Elvis and Kerouac, America’s rebel kings
In the late 1950s, Elvis and Kerouac, the most iconic rebels since James Dean's death, had the world at their feet and yet, burdened by the fame they had long dreamed of, both would become recluses and suffer undignified, untimely deaths.
In the American Midwest, singer and author inspired a high school kid called Robert Zimmerman. As Bob Dylan, he would make a pilgrimage to both: watching Elvis live in Vegas in 1969 and visiting Kerouac's grave in 1975.
Yet because of the cultural snobbery that still surrounds Elvis, the parallels with Kerouac's life have been largely neglected. This is perverse because, as Barry Miles noted in his Kerouac biography, many teenage readers of 'On The Road' first saw it through the prism of rock and roll: 'Readers did not know the book was written about events which occurred in 1948 and 1949; to them it was in the present. When the radio blared, they heard Elvis Presley and Little Richard and the characters themselves they thought of as young. The 'teenager' had just been invented, a rebellious, insecure, self-conscious figure epitomised by Elvis the Pelvis, who was regarded as so debauched that Ed Sullivan would only allow his cameraman to film him from the waist up'. Cult novelist Kerouac would be hailed as 'king of the Beats', whereas Elvis was just The King (of the beat?).
There are countless ways in which Elvis and Kerouac have nothing in common, but sometimes the parallels are striking. They both lost a brother - Elvis at birth, Jack when he was nine - and while Kerouac romanticised his sibling in a novel (Visions Of Gerard), controversy still rages over whether Elvis 'conversed' with his dead twin.
Elvis and Kerouac famously sought reassurance by having their own, largely male, retinue. Elvis' Memphis Mafia was exclusively male and entirely in his employ. Kerouac's circle - fellow Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and poets such as Gary Snyder - was looser and not as completely masculine but, if you read any memoir of the Beat movement (I recommend Barry Miles's 'The Beat Hotel'), it's clear the women were marginal.
Elvis and Kerouac both grew up in matriarchal families.
For all his bohemian wanderings, Jack's bond with his revered mother Gabrielle was as intense as Elvis' with Gladys. Both had pet names for their mothers: Memere (for Gabrielle Kerouac) and Sat'in (for Gladys Presley). Both mothers were devout Christians (though Gabrielle was Catholic, whereas Gladys was deeply Protestant, worshipping in the First Assembly of God) and lived with their grown up sons. For many, the death of Gladys is the single most devastating psychological blow Elvis suffered. Ailing Gabrielle, in contrast, lived to see her son killed by internal bleeding, the legacy of a lifetime's alcoholism. Kerouac was just 46 when he died - the same age as Elvis' mother when she passed away - on 21 October 1969. Despite the glamorous myth that swirled around Kerouac, his end - he started throwing up blood while watching the Galloping Gourmet on TV - was absurdly mundane, much like Elvis' death, at the age of 42, in a Graceland bathroom eight years later.
It didn't take Kerouac long to realise fame might prove fatal. He was badly beaten up by three men outside a bar in New York and, within nine months of 'On The Road's publication, no longer felt safe in public. Kerouac medicated himself with drugs and booze, much as Elvis would, later, medicate himself with pills when he realised how harsh a taskmaster fame had become. In March 1958, Kerouac moved to Northpoint, New York, to care for his mother and hide from fame. Later, he would sell his correspondence with Ginsberg to fund a move to St Petersburg, Florida, where he became, in Miles's words, a 'good old boy', sitting with the shades drawn against the sun and the TV always on, in a fenced off villa with his mother and third wife Stella. Elvis, in contrast, didn't become a serious recluse at Graceland until the 1970s. His isolation became especially acute after Linda Thompson left in 1976.
In the 1950s, Kerouac called himself a Buddhist but as his life became more heartbreaking he increasingly identified himself with Christ and the agony of the crucifixion. Elvis, in contrast, started as an orthodox Christian and, though he never lost his sense of a personal relationship with Christ, his quest to find some meaning would, Elaine Dundy notes in Elvis And Gladys, 'lead him through the study of all religion from Judaism to Buddhism and the teachings of theosophy'.
Kerouac's heroic bohemian days were largely over by the time 'On The Road' became a bestseller. But Elvis never lost his restless spirit - even if this impulse once manifested itself in a flight from Memphis to Denver in search of the perfect peanut butter sandwich - and spent most of the 1970s on the road.
Elvis and Kerouac made themselves famous by protest. In Elvis' case, the protest was les explicit, a wail of dissatisfaction with the stultifying rigidity of 1950s America. As W. A. Harbinson notes in his impassioned biographical essay on Elvis, to parents in the 1950s it seemed as if 'the very moral fibre of the age was being smashed by this hoodlum'. The cult of the Beats was even more menacing - their lifestyles were a brazen challenge to accepted mores - and, though their rebellion echoed across the campuses of America, they did not ignite the masses in the way rock and roll did. Elvis' bump and grind on Milton Berle was more immediate, accessible and visceral than 'On The Road' which Truman Capote dismissed by saying: 'That's not writing, it's just typing'. (That said, both Elvis and Kerouac made rather nervous appearances on Steve Allen's show in the 1950s.)
The irony underpinning these rebellions is that both the King and the King of the Beats were fiercely patriotic. By the late 1960s, Kerouac had become a staunch, if unconventional, right-wing Republican whereas Elvis would famously embrace President Nixon in the White House in search of a badge.
In an age of industrialised celebrity, Elvis and Kerouac still haunt us. Profoundly original, they were great liberators who inspired millions to live for the moment, what Harbinson called 'the hot glittering instant that has no tomorrow' and changed the world forever. But, in a tragic paradox, these great liberators were imprisoned by fame discovering, at immense personal cost that, as Elvis ruefully admitted at the Madison Square Garden press conference in 1972: 'It's very hard to live up to an image'.
On the RoadOn the Road is a novel by American writer Jack Kerouac, written in April 1951, and published by Viking Press in 1957. It is a largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. It is often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and drug experiences. While many of the names and details of Kerouac's experiences are changed for the novel, hundreds of references in On the Road have real-world counterparts.
When the book was originally released, The New York Times hailed it as 'the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance' of Kerouac's generation. The novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
More articles by Paul Simpson