs, and when they came of age, they sought the enlightenment and destinations Kerouac had described. For Jim Morrison “On The Road” may have opened a world of thought and exposure to new writers. Kerouac’s characters talk about Rimbaud, Nietzsche, William Blake, Kafka and Baudelaire, all writers that would become stated favorites of Morrison’s.
It is arguable that Morrison adopted Dean Moriarty as the model for his persona. All the biographies of Jim Morrison acknowledge he started hitchhiking when he was at St. Petersburg Junior College. He would hitch to FSU every weekend to visit his girlfriend Mary Werebelow, or he hitchhiked west to visit his family for Thanksgiving, having adventures like meeting a cousin of LBJ’s and attending a family barbecue, or with a friend hitching a ride with a woman who seemed to be willing to have sex with one or both of them. This was more than transportation for Morrison. It was a way to seek adventure and experience.
Kerouac’s descriptions of Moriarty also could have applied to Jim Morrison. “My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry-trim, thin hipped, blue eyed with a real Oklahoma accent-a side burned hero of the snowy west.” This is exactly how Morrison appears in early publicity photos, a lithe build and sideburns.
One of Kerouac’s often-repeated quotations is “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” Morrison paraphrased this to describe himself, “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps “Oh look at that!” Then- whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me- ever.”
We’ve all participated in the parlor game or stoned musings of wondering what we would do if we met our heroes, or wondering what would happen if we got our heroes together. We engage in this kind of intellectual game all the time. What if Jesus and Gandhi got together for a chat? Or Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson? Or DaVinci and Van Gogh? Or Einstein and Marilyn Monroe? Or even Alien vs. Predator!
Did Jim Morrison meet Jack Kerouac? There is some anecdotal evidence he may have. The first instance may be pure happenstance as Kerouac and Morrison lived in the Clearwater, Florida area at the same time in 1961-62. Morrison is said to have haunted some of the same coffee houses Kerouac did, namely the House of Seven Sorrows Café and the Beaux Arts. Both men are known to have frequented both of these establishments so their having been there at the same time is not inconceivable. Kerouac is also known to have had, at times, teenage fans hanging out with him. It is tempting to imagine a teenaged Morrison sharing a beer with Kerouac and listening to him talk literature. Then again, if Morrison had run into Kerouac, would Morrison have reacted like he did when he lived in San Francisco and saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside the City Lights Bookstore. In that case Morrison became so shy that he couldn’t introduce himself.
One Kerouac biography (“Subterranean Kerouac” by Ellis Amburn) has Morrison trying to visit Kerouac at his Lowell, MA house in 1968. In the anecdote a leather-clad and long-haired Morrison is left standing on Kerouac’s front porch by Kerouac’s mother, who didn’t like hippies. By that time Kerouac himself had become insular and insulated, and he also didn’t approve of hippies or what he considered their disrespectful attitude towards America. Kerouac probably wouldn‘t have welcomed the long haired and obviously counter-culture Morrison in. Did this happen? Amburn’s biography may not be the most factually definitive Kerouac biography. Amburn was Kerouac’s last editor but the book offers nothing other than the anecdote without attribution. But the anecdote does conform to known personality traits of the people involved. Morrison wasn’t above writing a fan letter. He wrote to Rimbaud scholar Wallace Fowlie telling him how much he enjoyed Fowlie’s translation of Rimbaud (Fowlie later discovered who Morrison was and wrote the book “Rimbaud and Jim Morrison“). In his later years Kerouac let the woman in his life control most facets of what life remained, and if Morrison did seek Kerouac after The Doors achieved fame he wouldn’t have gotten past Kerouac’s mother who may have been a more formidable obstacle than Morrison’s parents.
If Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac ever did meet accidentally in Clearwater it was never recorded. We may never be sure if Morrison sought out Kerouac, or if it’s just the musings of what would happen if our heroes came together over the existential divide. We may never know if they met but we can always wonder, can’t we?
Originally published October 29 & 30, 2013, and appears in “The Doors Examined”.