Last Night: Ben Gibbard, Jay Farrar & Kerouac's Ghost @ Showbox"/>
Sensitive middle-class white boys have found common ground in Jack Kerouac's writing for the last fifty years now, so in that sense it's not surprising to see Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar sharing a stage and singing songs about one of his books. But it's still an odd pairing that I (and probably most everyone at the Showbox last night) never thought I'd see.
Laura Musselman Ben Gibbard, left, and Jay Farrar played Showbox at the Market on Sunday, Jan. 24.
As Farrar explained early in the show (and with stereotypical brevity), the reason they were there was because of Kerouac. More specifically, they were there to perform songs they recorded for One Fast Move Or I'm Gone, a documentary about Kerouac's 1962 book Big Sur. Now, paying tribute to Big Sur via song is a tricky task. For starters, the book really is a song. More importantly, you're paying tribute to the one book that Kerouac diehards hold nearest and dearest. It's the book Kerouac diehards will use to size you up as a fan (i.e. "Yeah, yeah...who hasn't read On The Road!? Read Big Sur and then we'll talk."). A chronicle of Kerouac's failed attempts at sobriety, Big Sur is all about mental and physical deterioration brought on not just by booze, but by age and fame and demanding friends and the inability to reconcile the past and move on with one's life. In between are descriptions of the canyons and waves of Big Sur that splatter across the pages like bursts of free jazz.
That said, the folk-rock vehicle used by Gibbs & Farrar doesn't quite plunge the darkest depths of the soul the way many diehards would've preferred. But I don't think it was meant to. After all, the two weren't writing a soundtrack to Kerouac's Big Sur, but rather a soundtrack to a documentary about Kerouac's Big Sur. And not only that, I think it's also safe to say that Gibbs and Farrar don't have demons as big as Kerouac's to wrestle with.
Last night's show--one of only a handful the two are playing together--followed the soundtrack pretty faithfully, which itself follows the book pretty faithfully. Gibbard opened with "California Zephyr", his only songwriting credit on the soundtrack. "I'm on the California Zephyr watching America roll by," he sang, a matter-of-fact lyric that is well-suited for a songwriter as matter-of-fact as Gibbard. While this song paints Kerouac as some type of Bound-for-Glory rambler--a myth Kerouac is grappling with in Big Sur--the antsy rhythm does capture some of the internal restlessness stirring throughout the pages of the book. Farrar followed with "Low Life Kingdom", a song built on a very Farrar-esque languid acoustic rhythm. Where the airiness of Gibbard's vocals swept the audience up to follow the two on their journey, Farrar's burr of a voice brought that shit back down to earth. That back-and-forth pretty much made up the rest of the show, including Gibbard's and Farrar's turns at singing non-Kerouac songs from their own solo albums, and their inspired, rollicking show-closer of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie".
Throughout, I couldn't help but think of Kerouac. The tone of the songs is consistently reverential, fawning, much like the talking heads of Ann Charters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc., in the documentary. But looking at the teenagers in the all-ages section, I had to wonder where their Kerouac was. Gibbard and Farrar, for all their talents, will not be inspiring anyone to steal a car, to hitchhike across America, or to hop a freight train, let alone get wasted and listen to Charlie Parker. But with any luck, they did inspire those kids to read Kerouac, one of the greatest things anyone could do as an American.