Zigzag Bugs And 'A Sea Like God': Kerouac's Big Sur The new documentary One Fast Move or I'm Gone uses various artists to voice Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. Director Curt Worden and biographer Joyce Johnson discuss the beat poet's relationship with the California coast.
NPR logo

Zigzag Bugs And 'A Sea Like God': Kerouac's Big Sur

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113938373/113957654" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Zigzag Bugs And 'A Sea Like God': Kerouac's Big Sur

Zigzag Bugs And 'A Sea Like God': Kerouac's Big Sur

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113938373/113957654" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In 1960, Jack Kerouac boarded a train and headed west. He was on the road again, this time to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's isolated cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur. Jack Kerouac captured the six weeks he spent there, as he did with much of his life, in a novel, this one called "Big Sur." A new documentary has artists trace that journey, including Tom Waits, John Ventimiglia, Patti Smith. The director of the film is Curt Worden. He joined us, along with Joyce Johnson, who's written a memoir of her time with Jack Kerouac. She was with him the day in 1957 that "On the Road" came out and made him an instant celebrity.

Ms. JOYCE JOHNSON (Author): He had written that book in 1951. By the time he actually became famous, he was a very worn-down man. He was a very fragile person indeed who had to deal with the sudden onslaught of fame.

MONTAGNE: But also he had fans, I mean, people he couldn't beat off, practically - women and men.

Ms. JOHNSON: The fans were very disturbing to him because they all wanted a piece of him. Suddenly everybody wanted to know him, everybody was interpreting and misinterpreting his message. It was a lot for anyone to deal with, even someone in really good shape, and Jack was not in good shape.

MONTAGNE: And drinking heavily.

Ms. JOHNSON: And drinking heavily, yes.

(Soundbite of movie "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Unidentified Actor: (Reading) Me drunk practically all the time. To put on a jovial cap, to keep up with all this, but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Now he takes the Zephyr, that's the train that would take him all the way to San Francisco. And what did he hope to find in California?

Mr. CURT WORDEN (Film Director): I have this vision of him curled up in that little car on the train for this long journey cross-country and trying to deal with who he is, where he is, and where he may be going. I think there's a realization that he's not that 20-year-old any longer on the road.

Ms. JOHNSON: He always had this image of himself as a kind of guy living in a hut, on a mountain, all by himself, in seclusion. And whenever he tried it, it didn't work for him. He was always safest when he was in transit. When he actually got someplace, it would all fall apart for him very quickly.

MONTAGNE: He doesn't go straight to this little cabin. He goes to San Francisco first, where you really get a sense of the seriousness of his alcoholism.

Mr. WORDEN: Jack did not necessarily live his life according to plan. And even though he had a plan to meet up with Lawrence and go directly to the cabin, he gets to town, he meets up with some old buddies and he ends up drinking. And that turns into a couple of days and - but eventually he gets his act together and he gets down to Big Sur. Getting that act together is where we get the title of the film from, "One Fast Move or I'm Gone." And I think that's a statement that he makes that if I don't do something and I don't get moving quickly, that I'm a goner.

MONTAGNE: Right, there's this sort of wonderful moment where you have Robert Hunter, lyricist for the "Grateful Dead," reading this one little section of how he gets from San Francisco to Big Sur.

(Soundbite of movie "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Unidentified Actor: (Reading) One fast move or I'm gone. So I blow eight dollars...

Mr. ROBERT HUNTER: So, I blow $8 on a cab to drive me down that coast. It's foggy night, though sometimes you could see the stars in the sky to the right where the sea is, though you can't see the sea...

MONTAGNE: Well, when he, you know, got to Big Sur and had this idea of this cabin and solitude, and he was going to wring himself out, he does find this magical place.

(Soundbite of movie "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Unidentified Actor: (Reading) You see one single flower nodding on a cliffside far across the canyon, or a huge knot in a redwood tree looking like Zeus' face, or some of God's little crazy creations goofing around in creek pools, zigzag bugs.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Hmm, zigzag bugs. And then you show in your film this very scenery, beautifully shot, and so powerful.

Mr. WORDEN: For this film to be successful, we had to hear Jack. We had to hear what he wrote, and the images I feel had to very simple. And they had to allow the viewer to listen. By listening, you really get this sense of the beauty and the wonder and the detail, the color, the texture of how Jack wrote. But we know it very quickly it turns to a very dark perspective on the Bixby Canyon, where he is.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is this moment where what had been a joyous, maybe you might even say childlike experience turns into what sounds like a nightmare.

(Soundbite of movie "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Unidentified Actor: (Reading) When I went to the sea in the afternoon and suddenly took a huge deep yogic breath to get all that good sea air in me, but somehow just got an overdose of iodine or of evil, maybe the sea caves, maybe the seaweed cities, something, my heart suddenly beating, thinking I'm going to get the local vibrations. Instead, here I am almost fainting, only it isn't an ecstatic swoon by St. Francis.

(Soundbite of waves)

Mr. WORDEN: I think he's realizing at this point that he needs to be around people and he needs to be around his friends and be in another place than this canyon.

Ms. JOHNSON: And he can't be around people either. You know, he could not find balance in his life. He was always split in so many ways.

MONTAGNE: After this great sense of him breaking down and reaching these frightening depths, the book ends with a passage that is read here by musicians Patti Smith and Dar Williams. It's his saying goodbye to Big Sur, realizing he can't - this is not the world that he can live in.

(Soundbite of movie "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Ms. PATTI SMITH (Musician): I'll stay with Ferlinghetti at his home a few days and he'll smile and show me to be happy for a while. And we'll drink dry wine, instead of sweet, and have quiet evenings in his home.

Ms. DAR WILLIAMS (Musician): I'll get my ticket and say goodbye on a flower day and leave all San Francisco behind and go back home across autumn America and it'll be - it's just - and it'll - that's so nice.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Is, though, part of the sort of sweet sadness of listening to this last passage that we know that Jack Kerouac did die, what we would consider young, at 47, and…

Ms. JOHNSON: In 1969, yeah.

MONTAGNE: The end of the novel, there is some sort of…

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: …mmm, revelation…

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: …of life?

Ms. JOHNSON: Which if it happened was a passing feeling.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But he had it for that moment.

Ms. JOHNSON: He had it for that moment.

(Soundbite of movie, "One Fast Move or I'm Gone")

Unidentified Actor: (Reading) The sea seems to yell at me: Go to your desire and don't hang around here. For after all, the sea must be like God. God isn't asking us to mope and suffer and sit by the sea in the cold of midnight for the sake of writing down useless sounds. He gave us the tools of self-reliance, after all, to make it straight through bad life mortality toward paradise maybe. I hope.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The documentary "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur" is available today on DVD. We heard from director Curt Worden and Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.